Becoming a Buddhist
For most people, becoming a Buddhist goes something like this. First, an encounter with a vague mishmash of Buddhist ideas, including reincarnation, godlessness, individualism, orange robes, shaven heads, temples, meditation and mindfulness. Then the desire, or the opportunity, to explore further: attending a lecture, a discussion with friends, a video on YouTube, a book from somewhere. Then the feeling that Buddhism – at some level – offers a solution to something, probably at the level of giving some sense and meaning to life. Then comes studying with a teacher, or attending a class, or meditating on your own. Alongside these stages these is a mental process whereby various Buddhist ideas are assimilated to varying degrees, some more than others. The individualism appeals greatly to people in the west, as does the idea of morality being an individual matter – no need to apologise for your bad character and dishonesty – and mindfulness seems harmless enough. Reincarnation sounds good, but seems a bit of a fantasy when it comes down to it, as does karma. Both can be taken on without much mental conflict. There are also various words to learn – Buddhist jargon – but these are more for the serious participant than the solitary meditator. The whole process of becoming a Buddhist can be painless enough, and it follows a pattern that is true for anyone adopting any kind of ideology.
But underlying the whole process – harmless though it may appear – is a situation which is not only pernicious, it is counterproductive to genuine Buddhism itself. This is especially true of anyone trying to treat Buddhism as something more engaging than a mere flimsy outer garment. And the process in question is that of subtly, or forcefully, twisting reality as you experience it to conform to what you perceive to be Buddhist ideas, or ideals, or norms. Buddhism is treated as a giant mental template, which you apply to your mental life, in the hope and expectation that it will deliver some kind of positive outcome. And to begin with, this mental template may well fit snugly, and make you feel like you have come home at last, but as you progress with the whole process there will be more and more demands made on your ways of thinking, and greater pressure on you to adapt your thinking to your template. For example, you may be very attracted to the teachings of a certain famous teacher, and to begin with at least, this teacher appeared to be preaching a gospel you could have written yourself. Later on, as the teachings become more involved with Buddhist doctrine, you find yourself more and more at sea, sometimes wondering what any of it has got to do with anything. But rather than confronting the situation, you look for ways of accommodating to it, and you start to go on a hunt for evidence to support the ideas which you may be very doubtful about. And surprise ! The more you look, the more you find, and every time you find confirmation – sometimes very flimsy and imaginary – you feel a sense of relief, and reassurance, and the whole thing is starting to take on a very solid, dependable aspect to it, and you are very glad you persisted.
[As an aside, there are many Buddhist forums on the web, and a relatively sustained browsing of the postings will soon show you that almost all of the participants are, one way or another, besides displaying their holiness and righteousness, essentially trying to find ways of accommodating their experiences to Buddhist doctrine. Participants want to be reassured that what they are doing is the right thing, and the only way they can do that is have other Buddhists – even if they are only people who contribute to forums – endorse their experience.]
This is entirely the wrong way to go about approaching Buddhism. The whole point of Buddhism is to set you on an independent quest for metaphysical Enlightenment, putting aside all forms of tradition and doctrine, so that you can find out the truth for yourself – whatever that truth might be. And if you take up the quest for truth, the fact is, you don’t need Buddhism in any shape or form, you could just as easily never think about it again, and just get on with what you have to do. Buddhism – in the form of residual writings and records – should be there as an inspiration, and as a goad to trying harder, and to thinking more profoundly, not as a doctrinal source of faith, belief and practice. Buddhist religion – chanting, praying, whatever – has no value whatsoever to the serious quester, because it does not contribute to the process of analysing your inner light, and following it to its source.
You become a Buddhist by embarking – in your own way, at your own pace, and at your own level – on the Buddhist quest for metaphysical knowledge and Enlightenment. To become just another believer, or just another member of a religious community, goes against the very essence of what the Buddha taught. Of course, as just another Buddhist believer, praying and chanting and believing in fantastic stories, you will by no means be on your own, but that is hardly an endorsement of such a feeble attempt at the ultimate quest.