October 07, 2006

What makes a Buddhist?

Over the last decade, there has been a fascinating discussion about Buddhism for the West—whether the Buddha's teachings should be adapted or imported with all the cultural trappings, whether we should all dressed up as Tibetans, Burmese monks and Zen masters, or whether it is our duty to create a new brand such as "American Buddhism." Since I'm supposed to be a spokesperson here for the Tibetan tradition, it brings up an interesting point: was there really a "Tibetan Buddhism"? I wonder. That branding sounds a bit like it was made by early explorers and travelers who simply described what they saw—from the outside. You probably heard names like Lamaism, the Yellow and Red Hat Sect.

Over three decades of spending time with Tibetan Buddhist teachers, I've never heard then use those names even once, except to make fun. The Buddhist teachers of Tibet don't see themselves as "Tibetan Buddhists" but rather as simply follows of the Buddha's teachings. I had the fortune to translate many talks by Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche on exactly this topic, now published as Indisputable Truth. During these talks he brought up an important quote from the Buddha, sounding something like—"in the future, my followers shall know my teachings through four signs: Everything conditioned is impermanent All tainted states are painful All phenomena are empty and devoid of self-entity Nirvana is peace Later these became known as "the four seals that mark the teachings of the awakened ones." They are not dogma. They are not beliefs. They are simple truths that each of us are invited and encouraged to discover through study, reflection, and practice. And this has very little to do with whether we mindfully eat rice with chopsticks, drink rancid butter tea or fill our face with hamburgers.

It is therefore a surprise and delight to see "What Makes You not a Buddhist," a new book by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, that covers the same topic. It's a wonderful book! A must-read for new and old Buddhist of all traditions! Here he makes abundantly clear that the view is of the highest importance while practice and behavior are secondary. I often notice that practice, especially meditation practice, is regarded as "Buddhism". Many of my teachers have compared practice to the act of walking in order to get to a destination and the view to "knowing where you are heading," the direction. How much sense does it make to walk without direction? I wonder. I invite you to comment on this extremely important issue.

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