So I was asked by a friend to recommend a good introduction to Buddhism for him. He’d led a rough life and said he was happy with the Way he’d discovered for himself, but people (not me by the way) were telling him that it was a very “Buddhist” way so he thought he’d investigate. This brought up the question for me “Why become a Buddhist?”. It also reminded me on the other side of how we were taught in Catholic seminary to answer the question, “Why do I need to be Christian, isn’t it enough to be good?”. I say ‘on the other side’ because the answers are exactly opposite.
In answering the question about Christianity we were told to emphasize that good works are not enough. What distinguished Christianity was the acceptance of God’s grace in the sacrifice of Jesus. The thrust of our message was to be that Christianity was about surrendering ourselves to God, to His Will and His Grace - and along the way with His Rules and His Church.
As I thought about my friend’s request I recognized that it was really valid. Buddhists don’t appeal to a Higher Power or look to a god to do things for us. (At least Buddhist teaching says we don’t - as it’s practiced in many Eastern cultures it certainly looks like it does, especially to outsiders, but that’s a topic for another post.) The teachings of the Buddha are the teachings of a man who led a rough life - admittedly by his own choice - and found a way to release suffering and dissatisfaction for both him and others. This same way can be discovered by any other human as well - removing the mystical beliefs of traditional Buddhism and going back to the Buddha’s own teaching about himself as human.
After suggesting a book that I really like - “Wide Awake” by Diane Winston - I told my friend that what he’d found might well be the essence of Buddhism - the fact that we humans can stop relying on something outside ourselves and stop accepting ourselves as victims. When we do this and instead focus on the ways we’re all interconnected and treating each other with compassion - and stop projecting our selfish desires onto the reality that is - we have found what Buddhism is teaching; whether we learn it in a temple or a support group or on the streets. So why become a Buddhist?
To me it goes back to - and also helps answer - the question of is Buddhism a religion? In Latin ‘religio’ means conscientiousness and comes from ‘re’ (or do again) + ‘ligare’ (tie or bind). So religion could be said to be the conscientious practices that bind a community together again and again. Another dictionary definition of religion is, “A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion”. As much as we may practice Buddhist philosophy alone the essence of Buddhism as a religion is the community of practice and support. It’s great to discover for yourself the basis of Buddhist teaching that I talked about above, but without the community of practice you have no harbor in which to shelter when you are buffeted by winds of doubt - whether they are spawned by other religions trying to ‘convert’ you or by friends telling you Buddhism is weird or your own doubts about whether we can get by without a Father God.
‘Why become Buddhist?’ to me can only be asked in concert with ‘why join a Buddhist sangha?’ because the essence of Buddhist religion is and has always been the practices that bind us to and in community. It is the support you get from others who practice in ways similar to you. It is the amazing sense of community that arises during group chanting of a mantra or gatha. It is feeling the members of your community around you as you meditate, hearing them as we together dedicate our practice to all beings, seeing them sharing tea and conversation.
Buddhism is community, and I think that’s something that Western Buddhism has yet to fully integrate. For too many of us Buddhism is what we practice in our home meditation space - and hopefully in our lives as well. We might go once a week to a meditation group for group sitting or chanting, but we’re not really bound to those people. The religion of the Buddhist is in the community of practitioners. From there it flows naturally into the world of all beings. To be a Buddhist is to join this community. To be a Buddhist is to embrace fully The Buddha (historically and the Buddha in all beings), The Dharma (again historically as well as all teachings of compassion and altruism) and The Sangha (the community of practitioners).