Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What is the big appeal about wondering/debating over what does or doesn't "make you" a "Buddhist"?

Lord's Prayer in greek in the Pater Noster Cha...Image via Wikipedia

Have you noticed how often this comes up on blogs or in podcasts, books or magazine articles? Apparently the folks pondering such a thing are hung up on the notion of Buddhist "authenticity" and have a set of expectations that they identify with being a "good" or "proper" Buddhist. Are there common beliefs and practices and imagery that are part of the cultural legacy and sacred tradition collectively referred to as Buddhism? Of course. But what does that matter? If being a fake or inauthentic Buddhist were to make you a more fulfilled, actualized and awake being whose existence benefits all sentient beings, is that a problem? Is this not as good as "genuine" Buddhism with the right ideology, the right robes and beads, or whatever it is that we think makes us Buddhist?

What does it say to have such notions? About the motives for identifying with Buddhism? Why does it seem (and if I recall some surveys confirm) that a large percentage of so-called convert Buddhists mostly read books about Buddhism and have a sloppy, irregular or non-existent practice? Why do so many others have such rigid and neurotic adherence to practicing all the time in just the right way -- not like the seemingly implied "posers" who only have a superficial experience of Buddhism? Are these two groups really so different? For who are what are they really identifying with Buddhism? If everyone else was doing it, especially poor people of their ethnicity or nationality, and they were just like everyone else, with most people in town wearing malas and going to meditate or chant at the First Pure Land temple down the block or maybe the old Southern Zendo congregation a couple of streets over, would the idea of "being Buddhist" be such a big deal?

If these folks had grown up with it, and it was in politics, the culture, etc, how might they react to some cool new thing like Christianity? Or Islam? Or something else exotic and non-traditional, especially for people of a certain educational level or social class? I mean, hey, dig that rosary. And people could know you were hip, worldly and wise by the way you put your hands together and intone that Lord's Prayer in a foreign language.

I am not suggesting all religions are really the same or equally valid, although many are very similar in big picture and small practice ways and some may be more valid for one group than another. Nor would I suggest that tradition isn't relevant or important. I respect and greatly value those who faithfully carry out and pass on such things. But to what end? Why are some folks so enamored with staring at fingers? How can such hardcore wanna-B-uddhists actually think they are benefiting from the important lessons of Buddhism when they are so unhealthily attached to the idea and image of "Buddhism"?

Doesn't (Mahayana) Buddhism talk about the limitless Dharma doors and learning/following the paths of all Buddhas and enlightened beings? Or is it just when they are styled in an Asian motif and speak Sanskrit, Tibetan, Japanese, etc? Or did I get that all backward?

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  1. There are a lot of good questions in this post. I think part of what's going on is that, even with those who are members of Asian-American sanghas developed 120 years ago, Buddhism is still pretty new and unsettled in North America. So there's a lot of position-staking and finger pointing as to what is "true" and what isn't. While some of this sifting through and questioning is valuable, much of it is hot air.

  2. That is probably part of it, but I sense some of it is about image. I doubt there is any one simple explanation, but whatever the reasons some folks are really uptight about this kind of thing. It reminds me of that frequently cited story of the Buddha explaining that practice should be tuned like a stringed instrument - not too loose and not too tight. But then, I have little imagination. :o)

  3. Oh, image is definitely part of the hot air end of things...


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