What is becoming ‘Buddhist’?

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Years ago (maybe four or five years ago), I asked a Dharma teacher something about taking precepts, or becoming a Buddhist “officially.” I wasn’t aiming to do so myself; I was only curious. But he had an unexpected reply.

At first, he seemed like he didn’t even want to discuss it. So I persisted. He explained taking five precepts (this is what we do in the Kwan Um School of Zen; we don’t take refuge as an official ceremony). He explained what comes before that. The rules, as it were. But then he went on a bit of a tangent about “being Buddhist” not having any real meaning. It’s your practice that matters, that counts.

If you have a practice — if you try, try, try for ten thousand years, as Seung Sahn used to say — then you’ve got something. A ceremony or a piece of paper with your Dharma name written on it? Not important.

At the time, this struck me as odd. Why wouldn’t he want me to pursue taking precepts? Why didn’t he encourage me? I felt almost as if he were pushing me away. Almost.

What he said stuck with me, though. I’ve been thinking a lot about it as I work on my research paper for the graduate class I’m taking. My topic is Buddhism in North America, and one of the recurrent themes in the literature is that when we try to count Buddhists in the West, it’s damn hard to say who is a Buddhist. Is it correct to count people who simply say they are Buddhists, when maybe they have never practiced any form of Buddhism?

There’s a phrase, “night-stand Buddhists,” that refers to people who read Buddhist books (our Dharma teacher calls them “bookstore Buddhists”). I’m sure I’ve met many Americans who are “night-stand Christians,” who don’t attend church and don’t practice anything particularly Christian — yet if they are asked their religion on a survey form, I’m sure they would choose “Christian” instead of “none” or “don’t know.”

Now I think I understand that conversation I had with the teacher, and I’m grateful that he didn’t encourage me to follow the steps required for taking precepts. In fact, it reminds me of something else, at another time in another place, when a Zen master asked me what it means when we say the Buddha gave transmission to Mahakashyapa. The Buddha made a long speech, blah blah blah, about the wonderfulness of this “thing” he was “giving” to Mahakashyapa. “What was that all about?” the Zen master asked me.

Well, you might know the answer.

Breathe.

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One response

  1. Over the years, I’ve known many wonderful practitioners who have never taken precepts, or never taken more than five precepts. And, of course, I’ve known many who have taken lots of precepts but whose lives aren’t very clear. Even some teachers – their lives aren’t very clear.

    It reminds me of someone I met when I studied Aikido. A new person came to the dojo wearing a white belt (beginner’s level). But it took only a moment of working with him to realize that he was anything but a beginner – he was deeply skilled in the work of martial relationship. But he maintained beginner’s mind throughout – he was a very simple man who only wanted to live in each moment. After a while, he left the dojo as quietly as he had entered it.