What is a Buddhist?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about what is and is not a Buddhist. Much of that discussion has been inspired by the recent shootings committed by Aaron Alexis in Washington D.C..

The responses have been quite polarized, and have ranged from regurgitation of media assumptions to excommunicatory sentiments toward Alexis himself. These responses are misguided, misinformed, and poorly argued.

Rather than adding to the mix of speculation about a particular individual and his actions I think it would be more useful if we address the actual questions behind the label of “Buddhist”.

There seem to be three camps in this discussion; the non-Buddhist observer with no direct experience of the tradition, the pop-Buddhist who self-identifies but has little experience or thinks that parts of the tradition that don’t appeal to them can be discarded, and those who take a more traditional or orthodox approach to the teachings.

The non-Buddhist observer seems to feel that attending temples, meditating, or reading Buddhist literature is what makes one a Buddhist. This of course is far from an accurate or thorough examination of the tradition. While the pop-Buddhists think that self-identification is what makes one a Buddhist. This is extremely problematic because it often leads to picking and choosing and thus following an incomplete path that arguably isn’t a path at all once key components have been removed. In the case of American pop-Buddhists these elements are usually karma and rebirth. Unfortunately the removal of these concepts and teachings renders the second and third noble truths inert and essentially neuters the methodologies of liberation.

The traditionalist adheres to the idea that formal refuge and an adherence to the four (or three in Theravada) marks of existence; impermanence, dukkha, emptiness or non self, and that nirvana is beyond concepts are the keys to being a Buddhist.

The problem with all three of these definitions is that they are external. They represent how individuals talk about themselves or display their behavior to others. To put it simply, they are nothing more than social constructs. I would argue that what makes one truly a Buddhist is something deeply personal. Something that cannot be expressed through any of the three external methods above.  In order to know if the Dharma has truly manifested in an individual at the beginning, middle, or end of the path is profoundly intimate and in my opinion is as non-conceptual and free of elaboration as the fruit of practice itself. It is simply not for others to see or know.

However we identify, it is meaningless, and even more meaningless are our assertions about someone else’s standing within the varying Buddhist communities. Perhaps this is a good reason why great teachers like the Dalai Lama stress kindness as a practice. Anyone is capable of showing kindness and all living things are capable of experiencing it. Kindness transcends labels we apply to our spiritual traditions and the semantics that define them and lands firmly in the realm of direct experience, and experience is what makes an individual firmly rooted in the path.

In my opinion Buddhists are extremely rare. Many are trying, but it’s hard work. The hardest work any of us will ever do, in any of our lifetimes.

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