Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.
Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? How would he combine Buddhism and dating? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.
Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and Lodro will probably get to it!
My ex-husband insists
that I cannot call myself Buddhist since I do not meditate daily and am
not part of a sangha. Are there any particular requirements to identify
oneself as a Buddhist? Personally, I think he is waaaaay to hung up on labels — one reason he’s my ex. Thanks, Mona
I think if Sid ran into you and you mentioned something like this he might get a little pissed off at your ex. He would probably agree with you and say, “Why do you have to label yourself at all?” Sid wasn’t a Buddhist. Even when he became enlightened he did not exclaim “Now I’m a Buddhist!” He said he was a Buddha. At no point thereafter did he turn to his followers and say, “I want you to make a religious movement based off of my identity. Call yourself “Awakened-one-ists.”
Yes people practice following the Buddha’s example. He’s a hell of a role model. Still, instead of weighing in on what it takes to be a Buddhist I bet Sid would just encourage your meditation practice, mention that it is helpful to have spiritual friends with whom you can discuss your practice, and tell you to call yourself whatever you like.
I’m not Sid so I’m gonna go more in-depth since this raises a larger question, namely “What would make for a ‘good Buddhist?’ ” Would it be going to lots of Buddhist temples? Knowing all the sutras by heart? Having hundreds of Buddhist meditation practices? I don’t think so. Without further ado here is my top seven list of things that would make you a good Buddhist (I couldn’t think of ten, sue me):
The top seven things to do if you’re going to call yourself a good Buddhist even though I highly recommend avoiding the label entirely
1) Have a connection to mindfulness-awareness practice
It’s hard to call yourself a Buddhist if you aren’t even working with your mind. So it’s important to learn shamatha meditation, visualization practices and so on from skilled and authorized teachers within a Buddhist lineage
2) Seek enlightenment/further awakening
What’s the point in having a meditation practice if you’re not trying to change at all? In my experience when people came to the meditation center I used to direct they weren’t yet seeking enlightenment; they were seeking a way to work with their mind to reduce their own suffering. I think any motivation in between wanting to be less mired in confusion and ultimate awakening is damn fine since it’s based in a desire to better oneself.
3) Learn something
Study. Study a lot. Read a dharma book. Go receive instruction from great teachers (I’m inclined to plug Kilung Rinpoche‘s upcoming visit to the New York Shambhala Center). Listen to a podcast. Watch a video. But meditation without study is like riding a bicycle with one wheel – you’re not going to get very far. I am always impressed by the greatest meditation masters who just exude wisdom and compassion. They continue to study every day. As the great scholar Sakya Pandita said, “Even if you are going to die tomorrow you can still learn something tonight.”
4) Learn from fellow practitioners
Just because they’re not enlightened doesn’t mean you can’t learn from a sangha. Personally speaking I’ve found it essential to have fellow travelers on the path to discuss my experience of meditation practice, to debate philosophical topics, and to call me on my shit. I talked about that in more depth in this post.
5) Don’t cause harm
Nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try. It does take time and care though. So often even the most seemingly harmless comments can cause negativity in the minds of those around us. The more we become mindful of our words and actions the less we find ourselves creating harm in the world.
6) Do some good for the world
Sid could have sat under the bodhi tree content to believe that none of us jerks would really be able to understand his teachings. Instead he got up and went about trying to lead everyone he encountered towards awakening. Granted we’re not yet buddhas but beyond trying not to f things up in the world around us we can try to plant some positive seeds. While a bit corny I think even just smiling at someone who looks like they’re going through hell has a ripple effect not unlike that of a butterfly’s wings leading to a tsunami.
7) Last but not least, consider meditation practice practice for our life
It is wonderful to sit on a cushion for a period of time each day or week. However, it doesn’t really mean anything unless we consider that we call it practice because we are training ourselves for the 23 1/2 hours of our day when we are not meditating. We can do any number of outwardly spiritual things to show the world how holy we are but if we do not take the teachings on wisdom and compassion to heart then we’re just spouting confusion under the label of Buddhism. And that’s dumb.
I remember when I was a beginning practitioner I went on a long drive with my mother, someone who had at that point been practicing meditation for over twenty years. She was speaking negatively about someone and, once frustrated, I turned to her and exclaimed, “How can you say that and still call yourself a Buddhist?” I feel quite foolish looking back on that incident. I know many Buddhists who are much sloppier with their speech, who drink forties for breakfast, who will try to fuck anything that moves. Still, I would never deny them the right to call themselves Buddhist because their primary motivation is not to give in to negative habits but to wake up from them.
The Buddhist path is that of change through working with your own mind and heart. It seems you’re into that Mona, so feel free to call yourself whatever you like. The important thing in my mind, and I imagine Sid would agree, is that you are trying to wake up.