What does it mean to not be Buddhist?

This past summer I visited my main spiritual teacher, and he naturally inquired how my practice has developed since we last met three years ago. When I first met my teacher, I told him that I was Buddhist, and he asked me what that meant. I was still active in a college Buddhist association, and for me that was the chief example of what it meant to be Buddhist. I was Buddhist because I was in a Buddhist club.

My perspective on Buddhism has almost entirely been framed by my American upbringing, whether I like it or not. I classify Buddhism as a religion, on par with Judaism and Christianity (among many others). I call myself “Buddhist”, and I wear a symbol of my faith around my neck and wrist. I even use it as an excuse to avoid drinking (“It’s against my religion”) or to justify my behavior (“I’m Buddhist, I don’t kill bugs”).

But I recently stumbled across an interview with SN Goenka, a famous teacher of vipassana meditation, where he says, “I don’t teach Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist.”

He goes on to say:

In the entire words of Buddha and in the commentaries, the word boddh—the equivalent of “Buddhist”—is missing. Buddha taught only dhamma. Dhamma means the law of nature, truth. Those who follow that are called dhammiko. If Buddha never made anybody a Buddhist, who am I to make someone a Buddhist? If Buddha didn’t teach Buddhism, who am I to teach Buddhism? Buddha taught dhamma; I am teaching dhamma. Buddha made people dhammiko; I am making people dhammiko.

So what does it mean to not be Buddhist? (I know, I split my infinitives.)

In a recent DharmaRealm podcast, the presenters mention that one becomes Buddhist by taking the Three Refuges. In addition to this, many Buddhists often believe that lay followers should at least follow the Five Precepts. By all means, these measures would include SN Goenka, as anyone who has attended his retreats can attest. So how is he not Buddhist?

Well, SN Goenka is certainly not Buddhist in the way that I am.

For many heritage Buddhists who grow up in America, being Buddhist means not being Christian (or Jewish or Muslim etc.). There is a strong team-spirited sense to religion in America. In the game of religion, you have to either choose a team or watch from the bleachers. So by this token, not being Buddhist means that either you’ve chosen another team, or you’re not involved in the game at all. The latter choice is the path of many Americans who grew up in Buddhist families, but who refuse to call themselves Buddhist.

I can’t speak for Goenka himself, but I imagine that his rejection of “Buddhism” is not just an issue of semantics. He is not substituting “Buddha Dharma” for “Buddhism”. He is neither taking sides nor sitting on the bleachers — he just isn’t playing the religion game. He is simply living life and following the Dharma.

It’s taken me a bit of time to swallow this perspective on being “not Buddhist”. My Buddhist identity is filled with so many symbols and institutions from as far back as I can remember. It feels as though if I were to renounce Buddhism and simply call myself a dhammika, then I would be renouncing the community I was raised in. At the same time, I am always impressed by people who live their lives based on what is right, what they know is true, not simply because they are following some well-trodden path.

In the past three years, I told my teacher, I’ve gone to graduate school and then into the workforce. I now have few direct ties to the old college Buddhist associations. This distance has brought me to focus on my practice more than my identity. The label “Buddhist” is less important to me than the quality of my actions. I don’t follow the Five Precepts because I’m Buddhist. I follow them because they help me interact with the world more skillfully, and they form the foundation of my meditation practice.

One of my teacher’s attendants turned to me and smiled, “Now you are a real Buddhist!”

But maybe that’s not what I’m trying to be.

(Note: this was inspired by a previous post by John on Gandhi.)

6 comments

  1. Anna says:

    People following the Path from inner sight and inner aspiration deserve admiration.

    As I understand, many of those calling themselves Buddhist in America, are not developing practice and meditation skills?

    In my country we don’t have Buddhist immigrants/large community and the picture is different – to become Buddhist you have to take Refuge by visiting a Teacher (make an effort, think it over, be more or less aware of your doings).

    I’m dedicated to Goenka since my first Vipassana course (his evening stories were so salutary after the day of meditation..)

    Thank you for posting, good luck on your Path 🙂

  2. Oz says:

    I rather like what S.N. Goenka says about teaching dhamma and being dhamma practitioners. The “B” word, like any other name is a convenient label, as you’ve demonstrated as a shield against drinking suggestions. Covers however are no excuse for path cultivation.

    If we are among genuine path walkers who call themselves Buddhists, then we are in good company =) If they call themselves by something else, just as good.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. anon says:

    Quote: “I’m dedicated to Goenka since my first Vipassana course..”
    Well if Goenka heard that he’d tell you to be dedicated to dhamma rather than any one teacher 😉

  4. D Yau says:

    You have to understand Buddhism in its entirety in order to realize the fatal flaws in Goenka’s teachings. And I didn’t use the word fatal lightly.

    I don’t doubt his good intentions and I have nothing against him personally. I’m a biochemistry major, a businessman, and I have been teaching non-sectarian Buddhist Philosophy part-time for 16 years. So, I do know a little about scientific methodology (he claims vipassana is pure science, which is not), I can also spot a “used car salesman’s technique” when I see one (he said he doesn’t condemn other sects, but his is the “ONLY” Buddha’s “PURE” teachings), and, having had some research writing training at university, I did find many discrepancies, logical errors (e.g.circular argument), and blatant misquotations (selective cut and paste) in his teachings.

    Just because many people benefited from his program doesn’t immunize him from being scrutinized for his teaching’s validity. I do respect him for his contribution to the well-being of many individuals, Buddhist or not. However, the irony is that his great influence is also what concerns me (and other Theravada Dhamma teachers) most, because many — too many — unsuspecting Buddhists took to heart that his teachings are the “one and only” original teachings of the Buddha.

    Thank you all kindly for your attention.

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