Ranch Essay – “Your Buddhism or Mine? : Buddhist Identity in the 21st Century”

amer buddhists

Buddhism in the 21st Century is a jewel whose facets are expanding exponentially. Modern realities, particularly the coming of age of Buddhism in the West, have emboldened the complexity of any scholarly attempts at defining Buddhism and what it means to be a Buddhist. From the monastic devotee to the college student developing a personal semi-secular spirituality, Buddhism is constantly being reinterpreted within the context of their world. In studying the wisdom and history of the Buddha, I have found that what there is to identify with is not so much about what everyone is doing or saying but about the truth that you realize in the moment. If at any given moment a person recognizes the light that is the Buddha and his teachings, then they are Buddhist. Some people may look, act or sound more Buddhist by certain exacting standards, but I do not believe that it is quantifiable.

As history unfolds, religious traditions are always adapting to and existing alongside social and cultural progress, experimentation and innovation. Today, there are many forms of Buddhism. While there are some that are more recognized than others, all forms are undoubtedly shaped by previous traditions. In his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, David McMahan writes, “Every extant form of Buddhism has been shaped and reconfigured by the great diversity of cultural and historical circumstances it has inhabited in its long and varied existence.”[1] Additionally, Buddhist identity becomes, in a way, transitory. Each individual and each Buddhist community is endowed a claim to their own identity; some choose to adhere closely to the history of tradition in Asia, while others exercise a kind of religious pluralism in which Buddhism becomes a component of a secular spirituality. No matter if they are detraditionalizing or retraditionilizing through their practice, there is no finite, unchanging Buddhism. As today’s interpretations of the Buddha and Buddhism seem to come into existence according to Moore’s Law, there is are innumerable ways one can analyze them.

Jan Nattier, author of “Who is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist America,” describes the importance of a neutral, scholarly analysis of Buddhist identity: “The comparative study of a wide range of such groups would allow considerable refinement in our understanding of the relative weight of race, ethnicity, and religion (as well as other factors) in maintaining the separateness, or in fostering the assimilation, of an immigrant community over time.”[2]  For Nattier, one must define who a Buddhist is by identifying different styles of relating to “a bewildering variety of Buddhist forms.”

In contrast to the historical approach to determining who is a Buddhist, there is what Thomas Tweed refers to as “an essentialist or normative approach.”[3] He describes the normative definition of religious identity as those that establish a core of right practice and belief in which all historical expressions are measured.[4] Furthermore, an adherent by Tweed’s definition is anyone who accepts a tradition’s defining beliefs and practices. Exploring the normative approach further, Nattier writes, “Criteria of belief or ritual practice quickly began to resemble standards of orthodoxy, for one cannot require these elements of inclusion without specifying which beliefs and which practices are meant.” I do understand the importance of a religion, such as Buddhism, to include guidelines and suggestions for existing the best way possible for yourself and the world. However, I struggle with the idea of a rigid formula for the right way for someone to must practice in order to be considered a member of that religious tradition. McMahan addresses the normative approach as he writes, “If ‘true Buddhism’ is only one that is unalloyed by novel cultural elements, no forms of Buddhism existing today qualify.”[5] He ventures to suggest that by their standards, any mode of Buddhist tradition that attempts to qualify, by means of value judgments, any one way of practice as “pure” must not forget to examine itself.

In reality, it is difficult to examine the varied Buddhist traditions of both the East and West and to totally separate one from, or evaluate one against, another. “There is hybridity all the way down. In this sense, religious identity is usually complex. Ambivalence is the norm,” Tweed writes.[6] McMahan also supports this claim by asserting, “Religious identity is hybrid.” It is easy for someone to convince themselves that their religion and their beliefs are some sort of unique phenomena, untouched since the dawn of time. The reality is that all religion, and what it means to be a follower of any religion, draws on other religions, as well as cultural and socio-geographic factors. Tweed expands upon this idea by affirming, “(An essentialized notion) fails to acknowledge that traditions change, that they have contacts and exchanges with other traditions, and that hybrid traditions with diverse expressions emerge and claim authenticity.”[7] In each region where it has taken root, Nattier describes a Buddhism that has undergone significant cultural adjustment.[8] McMahan takes a positive stance on the varied interpretations of Buddhism as he writes, “There has been a productive fashioning of new ways of being Buddhist practiced by living, breathing people around the globe.”[9]

McMahan asks, “What is a Buddhist? What is the boundary between Buddhism and non-Buddhism? At what point is Buddhism so thoroughly modernized, westernized, detraditionalized, and adapted that it simply no longer can be considered Buddhism?”[10] I would say that as long as someone is receptive to the Buddha and some of his ideas and practices, then they can be a Buddhist. There is no rule book stating that Buddhism must be Asian, devout and unchanging. “Is it enough merely to call oneself a Buddhist, or are other features–certain beliefs, certain ritual practices (such as mediation or chanting or perhaps even active membership in a specific organization–required as well?”[11] I would describe it as such, that these specific actions and exercises simply color one’s faith and experience. They are not requirements to be in the “Buddhism club.” Nattier describes, “A reorientation of the model towards the individual practitioner and away from the institutions themselves might therefore allow for a more flexible and nuanced description of the dynamics of such groups.”[12] I think that in trying to compare Buddhism to so many other established religions, we focus closely on ritual, community, authority, etc. However, Buddhism, more than most religions, emphasizes the self and the authority one has over one’s thoughts, perspective and existence. The spirituality of Buddhism is an inner experience that is marked by one’s consciousness. Therefore, I do believe that as people adapt the Dharma to modern times and revert back to the source of Buddhism, his own awakening, they will inevitably drift away from the institutionalization that has taken place over time.

In deciding on a definition for who is a Buddhist, I believe that in some ways Buddhism is an equal opportunity spiritual employer. Despite some attempts by certain sects of Buddhism to interpret the Buddhist canon to exclude certain individuals from practice and transmission, I do think that at its core, it is inherent to all humanity. There are many differences between various Buddhist conventions but I do not believe in any vital difference between one Buddhist and another. No matter your ethnicity, background, gender, age or disposition, the Buddha’s insight is always there for you to experience in your own way. To tamp down a definition of a Buddhist, I believe that if a person opens themselves up to the life and teachings of the Buddha in order to further explore the nature of reality and own their humanity, they are a Buddhist. In support of this idea, Tweed writes, “We cannot exclude from our analysis those who don’t meet the traditional standards but still claim Buddhist identity for themselves…Buddhist are those who say they are.” However, there are certain people who I believe must be excluded from our definition. Anyone who rejects Buddhism in the face of their own religion or lack thereof would not be a Buddhist.

I approach my scholarly investigation primarily in terms of “what comes next?” So it is easy to admit that my definition is modernist. However, I would also like to believe that the Buddha himself would agree that in deciding who is Buddhist, it is the intention that matters. In that respect, you could say it is inherently traditional as well. This definition does not include any rhetoric as to what constitutes a “good” or “pure” Buddhist, nor does it make a judgment about who is a “real” Buddhist, therefore, it is not normative. However, I would not say that it is purely neutral definition either in that I have come to this conclusion through a sort of value judgment that I have developed through my own experiences with and interpretations of Buddhism. My intent behind this definition is to not belittle or ignore the traditions of any Buddhist community. Instead, I have intended to emphasize that, despite all the obvious differences between differing traditions, there need not be exclusion involved in deciding who can and cannot be a Buddhist.

There are many angles one can go about researching that which makes a Buddhist and there are many differing values one can attach to that which makes a Buddhist. I feel as though people shine in existing the best possible way for themselves. If a Buddhist attempts to force their spirituality perfectly into a mold preconceived by a sociologist or even by their monk, they may alter that which makes their faith unique. A Buddhist should seek no verification of their faith from anyone but themselves.


[1]  McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. New York: Oxford, 2008. Print (254) form [2] Nattier, Jan. “Who is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist  America”. The Faces of Buddhism in America. London: University of California Press, 1998. Print.  (194) [3] Tweed, Thomas A. “Who is a Buddhist?”. Westward Dharma: Buddhism  Beyond Asia. London: University of California Press, 2002. Print. (14)[4] Tweed (24) [5] McMahan(254) [6] Tweed (19) [7] Tweed (18) [8] Nattier (191) [9] McMahan (21) [10] McMahan (254) [11] Nattier (184) [12] Nattier (187)


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