Friday, December 3, 2010

Do You Have to "Do" Anything Specific to be a Buddhist?

Scott, over at the buddha is my dj, made a rare, but appreciated appearance in the form of a new post today. Having just listened to the Buddhist Geeks interview with Michael Trigilo about his new film "Bodhisattva, Superstar" two days ago, it was cool to discover Scott's reflection on the movie so quickly after.

Amongst his points, this one struck me:

Most of us know folks who are nominally Catholic — they’re the ones who only go to church on Easter or Christmas. Ask them about transubstantiation and they’ll likely tilt their heads and, at most, mutter something incoherent before changing the subject. Most of us probably know (or are at least familiar with the concept of) secular Jews — folks who are Jewish by birth and maybe they feel some strange familial pressure to have their sons circumcised but they have no qualms about eating bacon. Do they believe in God? Meh. It’s not really an issue. For some reason, these nominally religious folks are given a pass. We’re familiar with them and we don’t press them too much about their religious or spiritual lives.

But in many a Buddhist quarter, as soon as you announce to a crowded room that you are, in fact, “a Buddhist,” invariably the first question someone’s going to ask you is some form of the “do you practice?” question which almost always translates to “do you meditate?” And if, god forbid, you say no, you’re likely to suffer the stigma of not really being a Buddhist.

In the post, Scott writes about how he views his scholarly work on Buddhism as a form of practice, but that he also feels that it isn't sufficient to just do that. But he also questions the mindset that says you must meditate to be Buddhist, which he felt the movie implied is the case.

It might be helpful to note that Scott is a Shin Buddhist, a tradition that really hasn't emphasized sitting and walking forms of meditation.

As I have been bumping up against the question of "what is lay practice?," I find Scott's comments quite fascinating, in part because there are a lot of probably fruitless arguments going on in convert circles about what Buddhism is, and isn't. Everything from searching for an "essential core" of teachings to whether it's a religion or not.

But most of the converts, myself included, reside in traditions that emphasize meditation, and view doing it a lot as essential. I don't think that's a problem necessarily, and certainly I, myself, meditate a fair amount. However, it's not the only way. And my own experimenting, and the sometimes interesting reactions I get to it, show that it's kind of easy to get hung up on forms, forgetting that forms are skillful means that may or may not fit the situation at hand.


David said...

Unfortunately, for a few folks, some form of spiritual practice is the only way for Buddhists. That’s the core and that’s what the Buddha taught. In the Buddha’s day, they didn’t have any books to study, online sanghas, blogs or any of the other things people use today as an excuse for avoiding doing the hard, nitty-gritty work of becoming mindful and transcending suffering. It may suck, but that’s the way it is. There is no Buddhism without some form of meditation practice.

peter said...
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Nathan said...

peter said...

As always, nathan, you make me think about what it is that i "do." Right up front, I don't sit as often and as religiously as i should. four hours a week is the norm, plus retreats. not what we used to call a "good monk."

But I do (have a) practice: * keeping an almost daily blog to document how the dharma permeates my lived experience; * hosting a sitting group 3 times/week in my home and at a seniors care centre; * one-on-one conversations with people seeking guidance on living meaningful lives; * volunteering in cancer care and end-of-life settings; * etc.

There many ways, as Rumi tells us, to kneel and kiss the ground.

Nathan said...
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Nathan said...


In saying what you have said, it's a quick leap to make the leap towards dismissing all the Buddhist traditions that focus on chanting, or beneficial works, or something else.

I do zazen. I even enjoy it some of the time. And I have no desire to stop doing it.

But just because I do it and someone else doesn't - that really doesn't mean anything.

I think Scott's post, and my additions to it, are basically about rattling the cage of knowing here. The longer I practice, the more ways I see in which to bring the teachings to life.

At the same time, when I hear people say "it's all practice," that feels kind of like a cop out.

This post is mostly a "don't be so damned sure of yourself" kind of post. Some of us, myself included, gotta loosen up, do or not do what we learned, and stop believing that we know what's the "core" of Buddhism, or "the best way" to practice is, or even exactly what Buddha did.

Algernon said...

This is a good "don't check" post. So many of us make "Buddhism" special and start defending our own idea of what defines "Buddhism" forgetting that our true substance is nothing that a suffix like "ism" can hold onto.

I have a vivid memory of being at a Zen Center overhearing some vinaya monks talking. They were Americans who had taken vows, shaved their heads, and wore Korean clothes. They were talking about how their life was the only way to "really practice Zen." And at that point, I fell out of love with Zen and Buddhism. Pop. Just like that.

And yet I kept practicing. Something about it isn't a choice, so I do that and let go of the rest of it.

David said...

I'm not dismissing anything which is why I said "some form of spiritual practice," so that it would be very broad.

Practice is not everything, but at the same time, those who think it's not that important, or it can be dismissed in favor of study or some online activity, I think need to take a second look at what Buddhism is really about.

I'm not suggesting that is what you and the other guy are saying. I'm just making a general comment.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

To me Buddhism is an intention, not the result or action. An intention to lead a good life of virtue, intention to meditate, intention to be mindful, intention to be kind, intention to be honest. To measure it by this action or lack of action I don't think it fruitful. It's what you carry in your heart.


Nathan said...

David, I think you have a valid point that there are probably some people, whether online or just in the "regular world," who are enamored with talking about Buddhist ideas, but who don't go beyond that. No doubt, there's a fair amount of garbage talk and writing about Buddhism online. Although I feel blogging is a part of my practice, it's definitely only a part of it.

Algernon, I heard similar comments back when we had a different head teacher at our zen center. It felt very silly to me that folks like us, who had such a short history with this tradition, could somehow have already found THE best way to practice, and could now tell others how to do it.

Dean, intention - yes, to me, having loving intentions about all of life allow whatever we need to do to spring forth.

Kyle said...

@David - While I agree many folks may avoid some form of practice and still call themselves Buddhists, when you say "There is no Buddhism without some form of meditation practice" I can't help but feel a bit Zen about this and say, "Was there any 'Buddhism' to begin with?"

I shudder when I hear some point and question is something or someone, or more importantly others actions "Buddhist" enough.

wayfarer said...

For me Buddhism is an adjective more than a noun. So one is 'Buddhist', not *a* buddhist. It is a way of practise and a way of life. The very fact that it demands action, commitment, and execution is what makes it different to religion in the normal sense. There are some respects in which my practise has been less than optimal, not very committed. The consequences of that are lack of maturity, and 'going around in circles' (which is samsara.)

But, while there's life, there's hope.