What do you call a 21st century Buddhist?

January 9, 2015

I’m not a Buddhist scholar, priest, or monk. I don’t carry a card in my wallet identifying me as a Buddhist. On the other hand, I’ve been meditating nearly daily for over half a dozen years and I regularly pay membership dues to a local zen meditation center. My family certainly thinks that I’m a Buddhist (I’m not going bowling when I leave the house with my meditation bench under my arm) so why am I so reluctant to identify as such?

No doubt some of my ambivalence is that I have a problem with group labels. For most of my adult life, any stranger who asked, “Are you Jewish?,” would have elicited a quick mental check, “Who wants to know? Why?”

My childhood in the 50’s and 60’s was a product of the Hand-wringing Decades following WWII. Were American Jews lucky? Could it happen here? You can ask someone of my generation, “Are you Jewish?,” but chances are you won’t realize how laden that question is. Who wants to know? Why?

So, given my sensitivity to labels, I’m naturally cautious about the Buddhist brand too.

Some of my caution also comes from the fact that there are so many specialties to choose from. Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land, Shingon, or Theravadan?

When one of my daughters wanted to study Buddhism in high school (this predated my own interest by several years), I took her aside and warned her, “Honey, they have a lot of crazy ideas, like reincarnation and suffering. Look out, ok?”

I’ve learned a lot since then. The Buddha’s teachings on suffering now make a lot of sense to me and I try to put them into practice every day. Reincarnation/rebirth, on the other hand, still looks like a straight line to the loony bin. Is the cost-of-identifying-as-Buddhist that I accept the notion that my … soul??? … will wander the Earth after I die in search of another human fetus in which to implant itself? (Assuming, of course, that I get reborn as a human. I might wind up a hungry ghost, or a god, or an insect larva.) If I must believe in reincarnation/rebirth in these terms, then, no, I am definitely not a Buddhist.

I’m not sure where that leaves me exactly. Not all modern teachings are wedded to Asian religious traditions. Several years ago I read Stephen Batchelor’s, Buddhism without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening and thought, “This makes a lot of sense.” (I actually wrote a short email of thanks to Mr. Batchelor and he was kind enough to send a prompt reply.) Then, when Confession of a Buddhist Atheist was published a few years ago, I immediately read that. Here was information about the Buddha’s life that revealed the great teacher, the great life, the great vision, that was more-or-less free of mythology.

I do not appear to be alone. There is a group that calls itself the Secular Buddhist Association that has adopted many of Mr. Batchelor’s ideas. They describe their organization and practice as, “A natural, pragmatic approach to early Buddhist teachings and practice.”

While the Batchelor/SBA approach seems wedded to certain philosophical views, other modernists have focused more on the updating of meditation practice. Shinzen Young has created an approach to meditation practice that is expressed entirely in modern language, and Jason Siff has created a form of meditation that sets aside many of the standard instructions used in Buddhist traditions. I have practiced both forms of meditation and found them beneficial (and this has created its own confusion).

Where do all of these modern innovations leave me? Am I comfortable calling myself a zen student? A zen center is where I practice and where I find most of my support. Would I prefer to be known as a secular Buddhist? When I go deep into the Buddha’s teachings, this is where I find bedrock that I can stand on. Or should I wriggle free of the Buddhist label entirely and simply call myself a practitioner of meditation? This might solve the affiliation problems, but it might also throw out the genuine, rich, deep, beneficial insights that I have gained from the Buddha’s teachings (never mind what avenue they have traveled to reach me). Understanding suffering, understanding the three poisons, understanding the three hallmarks of existence – these have become important practices, important aspects of living.

My uncertainty with religious labels may be a distinctly modern problem. The January 4, 2015 issue of the BCBS Insight Journal contains an article, “A Philosophical Assessment of Secular Buddhism,” By Prof. Dale S. Wright. I highly recommend it to anyone who is struggling with questions like the ones raised above, especially if one has been drawn towards the SBA label. Some excerpts with my introductions,

Despite spending many years practicing Buddhist meditation, he writes, “whenever I’m tempted to do anything that looks traditionally Buddhist, I begin to feel like an imposter, someone posing as what he can’t possibly be.” …

At the same time, he says that religion is not optional, “the religious dimension of human culture is no more optional than politics or an economy.” … “That our religious inclinations will differ substantially from those in the past doesn’t lift us out of the domain of religion, given an appropriately comprehensive and historically astute understanding of religion. Things change, and that must include the religious dimension in which we face up to the “great matter” of the meaning of life and death.” …

According to him, belief is not an option either, but the nature or content of belief is malleable, “As contemporary people, we can only believe what we think to be true, and some ideas that we have inherited from traditional cultures like a theistic supreme being or the reincarnation of the soul are largely implausible in our time, for many of us, not even serious candidates for belief.” …

As an example of the inevitable burden of belief, Wright points to some of the ennobling beliefs embedded in Batchelor’s Buddhism, “… that form of Buddhism is based on beliefs that life is best practiced in openness, without clinging, and that in our time ‘awakening’ is best characterized as a process of opening, release, or letting go.” …

But, rather than get bogged down arguing about reincarnation/rebirth, something that Wright rightly claims many of us can’t accept, he suggests that we just move on. “That, it seems to me, is our historical assignment, our calling: to affirm the religious dimension of human life by re-envisioning and reformulating spiritual sensibilities at the cutting edge of contemporary thought, practice, and experience.” … “the most interesting and most revolutionary contribution we can make is to envision and cultivate a contemporary religious sensibility grounded in the long non-theistic tradition of Buddhist thinking and praxis that is fully in accord with the forms of suffering and the possibilities for awakening now becoming available in our time.” … “The quality and depth of what we care about defines who we are and shapes our culture.


One Response to “What do you call a 21st century Buddhist?”

  1. What I love about buddhism is it is not a set of rules.
    Buddhism teaches you to find the answers within yourself. You chose what you believe.
    Zen particularly is the simplest form I have found and what I choose.
    Meditation, consciousness and me.

    Don’t get caught up in definitions it’s what you define for yourself.


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