Monday, January 31, 2005

Calling Myself a Buddhist

I remember when I became a Buddhist. About ten years ago. I read the last page of Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, slowly closed it and set it on the nightstand, and said, "I think I am a Buddhist." I was startled to hear myself say the words, and I didn't know whether to believe them, but there they were.

I've never really wanted to deny that statement, since. I meant many things by it. That I thought the Buddha was fundamentally right, both about what was wrong with me, and how I might fix it. That I'd found a religion that didn't require me to believe arrant nonsense -- indeed, that didn't require me to believe anything at all. That I'd found a formulation of my task in life that subsumed, in one form or another, everything I had ever thought it might be: to see clearly, to lessen suffering, to connect people, to create beauty.

Later on it meant more. That Buddhist teachers had earned my trust. That I belonged to a community -- that I was willing, in some sense, to be held accountable for what Buddhists said and did. That I was willing to work on creating Buddhist institutions in the West.

But even then, I didn't call myself a Buddhist. I was not in the habit of calling myself any kind of -ist. Only in the last couple years has it become natural for me to say "I'm a Buddhist," and to check the "Buddhist" box, when filling out hospital forms, without hesitation. Being a Buddhist is one thing. Calling oneself one is quite another.

I have been told a story of Kalu Rinpoche, teaching to a large crowd, being asked, "Do I have to give up being a Christian to become enlightened?"

To the surprise and dismay of his audience, Rinpoche said, firmly and unequivocally, "Yes."

He paused, and then added, "You will also have to give up being a Buddhist."

And of course, it's obvious. To become enlightened is to give up being men or women, Americans or Tibetans, programmers or waitresses, parents or children. The whole task of the dharma is to stop mistaking the temporary and conditioned for permanent and essential. To designate myself a Buddhist is a plain instance of such a mistake. I sometimes meditate; I sometimes go to the Sangha; I sometimes say refuge prayers. But there's really no guarantee that I will ever do any of those things again, and I spent much more time not doing them, than doing them. To call myself a Buddhist implies that I have taken on some essential permanent characteristic, that there is now an inalienable buddhistness about me. Whereas it's obvious, all too obvious, that there is not.

So for many years I avoided calling myself a Buddhist. "I practice Buddhism, in the Tibetan tradition," I would say, with pleasing precision. But I wouldn't say "I'm a Buddhist."

I call myself a Buddhist now, and I wear a blessing cord around my neck -- a token that's recognized surprisingly often. I have declared myself a Buddhist. This may not be good for Buddhism's reputation, but it's good for me.

The biggest obstacle in my path is just that I stop walking it. I wander away. I forget to meditate; I lose track of my practice. I imagine that's the biggest obstacle for most people who aren't cloistered. "Being a Buddhist" draws me back. It doesn't bring me back elegantly. It brings me back for "bad" reasons. "Is that, like, a Buddhist thing?" a grocery clerk will ask me, looking at the knotted cord around my neck. And I'll suddenly uneasily check out what I've been doing while standing in that line. Have I been fidgeting? Ogling the woman before me in line? Registering amused contempt at the cover of the Enquirer?

This uneasiness, of course, is just so much ego-attachment. It has nothing to do with genuine practice. And if it stopped there, it would do me no good. It would be just one more round in my habitual circuits of self-reification. (Though it wouldn't do me any particular harm, either; if I wasn't reifying myself that way, I'd be doing it some other way.) But it doesn't stop there. At least sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it moves along from "have I been acting like a Buddhist?" to "am I being a Buddhist? Am I 'carrying my practice'? For that matter, do I have a practice to carry? When was the last time I sat? Do I have any business passing myself off as a Buddhist?" Sure, I'm still in the realm of ego-attachment. But I'm moving toward practice. I'm motivated to practice, now. It's hardly a pure motivation, but it's motivation. I'll take what I can get. After all, if my motivation were pure in the first place -- if I were constantly inspired to practice for the benefit of all sentient beings, and for no other reason -- then I'd have no need to practice.

Let them not challenge to themselves a strength they have not, wrote Richard Hooker, of the Puritans, lest they lose the comfortable support of that weakness which indeed they have.

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