Why I Am Still a Buddhist

Sometimes I hate being a Buddhist. Years ago I wrote a blog piece called “Buddhism Sucks.” It was the only piece I ever wrote that my teacher, Nishijima Roshi, specifically commented on. He said that I should never “blame Buddhism.” I’ve often wondered about his use of the English word “blame.” He didn’t exactly mean “criticize.” He knew that word. I think he meant something like I shouldn’t disparage Buddhism. But I still sometimes hate being a Buddhist.

When you call yourself a Buddhist, you invite people to define you according to all their preconceptions and prejudices about Buddhists. Of course this goes for any religion or for any group you choose to identify with. If you call yourself a Christian or a Republican or a Punk or a Polyamorist or any of those things, you’re inviting people to define you in the way they have defined those things in the past. You have to accept at least some aspects of the common definition of those things.

There are benefits to doing this as well as problems. If you want someone to know how you feel on issues like abortion, global warming and military spending without having to waste a lot of time going point-by-point through the issues you might simply say, “I’m a conservative.” If you’re trying to get people to buy your album and you know they’re not going to take the time to listen carefully to every cut, you can categorize it as “hardcore punk” — even if it ends with a nine minute song featuring sitar, sleigh bells and Mellotron like the new Zero Defex album. You also benefit by aligning yourself with a group whose ideals you agree with, or at least mostly agree with simply because there is strength in numbers.

Nobody ever agrees with every stereotype random passers-by might associate with whatever it is they’ve chosen to align themselves with. There are political conservatives who believe in women having the right to abortions. There are Born-Again Christians who vote for Obama. There are even Buddhists who supported the bombing of Iraq. People are full of surprises.

At about the 2:50 mark in the video above (part two of Bad News Tour from the DVD set The Comic Strip Presents) the members of the fictional band Bad News argue over whether they are or are not “heavy metal.” The leader of the band insists that they’re more subtle than the label heavy metal implies while the rest of the group is content, even happy with calling themselves heavy metal. For one thing, aligning your band with a specific genre is a good way to get gigs.

So, too, calling myself a Buddhist gets me access to lots of speaking gigs and invitations to lead workshops and suchlike that I wouldn’t have had if I presented myself as some kind of  unaffiliated spiritual guy. My first book, Hardcore Zen, came out from Wisdom Publications, a company that specializes in Buddhist books. They don’t publish books by unaffiliated spiritual people like Ekhart Tolle or Jiddu Krishnamurti. They only publish Buddhists. In order to get published by them, you gotta be a Buddhist of some sort.

But I don’t just refer to myself as a Buddhist for such mercenary-like reasons. I call myself Buddhist mainly because I feel like it would be dishonest not to do so. Whatever wisdom I have to offer comes as a result of studying with Buddhist teachers and practicing Buddhist meditation. My main philosophical inspiration is Eihei Dogen who very much identified himself as a Buddhist teacher and clearly thought of his philosophy as an expression of Buddhist understanding.

Still, I do not fit all of the molds people want to squash me into when I say that I’m a Buddhist. I don’t look like a typical monk. I don’t talk in that lilting, soothing voice people have come to expect of Buddhists they’ve seen on TV — usually portrayed by actors who know little about Buddhism. I play bass in a hardcore punk band (but, of course, we’re more subtle than that!) and you don’t see many Buddhists doing that apart from the late lamented MCA of the Beastie Boys. Then again, I’m from the Zen tradition and one of the characteristics of that tradition is a rejection of such stereotypes (see Ikkyu for example).

The name “Buddhism” was invented by Western researchers who thought that they had discovered a religion much like the religions they were already familiar with. They assumed that Buddha was a kind of god who was worshiped by his followers and who promised rewards in the afterlife to those who served him well. Even though Western academics who study religions have known for at least a century that this is not the case, the general public does not. I still run into people who assume I worship Buddha and wonder what Buddhist Heaven is supposed to be like.

If you call yourself a Buddhist a lot of people think they can demand you to behave in the ways they think a Buddhist is supposed to behave. You have to end all of your emails with phrases like “be well” or “gassho.” You have to say only nice things about people. You have to be serene at all times. You can’t curse. You can’t listen to punk rock. You can’t look at dirty pictures. And on and on and on…

Me, I used to listen to those people. But I don’t anymore. They don’t really get what Buddhism is, if you ask me, even if they too define themselves as Buddhists.

Buddhism isn’t a religion or even a philosophy in the usual sense. But it is something true and important. It happens to be saddled with an unfortunate name. But that’s the name it’s got. It’s like the name hippopotamus. It’s clunky and old-fashioned. It doesn’t describe the thing very well. But it’s what everybody calls the thing. So we’re stuck with it. I’m stuck with it.

It’s a tradition started by a man named Siddhartha Gotama. When he attained a certain kind of understanding he said he was awakened. Thus he was called “Buddha.” But it wasn’t that he alone was Buddha in contrast with the rest of us. He said that anyone could be Buddha, could be awakened. So the name Buddhism doesn’t mean what the people who invented it thought it meant. It doesn’t mean “worshipers of Buddha.” It means “those who believe that it is possible to become awakened.” I find that definition agreeable.

I also feel like I agree with most — though definitely not all — of the things most Buddhists believe in. I mean this more in terms of the general thrust of what most Buddhists believe in rather than in the detailed specifics. I think ordinary people can achieve awakening. I think that this world we live in is more important than any sort of other realm we can imagine. I think that the only real time is this moment. All that kind of stuff.

I also accept the basic traditions of the form of Buddhism I studied. I do the chants when it’s time to chant. I wear the robes when it’s appropriate. I go to meditation intensives, spend time at monasteries, argue with my fellow practitioners over what the tradition really means.

I’m very concerned with getting to the heart of what it means to be a Buddhist in this time and place. This is why, for example, I got so pissed at Gempo Roshi and his Big Mind® garbage and about the recent “Buddhism and Psychedelics” event in Santa Cruz. If I were not a Buddhist myself, I’d have no business being so critical of that kind of stuff. But I feel like someone has to be.

This gets me in trouble too. Because every time I’m critical of something some other Buddhist does I get called out. See, Buddhists are not supposed to criticize other Buddhists. But the misuse of this precept allows too many people to use it as a shield and just do whatever the hell they want and call it Buddhism. As a Buddhist, I can’t abide by that. Still, it seems like the best some of these folks can do is say, “Hey! You’re not allowed to criticize me!” If that’s all they can offer in their defense, that says a lot right there. Whatever.

I don’t feel like I belong to some big religious institution called Buddhism. I’m not sure institutionalized Buddhism really even is Buddhism at all. But maybe I should save that for another time. There are organized religions out there that use the name Buddhism to describe themselves. But I don’t belong to any of those. It’s not necessary.

Anyhow, I feel like I am a Buddhist now whether I want to be or not. So I’d best be honest about it.


Donations to this site will sometimes be spent on Buddhist stuff like maybe some zafus.


I’m in Europe now. Check my EVENTS page for all my tour dates.



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57 Responses

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  1. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote October 28, 2012 at 7:59 am |

    “Do not despair if you cannot lift the second leg up into the full position.”

    My left knee was talking to me this spring and summer. I went down to Jikoji for Kobun’s memorial, and brought home the book of Kobun anecdotes and stories that Vanja Palmers put together for the sangha (what a guy!). In the book, there’s a story of how someone heard Kobun could get into the lotus without using his hands. When he was asked about it, he demonstrated that he could. Although I can’t do what he did, if I aim to do that I find I can get in the posture without my knees talking to me.

    The article on yoga stretches mentions the hips, and there is a stretch there in the lotus no doubt, but there is also stretch at the ilio-sacral “joints”. Observing the stretch at the sacrum was my entry to sitting the lotus in zazen.

    Nevertheless, the practice of zazen is to allow the present sense of location to open the feeling necessary to the movement of breath. I am writing now concerning the role of the senses of equilibrium, gravity and proprioception in the location of awareness, and I discover that for me equilibrium brings forward the hammocking of the hips through activity of the obturator muscles, the turning of the wings of the pelvis by the sartorious muscles, and the rock forward and back on the sit bones through activity of the extensor and psoas muscles. When the activity of the piriformis muscles and gluteous muscles in a counter-rotation to sartorius of the sacrum comes forward, the necessity of breath in the placement of awareness and the ability to feel can include “the infinity of ether” in the ten directions, so to speak.

    For me, it’s very important to my knees to realize that the activity from the soles of my feet to the crown of my head and from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet can turn the sacrum one way and the pelvis the other, and that this activity is engendered through the location of awareness and the ability to feel that arises in the necessity of the movement of breath at the moment.

  2. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth October 28, 2012 at 8:16 am |

    “I don’t talk in that lilting, soothing voice people have come to expect of Buddhists they’ve seen on TV ”

    Mostly I just think Buddhists should sound like Yoda, or maybe the DJ from Northern Exposure.

  3. heisenberg
    heisenberg October 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |

    I really liked your article and I also find the problem of prejudice really irritating. To me Buddhism is something really close and personal. Sometimes to me it feels like a way of being at home anywhere you are. And at home it is just you and your own way of living and being with other people. If I would always act in a stupid soothing, self-publicising way nobody would want to be a true friend with me (maybe just a fan of me not seeing who I am and what I need). And without a true friend you are just lonely.

  4. RougeBuddha
    RougeBuddha November 3, 2012 at 8:13 am |

    Here! Here!

  5. hrtbeat7
    hrtbeat7 November 10, 2012 at 4:24 pm |

    Buddhism Is Boring

    Not to cast aspersions, but religion
    mostly is perversion.

    Two or three are always warring,
    but then there is Buddhism –

    Buddhism is boring.

    Buddhism is all about consciousness.
    Consciousness is stressful (and boring).

    Boredom is consciousness modifying itself
    endlessly, for the sake of endless modification.

    Ho Hum. Hum drum. Dum de dum dum . . .

    Boredom can never transcend itself —
    not by inference, accident, or incident.

    Yes, just sit.

    If you think there is a “beyond consciousness”,
    that thought is in consciousness.

    It’s boring, like boring old Buddhism.
    To study Buddhism is to study the self.

    What could be more boring?
    Still, just sit.

    Boring or not, the 5 aggregates
    are my fantasy playground.

    In a game of names with no players,
    what’s in a name? “Self” or “not-self” –

    who gives a flying fish?

    This manifesto has yet to be moderated.
    All things in moderation, please.

    If I were to really say it, nothing would change.
    That would be enough for direct introductions.

    There, I’ve said it!

    Buddhism is just to stop. Don’t move!
    That’s the compassionate thing to do.

    Compassion is simply to watch
    where you’re going.

    You’re going nowhere.
    That is realization.

    There is nothing to realize.
    So, just sit. Sit and sit.

    It won’t hurt anybody.
    “Anybody” is in consciousness.

    If you believe there is anybody
    beyond consciousness, that belief
    is in consciousness (and boring).

    The whole phenomenal world is alive
    with the sound of music.

    Still, the music is extra.

    It is not Buddhist, not boring, not
    greedy, angry, envious or deluded.

    Not an inference or direct realization.
    Not a conception nor perception.

    Nothing special. Nothing
    in particular, square,
    or circular.

    Everything is quiescently resting in moderation,
    right on the verge of a lyrical extinction.

    Nirvana means extinction.
    Here’s a tune:

    “Gone, gone, gone beyond.
    Gone beyond the beyond.”

    Gone fishing.

    Master says:
    “Sit and fish.”

    Yes, just sit. Sit and sit
    in your own fishing pit.

    Be bored.

    Be bored for the sake
    of all boring sentience,
    for the sake of all bored fishes
    for goodness sake, all wrapped up
    in Buddhist newspapers, awaiting a
    a nice hibachi, some sesame oil
    and a rich soy sauce, an Asahi
    or two, or three.

    Real Practice is not seeking
    elsewhere, not fishing for some other
    place in space and time to drop a line,
    and so is never boring, never and always
    in consciousness, never actually
    stressful or moderated, just
    enjoying the fishing thing,
    the skandhas and whatnot,
    the quintessential aspect
    of boring Buddhism, the dream
    of fish grilled beyond consciousness,
    beyond any comprehension of attention,
    beyond anything with a name of form –

    Awareness Itself –

    nothing in particular, not this or that,
    just what it is, what it was and will be,
    letting the dog out to pee, for ever
    and ever, beyond no and never.


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