Ranch Essay – The Buddhism of The Dharma Bums and Jack Kerouac



The Buddhism of The Dharma Bums and Jack Kerouac

The Beat Generation is most often remembered and revered for its explicit portrayals of the human condition, its countercultural support of various social liberation movements and its revolutionary literary style. It was also marked by an attention to what Jack Kerouac labeled “a second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization like the United States. The Beats’ works explored Eastern religious traditions in the context of their Western world. In Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums, he explores the Beats’ and his own vision of Buddhism in 1950s America.

By the mid-20th century, Buddhism, particularly Zen (Chan) was growing in popularity in America, most notably due to the efforts of Japanese author, D.T. Suzuki. However, there existed no such classification of American Buddhism or American Buddhists. Up until this point, American born Buddhists had been introduced to the lengthy history of Buddhism through purely academic means. The curiosity of American lay people, like the Beats, led to the development of a western modernist interpretation of the tenants, texts and practices of Pre-Modern Asian Buddhism. The presence of Buddhism in popular literary works, particularly Kerouac’s, propelled such curiosity. The exotic and universal allure of Buddhism acted as a foil to the America of straight lines, nuclear families, and fabricated Post-War peace and prosperity. Where much of Western religion seemed to stifle the revolutionary ideals of The Beats, Buddhism acted as a new medium open to their own interpretation, as shown by Suzuki’s statement,“Spontaneity is the font of creativity,”

During his initial meeting with his companion Japhy Ryder, a character based on American Zen Buddhist Gary Synder, Jack Kerouac’s character Ray Smith says, “Lissen Japhy. I am not a Zen Buddhist, I’m a serious Buddhist, I’m an old fashioned dreamy Hinayana coward of later Mahayanism.” Smith is quick to adopt the tradition and titles of Asian Buddhism for his own, unfazed by his geographical location, background, or lack of formal certification. Both Smith and Japhy are to some extent forced to create their own personalized Buddhist practice and identity. They did not have tales of American Buddhist’s that came before them to emulate, they were some of the very first men to proclaim themselves as Buddhists in America. “He knew all the details of Tibetan, Chinese, Mahayana, Hinayana, Japanese and even Burmese Buddhism but I warned him at once I didn’t give a goddamn about the mythology and all the names and national flavors of Buddhism, but was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s noble truths, All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved, which I didn’t quite believe was possible then.” Early in his Buddhist practice, Smith is propelled by his own desire for spiritual liberation and figures that his ignorance to the various Buddhist traditions is bliss. Smith, like many of the Beat poets, often thought in existential ways about the meaning of life and the nature of reality, which led him to Buddhism.

By actively deciding which religious practices and philosophical ideas to take as their own, the characters in The Dharma Bums create a unique American Buddhist way of life. They mold Pre-Modern Asian Buddhism, steeped in tradition and myth, to their own lives at any given moment. Through decontexualizing and recontexualizing some of the Buddhist sutras and ancient texts, it becomes easier for Japhy and Smith to believe in the authenticity of their own  practice. The characters spend much of their time mountain climbing and exploring the American West Coast’s wilderness, and Buddhism is ever present. “‘The secret of this kind of climbing.’ said Japhy, ‘is like Zen. Don’t think. Just dance along. It’s the easiest thing in the world, actually easier than walking on flat ground which is monotonous. The cute little problems present themselves at each step and yet you never hesitate and you find yourself on some other boulder you picked out for no special reason at all, just like Zen.’ Which it was.” After studying Eastern traditions at the University, Japhy moved to a small shack in the wild to live isolated as a monk would. He can’t help but apply the Buddha’s teachings regarding meditation and acceptance to his background as a logger and forest lookout. “Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by.”

Smith sees Buddhism in everyone he meets. He shows a particularly acute awareness to a person who is fasting, praying or giving compassionately. He quickly declares many of these people he meets hitchhiking on the road or conversing with at a mad party, bodhisattvas. When one of Japhy’s friends asks him where he met Smith, Japhy shouts back to “I always meet my Bodhisattvas in the street!” The two Beat Buddhists also lovingly refer to their friends as bhikkus, or ordained monastic monks who stringently follow tradition. “What we gonna do with all this? We’ll have to feed all the bhikkus.” In due time we had more bhikkus than we could handle.” They are not surrounded by monasteries and monks which they can present alms or offerings to in the form of food and drink, so they re-interpret this practice as their own with everyone in their presence. Additionally, Japhy’s house is often the place where communal gatherings are held and he plays host by feeding people and giving them a place to stay.“He was always giving things,” Smith says about Japhy,”always practicing what the Buddhists call the Paramita of Dana, the perfection of charity.”

Smith believes that Buddhist prayers and poems are similar in nature. “‘Let there be blowing-out and bliss forevermore,’ I prayed in the woods at night. I kept making newer and better prayers. And more poems.” He finds merit in coming up with newer and more encouraging prayers, just as he does his spontaneous poetry. While visiting his family in North Carolina, Smith helps his mother overcome her sickness by accidentally discovering she has an allergy to flowers. He believes that this discovery is a direct result of the power of his daily meditation practice as he says, “This was my first and last ‘miracle’ because I was afraid of getting too interested in this and becoming vain. I was a little scared too, of all the responsibility.” To Smith, the idea of committing miracles himself is as much of a possibility as it is for any of the Buddha’s in the stories.

“His meditations were regular things, by the clock, he’d meditate first thing waking in the morning then he had his mid-afternoon meditation, only about three minutes long, then before going to bed and that was that. But I just ambled and dreamed around. We were two strange dissimilar monks on the same path.” While Smith and Japhy are both Buddhists in America, they practice in very different ways. Where a Chan Buddhist in China may not consider himself of the same faith as a Theravada Buddhist in Burma, the Beats chose to emphasize the “end” as opposed to the “means.” There are no overbearing Buddhist establishments in the rural Californian coast to try to convince Smith and Japhy otherwise. Additionally, both characters choose to connect with many of the same historical figures in Buddhism, include the poet Han Shan. “Han Shan you see was a Chinese scholar who got sick of the big city and the world and took off to hide in the mountains.” It is easy to see why these Beat poets, in particular, would connect to a figure who is turning to a life of isolation and devotion, denouncing urban life in the neon marketplace.

Within 1950’s America there existed a conflict between social norms of American life and their reinvention by new agents of cultural change. This re-evaluation ultimately led to the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. The Dharma Bums interpreted society in Buddhist terms, viewing them through a Buddhist framework, resulting naturally in countercultural ideals. Japhy quotes Whitman and muses on a world full of rucksack wanderers and “Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming.” Smith and Japhy”s lives both conflict with the materialistic and neo-liberal way of life and are able to reinforce their discontent through their Buddhism. “That’s why frontiersmen are always heroes and were always my real heroes and will always be. They’re constantly on the alert in the realness which might as well be real as unreal, what difference does it make, Diamond Sutra says ‘Make no formed conceptions about the realness of existence nor about the unrealness of existence,’ or words like that. Handcuffs will get soft and billy clubs will topple over, let’s go on being free anyhow.” Freedom is paramount in the Dharma Bum’s interpretation of Buddhism. Smith’s romanticism of the dropping out of society can be found in the following passage, “It reminded me of the early chapters in the life of the Buddha, when he decides to leave the Palace, leaving his mourning wife and child and his poor father and riding away on a white horse to go cut off his golden hair in the woods and send the horse back with the weeping servant, and embarks on a mournful journey through the forest to find the truth forever. ‘Like as the birds that gather in the trees of the afternoon,’ wrote Ashvhaghosha almost two thousand years ago, ‘then at nightfall vanish all away, so are the separations of the world.’” Simply by living outside of society and by practicing their Beat Buddhism, they are completing a revolutionary act.

In most of the novel, Smith practices celibacy in an attempt to avoid the distraction and complications of sexual consortium. “So I put sex out of my mind again. As long as the sun shined then blinked and shined again, I was satisfied. I would be kind and remain in solitude, I wouldn’t pook about, I’d rest and be kind. ‘Compassion is the guide star,’ said Buddha. ‘Don’t dispute with the authorities or with women. Beg. Be Humble.’” In some way, Smith views having a sex life as enabling a person to become more self-absorbed and vain. This attitude is a far cry from the norm within his social circle, as polyamorous relationships seem to develop more often than not. Japhy, on the other hand, believes in the opposite as he explains, “Smith, I distrust any kind of Buddhism or any kinda philosophy or social system that puts down sex.” Instead, Japhy describes a kind of “Zen Free Love Lunacy” in which sex is performed in ceremony in front of priests in Tibet. “People pray and recite Om Mani Pahdme Hum, which means Amen the Thunderbolt in the Dark Void. I’m the thunderbolt and Princess is the dark void, you see.” Japhy, a translator of Asian texts, often places his own creative spin on Buddhist concepts and lore. Interestingly, even the usually confident Japhy is conflicted about what role he really wishes to live out as he says,“‘I’m gonna get married, soon, I think, I’m getting tired of battin around like this.’ ‘But I thought you’d discovered the Zen ideal of poverty and freedom.’ ‘Aw maybe I’m getting tired of all that.’”

Raised by a devout Catholic mother, Kerouac also puts Buddhism in a dialog with Christianity. In The Dharma Bums, his autobiographical character Smith develops his Buddhism and is often strict in his devotional practice. However, throughout his life Kerouac would perpetually turn towards and away from Buddhism, as he would Christianity. We can often find his character Smith making reference to the Buddha and Jesus Christ in the same breath. “The truth that is realizable in a dead man’s bones and is beyond the Tree of Buddha as well as the Cross of Jesus. Believe that the world is an ethereal flower, ye live. I knew this!” It’s almost as if Smith is acknowledging the validity of the truth discovered by these prophets while avoiding believing in any one religion or doctrine as better than the other. Japhy, not a proponent of Christianity, often dismisses Smith’s comparisons or references to Christianity during their talks on Buddhism in which Smith replies, “What’s wrong with Jesus? Didn’t Jesus speak of Heaven? Isn’t Heaven Buddha’s nirvana?” This statement highlights Smith’s urge to interpret Buddhism through a lens of someone who subscribes in part to Christian doctrine. ”You really like Christ, don’t you?” Japhy asks Smith, “‘Of course I do. And after all, a lot of people say he is Maitreya, the Buddha prophesied to appear after Sakyamuni, you know, Maitreya means ‘Love’ in Sanskrit and that’s all Christ talked about was love.” Smith envisions Jesus and his message as simply an reinvention of Sakyamuni Buddha’s tenants, a universal truth. This is an inherent part of Kerouac and his character’s belief system, that all religions and doctrines are really different variations on the same themes. It is interesting to note that in the last few pages of the novel, after his two months alone on Desolation Peak, Smith does not mention the Buddha but instead says, “‘God, I love you’ and looked up to the sky and really meant it. ‘I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.’”

The Dharma Bums spend much of their practice within a kind of individual mindfulness phase, primarily concerned with individualistic personal transformation through their Buddhism. To Smith, American suffering is not a macro idea which can be solved in any group-based way. Instead, it is a conglomeration of individuals needing to get free from suffering. It is here that the Romanticism of the Beat Generation becomes prevalent in Smith’s practice. He focuses on that truth which is inside of each being that must be let out, that people have good hearts whether they live compassionately or not. “Everything is possible. I am God, I am Buddha, I am imperfect Ray Smith, all at the same time, I am empty space, I am all things. I have all the time in the world from life to life to do what is to do, to do what is done, to do the timeless doing, infinitely perfect within, why cry, why worry, perfect like mind essence and the minds of banana peels.” His Zen meditation has helped him to overcome artificial divisions, another mark of Romanticism, and to see “The world as it is, is Heaven, I’m looking for a Heaven outside what there is, it’s only this poor pitiful world that’s Heaven. Ah, if I could realize, if I could forget myself and devote my meditations to the freeing, the awakening and the blessedness of all living creatures everywhere I’d realize that there is, is ecstasy.” It is known that Kerouac’s favorite Buddhist sutra was the Diamond Sutra, which is about conditioning one’s mind to emptiness. Smith, with his Western upbringing and personal vices constantly struggles to remain steadfast in his practice of non-attachment and non-abiding. “What does it mean that I am in this endless universe, thinking that I’m a man sitting under the stars on the terrace of the earth, but actually empty and awake throughout the emptiness and awakedness of everything? It means that I’m empty and awake, that I know I’m empty, awake, and that there’s no difference between me and anything else. It means I’ve become a Buddha.” Here we find a conflict between the individualistic nature of the Beats and Romanticism and the Zen concept of No-Self. He has found that which is within is a truth that all are connected. “This world is the movie of what everything is, it is one movie, made of the same stuff throughout, belonging to nobody, which is what everything is.”

“One night in a meditation vision Avalokitesvara the Hearer and Answerer of Prayer said to me ‘You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free’ so I laid my hand on myself to remind myself first and then felt gay, yelled ‘Ta,’ opened my eyes, and a shooting star shot. The Dharma Bums can be interpreted as the bridge that brought the Romantic, Beat ideals of inner experience outward to later become an emphasis on social change. As socially engaged Buddhism, bringing the wisdom learned through Buddhist practice to the community at large, becomes a by product of Buddhist modernism. Perhaps the countercultural social revolution is a by product of the Dharma Bums graduation from the Beat movement. “They thought I was crazy, but everybody that gave me a ride I’d spin ‘em the Dharmy, boy, and leave ‘em enlightened.” Hitchhiking across the U.S. and Mexico, Smith spreads the wisdom he has learned with anyone he meets. In Buddhism, Japhy and Smith have found an identity which matches their loving and respectful attitudes. “You and I ain’t out to bust anybody’s skull, or cut someone’s throat in an economic way, we’ve dedicated ourselves to prayer for all sentient beings and when we’re strong enough we’ll really be able to do it, too, like the old saints. Who knows, the world might wake up and burst out into a beautiful flower of Dharma everywhere.

As The Dharma Bums develop their practice, Kerouac’s vision of Buddhism becomes less about appearances and Buddhism as a novel hobby. Smith and Japhy settle into their Buddhist practice to discover that their faith is rooted in their lives and philosophy. They aspire to spread the Buddha’s wisdom outward in America, no longer content with a merely private spiritual liberation. Buddhism becomes recognizable in the very fabric of American life, through the thoughtful lens of the Beat poets. No longer reserved for Asian men, Buddhism becomes visible in the Dungarees and flannel shirts of the American layman.



Ranch Essay – “A Buddha for a New Age”


A Buddha for a New Age

The traditional tale of Siddartha, or the Buddha, details the life of a man that lived sometime around 500 BCE. Lands, like the Buddha’s Nepal birthplace, were ruled by kings who lived in fortified palaces with harams of concubines and slums full of servants and subjects. Though there exists today some underdeveloped plots of the Earth where this setting may sound familiar, overwhelmingly those of us living today can relate about as much to the traditional story of the Buddha as we can to King Arthur or Thomas Jefferson. The story of the Buddha in 2013 America must be revised to grab the attention of a modern American, particularly a member of Generation Y. This is the version I would wish to tell:

Siddartha, lovingly known to his Star Wars fanboy  followers as “Darth,” was the adopted son of a House Republican representative with ties to Big Oil. Darth was raised and educated in Highland Park, a private, very affluent and nearly one hundred percent white area located within the middle of Dallas, Texas. While his father and his father’s current wife would fly their private jet back and forth to Washington, he spent his youth confined to the 2.2 square mile community of America’s “1%.”

His father was bent on keeping Darth far from the reaches of the anti-Christian, anti-masculine, anti-war populist ideals that had become the norm of much of the fifty states. Their McMansion contained a television that only played programs from the Trinity Broadcasting Network and TV Land. Darth was only allowed a pager to contact his father and never had any access to the internet. When he was sick, a private physician would arrive at his home. When he was hungry or dirty, Consuela, his Mexican-immigrant nanny would tend to his needs. Private teachers’ homeschooled Darth, prepping him to ace the ACT and get a jump start on the Bar Exam. He was to attain a law degree at SMU while working on his father’s next campaign and eventually get into politics himself. His adopted father knew that Darth’s natural parents were both founding members of the radical countercultural group, the Yippies, and were a part of the first Burning Man event. He made every effort to steer Darth into a sheltered sect of society in which the realities of the world were contrived and shaped to the will and opinions of those irrationally conservative obstructionists who refused to acknowledge the suffering of the less fortunate and less “normal” American people.

On September 11, 2001, Darth woke from his sleep in a pool of sweat. He felt a strong ache in his heart and for the first time, he thought about what was happening out in the world. He hopped on his BMX and raced to the Highland Park/Dallas city limit. He could see people hurriedly walking to their cars, many of them were crying and holding their hands to their foreheads. He rode his bike through neighborhoods full of decaying homes the size of his own home’s garage, heard the sounds of foreign dialects shouted from the tinted windows of low vehicles with chrome rims. Finally, he stopped at a covered bus stop beneath the shadow of a massive Ferris wheel in the Fair Park district of Dallas. One white man and one man with black skin sat together on a pile of cardboard, blankets and crumpled paper with the words “Burger King” stamped across them. Darth noticed that both men were wrinkled and thin with sunken eyes and long wiry white hair and there was only a pair of shoes between them. Brown bottles wrapped in brown paper bags lay empty beneath their outstretched fingers. There were also needles, like the clear ones his own doctor would prick him with for his annual flu shot, were red instead. Darth shook the men, who were breathing short breaths, but neither would wake.

Wondering if he would ever look that way, Darth continued his ride until he found himself surrounded by glass towers with large revolving doors at their bases. He moved toward a large storefront window where televisions of various sizes were displayed. Each set either had the letters “ABC”, “FOX”, or “CNN” in the corners of their screens and every few minutes would show an image of two towers, like the ones he stood beneath, billowing smoke and eventually toppling to the ground. He read the words “America Under Attack” and “Terrorists Strike World Trade Center,” unsure of what had happened. Darth stood in that spot for hours, watching as people on the screens, covered in dust and blood, ran from falling debris. He watched lifeless bodies pulled from rubble by red faced firefighters, and for the first time, he was introduced to death.

He needed to understand this America, and this world that his father kept from him. In the Deep Ellum arts and music district of Dallas, Darth spoke with strange groups of teenagers who encouraged him to go on tour with them, following their favorite bands around the country and sneaking into their punk rock shows, hip-hop battles, jam band gatherings or raves. With his father stuck in Washington, on lockdown after the attack on the Pentagon, Darth was able to disappear without a trace. He hitched rides and shacked up on couches or in car’s back seats, moving from one region of America to the next. He worked merch and as a roadie for hundreds of acts; from My Morning Jacket to Outkast, from Radiohead to Sound Tribe Sector 9. He became a part of the music festival community by volunteering at Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, and Rock the Bells. He spent years without a bank account or an address, getting everything he needed through a “pay it forward” kind of reciprocal system. But as he moved from place to place, meeting and leaving people everywhere he went, he never came to any realization of how to escape the hate and suffering that the world seemed built upon. Addiction, prejudice, selfishness, greed; these things seemed present everywhere he went and he felt powerless.

Finally, in the summer of 2012, Darth found himself in the middle of the desert in Nevada. He had agreed to travel in an RV with a group of friends from San Francisco to attend Burning Man. The event was unlike anything he had ever experienced. People were expected to bring everything they would need for the weeklong event and to leave with it all once it was over. It was not a money-based society, but instead was based on a “gift “economy where one gives and receives everything. It was there, at Black Rock City, that Darth found what he was looking for. Much of society had spent 2012 anxious of what would happen as the Mayan calendar ended, fearing that the world would end. The night of “the Burn,” as the massive wooden man-like structure and dozens of other beautiful art installations were put to the torch, he realized that, although this community based on love and respect and life existed in the middle of nowhere, the consciousness experienced at that place must be shared to as many people as possible. This was the new Age that the world was being ushered into, this was the opportunity that all those alive today and yet to be born would experience. A worldwide community, hyper connected and unafraid of their individuality.

After returning to the Bay Area, Darth became involved in various live music and arts events across the country. He bought a Galaxy S4, IPad and a Chromebook and became a “social media guru,” utilizing Twitter, Facebook groups, Gmail accounts and WordPress blogs to promote artists and events that focused on creation instead of destruction. He made an effort to counsel soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and to encourage them to combat their PTSD through participation in his live music community.  He assisted non-profits whose efforts worked to combat the substance abuse and addiction epidemic. He used non-violent activist tactics to encourage same sex marriages, to take money out of politics, for accountability in the financial sector, compassionate prison reform and for the War on Drugs to be re-appropriated into a War on Substance Abuse.

For the rest of his life, Siddartha spread the concepts of right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration through yoga, mindfulness meditation, poetry, music, TED talks, YouTube live streamed roundtable discussions and by organizing urban and rural transformational festivals and events. He brought forth the message of “Use Your Head” by encouraging everyone he met to become educated and conscious of the social, political, environmental and cultural realities of the world they lived in.


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)