On Being and Not Being a Buddhist

I am not a Buddhist. I’ve never told anyone that I am a Buddhist and have in fact denied the … Continued

I am not a Buddhist. I’ve never told anyone that I am a Buddhist and have in fact denied the title on more than one occasion. Even though I have been circling around the stupa for the last ten years, I have never made any formal or official commitment to the Buddha sāsana. I’ve never sown a rakusu or received a “dharma name.” I am, as of this moment, a freelance wanderer through the six realms of samsara.

I was raised in West Michigan to a small family of born-again evangelical protestants. As early as a few weeks after my birth I was sitting on my mom’s lap in one of the world’s first mega-churches. (Although at the time I’m sure it wasn’t as mega as it is now). I loved felt-boards and summer bible camp. I memorized the books of the Old and New Testaments. I attended Awana and filled up my little plastic crown pin with little plastic jewels. This cheap trinket that I wore on a bright red vest represented the authentic crown that I would wear when I finally entered into the presence of God, my dead grandparents and all my recently expired turtles. I anticipated the rapture and feared the Devil. I sang “Jesus loves me this I know” and I did know it. I believed in the literal truth of the Bible before I knew what a metaphor was, and I can remember feeling guilty because I loved my heavenly father more than my earthly one. Over the years I was baptized and rebaptized, committed and recommitted. If there was an alter call, I was answering.

Then one day, while attending a student-oriented bible study, the youth pastor’s wife said something that changed my life. I was eighteen at the time and just about to begin my first semester at Calvin College when a woman I hardly knew said (apropos of what, I don’t recall): “When I can’t sleep, I start to pray and in five minutes, I’m out like a light.” This was followed by nods of affirmation and a hand shot up from the crowd. A very sincere young woman replied, “Just before I came here, I lost my keys. I prayed and five minutes later I found them.”

These two seemingly innocuous statements by semi-strangers planted tiny seeds of doubt in what I thought was a fertile field of Christian faith and piety. Over the next year I replayed these statements over and over and eventually came to two conclusions. 1) I did not want any part of a religion that used God as a sleep aid or as a butler to find lost keys, and 2) there was no reason to believe that God as I currently envisioned him was anything other than a figment of my imagination. It was only a matter of months before I was telling my parents that I was no longer a Christian.

The journey from born-again Christian to wanna-be Buddhist was both long and short. It was short because Buddhism was the first religious tradition I turned to after I ceased to believe in God. It was long because I did not immediately adopt Buddhism as my re-bound faith. I casually flirted with Islam and Hinduism, and had a more serious relationship with Reform Judaism. At my most desperate moments I have to admit I read Ekhart Tolle and even sent away for some Rosicrucian pamphlets. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of faith to give.

Between my brief trysts with Moses and Muhammad, I would always return to Shakyamuni. Five years ago I took my first six-week meditation course and learned how to watch my breath and think non-thinking. I lived in Southern California for a few years and would occasionally attend services at Zen Mountain Center.

Today, I am a graduate student at the University of Iowa, studying the religion and culture of South Asia. I am on the board of directors at the local Zen Center and have spent a few weekends doing all-day zazen. I recently acted as a teaching assistant for a class called Living Religions of the East, and although I love teaching about Hindu, Taoist and Confucian traditions, I love learning about Buddhism. I am becoming—carefully and with as much mindfulness as I can muster—more than what has been dismissively labeled a “bookstore Buddhist.” To me, being a Buddhist means more than just saying you are one. It means placing yourself within the structure of a particular school, a particular lineage and a particular teacher. It means changing your life, not just changing your mind. Since I live in Iowa City and there is no school, lineage or teacher, I am technically not a Buddhist.

On the other hand…

At least once a day I descend the stairs to my basement, bow towards my zabuton and turn clockwise. I bow to the world and then lower myself onto a round black cushion. I light a small tea-light and bow to the Nepali Buddha statue that I bought in Madison. I take refuge in the three jewels. I ring a Tibetan singing bowl three times. I place my hands in the mudra of Vairocana Buddha.

I sit.

I think non-thinking.

A little while later, I get up.

About

  • B-man

    Dustin,Thank you for you essay. I believe there are many people in this country with a story similar to yours. I did not grow up in and evangelical setting, and was not religious at all growing up, but when I first found Taoism, then Zen Buddhism, I knew I had found deep wisdom that had the potential to change my life, and the world.I often tell people that Buddhism (at least Zen) is not a religion, but rather, a “science of the mind”, and is completely atheistic (various cultural influences not withstanding).To me Buddhism is religion come of age–a much more mature way of viewing the universe, and how one should treat the living beings in it, than any religion, which places worship of deities at the top of the priority list.I suppose I’m also a wanna be Buddhist, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m on the path at least, and the direct and practical wisdom that Buddhism provides is a source of deep nourishment to me.I encourage all readers, regardless of religious affiliation, to explore the teachings of Buddhism, if for nothing else than to improve one’s own mental health.

  • NorthDan

    Nice post, and thank you for sharing. As for myself, from childhood I have never believed in the “God” referenced in North American culture. Introduced to Buddhism in an undergraduate philosophy course, my conviction now is both as atheist and in your science-of-mind stuff. Buddhism is a fabulous model of the human experience and framework to understand one’s perception of the world and one’s own self. But, after studying Buddhism for a few decades I now realize that the mere practice of zen and buddhism is everything. So, it seems that I know nothing from my poor studies but have learned to appreciate a good practitioner. Hmmm….but I have no school, lineage or teacher (to echo your words)but sit as you. But if I practice and take refuge, and follow the four seals of Shakyamuni, does that not make me a Buddhist? Yes, likely so….and perhaps thus so are you. So, to paraphrase the Nike commercial: don’t talk labels, just do it — be the practice!Good luck, best wishes, wishing you enough of all that you need in your life!Dan

  • Name not important

    To be or not to be a buddhist, in my opinion, is still very egoistic. Treating oneself as very important, as if our final acceptace of being a buddhist has a bearing on buddhism. It might on the number of people who accept buddhism, and that is the purpose of my comments. According to what I have read, 2500 years ago Buddha said don’t get mired in successes and failures, whether there are a lot of believers or few. But be mindful of your own practice. If we are able to do that it will bear fruit for us and others. I am thankful to the writer for talking about a journey that we are all traveling, whether we are a buddhist or of another belief or trying to figure out what we really believe. It brings to focus the need to be strong willed and avoid doubt on the path of discovery. Buddha said, “be a light unto you”. Let’s try and follow Buddha’s words.

  • Richard Perry

    Many of us do not feel a need to “be” anything, but enjoy spiritual strength anyway. Buddhism accepts even us. “Bookstore Buddhism” is enough for me.

  • Natural Born Buddhist

    The essence of Buddhism, or to be a Buddhist, is not to think about whether YOU are technically a Buddhist or what. It is all about having an absolute peace of mind to deal with the sufferings in the world – to transcend. It is to follow the goodness of your conscience and treat all living beings with kindness. (No killings in the name of God whatsoever!)If you love all living beings and treat them with kindness and use your conscience as a guide, then you are a Buddhist. Forget about the incense and the candles and thinking the non-thinking. All that is superficial and is contrary to what Buddhism is about. Think of a sweet baby – that’s what a true Buddhist is.

  • Natural Born Buddhist

    The essence of Buddhism, or to be a Buddhist, is not to think about whether YOU are technically a Buddhist or what. It is all about having an absolute peace of mind to deal with the sufferings in the world – to transcend. It is to follow the goodness of your conscience and treat all living beings with kindness. (No killings in the name of God whatsoever!)If you love all living beings and treat them with kindness and use your conscience as a guide, then you are a Buddhist. Forget about the incense and the candles and thinking the non-thinking. All that is superficial and is contrary to what Buddhism is about. Think of a sweet baby – that’s what a true Buddhist is.

  • Natural Born Buddhist

    The essence of Buddhism, or to be a Buddhist, is not to think about whether YOU are technically a Buddhist or what. It is all about having an absolute peace of mind to deal with the sufferings in the world – to transcend. It is to follow the goodness of your conscience and treat all living beings with kindness. (No killings in the name of God whatsoever!)If you love all living beings and treat them with kindness and use your conscience as a guide, then you are a Buddhist. Forget about the incense and the candles and thinking the non-thinking. All that is superficial and is contrary to what Buddhism is about. Think of a sweet baby – that’s what a true Buddhist is.

  • Natural Born Buddhist

    The essence of Buddhism, or to be a Buddhist, is not to think about whether YOU are technically a Buddhist or what. It is all about having an absolute peace of mind to deal with the sufferings in the world – to transcend. It is to follow the goodness of your conscience and treat all living beings with kindness. (No killings in the name of God whatsoever!)If you love all living beings and treat them with kindness and use your conscience as a guide, then you are a Buddhist. Forget about the incense and the candles and thinking the non-thinking. All that is superficial and is contrary to what Buddhism is about. Think of a sweet baby – that’s what a true Buddhist is.

  • DavidsEllis

    Buddha hated the concept of religion. He probably doesn’t even like the term, Buddhism. To paraphrase his words, (because my memory sucks…)”Theories about God are numerous, and worthless. Nonetheless, you have been given everything you need to know God.”It ain’t about studying, or gurus or old documents. And frankly, the more one gets lost in cultural baggage and silly traditions, the more lost and confused one gets.Buddhism is a state of being and a state of mind. I hope it doesn’t get mired in all the “do this, don’t do this” garbage of the other religions, particularly Judaism.

  • DavidsEllis

    Buddha hated the concept of religion. He probably doesn’t even like the term, Buddhism. To paraphrase his words, (because my memory sucks…)”Theories about God are numerous, and worthless. Nonetheless, you have been given everything you need to know God.”It ain’t about studying, or gurus or old documents. And frankly, the more one gets lost in cultural baggage and silly traditions, the more lost and confused one gets.Buddhism is a state of being and a state of mind. I hope it doesn’t get mired in all the “do this, don’t do this” garbage of the other religions, particularly Judaism.

  • Roy

    As an undergraduate I took a course in eastern religions and one of the religions we studied was Tibetan Buddhism or As a practicing Unitarian Universalist, I draw wisdom and knowledge from many traditions in order to travel along my own spiritual journey and remain authentic to myself, which I believe is all that really matters.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    I’ve followed a number of the same steps in getting acquainted with Buddhism that Aum Iowa did.I’ve concluded than an American interested in Buddhism should cast out from his thinking every bit of the oriental and historical baggage of traditional Buddhism that he encounters.Don’t be enslaved by thinking that you must agree with or accept what has been traditionally taught to novices, along the lines of “You must have a teacher-mentor-guru or you’ll get nowhere.” ‘Tain’t so!You don’t need to be a practiced meditator to progress on the path, though some experience is useful.Understand the centrality of compassion; that nothing in the world of relative truth has an inherent identity; that everything is the product of causes and conditions; that all sentient beings at their core are the same, similarly situated and equally valuable; work at being fully present in the present moment; and try to practice compassion and equanimity.Then you’ll have achieved enough for this lifetime.More will follow.Like Aum, I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I say I’m agnostic (about Buddhist beliefs and all other belief systems) and have Buddhist sympathies.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    Sorry Dustin, Aum Iowa is such an entrancing name that IIf I get to the point where I want to reinforce a development or change in my identity, I may start calling myself “Aum Vermont”*.*Several years ago a Vermont judge, over the objections of the Coca Cola compoany, approved a man’s petition to change his name to Coke-is-It.****Vermont’s state motto is “Freedom and Unity”.It’s a good place, with many self-identified Buddhists.Best wishes to you.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    Sorry Dustin, Aum Iowa is such an entrancing name that IIf I get to the point where I want to reinforce a development or change in my identity, I may start calling myself “Aum Vermont”*.*Several years ago a Vermont judge, over the objections of the Coca Cola compoany, approved a man’s petition to change his name to Coke-is-It.****Vermont’s state motto is “Freedom and Unity”.It’s a good place, with many self-identified Buddhists.Best wishes to you.

  • Aquagirl

    I don’t believe you can “be” a Buddhist. What the Buddha taught was impermanence and nonattachment and no-self. “Being” anything is about permanence, attachment and ego. You have beginner’s mind and I understand that the people who are wise in these things recommend that. All of this is why “practice” is such a great word. You practice Buddhism, like a budding musician practices scales.

  • George Robertson

    I think that Therevada Buddhism is basically a culture of death. The Abrahamic religions all recognize the importance of family and children- basically, the elements of life. By contrast, in Buddhism, as soon as children are old enough to experience life for themselves, the ones who go to monasteries are sent out to beg. What kind of life is that for a child? I think that the joy experienced by Buddhists is the joy of those who are completely narcissistic and self-centered. That is a version of evil. The only redeeming features of Buddhism are those which have come about as a result of inputs from other indigenous religions which existed before Buddhism; the so-called Mahayana school.

  • B-man

    I would point out that the God of the Abrahamic traditions was guilty of mass genocide on a planetary level, and on several occasions asked one of his subjects to kill their offspring or spouse as proof of their fidelity him.This seems to me closer to a culture of death than anything in Buddhism.

  • B-man

    Also, to correct your glaring error above regarding the Mayahan school…Their are two major schools of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. They both agree upon and practice the core teachings of the Buddha, and are to be understood as different expressions of the same teaching of the historical Buddha.

  • Marc Schlee

    I’m a non-Taoist. Small world.

  • E.P.

    Interesting. My story is the opposite. I came to Christ through Buddhism. I grew up as an episcopalian, but it never really touched me, it was just a family activity done on Sundays. As a teenager Christianity dimly occurred to me as a hypocrisy that proclaimed declared obedience in a higher authority of “good” until some other

  • E.P.

    Interesting. My story is the opposite. I came to Christ through Buddhism. I grew up as an episcopalian, but it never really touched me, it was just a family activity done on Sundays. As a teenager Christianity dimly occurred to me as a hypocrisy that proclaimed it declared obedience in a higher authority of “good” until some other

  • Also The Same

    Dustin, in my life, I, have made the journey, to a pragmatic and sometimes Buddhist life. I, still eat meat but yet I have recognized the spirituality of those who have chosen the life of following the Buddha as a guide. I am, what I call, CaBuSuJew, the meaning, Catholic, Buddhist, Sufi and Jewish.

  • Roy – Chiapas, Mexico

    It’s probably more Buddhist not to be Buddhist. I, too, was raised in a Protestant religion surrounded by very ethnocentric and hateful Mormons in Utah. I left the Lutheran Church when I went to college. The only Lutheran Church there was Missouri Synod and they would not let me take Communion there. That got me thinking. Who’s Communion table is it? Is it Christ’s or that of some church? Why is some church trying to control my access to Christ and his salvation? I was awakened that organized religions do more to separate and exclude most people than help most people. Sure, it’s OK for their own to pose and posture to one another on Sunday but what good does it serve mankind (other than selective humanitarian efforts that are still in the true spirit of Christ)In Honolulu, I found the Buddhist book in a hotel room. I tried one of the precepts, ridding myself of almost all my worldly goods and found great relief and really knew then who my friends were. Buddhism makes a lot of sense to me and although I don’t go to a Buddhist church, many Buddhist practices and beliefs seem a lot more Christ-like and make more sense than the bigoted “my way or the highway” form of neochristianity in America today.

  • jonathan

    Very nice post and just like my experience too. I have/have not been ‘a Buddhist’ for 30 years. (Actually now I am thinking of Buddhist as an adjective rather than a noun and it fits much better.) But I too have realised that it really amounts to sitting, following the precepts, and being part of a school, although I haven’t quite finished the latter part. Thanks.

Read More Articles

shutterstock_188022491
Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pile_of_trash_2
Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

shutterstock_178468880
Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

shutterstock_188545496
Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

5783999789_9d06e5d7df_b
The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

sunset-hair
From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

colbert
Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

emptytomb
God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

shutterstock_186795503
The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

egg.jpg
Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.

shutterstock_186686495
The End of Surveillance for New York Muslims — For Now

How American Muslims modeled the right response to systematic injustice.