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