What is a Buddhist?

By Rev. Jon Turner

Generally, there are two types of Buddhists. There are those who have grown up within the tradition and those who have come to it later in life. The former is often called “Traditional Buddhists”. This is probably the best description available but it is still not without some negative connotations. “Traditional” can sound old fashioned and conservative. Maybe this group could instead be called “Original Buddhists”. The term “Ethnic Buddhists” is also used but being originally Buddhist has very little to do with ethnicity.

The latter group is often called “Modern Convert Buddhists”. This description is also misleading since all Buddhists are modern people even “Traditional Buddhists”. There also isn’t really any kind of conversion going on. Instead it is more of a re-cognition. I am a “Modern Convert Buddhist” but I was not converted to Buddhist by any doctrinal arguments. Instead I merely recognized that Buddhism was describing how I had felt my entire life. It was more recognizing an old friend rather than meeting someone new.

Conversion also describes a change of beliefs rather than a change of perspective. In general, we use Buddhism not as something to think about but instead it is something with which we use to think. It is a set of activities that transform our thinking. In other words, our mind follows our body not the other way around. This is quite different. Rather than thinking I must be good and then trying to behave in that way; we instead take on practices that change our thinking.  In other words, we practice it until we become it.

These are two different approaches. One is to believe that we should behave a certain way. The other approach is to behave a certain way until we believe it. For example, you can believe that we should be nice to others and then try to act out that belief. Or you can simply smile and say hello to everyone until you feel that everyone you have met is kind and deserving of warmth.

Being a Buddhist is not based upon a set of beliefs that must be maintained. Instead it is a set of practices that one participates in. This is Buddhism as practice or process. It is much like being a runner. A runner is someone who runs. It would be silly to ask a runner what do you have to believe in to be a runner.

There are also many different kinds of Buddhists just like there are many different kinds of runners. But these differences are based upon differences in their training. For runners, ideas are not foundational. It is their training that is foundational. Various runners do have different approaches and philosophies but only as they pertain to a runner’s training and practice. The goals and effects on life remain the same.

I was once a runner but I don’t think of myself in that way anymore. This is because I no longer run. This also reflects the idea of process and activity. From this perspective, we would do better to think of membership rather than of identity. Membership is activity based while identity is a fixed state. I am a member of a gym only as long as I continue to train there. I don’t think of that as my identity.

Many people new to Buddhism wonder when does one become Buddhist. How long should we wait to identify ourselves as Buddhist? This is called self-identification. This is different than one’s identity. Self-identification is when one identifies themselves as part of a group. Often people new to Buddhism think it is something they should earn.  I think one self-identifies whenever they feel comfortable within the Sangha. Then they feel like a full-fledged member of the group. When practicing together feels natural even invigorating.

This dilemma of membership is an issue for both “Original Buddhists” and “Modern Buddhist Converts”. Both need to reflect on this issue of what makes a Buddhist a Buddhist. When is one a Buddhist?

There is a joke. A tourist was lost in New York City, looking for Carnegie Hall. On a street corner, he saw a sophisticated woman in an evening gown, carrying a violin case. He asked her how do I get to Carnegie Hall? The woman replied, “Practice, practice, practice.” The man wanted directions and a map to follow. He was leading with his mind. The woman was leading with her body. She gave him an activity. If you want to make it to Carnegie Hall then you must practice until you become a member of an orchestra that can play Carnegie Hall.

“Original Buddhists” and “Modern Convert Buddhists” alike need to practice, practice, practice until we can self-identify as a member of the Buddhist Sangha. Then we can say “I am a Buddhist”. It is for you to decide not for others to decide. It is a journey that you make your own.

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner