What Makes You Not a Buddhistby Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
So you think you're a Buddhist? Think again. Tibetan Buddhist master Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, one of the most creative and innovative lamas teaching today, throws down the gauntlet to the Buddhist world, challenging common misconceptions, stereotypes, and fantasies. With wit and irony, Khysentse urges readers to move beyond the superficial trappings of Buddhism—beyond the romance with beads, incense, or exotic robes—straight to the heart of what the Buddha taught.
"A pleasant refresher or an excellent introduction to Buddhism, even for those who choose not to be Buddhists."— New Age Retailer
Read an Excerpt
Once I was seated on a plane in the middle seat of the middle row on a trans-Atlantic flight, and the sympathetic man sitting next to me made an attempt to be friendly. Seeing my shaved head and maroon skirt, he gathered that I was a Buddhist. When the meal was served, the man considerately offered to order a vegetarian meal for me. Having correctly assumed that I was a Buddhist, he also assumed that I don’t eat meat. That was the beginning of our chat. The flight was long, so to kill our boredom, we discussed Buddhism.
Over time I have come to realize that people often associate Buddhism and Buddhists with peace, meditation, and nonviolence. In fact, many seem to think that saffron or maroon robes and a peaceful smile are all it takes to be a Buddhist. As a fanatical Buddhist myself, I must take pride in this reputation, particularly the nonviolent aspect of it,
which is so rare in this age of war and violence, and especially religious violence. Throughout the history of humankind, religion seems to beget brutality. Even today religious-extremist violence dominates the news. Yet I think I can say with confidence that so far we
Buddhists have not disgraced ourselves. Violence has never played a part in propagating Buddhism. However, as a trained Buddhist, I also feel a little discontented when Buddhism is associated with nothing beyond vegetarianism, nonviolence, peace, and meditation. Prince
Siddhartha, who sacrificed all the comforts and luxuries of palace life, must have been searching for more than passivity and shrubbery when he set out to discover enlightenment.
Although essentially very simple, Buddhism cannot be easily explained.
It is almost inconceivably complex, vast, and deep. Although it is nonreligious and nontheistic, it's difficult to present Buddhism without sounding theoretical and religious. As Buddhism traveled to different parts of the world, the cultural characteristics it accumulated have made it even more complicated to decipher. Theistic trappings such as incense, bells, and multicolored hats can attract people’s attention, but at the same time they can be obstacles. People end up thinking that is all there is to Buddhism and are diverted from its essence.
Sometimes out of frustration that Siddhartha’s teachings have not caught on enough for my liking, and sometimes out of my own ambition, I
entertain ideas of reforming Buddhism, making it easier—more straightforward and puritanical. It is devious and misguided to imagine
(as I sometimes do) simplifying Buddhism into defined, calculated practices like meditating three times a day, adhering to certain dress codes, and holding certain ideological beliefs, such as that the whole world must be converted to Buddhism. If we could promise that such practices would provide immediate, tangible results, I think there would be more Buddhists in the world. But when I recover from these fantasies (which I rarely do), my sober mind warns me that a world of people calling themselves Buddhists would not necessarily be a better world.
Many people mistakenly think that Buddha is the “God” of Buddhism; even some people in commonly recognized Buddhist countries such as Korea,
Japan, and Bhutan have this theistic approach to the Buddha and
Buddhism. This is why throughout this book we use the name Siddhartha and Buddha interchangeably, to remind people that Buddha was just a man and that this man became Buddha.
It is understandable that some people might think that Buddhists are followers of this external man named Buddha. However, Buddha himself pointed out that we should not venerate a person but rather the wisdom that person teaches. Similarly, it is taken for granted that reincarnation and karma are the most essential beliefs of Buddhism.
There are numerous other gross misconceptions. For example, Tibetan
Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “lamaism,” and Zen is not even considered Buddhism in some cases. Those people who are slightly more informed, yet still misguided, may use words such as emptiness and nirvana without understanding their meaning.
When a conversation arises like the one with my seatmate on the plane,
a non-Buddhist may casually ask, “What makes someone a Buddhist?” That is the hardest question to answer. If the person has a genuine interest, the complete answer does not make for light dinner conversation, and generalizations can lead to misunderstanding. Suppose that you give them the true answer, the answer that points to the very foundation of this 2,500-year-old tradition.
One is a Buddhist if he or she accepts the following four truths:
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are pain.
All things have no inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond concepts.
These four statements, spoken by the Buddha himself, are known as “the four seals.” Traditionally, seal
means something like a hallmark that confirms authenticity. For the sake of simplicity and flow we will refer to these statements herein as both seals and “truths,” not to be confused with Buddhism’s four noble truths, which pertain solely to aspects of suffering. Even though the four seals are believed to encompass all of Buddhism, people don’t seem to want to hear about them. Without further explanation they serve only to dampen spirits and fail to inspire further interest in many cases.
The topic of conversation changes and that’s the end of it.
The message of the four seals is meant to be understood literally, not metaphorically or mystically—and meant to be taken seriously. But the seals are not edicts or commandments. With a little contemplation one sees that there is nothing moralistic or ritualistic about them. There is no mention of good or bad behavior. They are secular truths based on wisdom, and wisdom is the primary concern of a Buddhist. Morals and ethics are secondary. A few puffs of a cigarette and a little fooling around don’t prevent someone from becoming a Buddhist. That is not to say that we have license to be wicked or immoral.
Broadly speaking, wisdom comes from a mind that has what the Buddhists call “right view.” But one doesn’t even have to consider oneself a
Buddhist to have right view. Ultimately it is this view that determines our motivation and action. It is the view that guides us on the path of
Buddhism. If we can adopt wholesome behaviors in addition to the four seals, it makes us even better Buddhists. But what makes you not a
If you cannot accept that all compounded or fabricated things are impermanent, if you believe that there is some essential substance or concept that is permanent, then you are not a Buddhist.
If you cannot accept that all emotions are pain, if you believe that actually some emotions are purely pleasurable, then you are not a
If you cannot accept that all phenomena are illusory and empty, if you believe that certain things do exist inherently, then you are not a Buddhist.
And if you think that enlightenment exists within the spheres of time, space, and power, then you are not a Buddhist.
So, what makes you a Buddhist? You may not have been born in a Buddhist country or to a Buddhist family, you may not wear robes or shave your head, you may eat meat and idolize Eminem and Paris Hilton. That doesn’t mean you cannot be a Buddhist. In order to be a Buddhist, you must accept that all compounded phenomena are impermanent, all emotions are pain, all things have no inherent existence, and enlightenment is beyond concepts.
It’s not necessary to be constantly and endlessly mindful of these four truths. But they must reside in your mind. You don’t walk around persistently remembering your own name, but when someone asks your name, you remember it instantly. There is no doubt. Anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he.
When I tried to explain all of this to the man next to me on the plane,
I began to hear a soft snoring sound and realized that he was sound asleep. Apparently our conversation did not kill his boredom.
I enjoy generalizing, and as you read this book, you will find a sea of generalizations. But I justify this to myself by thinking that apart from generalizations we human beings don’t have much means of communication. That’s a generalization in itself.
By writing this book, it is not my aim to persuade people to follow
Shakyamuni Buddha, become Buddhists, and practice the dharma. I
deliberately do not mention any meditation techniques, practices, or mantras. My primary intention is to point out the unique part of
Buddhism that differentiates it from other views. What did this Indian prince say that earned so much respect and admiration, even from skeptical modern scientists like Albert Einstein? What did he say that moved thousands of pilgrims to prostrate themselves all the way from
Tibet to Bodh Gaya? What sets Buddhism apart from the religions of the world? I believe it boils down to the four seals, and I have attempted to present these difficult concepts in the simplest language available to me.
Siddhartha’s priority was to get down to the root of the problem.
Buddhism is not culturally bound. Its benefits are not limited to any particular society and have no place in government and politics.
Siddhartha was not interested in academic treatises and scientifically provable theories. Whether the world is flat or round did not concern him. He had a different kind of practicality. He wanted to get to the bottom of suffering. I hope to illustrate that his teachings are not a grandiose intellectual philosophy to be read and then shelved, but a functional, logical view that can be practiced by each and every individual. To that end I have attempted to use examples from all aspects of all walks of life—from the romantic crush to the emergence of civilization as we know it. While these examples are different from the ones Siddhartha used, the same message Siddhartha expressed is still relevant today.
But Siddhartha also said that his words should not be taken for granted without analysis. So, definitely someone as ordinary as myself must also be scrutinized, and I invite you to analyze what you find within these pages.
Meet the Author
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (Khyentse Norbu) is a Tibetan Buddhist lama who travels and teaches internationally and is also an award-winning filmmaker. He is the abbot of several monasteries in Asia and the spiritual director of meditation centers in Vancouver, San Francisco, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Taipei. He is also head of a Buddhist organization called Siddhartha’s Intent.
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So much of Buddhist literature is full of metaphor pointing to a concept. Most of the time the metaphor obscures instead of clarifies. The author explains concepts and ideas in clear accessible language. I will keep this in my main library and refer to it often.
'Consider generosity. When we begin to realize the first truth' (impermanence), 'we see everything as transitory and without value, as if it belonged in a Salvation Army bag. We don't have to necessarily give it all away, but we have no clinging to it. When we see that our possessions are all impermament compounded phenomena, that we can't cling to them forever, generosity is already practically accomplished.' Thus we begin a journey into the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in the city of Lumbini and was raised in Kapilavastu. Born a prince, his father, King Suddhodana, was said to have been visited by a wise man shortly after Siddhartha was born. The wise man said that Siddhartha would either become a great king (chakravartin) or a holy man (Sadhu). Determined to make Siddhartha a king, the father tried to shield his son from the unpleasant realities of daily life. Despite his father's efforts, at the age of 29, he discovered the suffering of his people, first through an encounter with an elderly man. On subsequent trips outside the palace, he encountered various sufferings such as a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a monk or an ascetic. These are often termed 'The Four Sights.' Gautama was deeply depressed by these four sights and sought to overcome old age, illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic. Gautama escaped his palace, leaving behind this royal life to become a mendicant. For a time on his spiritual quest, Buddha 'experimented with extreme asceticism, which at that time was seen as a powerful spiritual practice...such as fasting, holding the breath, and exposure of the body to pain...he found, however, that these ascetic practices brought no genuine spiritual benefits and in fact, being based on self-hatred, that they were counterproductive.' After abandoning asceticism and concentrating instead upon meditation and, according to some sources, Anapanasati (awareness of breathing in and out), Gautama is said to have discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way--a path of moderation that lies mid-way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He accepted a little milk and rice pudding from a village girl and then, sitting under a pipal tree or Sacred fig (Ficus religiosa), also known as the Bodhi tree, in Bodh Gaya, he vowed never to arise until he had found the Truth. His five companions, believing that he had abandoned his search and become undisciplined, left. After 49 days meditating, at the age of 35, he attained bodhi, also known as 'Awakening' or 'Enlightenment.' After his attainment of bodhi he was known as Buddha or Gautama Buddha and spent the rest of his life teaching his insights (Dharma). According to scholars, he lived around the fifth century BCE, but his more exact birthdate is open to debate. He died at the age of 80 in Kushinagara (Pali Kusinara) (India) From these facts, a little book by master Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is born out of his frustration that Siddhartha's teachings have not caught on enough to his liking. He goes through the basic concepts of Buddhism in a relevant way, easy to read, and entertaining tale. This book is a jewel for anyone who is interested in Buddhism.
Life is interpreted and explained easily. You wish you had this given to you as a child. Life would have been less traumatic, less difficult to cope. This is an easy read. Relax and enjoy the words.
Emphases the four seals. These seals are not sea lions but rather the basic views that distinguish Budfhism. Witty, common-sensical, a breath of fresh air. The Nook version includes the index terms from the print edition and suggests their use as search terms, an excellent adaptation in this reviewer's opinion.
A must-read for anyone studying Dharma or Buddhism