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Justin Whitaker’s blog pointed me to some interesting recent discussions of what it means to be a Buddhist, among Buddhist bloggers mostly of the Yavanayāna persuasion. Blogger Marcus (no last name provided) threw down a strongly worded gauntlet last week: “The fact is, if you are serious about Buddhism, you don’t drink. The Buddha’s words couldn’t be clearer.”

I have at least two objections to Marcus’s claim about alcohol. First, we fail at our chosen life goals all the time; we may be serious about following Buddhism, believe that therefore we shouldn’t drink, and still drink anyway. That may make us bad at Buddhism, but it doesn’t make us unserious. Second, matters are often not so cut and dried. It would be hard to say that Śāntideva was not serious about Buddhism – he became a lifelong monk and tried hard to live according to the words of the Buddha as he understood them. But he actually advocates (following the Mahāyāna Ugraparipṛcchā Sūtra, which at least claims to be the word of the Buddha) that one give alcohol to alcohol drinkers, as a way of winning their trust. (I discuss this point briefly the fourth chapter of my dissertation, and am writing an article on it in more detail.)

On the specific matter of alcohol, I tend to disagree with Marcus. But the discussion among Buddhist bloggers centred around bigger issues, where I think Marcus was quite right. Kyle of The Reformed Buddhist (who also appears to go without a last name) made a number of objections to Marcus, some of which I think are valid, some not so. But at the core of his reaction seems to be his first sentence: “Sigh the whole you’re no Buddhist thing again.” [emphases his] He seems in this post to take offence to the idea that someone could declare someone else to not be a Buddhist, or not be a serious Buddhist. In this he would seem to be agreeing with a slightly earlier post by Scott Mitchell of The Buddha Is My DJ. Mitchell opposes the claim made by some Buddhists (presumably including Marcus?) that their Buddhism is better or (or more “authentic”) than others’: “feel free to define yourself and your Buddhist practice. But stop doing it as a means to differentiate yourself from some “other” kind of Buddhist.”

Here I’ve got issues. Kyle’s and Mitchell’s positions are far from unusual. They are quite close, in fact, to the general scholarly consensus in Buddhist studies on how we define Buddhism: anyone who calls herself a Buddhist, is a Buddhist. Who are we to tell others that they are not Buddhists?

I’m surprised that that rhetorical question gets asked so much, because it has such an obvious answer: we are people who have tried to think about what Buddhism actually is, that’s what we are. You could similarly ask “Who are we to tell others that they are not peanut butter sandwiches?” The fact that someone calls himself a peanut butter sandwich does not actually make him one.

To say that all people who call themselves Buddhists are in fact Buddhist is effectively to say that there is no such thing as Buddhism, that being a Buddhist means nothing at all. It authorizes people like the character Edina from Absolutely Fabulous, who claims to be a Buddhist because she wants to have her ashes scattered on the Ganges when she dies, and lives a shallow hedonistic life in wish she never thinks or acts at all about ending suffering. (“Buddhologist” scholars often don’t care about this implication, because they’re studying the tradition entirely from outside anyway – the truths in Buddhism don’t matter to them.)

Or, to use an example that I think might be more persuasive in the present context: Suppose Dick Cheney were to declare himself a Buddhist today, but carry on acting exactly as he did in every other respect, advocating mass murder and the despoiling of the natural environment for the sake of his oil buddies’ profits. Would you still say Cheney’s is a Buddhism as legitimate and serious as that of S?riputta or Thich Nhat Hanh? If so, I don’t see why you call yourself a Buddhist in the first place: being a Buddhist is no different whatsoever from not being a Buddhist. (NB to conservative readers: I have no interest in getting into a discussion of whether this is an accurate characterization of Cheney; the point is to use an example that resonates with the liberal Buddhists whose points I’m addressing.)

Scott Mitchell, meanwhile, says: “The problem is when you make the claim that your Buddhism is more ‘authentic’ than someone else’s Buddhism (because, ahem, that’s the very definition of fundamentalism)…” Well, yes, except that it isn’t. Show me any scholarly article, or any dictionary entry, that defines “fundamentalism” in terms of identifying your tradition as more authentic than another’s. (I’ve voiced my own concerns with the concept of authenticity before, but “fundamentalism” is far from among them.) The central feature of Protestant and Muslim fundamentalism is unbending scriptural literalism, which is quite a different thing. Other bloggers have joked that “fundamentalism is any tradition more theologically conservative than mine,” and that seems to be the root of Mitchell’s definition: a discomfort that anyone could tell him or others he is doing something wrong.

But as far as I can tell, being told you’re doing something wrong is the whole point of identifying with a tradition in the first place. I don’t call myself a Buddhist (yet, at least) because there’s too much in the tradition I strongly disagree with. But if I did, I would do it because it’s important to have guidance, to have others calling you out when you do something that’s not conducive to you being a better person. If being a Buddhist means there’s no problem with doing anything you want, why bother being one in the first place?

Now that the school year has begun, starting next week, I’m going to move from a thrice-weekly to a twice-weekly blogging schedule: posting Sunday and Wednesday rather than Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. I want to make sure I have regular content that’s worth coming back for, and with the semester on I don’t have time to do that three times a week.