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Am I Buddhist Enough?

Question:

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?

Answer:

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.

Comments?

22 comments to Am I Buddhist Enough?

  • steven oldner

    Oh this is fun! At one time I refered to my beliefs as a Christian buddhism. My ‘soul’ will be saved due to the blood of Christ, but my treasures in heaven and my entries in the book of life, well Buddha’s teachings is what’ll save me there. So my eternal life and my present life are both taken care of, a day at a time.

  • Great post, I agree 100%. But I have found (much to my surprise) that many disagree with this position (which I know you already know.) I only got involved in online Buddhism forums in the last 18 months or so, and I was really shocked at the level of what I would consider dogmatism by some people on them. I consider myself Buddhist but am interested in mystics from all the different religions, and feel they have all hit upon certain universal truths through different practices. Some Buddhists really disagree with that idea, and have told me I am not ‘Buddhist enough’ to call myself Buddhist. In my experience that view is the minority one, but it’s been an interesting learning experience….

  • Gambatte

    I used to get wound up considering this…I have many Buddhist beliefs. Then I thought, Why do I actually need a label? When I realised this I lost attachment to the label.

  • Jerry

    I wonder how much it matters. I call myself a Buddhist, but there are lots of Buddhisty things I don’t believe in or do. I do accept the Three Jewels and Five Precepts and, to me, that makes me a Buddhist. Even with the Five Precepts, I consider those good advice, not absolute commandments. I like the idea that Buddhist teachings are skillful ways to live that reduce suffering and promote general well-being. I don’t think it’s necessary to accept all the mysticism and ritual that are part of some Buddhist groups to be a good Buddhist.

  • David

    Wow this is a hard one and yet strangely simple at the same time. Firstly the hard bit, I think it is hard as we all still seem to have a need to belong. Belong to someone or something and being able to add a name to that thing gives us a sense of security and allows us to focus on what we think we are or what we believe, and somehow give what we believe some meaning. Now the simple bit, you ask are you Buddhist enough, well are you? What does that mean I hear you say. Well I would say from my perspective if you believe you are a Buddhist then you are. Who is to say you are not? Who can look in your heart and tell you you don’t believe in something? And if they could would they have the right to? Also if you didn’t believe you wouldn’t worry and wouldn’t have asked the question.

    For me being a Buddhist is simple, I believe the four noble truths and the eightfold path come from the Buddha himself and I believe unquestionably in Buddha being a real person. Personally I also believe in reincarnation as I want to come back and try again and eventually I want to stop coming back once I have done all I need to, but that’s just me and I hope its not to pompous.

    The bottom line is I would say take what you need and can use from Buddhism, enjoy it for what it is and you will ultimately choose what is right for you. I would also say welcome from a fellow Buddhist.

  • First of all, Brian your post was great in my opinion. The openness to others’ views is what keeps me coming back to Daily Buddhism (and Buddhism in general!)

    My answer to the question though, would be to follow only your own path. Avoid those who question whether you’re Buddhist enough – if they have the time to question your Buddhist credibility that likely means they have motives other than assisting you on your path.

    Brian beat me to the punch with this:

    “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.” – Buddha

  • Lisa

    Thank you for this helpful and honest post.

    You wrote:
    “…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.”

    I’m curious to know what the ‘non-negotiables’ are for a Zen Buddhist.

  • steve

    brian you outdid yourself,i agree!to the questioner i have one of the late alan watts works which is titled “The Book” and i find it thoroughly enlighteningi would also recommend Eckhart Tolle”s book “The Power Of Now” i try to keep and open and inquisitive mind like brian

  • Fiona

    What I think is that if we start to question whether or not we should call or “label” ourselves as something, it immediately shows that we have an attachment to it. If you practice something, you don’t need to put a big stamp on yourself to advertise a certain practice that you may have.
    When I first started practicing Buddhism I would immediately tell people “oh, I am a Buddhist,” because I was so used to labeling myself as something so others would have a more or less concrete idea of who I am. In addition, I was used to this labeling that is promoted by other religions where followers would almost boast about what they are titled as, like I hear so many Christian followers saying, “well because I am a Christian…” and so on (not that there is anything wrong being a Christian). I just don’t feel that it is nescessary to gloat about who you what to be labled as because if you do so then there must be an underlying attachment to that, if you feel the need to tell others, “I am…”. Now, much further in my practice, I’ve noticed that I never really tend to say “I am a Buddhist” instead I say, “I practice Buddhism” or “I am a student of Buddhism” or I follow it.
    The important thing is to simply know what you believe and follow it, and don’t worry about any labels or titles that you need to create for other people.
    That’s just my opinion, however I’m open to others.

  • Lisa:
    I didn’t have anything specifically in mind about these requirements, but for an example, if you don’t believe in Amitabha-Buddha, you probably don’t qualify as a Pure Land follower. If you think the Dalai Lama is just some old wise man and not a reincarnation of one very specific individual, then you might not be Tibetan. Sometimes it’s easier to come up with example that DIS-qualify these labels.

    Others:
    I really like the path this conversation has taken as far as “labels” are concerned. We all tend to label everything; it’s what humans do. It’s how we THINK. Yet, this manner of thinking is also a form of attachment to the world, and also a major source of the falsity that is the illusory nature of reality. We are Buddhists. yet we are not.

    I also get the impression that the person who asked the original question once told someone “I am a Buddhist” and the other person told them “No, you aren’t!” This reminded me of the post a few months back about the person who wrote in with their story about liking cannibal horror movies and loud rock music and did that disqualify him from being a Buddhist? No!

  • jedikelly

    Thanks Brian for posting this entry.

  • Earl

    Thanks for the answer! I love this site, and the weekly podcast is great too!

    This question came to my mind while I was listening to zencast one night – I began to wonder if I was actually “Buddhist”, since I’d decided I didn’t believe in the more mystical aspects of it. I wasn’t overly concerned with what others would think if I said I was a Buddhist (though I definitely agree with the posters who talked about labels being unnecessary) – I was more curious about whether or not I should think of myself as a Buddhist, or simply someone who has taken certain practical and psychological aspects of Buddhism and applied them to my life. I consider myself an atheist, for the most part – so I was curious what Brian had to say about my question, as Buddhism is technically a religion.

    I do believe Buddha was an actual living, breathing person – and I can also believe that most or all of the sayings and principles attributed to him are accurate in that respect. I admire Buddhism largely because it is what a religion SHOULD be, in my opinion – something which ENHANCES life instead of OPPRESSING it – and I might be wrong about this, but I don’t recall any wars being fought over Buddhism, which stands in stark contrast to nearly every other religion ever.

    Anyways, thanks again for the great answer! I’ll keep what you’ve said in mind!

    @ steve – thanks for the recommendation! I’ll look into those.

  • Hey Brian;
    Thanks for stirring the coals a little. Liked the article and loved the comments. You have an ability to open discussion. One can’t ask for more – regardless.

  • (Kind of re: Lisa’s question about Zen.)

    If you go along with Zen as expressed in John Daido Loori’s The Heart of Being, none of the mythology is really necessary per se. To be a Buddhist (or to be a Buddha) requires only one thing: to act without first dividing the action into self and other (not-self).

    Buddhist teachings can be distilled to the essence of balancing compassion and wisdom. These are likened to the two wings of a bird — it can’t fly with only one. You can’t be a proper Buddhist if you go around bludgeoning people with your wisdom and insights, nor can you practice “idiot compassion” endlessly giving to people even when such giving may harm them. So your actions should embody the compassion of Buddhism and the wisdom of Buddhism, co-existing in a balanced way. If you live in such a manner that expresses these two “wings” as a fundamental part of who you are and what you do, that would be enough to make you a Buddhist.

    Of course, this whole discussion assumes that the label “Buddhist” really means anything or that it’s even worthwhile to debate its meaning. 🙂

  • Fiona

    Oh, good point Brian! We as humans do have a tendency to label all things.
    But I guess what I was trying to get at before was that, we should look at the intention or motive behind the “label”. These intentions may be harmful to others, or only self serving, or maybe they are simply used for an overall understanding. Therefore if the intention is harmful to oneself or others, then obviously there is no need for it at all.

    So, going back to the notion of “being a Buddhist”, if the motivation for someone to use the phrase “I am Buddhist” is for one’s own selfish reasons, or causing harm to others in any way, then it shouldn’t even be used. On the other hand, if by using it, one helps others or themselves, then it’s fine.

  • Josh

    I think its a great question. With in any one spiritual path, not everyone agrees 100%. I come to Buddhism from a Jewish tradition. I consider myself Jewish and Buddhist. I love the fact that Jews can argue and have a conversation with God, regardless what the fanatics may tell you. I like Buddhism since it focuses on the indivitual. The Buddha – Sidartha – said to take what you know from your experiences to be true. I find this very liberating. I have always seen Karma to be true. While I am not certain about reincarnation I don’t deny it. I think it boils down to the question, “Is this concept helpfull?” If it is good. If it helps you grow and reduce sufferering it’s great. If not acknowledge taht some people like it, but that doesn’t mean it has to be true or helpful for you. That’s fine and natural.

  • wow – I must add, (that) the notion everyone is cognoscente of cause & condition in varying degrees and what that mean to any particular individual is the depth of what Buddhism to the individual. I also think this question may only be relevant from a Western perspective (from a ego base). When I think [label] there is a difference between a ‘Practicing Buddhist’ and a ‘Buddhist’ the thought only has harmful conditions. Pardon me for adding – gate gate paragate parasamgate budhi svaha – it is my nature.

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    Sorry I’m coming late to this most excellent thread – this is a very profound question and is not limited to Buddhism but any “organised” religious/philosophical grouping and Brian’s answer is spot on. The quote he gives is probably from a sutta known as Kalama Sutra.

    Some time ago I was introduced to a great book: Buddhism without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Alan Watts in one of his podcasts suggested one has to see religious figures in their historical context and Buddha was conditioned by Hinduism so some of the ideas you might not like (re-incarnation et al.) are in a way echos of his cultural “baggage” and perhaps more importantly part of the mindscape of his audience…

    Alan Watt’s podcasts can be found at http://www.alanwatts.com/

    Best,

    T

  • This was very similar to a question I was thinking. I was brought up as a Christian, but find the philosophy of Buddhism consistently intriguing, thought provoking and relevant in todays world. There seem to be many similarities between philosophies, esp when you remove the trappings of organized religion.
    Not sure what this makes me, maybe just confused or maybe there is one right path only a middle way.

    Anyway, great podcasts and blog. I have been getting a lot out of them, thank you.

  • Stingra'

    I’m reading these posts a bit late…which can be beneficial in ways…..and the one thought that comes to my mind is “anatman”……Buddha’s concecpt of the one being nothing. A rather difficult concept for westerners to grasp. I now know what my reply will be to the question “Are you a Buddhist?” or my own question to myself “Am I a Buddhist?”…..my reply: “I am nothing!”

  • Subjectivity9

    Can you stand completely naked of preconception and persistently look directly in order to find “Reality” in its “Suchness,” just as the Buddha did?

    Can you upon doing this be radically honest about what you are seeing, and then go on to live each moment from the ‘Here’ of ‘Suchness?’

    If you can do this, or at least make a stab at doing this, then who can say that you are not, at heart, a practicing Buddhist?

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