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Thread: What does it mean to be Buddhist?

  1. #1

    What does it mean to be Buddhist?

    Kyonin posted a thread on "Buddhism in the Internet Age" (post here: ) that included one item I have had a question about for a while. I didn’t want to coopt his thread with this one issue, so thought I would post it here.

    The article mentioned “Buddhism Unbundled” and how people are picking and choosing aspects of Buddhism. I’ve heard the line from the Dalai Lama where he says, "If you find what I say helpful, take it to heart. If you do not, throw it out the window."

    Yet I also recognize that if I start picking and choosing certain parts of Buddhism, accepting some and rejecting others, at a certain point it ceases being Buddhism and becomes instead “Sean-ism”.

    There is so much about Buddhism that resonates strongly and personally with me: The default to compassion; everyone possessing a Buddha-nature; sitting has become an essential act for me.

    But I have a hard time with other parts, particularly the mystical elements: reincarnation, hungry ghosts, etc. As metaphors, I am fine with them. But literal truth?

    I am not sure how to ask the question, and don’t expect some bright line rule as an answer, but essentially what does it mean to be Buddhist? Thanks

    Last edited by PlatosGhost; 08-08-2015 at 02:02 PM.

  2. #2
    But I have a hard time with other parts, particularly the mystical elements: reincarnation, hungry ghosts, etc. As metaphors, I am fine with them. But literal truth?
    I never bought into the idea of reincarnation, nor did the Buddha from my understanding. Reincarnation is usually meant in terms of transmigration, or the transfer of the self or soul from one life to another. Rebirth is more a transfer of energy.. Or my simple way of saying it, cause and effect. Things are done in this life that have the potential to carry on for years after my bones turn to dust. Every moment I am reborn from a previous moment which caused it. When death comes, what dies if there is no I? When the effects of my actions continue after I die, where did "I" go?

    As for hungry ghost and the like, there is that potential for each in every moment that the "I" is reborn. Action leading to higher or lower states.

    That is the only thing in this I really have a response for.

    If you follow the practice of a Buddhist, I suppose that is buddhist. There is suffering. There is a path that I feel can end that suffering. Those that subscribe to that, are in my book Buddhist if they chose to call themselves that.

    Edited to add:
    I don't see anything wrong in the evolution of Buddhism because I don't really view it as a strict core of belief, just as a range of diolog between fellow travelers. I have faith in what I have experienced. The path has proven itself, so I continue to stumble down it. All the fluff may or may not be needed for some. I have yet to see any large changes in Buddhism's core teachings.

    There is a 50/50 chance for all things, a 100% chance I'll fall down plenty.

    Brooks sat today.
    Last edited by broahes; 08-08-2015 at 05:51 AM.
    "The victorious ones have said that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. For whomever emptiness is a view, that one has achieved nothing." - Nagarjuna

  3. #3
    Hi Sean,

    I think that to be Buddhist means knowing that Buddhism has no meaning.

    Gasho, Jishin, _/st\_

  4. #4

    The finger, and the moon.

    Buddhism can lead to the path.

    'Nuff said.

    Myosha sat today
    Last edited by Myosha; 08-08-2015 at 08:10 AM.
    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by PlatosGhost View Post
    ... I am not sure how to ask the question, and don’t expect some bright line rule as an answer, but essentially what does it mean to be Buddhist? Thanks

    Hi Sean,

    Ah, chewy question. Here’s what it means to me:

    ‘My’ experience of this world, this life, this universe, is, for lack of better words, one of Wholeness, Oneness, Interbeing, Emptiness. Soto Zen Buddhism describes this experience (almost) perfectly. The wisdom and beauty of the Dharma fills this heart, gives comfort, and feels like home. So I guess I’m a Buddhist, through direct experience.

    The Four Noble Truths ring true to me, make sense, and work beautifully as a framework and guiding principles for an ethical, compassionate, well-lived and well-utilized life. So I guess I’m a Buddhist, in this philosophy of action.

    Shikantaza, to me, is not meditation. It’s not a method. It’s not a path. It is an absolute moment/eternity/state/expression of abiding such-ness, thus-ness, is-ness. This abiding is a point of reference for my body and mind, and beyond body/mind. So I guess I’m a Buddhist, engaging this practice.

    That’s ‘my’ personal experience. But if you’re asking, "what is the bare essential minimum that makes someone a Buddhist?" I’m new and probably shouldn’t even attempt to answer, but I’ll play:

    Acknowledge suffering, realize the source of suffering, act to reduce suffering. All the rest is optional.


    Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.

    sat today
    Last edited by Byokan; 08-08-2015 at 10:46 AM.

  6. #6
    Hi Sean. The ABC's of Buddhism (explained here in Jundo's Buddha Basics) were deeply familiar when first encountered. The Buddha's approach was a natural for me. The history and traditions, the style of thinking, felt natural. To me it is transcendent common sense, and the practice of living wisely, or making the effort to live wisely. Last night I was called away from zazen (arrived late as it was) to talk with my son over some trouble a relative was having. We were talking about how we make our world, and how we have to be what we want our world to be. Those are the values and the understanding that the Buddhadharma has brought into to our home. Having said that, sitting zazen, or reciting the Heart Sutra, is so normal around here is not "Buddhist", it is just part of daily life.


    sat today
    Last edited by RichardH; 08-08-2015 at 12:09 PM.

  7. #7
    Treeleaf Unsui Shugen's Avatar
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    Redding California USA
    Wonderful answers! And a question that should be asked throughout practice. "Essentially what does it mean to be Buddhist?"

    Deep Bows,


    Sent from my iPhone using Tapatalk
    Meido Shugen
    明道 修眼

  8. #8
    The following is a personal answer (I am not the last word on this. Not even the Buddha should be the last word on what it means to be Buddhist!)

    I am "Buddhist" simply in that I seek to learn from and put into Practice Buddhist Teachings. which I have trust in.

    What about "mixing and matching. picking and choosing" aspects on the Teachings for "Buddhism Unbundled"? Just be careful what is mixed and matched. In this sense, it is not unlike fine cooking and dining ... and depends on the particular ingredients chosen and what mixture. Not everything goes together. One must pick and choose from the spiritual menu well, not just head right for the desert section while neglecting the vegetables that are not as sweet on your tongue. Also, bananas are lovely and ketchup is lovely, but a little strange to mix for most (although, last time I said that, Kyonin pointed out once, some folks do! It is just that the flavors just need to be blended carefully) ...

    I fear that, these days, we live in a world of "fast food" cafeteria Buddhism and spirituality, where people head for the stuff they want (high in spiritual sugar and fat), not what they necessarily need ... demanding the fast "drive thru" in their busy day because they have no time or patience for a slow, nutritious cooked meal. People want instant gratification, as if Buddha were a bag of chips.

    One should pick the Path suited for one ... work with a teacher and community of fellow practitioners ... and GO DEEP! DEEP! MEASURELESSLY DEEP!

    Many Buddhist Paths are pretty much a complete path. One can mix and match, but needs to be careful. For example, when sitting Shikantaza, when on the cushion ... THAT IS ALL THERE IS, THAT IS ALL NEEDED, WHOLE AND COMPLETE! Of course, one can get up from the cushion of Shikantaza and do other things ... bow down to Mecca or pray to the Goddess Isis. But when on the cushion sitting Shikantaza, just sit Shikantaza ... one does not sit Shikantaza while contemplating Allah or praying to the Goddess.

    As to superstitious aspects of Buddhism, I just was interviewed for the "Secular Buddhist" podcast. It should be distributed in about 2 months, As a sneak peak on part of the discussion, I wrote this little essay describing my view ... here is a taste ...

    I wish to offer a new flavor of Buddhism which avoids both (1) what may be baseless myth, unfounded superstition, primitive magic and historical ignorance among traditional Buddhist practices, and (2) the opposite extreme of stripped down teachings and practices reduced to such a degree that the “baby Buddha” is thrown out with the bath water, whereby many worthwhile and challenging teachings and rituals are lost due to being wrongly limited or labeled as myth and magic. In fact, many ancient legends maintain great value and truth even if wholly or partly ahistorical fictions, many of our most potent and challenging teachings do not contradict or conflict whatsoever with modern and scientific understanding (in fact, many may be seen as supported by modern discoveries), and a long list of our most beautiful, ancient customs and practices have understandable value and meaning even in this day and age.

    I believe that it is possible to maintain beliefs that, as best we can, are freed of superstition. I demand that there be some credible evidence and basis … beyond rumor, anecdote, hearsay and supposition … to rely on claims and suppositions about reality which purport to be true. More is demanded than simple blind faith in the assertions of ancient books or ancestors, even the alleged words of the Buddha himself (even assuming his actual words can be known).


    "Religio-Secular Buddhism” means forms of practice that maintain the option of and place for certain seemingly "religious" elements of Buddhist Practice ... for example, the possibility of statues, robes, incense ... but only to the extent that each speaks to and has meaning for the practitioner, is seen to have value as a symbol or poetic expression of some greater truths, and serves as a reminder or focus encompassing teachings, thus embodying a pragmatic purpose to facilitate and enhance Buddhist Practice. For example, one might keep a painting, a statue or a ceremony not on the basis that there is some mysterious mystical power or claimed supernatural magic worked in the thing or act itself, but because such stands as a symbol for, reminder and celebration of tradition and the teachings so embodied (not unlike, for example, a national flag, song, historical legend and civic ritual standing for a democratic people, society and its imparted values). We might maintain incense, chanting or bowing simply for their role in creating a psychological state of removal from worldly concerns in a certain space and time through the olfactory, auditory or other physical senses. Hard to credit beliefs may be reinterpreted in ways which give modern relevance (such as the reinterpretation, common in the Zen world, of Siddhi mystical powers as encompassing the seemingly ordinary wonders of “offering a smile, drinking water, breathing”). One might maintain an old legend or ancient hero (even while recognizing that the story may have no legitimate historical foundation) as a reminder of valid teachings and imparted truths in the symbol.

    On the other hand, we can jettison other claims and beliefs as baseless. The practice of dharani and magic spells, belief in certain superhuman powers such as levitation and clairvoyance, faith in the literal truth of superhuman creatures such as Nagas and Hungry Ghosts, or very detailed views of the process of rebirth can all be left behind absent showing of some other valid role, reason or reliable proof. (For example, certain states such as those of “Hungry Ghosts” may be retained if reinterpreted and encountered for their psychological meaning, and certain views of “rebirth” can be presented which are perfectly harmonious with modern scientific understanding such as by asserting that we are each constantly “reborn” in each moment, for all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing. ... We might abandon or remain skeptically agnostic regarding detailed, mechanical views of post-mortem “karma” for lack of proof, yet uphold a general belief such as that “angry and violent actions tend to cause further anger and violence in the world, today and continuing long after our own lives” as a relevant and defensible ethical assertion.
    More on that when the podcast is published.

    Gassho, J

    Last edited by Jundo; 08-08-2015 at 05:28 PM.

  9. #9
    Hi Sean,

    I like this question a lot. Thanks for it. I'll echo what Daizan said about "transcendent common sense." Nice way of putting it, Daizan. The only thing I'll add is something about care. Sitting zazen and experiencing, even if momentarily, that wholeness on the zafu, leads to a life of care. Care for the little things we do during the day and for the ways we treat people and animals and care in our work and play. This is the meaning of the precepts (and maybe Buddhism in general) to me: great care for things and beings and oneself (none separate). Still, I don't act this way (or aspire to) because the precepts tell me to or because everything is one or interconnected or because of the philosophy of Buddhism. It's the other way around: because everything is one the natural way to be, practiced and experienced in zazen, is to be with great care. Reading his Not Always So recently, Shunryu Suzuki said something about how we don't sit on a zafu and try to end thoughts and be clear and pure - that's wrong practice. Just like sitting on a zafu and trying to experience wholeness or "true reality" or true Buddhism doesn't work. We sit on a zafu to take care of ourself and others (not two), to let our little concerns drop by taking care of the moment and letting the moment care for us, and when we practice in that way, then of its own accord there is wholeness and stillness.

    Also, what Jundo said. Looking forward to that podcast too, Jundo.


  10. #10
    This is wonderful. Simply wonderful. Thank you to all of you.

    With deep gratitude,

    Joyfully SatToday

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by alan.r View Post
    Care for the little things we do during the day and for the ways we treat people and animals and care in our work and play. This is the meaning of the precepts (and maybe Buddhism in general) to me: great care for things and beings and oneself (none separate).
    Thank you Sean and everyone, wonderful thread. =)



  12. #12
    To practice Buddhism the essential elements are zazen, Buddha, dharma and sangha. Buddha as the founder, role model, ultimate teacher and spiritual leader to buddhahood and enlightenment.
    Dharma as the teachings of the Buddha which lead you to see the nature of reality just as it is.
    Sangha as the people you practice with and live with.

    I believe that the first thing the Buddha taught was how to meditate. Everything else was to explain the why to motivate us.

    SAT today
    無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...

  13. #13
    Already great comments. To me, to be a "Buddhist" is to study and live by the teachings of Buddhism, live mindfully, gently, and with a kind, open-heart (just like many other religions teach). Sitting meditation of some sort is obviously a big part of Buddhist practice as well.

    I don't have any emphasis on those types of supernatural beliefs either, Sean. With all supernatural beliefs, from any religion, I just remain neutral, focusing on the here and now. They still hold some weight, as analogies and beautiful stories to learn from.

    sat today

  14. #14
    Member Getchi's Avatar
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    May 2015
    Between Sea and Sky, Australia.
    Wow, nice question and answers!

    My answers have all been given by other mouths, with special thanks to Jundo!

    One thing I would like to point out though, to me (and this is just an idea that others share quietly) Buddha only discovered and codified our inner most human "being", he did'nt invent or create anything. Samadhi, 4 noble truths, 8 fold path, buddha nature; ALL of these things are encoded in our DNA and shared across our species, and alot of it we have in common with other mammals.

    I tried several methods (flavours) of spirituality as well as many philosophies. The Shinkantaza method is, I believe, the only real answer to the existential problem of existence as most recently presented in western philosophy and literature, and the ideal partner to consumerist culture . Beyond the challenge of accepting that we just dont know, we are confronted with a challenge of acceptance. A friend of mine from the Yuin people described Dreamtime as being beside and with us all the time, but it is itself without time or form and is held in all ritual from dances to just watching the birds and waters. We can become that aspect, but are never limited to or by it. He is wiser then me i think.

    So to me, Buddhism is a code of behaviour, an exact mind-science and a path to wisdom. More precisely though, it is an attitude that holds all of those things, and wont let you comfortably lie to yourself about controlling the elements of the world. After all, we barely control our own thoughts, how so the clouds or ghosts?

    I am however, just a student with an opinion.

    Nothing to do? Why not Sit?

  15. #15
    Member FaithMoon's Avatar
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    Jul 2015
    Southern California
    To be a Buddhist means to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and to align one's actions with the precepts. It's a lifelong commitment

    I personally don't have trouble with the mystical part of Buddhism; I rather like it, but the value to me is that it opens things up. \\

    Best wishes,
    sat today

  16. #16
    Hi Sean,

    For me to be a Buddhist means to take refuge in the Triple Jewel and take the dharma as a framework to lead my life in order to be of service to others.

    The more I learn and practice, the more sense it all makes.

    And then I forget about it all and just sit and marvel in the fine complexity of the universe I form part of.


    Hondō Kyōnin
    奔道 協忍

  17. #17
    Thank you, everyone. I don't know what I could add...

    Gassho, sat today
    求道芸化 Kyūdō Geika
    I am just a priest-in-training, please do not take anything I say as a teaching.

  18. #18
    Treeleaf Priest / Engineer Sekishi's Avatar
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    Virginia, USA
    Thank you all for your wise words, I think there is much wisdom here.

    One point I would add, which I know sounds like corny semantics, but rings true for me: I am not a Buddhist, I practice the Buddha-way.

    At the level of the absolute, I hear tell that there is no "I" apart from everything else (so there is nobody to stick the label "Buddhist" on anyway). But I find that even at the level of the relative (where we spend our work-a-day lives) Buddhist practice is a "doing", not a "being".

    Of course I sometimes wonder about reincarnation, hungry ghosts, Buddha-nature, etc. Are they literal truth? Do I need to adopt some or all of these views to be a "real Buddhist"? If so, how many? If I throw them all out, is it Sekishiism?

    I don't know. I sit. I try my best to live by the precepts (IMPOSSIBLE!), transform all delusion and save all beings (IMPOSSIBLE?).

    I try to put down "being", and take up "doing" (which sometimes includes "doing nothing" in Shikantaza!).

    But I do not know anything, so take that with some big crunchy grains of Kosher rock salt.

    Sekishi | 石志 | He/him | Better with a grain of salt, but best ignored entirely.

  19. #19
    This has been a lovely thread and I enjoyed reading everyone's comments. Halfway through I thought I had really nothing to add other than thank you, but there there is an urge to add something here.

    Part of my lack of participation here lately has been a bit of an internal struggle with seeing myself as a "Buddhist" versus something entirely different. I personally have experienced things that many would consider "supernatural" and you could say of course that I didn't, or I have misinterpreted "reality" for my own delusion. Of course when my experiences reflect that which others in different cultures write about, or when I experience them together with other people, then the argument that I am self deluded begins to dissolve. However, this thread has really helped me see that it doesn't really matter, none of those things matter to the practice of being "buddhist". Whether one believes in re-incarnation, spirits, clairvoyance, and other kinds of phenomena really has no bearing on the actual practice and point of buddhist practice. Unless of course, inviting other worldly beings to sit also, suits your fancy. There really is so much more to live up to in the day to day practice of trying to be a GOOD buddhist.

    Sat Today
    Last edited by Ishin; 08-10-2015 at 03:12 AM.

  20. #20
    I don't want to get stuck on -isms. Just sit, do the best I can, be kind. I don't care about being a "proper Buddhist." Siddharta Gotama was no Buddhist.

    Kaishin (開心, Open Heart)
    Please take this layman's words with a grain of salt.

  21. #21
    Live as a bodhisattva.

    I can not be Buddha.Buddhism is not only religion but olso physics.

    Buddha realized such a truth in Zazen under tree.

    I have a experience that I sit Christianity people together.
    They can not sit only one minute.I feel that they are too much thinking about something.
    I feel that we can not enough to thinking of something like love.

    So I live as a bodhisattva,sit,pray,live,learn,make mistake,regret ,and just sit.

    This is my opinion at right now,because we are at emptiness.


    Please forgive me if I am at miss-understanding.
    I am English beginner
    Last edited by Kakunen; 08-11-2015 at 02:52 AM.

  22. #22
    Quote Originally Posted by Konan View Post
    This is my opinion at right now,because we are at emptiness.
    Yes! This is what I think too. But there is chaos we try to end with external things.

    The dharma is felt in the deep silence of zazen.


    Hondō Kyōnin
    奔道 協忍

  23. #23
    We are the knowledge.And Our being is still perfect.

    Do not learn! about Buddhism.
    This is the one important truth on our Sanga.

    My foolish brain is almost broken in my desire.
    This is the one of truth,I think

    Last edited by Kakunen; 08-11-2015 at 11:54 AM.

  24. #24
    Another tremendous thread. I am very grateful for everyone’s thoughts.

    It would be unreasonable to try to write out everything I am thinking, so just a few comments.

    The question I had arose directly from conversation I had with a prominent Tibetan Buddhist nun. She was quiet critical of picking and choosing aspects of Buddhism. Because of her position within Buddhism, I took her concerns very seriously. (And so I should have) However, some of the notes in this thread remind me that nuns and priests are people too. They may have received transmission of the dharma, and be experts and leaders in their field, and yet still have very different opinions about what particular teachings mean, or what it means to be a Buddhist.

    The answer I am getting through your notes seems to rest in living the teachings. I had a sense of this all along (funny how that happens) I can err on the side of kindness and compassion, recognize that purity at the core of others, etc., But I can’t live the esoteric stuff anyway - so it does not matter whether I believe those things, accept them as metaphor, or treat them as remnants of another time and place. The way one lives, in accordance with the core tenants, is the most important part.

    The same, I think, goes for any faith tradition. What does it mean to be a Christian? A Muslim? A Jew? So many people show up on church every Sunday, check a particular denomination on census surveys, and don’t come close to living in accordance with the core teachings of their faith. But to quote another bodhisattva, forgive them fore they know not what they do.

    Thank you, deeply, to everyone. I don’t think I’ll be done asking this question for a long time.


  25. #25
    I hear you Sean. I had a pretty unusual religious upbringing that had me asking those very questions a long time ago. My mom is a devout Catholic and my Dad is a devout atheist. This has never been an issue in my family. I had three great aunts who all lived together unmarried and went by their non-Christian names (Pixie, Mimi, and Boo) and claimed to be a witch coven. More of a bibbity bobbity boo kinda witches, and for all I know they just made that up rather than a formal practice. Real neat to grow up with as a kid, though I've wondered as an adult if this was their way of dealing with "alternative" lifestyles that weren't so acceptable from their time and place. When I was 6 and in Sunday school the subject of Hell came up and I was a little concerned for my Dad. I asked my Mom if Pop would be okay when he died and she said, "Why wouldn't he be? He's a good person." My sense of spirituality has always been rooted in actions rather than belief. I suppose it's easier to be a Christian or a Jew than a Buddhist because Buddhism requires one to do something rather than just identify as one and maintain faith. I've long held faith in Buddhist teaching, but until I started regular practice I wouldn't say I was a Buddhist at all.


    Sat Today

  26. #26
    What you do is most important.

    SAT today
    無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...

  27. #27
    Quote Originally Posted by Rich View Post
    What you do is most important.

    SAT today


    Yes, in my humble opinion, ACTION is what its about.
    And not just what you do.

    Life is our temple and its all good practice

  28. #28
    Quote Originally Posted by Fugen View Post

    And not just what you do.


    sat today

  29. #29
    Called upon his name.

    Thank you for your vigilance in all actions.
    Deep bows,

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