Here’s an old Jewish joke:
Stan has been shipwrecked on a desert island for decades. One day he is rescued. Before leaving the island, he shows the rescuer how he spent his years alone: Building a main street with several huts, each with a different purpose.
“This hut is where I cook and eat,” Stan tells his rescuer. “Next is the library, with books I saved when I was shipwrecked. Then comes the synagogue. Next is my sleeping quarters, with a hammock and some cushions. Then the latrine and washing facilities, and next to that is another synagogue. Finally, this last hut is my exercise room.”
“I’m amazed you did this all,” says the rescuer, “but I’m confused. You’re here alone. Why two synagogues?”
Stan points down the row of huts and responds in a conspiratorial whisper, “Between you and me, I would never go to that synagogue.”
Substitute sangha for synagogue, and I wonder: What makes a Buddhist a Buddhist?
I’ve been a student of the dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, for 18 years. I’ve spent months at a time in silent meditative practice. When not on retreat, I voluntarily live by the core ethical principles of Buddhism. As road maps go for exploring the human psyche and spirit, Buddhism is among the finest I have found.
So, does this make me a “Buddhist?” I don’t consider myself one.
Part of my hesitation is the label itself. It’s a built-in koan, a paradox. Buddhism warns against attachment to anything, including religions and philosophies. It also teaches that all self-definitions and identities are manifestations of avidya, ignorance. To call oneself Buddhist, then – isn’t this fundamentally un-Buddhist?
Another part of my hesitation is doctrinal. Much of Buddhism resonates with me intellectually, psychologically, spiritually. But not all of it does, including – and here’s the rub – some of the core tenets regarding desire, passion, and the causation of suffering. Can I cherry pick the teachings I like and ignore those that don’t suit me, especially when they are foundational to the edifice?
Is there a sine qua non of any belief system, without which one cannot be considered a rightful adherent? At what point does one teeter into hypocrisy or self-deception? What makes one a Christian, a Jew, a Sufi, an anything? Cultural affiliation? Self-definition? The serendipity or destiny of birth? Can one be Christian and not believe in the resurrection? Jewish and atheistic?
Who gets to decide? Just whose Buddhism is it, anyway?
As with every major religion, there are Buddhists whose practices and beliefs diverge so widely from one another that it can seem bizarre to lump them together. According to various lineages the Buddha was either a man or a god; his teachings were complete, or secretly hidden and encoded for sages to amplify many centuries later; he is mortally dead, or he transcended death and exists eternally in a mystical realm. There are fundamental disagreements among Buddhists about the basic nature of reality, the path to awakening, the definition of awareness, the necessary means of practice. There are Buddhists who believe in the equivalent of the sale of indulgences for karma – you can buy your way to a better reincarnation through cash donations.
Is Buddhism a religion, philosophy, psychological theory, or worldview? Which hut are we pointing to?
Or, maybe this is all hooey, and my hesitation to call myself Buddhist is just plain cowardice, with all this philosophical fluff conveniently disguising two longtime personal nemeses, Doubt and Resistance. Here, the fine edge of the sword is commitment. Maybe I just don’t like being pinned down to anything.
Or, at least to any ideology: when it comes to meditation practice itself, I am steadfast. I meditate every day, sometimes twice, with the occasional period of long, intensive retreat. When I describe the quality of this commitment to others, I often invoke the word betrothed. Meditation may be the sole commitment I honor in life that is purely optional.
I am aware of the discrepancy between my embrace of practice vs. my caution of doctrine, given that my practice is grounded in, and shaped by, these teachings. Yet seeing this discrepancy doesn’t resolve it, and how I manage it changes often: I stay open or I rebel; I try to puzzle my way through; I get disheartened; I don’t care.
Mostly, though, it feels irrelevant. I meditate as a student of human consciousness, to incline my heart in the direction of kindness and generosity, to expand my tolerance for meeting life as the endless koan that it is. I sit silently for months on end to get beneath the disruptive noise of everyday life, to hear the whispers below the ruckus of social discourse and the clamor of the thinking mind.
I take comfort in the Buddha’s invitation of ehipassiko: to examine for myself whether the dharma teachings make sense. Sometimes I wish they all did, or that I could allow myself the personal surrender required for the deepest and most courageous excursions into faith. So far, that’s not been my way. Eighteen years into dharma practice, and to a surprising degree a courtroom trial on the fundamentals of Buddhism still flares in my mind. I don’t know when, if ever, the jury will reach a satisfying verdict.
(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog explores how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).