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Are you a Buddhist? I don’t know. You tell me.

May 1, 2023   |   15 Comments

Dear Open Heart Project,

How do you know if you’re Buddhist?

I knew I was a Buddhist the moment I read a book by Chogyam Trungpa called The Heart of the Buddha. This is how I already think, only I didn’t know it, I said to myself. I must be a Buddhist. From that moment, the fates conspired to place me firmly on the path. I found an amazing meditation instructor and immediately saw my life begin to change, even out, take shape. Rarely has anything in my life been so clear-cut.

After about six months of practice, I asked my meditation teacher what steps one takes to formally become a Buddhist. He told me that it’s called “taking refuge”. You take refuge in three things: The Buddha (the enlightened one, but also in the fact of enlightened mind in everyone, including yourself); the dharma (the teachings—which range from the sutras, tantras, and their commentaries to any and everything that teaches you), and the sangha (or community—of fellow practitioners certainly, but also, as I understood him, in the community of fellow humans seeking happiness on planet earth.) His explanation was really good and encouraged me further. I wanted to do those things. Also, when he said the phrase, “take refuge,” I started to cry. I longed for refuge in this crazy world.

I want to do it, I told him, but how do I know that I’m ready? I didn’t want to take this step in a half-assed way. (I mean, I’m the person who, when thinking about getting married, wrote a whole book called The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do.” I’m anti-making lifelong commitments on the fly.) My meditation instructor said, “you know you’re ready when becoming a Buddhist is simply a recognition of something that has already happened.” Genius. (And not a bad benchmark when it comes to marriage and marriage-like commitments, I might add.) I knew that it had, and so I took refuge on March 10, 1993. It was definitely one of the most moving days of my life.

Many, many people are deeply touched by the dharma and have a profound ability to naturally understand it. You know who you are. It takes up residence in your mind and moments of recognition ding repeatedly, whether on the spot or two years later. You simply notice that your mindstream and the dharma flow together easily, surprisingly, terrifyingly, joyfully, and so on. What a person does from that point forward is utterly individual. Some people, like myself, benefit enormously from a traditional, proscribed path. A path grounds me and I’m grateful for that. for others, though, the strictures of a traditional path could provide perfect hiding places for ego. Maybe they should throw off all rules and figure it out on their own. Ultimately, we all do a combination of these two—learning from masters and figuring it out on our own, making a personal connection with the dharma over and over, hopefully until the end of our lives.

Into this very creative space of figuring it out for yourself can creep all sorts of distractions, otherwise known as spiritual materialism: Looking, not at reality, but at ways to blur reality by using spiritual tactics. The phrase was coined by Chogyam Trungpa. (To learn more, check Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.) It’s so easy to think you’re a Buddhist and that it means something conventionally comprehensible and/or offers you something to cling to as a way of escaping the sorrows of samsara. Which would be awesome, but oh well, it’s not.

How to know if you’re a spiritual seeker or materialist?  Some thoughts:

First, think that you are probably definitely both and that taking a fresh look at this question every day (or more) is a very helpful thing to do.

Second, and this is the failsafe, if you can, find a genuine master and study as hard as you can with them. I definitely believe in this way; the guru is the root of blessings. Personally, I have found this to be true. That said, this is a very sticky wicket and requires great caution.

Third, have complete confidence that you can figure it all out. You can. Actually, you are the only one who can. On some level, the most realistic level, you already have. You possess Buddhanature right now. Therefore, you can have confidence.

For each of us, the way will be utterly unique—if not the path itself, then the way it is arrived at. There are no guarantees and we have to keep figuring it out over and over.

If you notice that your capacity for love is deepening apace with you confusion, if what you are learning convinces you more and more that you actually don’t know anything, and if your sense of humor is completely intact, then you’re probably on the right track. Perhaps you are “a Buddhist.” Maybe not. No one knows but you.

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  • Posted by:  Alane

    i read the sacred path of the warrior; what an awesome book. i do practice with a meditation teacher but her sessions are 1-2 times a month. i’m trying to cultivate a more consistent practice on my own. thank you for sharing insights!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      That book is so amazing–the best handbook for living I’ve ever read. So happy you’ve found it beneficial.

      Has your meditation instructor made suggestions about how to do your practice at home?

  • Posted by:  Mark Silver

    I love your description of coming to your path- it feels internally very similar to my own coming to Sufism and eventually “taking hand” (as it’s called in my tradition) with my Sufi tariqa. It had already taken up residence within me- and yet the formal taking hand changed me on a cellular level.

    Beautiful. Beautiful. Thank you for reminding me in this moment of that moment.

  • Posted by:  Karen

    I meet an occasional self-professed ‘non-practicing Catholic (or fill in the denomination)’ and wonder if that is something like a painter with an empty sketch book, or a garbage collector who drives by all the bins. Perhaps not, if all it really means is that one does not attend church. I believe what we call ourselves is of little consequence compared to what we practice, and if at the very heart of that is love and acceptance, well, then that is what we are, even on the days we don’t quite get it right.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      I agree that holding love and acceptance at the heart of our practice is the most important thing, and to forgive ourselves when we mess up. The problem comes in, for me at least, when I don’t know or become confused about how to be loving and accepting. So often, it is not black and white. There have been many times in my life when I’ve confused self-interest for love or self-sabotage for acceptance. This is where, again, for me, a commitment to a traditional path becomes crucial. If I ever want to break through my confusion about the nature or reality and suffering in order to be of lasting benefit to beings, I believe that will take wisdom greater than my own.

      Where one goes from there is completely individual.

  • Posted by:  Karen

    Burnt Orange. It was the color in the box I least understood, not unlike love and acceptance. Giving myself to greater wisdom by following a traditional path? Try being the daughter of genius hippie atheist parents who warn me not to drink the Kool-aid every time I leave a family barbecue early so I can get to sangha. It has been hard to break from that which I thought was wisdom. And nothing has felt more right.

    • Posted by:  Susan

      So good to find your own path…

  • Posted by:  Collin

    From a life filled with rules and rigidity, I am happy to lean towards figuring it out on my own. And even happier to learn that the practices allow for both traditional and non-traditional paths and teaches each to balance with the other.

    Your writings have provided descriptions to whirling spiritual concepts I have had in my head, many times. Thank you deeply!

  • Posted by:  Susan

    You are very welcome, Collin.

    It is wonderful–and very challenging–to trust your own mind. Very, very important. Meditation practice will be your irreplaceable ally…

  • Posted by:  Alane

    hi susan, i just met with my meditation teacher tonight for a body work session (she’s awesome) and during the session we did talk about cultivating a consistent home practice. like you mentioned in your latest post, scheduling time, letting the schedule just fall into place, it’s hard for me to get my priorities in order right now. i’ve been working with setting an intention (another area Rose guides us in) but haven’t been able to express it fully. i know i’ll get there. thank you for all your wonderful insights.

  • Posted by:  Linda

    I have tried meditating in the past, and I smiled when I read through your list of myths about meditation. I can relate to each one! However, no matter how many times I begin and give up, something always draws me back. I intend to give it another go and this time, to embrace whatever comes up. I just finished your book, “How Not to be Afraid of Your Own Life” and truly enjoyed it. Thank you!

  • Posted by:  Susan

    Linda, so great you keep getting drawn back to the cushion and so happy you enjoyed my book. Means a lot to know this! All best with your practice and if I can ever be of assistance, please let me know.

  • Posted by:  kathleen

    so nice to find your website.I grew up catholic but have been drawn to buddhism for over 20 years, only now to have a buddhist center right down the street! this center follows kadampa buddhism and I have had difficulty with the deity concept and the emphasis on asking invisible beings for help but I do feel somewhat transformed each time I go there and take refuge.

  • Posted by:  Greg

    Susan, this was a wonderful read. I can relate to what you said about realizing it one day. I realized I was a Buddhist and then I immediately realized how little I understood myself and the world, and how little I was living the dharma. That’s great advice from your meditation teacher. Thanks!

    • Posted by:  Susan

      Glad you enjoyed the read, Greg, and happy to be on the path together.

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