I’m wondering how much of the Buddhist mythology someone has to follow or believe in order to call themselves a “Buddhist”. For example, I don’t believe in reincarnation or nirvana. However, I think the lifestyle Buddhism promotes leads to a healthy mind, a general sense of wellbeing, and happiness. A lot of what Alan Watts has to say is especially enlightening. I follow the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path as closely as I can, and meditate daily. Am I a Buddhist?
First, not everyone is going to agree with what follows. It’s only my opinion, and I absolutely invite dissent and debate in the comment area.
Technically, ALL the mythology or “magical stuff” (deities, boddhisattvas, mysticism, demons, hundreds of Buddhas, etc.) can be taken with a grain of salt if you prefer. There are many very enlightening stories that use these characters, so it is worthwhile to look at them in study, but there is no need to actually believe in any of them as literal fact. If you do believe in them, that’s fine too, but I don’t think it is required to be considered a Buddhist. Do not misunderstand me, various denominations or sects of Buddhism do require certain beliefs. If you want to be a Tibetan Buddhist, there are certain things you need to accept. The same with Zen. The same with Pure Land. There are lots of ways to NOT qualify as a Tibetan practitioner for example, but you can still be called a Buddhist.
Reincarnation or rebirth is a tough pill to swallow here in the West. Karma and samsara are necessarily tied in with this idea, and it’s hard to accept or reject any of these without accepting or rejecting all three. Are these ideas necessary? The way I was taught to look at it is like this: All these stories and ideas are here to help us along the path. Some of it is cultural baggage that is not required to follow the path and reach Enlightenment. If some idea or concept causes you suffering (in the form of confusion, doubt, or conflict) then throw it out and take the rest.
Buddha said (or so we’re told!):
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.
It would be hard (although still not impossible) to call yourself a Buddhist if you do not believe that the Buddha himself was real, but how much of what is attributed to him you actually believe is up for debate. I do believe that he really came up with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. He probably laid down the Five Precepts as well. I accept these as the bottom-line foundation of Buddhism. All that other stuff? I don’t know, and no one else can say for sure either. Did he come up with all those hundreds of rules for monks, all those Tibetan rituals, the techniques of meditation, or the ideas of Pure Land? I don’t believe that he did, although many will disagree with me. Much has been invented and attributed to Buddha in the intervening years. That doesn’t mean that information is useless or wrong, but it does “mythologize” the Buddha.