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What it Means to be a Buddhist

Anam Thubten Rinpoche

As citizens of Earth, we have layers of identity that make us unique from those around us as well as affiliating us with certain groups. Religion usually plays an important role in forging our personal identity. In developed countries, you don’t necessarily have to subscribe to a particular organized religion, although the same is not true in countries where theocratic governments demand that their citizens pledge allegiance to a particular faith. Moreover, the law in these societies doesn’t permit people to convert from one religion to another—such governments often have a declared state religion that allows adherents from other traditions to join, but not the other way around.

Then there is Buddhism, which is in many respects a unique tradition. Some practitioners do not regard it as a religion, but more as a way of life,  a journey to inner awakening founded by the Buddha. Many contemporary Buddhists will say that Buddhism is more Dharma than religion. Obviously, Buddhism in the West is evolving as a spiritual path that is non-dogmatic and values the internal development of love and wisdom over doctrine. This is a trend that is also beginning to emerge in Asia. It is simply a matter of time before it becomes more widespread.

There are now millions and millions of people across the world who identify as Buddhists. For many of them it is because they were born into a culture that itself identifies as Buddhist, although this does not mean that they automatically understand the depth of the Buddha’s teachings. Identifying as a Buddhist is a tricky business when one does not truly understand what Buddhism is. It must be more than worshiping statues, or visiting temples on holy occasions or when one seeks divine intervention in the midst of a personal catastrophe such as losing a loved one, falling ill, or encountering a serious mishap.

In the purest sense, to be a Buddhist means to be someone who follows the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, such as the Noble Eightfold Path. Some might say that taking the vow of refuge is a bona fide initiation that renders someone a Buddhist overnight. This makes the process sound quite simple. Usually, performing a refuge ceremony can be done in less than half an hour, but is the ceremonial repeating of the vows after a Dharma teacher and receiving a symbolic haircut sufficient for someone to be transformed into a new Buddhist? Most ordinations in the Buddhist tradition require preparatory steps before one can even become a candidate. And there must be proper intention and right understanding about the path that one is preparing to embark upon. Merely participating in such an initiation ceremony is not the complete rite of passage to becoming a true student of the Buddha.

There is also the danger of turning Buddhism into an “ethnic” religion—when someone becomes a Buddhist by the sheer merit of being born in a Buddhist country or culture. Buddhism is not an ethnic religion; the Buddha himself stated that caste and race are irrelevant in his sangha, or holy community. For him, what matters most is understanding the Dharma that he discovered. During his lifetime, the Buddha welcomed men, women, Brahmins, and “untouchables,” transcending all of these divisions in the world of his Dharma. This all-embracing spirit resonates with many people still considered “untouchables” in today’s India. When the celebrated Indian scholar, activist, and social reformer Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) was searching for a new spiritual tradition for himself and his fellow Dalits, in the end he found that Buddhism was the most appealing because its egalitarian philosophy would accept his people no matter their race or caste.


As Buddhists, we should not turn this identity into a barricade that separates us from so-called non-Buddhists. Instead, we can adopt this identity as a way of reminding ourselves that we are studying and practicing the teachings of the Buddha. Then we will be able to feel unity with the rest of humanity, while remaining deeply committed to the Buddhadharma. Humanity is confronting many issues that no single country or group of people can deal with, such as rampant poverty, ecological crises, sectarian violence, and many more. I feel that this is an important time for all of us to make our best effort not to divide humanity, but to bring everyone together.

Our identities are not as permanent as they might seem. They can be constructed and deconstructed as we go through changes over the course of our lives. A friend of mine has a daughter who decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. I met her a few years ago when she told her parents about her desire to become a man. Very recently, I met the same person again, except this time I related to her as him. Not only that, he took the vow of refuge from me. He now has this colorful identity in the eyes of the public, something like a transgender Buddhist dude. Similarly, in the United States, there are many Jews who choose to become Buddhists, some of whom refer to themselves as a “Jewbu.” There is a humor in it; it shows that our identities are not fixed like letters carved in stone. They have fluidity if we have the willingness to play with them and not to become too attached.

If the Buddha were alive today, what would he call himself? This question can be a koan and if you contemplate it long enough, you might lose lots of the identity that you’re holding onto right now. In short, we must treat the identity of being a Buddhist as sacred and use it with a deep understanding of what it entails. There is a dimension of reality in which we cannot be easily be placed into a pigeonhole of identity and the Buddha invited us to journey into that dimension unconditioned, unmade, and unbecome. This is a realm in which we transcend the day-to-day notions of identity and are in touch with our unborn nature.

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