What Makes a Buddhist?

With so many types of Buddhism, what makes a Buddhist? My teacher, Lama Surya Das, suggests that we focus less on being a Buddhist and more on being a Buddha. I take that as advice not to get lost in the technicalities. It’s about being a certain way, not doing the right things.

Most of us know the story of the Buddha’s life, the man who started out as Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a king, who pampered and tried to shelter him. Siddhartha eventually learned about old age, sickness, and death. He realized that life was unsatisfactory for everyone, even a prince who had every luxury his father could shower on him. Siddhartha also learned about spiritual seekers trying to find a route out of life’s unsatisfactoriness for themselves and others. So he left the palace to become a seeker himself.

Buddha hands holding flower, close upBy meditating, Siddhartha learned how our minds work to keep us disappointed in life, and he saw a way out by changing how we perceive the world. He awakened to the truth and became the Buddha — the awakened one. He knew that others had awakened before him and others would follow, so he was not the only Buddha. He also saw that each of us has the Buddha-nature within, the potential to awaken.

Over 45 years of teaching others how to awaken, the Buddha gathered a following of thousands and founded what has become one of the world’s major religions. For the reasons I outlined yesterday. his teachings leave much room for interpretation, and the religion developed strong variations as it moved from culture to culture. I believe people wanting to become Buddhists, or Buddhas, should study his teachings in the light of his own time and culture and draw from them what they need today to awaken and lead satisfactory lives.

For me, as an individual in today’s Western culture, I:

  • Take refuge in a) the Buddha, b) the Dharma, and c) the Sangha, meaning a) the inspiration of the historical Buddha and the Buddha-potential within us, b) his teachings, revealing the world as it really is, and c) the spiritual community that fosters us, which in the Buddha’s time was cloistered but no longer needs to be.
  • Follow the five precepts: not intentionally to kill, steal, lie, misbehave sexually, or take intoxicants.
  • Live in the moment, not rehashing the past or preoccupied with the future.
  • Recognize that all things are impermanent.
  • Avoid clinging to the idea that something outside me can make me happy or that it can take my happiness away. Instead, I understand that the clinging itself is what leaves me dissatisfied with my life.
  • See that I and all other beings are made of the same stuff and part of one interdependent entity, so a distinct self is an illusion.
  • Live compassionately and wisely, working for the happiness and enlightenment of others as well as myself.
  • Know that, although I am perfect as I am, in each moment I have the free will to be better and more consistently enlightened.
  • Understand that there is no this without that. Without compost, there is no garden, and without a garden, there is no compost.

I have left out some of the Buddha’s teachings because I believe they were manifestations of the culture he lined in, part of a dialogue with the Vedic and Jain religions. I do believe in an afterlife that includes rebirth for some, but I see it differently than the Buddha did and believe that its form varies from person to person.

And I believe that the Amida Buddha, which I mentioned yesterday, is the spiritual essence of all Buddhas who ever lived and the Buddha-nature within all of us.

For me, disputes over what to do with your hands in meditation, or the exact sequence of Dependent Origination, or how many moments there are in a second, are the work of Mara, drawing us further from living as a Buddha.

May we all awaken together.

Emaho! (Ain’t it great!)

— Mel Pine (Urgyen Jigme)

Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine


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