(Buddha, Itivuttaka, Sutta 27, Tipitaka)
What is it to be Buddhist? To meditate? To chant? To read Buddhist books? To be generous? To be compassionate? To be kind? To be wise? No doubt a case can be made for all of these and more to be part of what makes a Buddhist. But, when we look at our behaviour as Buddhists, do we actually fit the bill? A Buddhist (by definition) is someone who tries to put Buddha’s teachings into practice in their lives. Simply paying lip service to Buddha & his teachings but without living them isn’t really being Buddhist, is it? It’s acting, playing out a role, a character in a movie called ‘Life.’ Thing is, if this is the limit of our being Buddhist, isn’t it just another form of identification, an aspect of the ego? He’s Muslim, she’s atheist, and I’m Buddhist; it’s what makes me special. Really?
Does being Buddhist make us special when compared to others? Well, surely no more or less special than anyone else! You see, merely being Buddhist through birth or allegiance doesn’t make us special among humans because we’re essentially the same; we are born, we live and we die; and in our lives we all experience suffering (dukkha). Can we say Buddhist suffering is more special than other kinds of suffering? Of course not! Can we say that identifying with being Buddhist as opposed to Christian or Jewish is a special kind of identification? How can it be? Suffering is suffering, whether it be a Buddhist’s or a Hindu’s, and identification is identification, whether it be Buddhist or Sikh.
So, what are the Buddha’s teachings that we should put into practice so that we might be truly Buddhist? Well, this isn’t as easy a question to answer as at first it might seem. For, what version of those teachings are we to follow? Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Nichiren, Shingon, Tendai, Huayan, Madhyamaka, Yogacara, or Navayana? And these are just some of the main ones! Moreover, even within these various traditions and philosophies there are different teachings and practices which are not followed by all. Going back to the list mentioned at the top of this article, can we say that someone fails to be Buddhist if they don’t meditate or read Buddhist books, for example? Surely not; there’s something more basic to being Buddhist than such specifics isn’t there?
Looking at Buddhists and humanity at large can help us to see what’s needed by recognizing what’s missing. Returning to that universal truth of dukkha (stress or suffering), we can certainly see what people that are in pain need more of: kindness. Buddha promoted a quality of mind called metta, often translated as loving-kindness, although goodwill is a decent enough English equivalent too. Yes, meditation and chanting have their place, as do the other practices already mentioned, but not all of us can sit watching the mind or recite ancient formulas. But what we can do is be kind. We can be kind to our partners, our families, our neighbours, our work colleagues, strangers and acquaintances alike.
You may argue that though being kind is all very laudable, it doesn’t sound particularly Buddhist. And I’d agree with this, because to be truly Buddhist is to be truly human. It isn’t a label or affiliation that makes us Buddhist, but being true to our human condition, and recognizing the same in others, changing our behaviour towards them so that they suffer just a little bit less. A kind word, a smile, a reassuring gesture; all such deeds are forms of metta in action, and make us more like Buddha, whether we identify with him and his teachings or not. Moreover, what’s the point in claiming to be Buddhist, spouting Buddhist philosophy if our actions lack the most basic level of goodwill? In reality, we are putting Buddhism in a bad light, waffling about all kinds of wise ideas and theories but falling short of these lofty notions in the way we conduct ourselves.
So, in answer to the query that opened this article, what it is to be Buddhist, the most basic answer is simply to be kind. Be kind to others and be kind to ourselves. Be kind to humans and animals, for we all have the capacity to suffer, but also the ability to alleviate some of that suffering. Be patient, and don’t listen to gossip nor spread it; forgive as much as you can and don’t wish others harm; see that all wish for happiness and safety – just as you do. If we can do this, then we can claim to be Buddhist, not only in our convictions but also in our actions, which is surely where the essence of being Buddhist is found. And, in doing this, we move closer to all beings, human or otherwise, Buddhist or otherwise. Being Buddhist means being kind.