Sunday, July 4, 2010

Buddhist Identity and the Four Dharma Seals

Rusty Christ
Rusty Christ, Bonnieux, France, 2010

NellaLou had an interesting post up, regarding Buddhist identity and what different people say makes someone a "good" Buddhist, or a plain ol' Buddhist with no qualifications. She contrasts a long list of behavioral criteria collected from a variety of sources with the Four Dharma Seals. While she doesn't actually say so in so many words, it's pretty obvious where her sympathies lie.

She quotes the Four Dharma Seals from the book What Makes You Not A Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse:
One is a Buddhist if he or she accepts the following four truths:
  • All compounded things are impermanent
  • All emotions are pain
  • All things have no inherent existence
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts
By these criteria, I would qualify as a Buddhist (even if I'd quibble a bit about 'pain'—I've seen other translations that I think might be more accurate). But then (probably) so would my wife and both of my parents and at least one of my sisters, even though my wife identifies as Catholic, my sister as Lutheran, and my parents as nonreligious.

I think a better phrasing for the four Dharma seals would be as a negation, like the one in the book's title: "One is not a Buddhist unless he or she accepts the following four truths....:"

What about leaving room for not understanding the Dharma seals? For example, the third seal—"all things have no inherent existence"—is a counterintuitive concept, and it takes a fair bit of work to understand what it means, even at a superficial, intellectual level, never even mind the kind of internalized understanding that actually directs what you do and how you are. Would someone who doesn't understand what it means but is sincerely attempting to do so qualify as a Buddhist? Intuitively, I would think that they should.

Furthermore, how deeply do you have to understand them to qualify?

For example, I think I understand what the Seals mean, but only at a superficial and intellectual level.
  • All compounded things are impermanent: yes, this is basically a restating of the second law of thermodynamics. Everything falls apart, eventually, until the universe is completely uniform, or collapses back on itself and starts over (which would be more satisfying, not to mention more in tune with the Abhidharma, but we don't know if that's actually what will happen).
  • All emotions are pain: yes, because even the most pleasurable emotion is transient and carries the anticipation of ending, which is painful, and should it be sustained for a time, it becomes the new baseline, which just makes the rest of your existence even more painful.
  • All things have no inherent existence: yes, because the universe is an interconnected continuum that's in a continuous state of flux, and "things" are just concepts that exist in our mind in order to impose an order on it and allow our rational mind to make sense of it and manipulate it.
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts: yes, that is its definition. It is the "whereof you cannot speak" of Wittgenstein 7, God of Isaac Luria, St. John of the Cross, Jalaleddin Rumi, or Ibn Arabi, the singularity in which concepts lose their meaning. Big, heady words, them.
Thing is, this is all very superficial, and I have only internalized these meanings to various degrees. I'm very comfortable with #3, and have been since I read Karl Popper's essays on nominalism about fifteen years ago at least; #1 just seems like a statement of a pretty obvious fact, #2 is something I intellectually accept and that's sort of growing in me but I certainly can't consistently act as if I truly accepted it, and I only have a very tenuous hold on #4—at best, I can honestly say "I don't know."

So do I still qualify as a Buddhist? I don't usually think of myself as a Buddhist, I haven't gone through any initiation ceremony or learned any secret Buddhist handshakes, although I sit, chant, bow, and study, for a bit anyway.

My sister and her soon-to-be-husband treat me as a Buddhist, which I found rather weird. We were having a beer the other day, and he said something like "Well, you only live once, you know," and then sort of started and looked at me guiltily and added "...or, uh, what do you Buddhists say?" So I put on my best Zen expression and solemnly pronounced "There is rebirth, but it is not what you think." Odd experience.

Finally, how much does it ultimately matter? Is "I am a Buddhist" just another way of reinforcing the self? I mean, I can see how it matters for a teacher—someone who "brands" himself (usually it's himself) as Buddhist but teaches something that doesn't conform to the Seals isn't helpful, but what about us ordinary folks just trying to come to grips with dukkha? How important is it to put on the robe, figuratively or literally?

Clearly, it must have some importance, since outward signs of Buddhist identity figure very prominently in the history of Buddhism, from those cool yellow hats the Tibetans wear to the straw baskets Chinese monks put on their heads and the little bibs Zennies like to stitch in their sewing clubs. Buddhist practice is quite demanding, and I think those things are mainly commitment devices—if you've had your head shaved in a solemn ceremony by some wizened old Master with bushy eyebrows, it makes it a little bit harder to give up and go home when the going gets tough.

But what about lay practice? Can one be a Buddhist without "being a Buddhist?" Should one? What are the downsides and upsides? Is this even worth thinking about?  For now, my Facebook profile lists "religious views" as "Zen curious," which is as accurate a description of them as any I can manage at this time, I think. Should I work towards changing that, or just let things flow?


  1. You ought to be able to be the essence of a Buddhist without wearing a uniform, I would think. Also, embracing a religion as an identity is not automatically the same as absorbing and working with and living by its tenets. Just my two cents on that, obviously, because I'm seriously religiously impaired.

    I do know one thing, however;I myself am most definitely never going to be able to be a Buddhist if I have to agree with those four seals. Even if I didn't distrust generalizations of that magnitude on principal, I would have a hard time believing them to be anything but intellectual gamesmanship.

    Also my post is (predictably)too long, so any discussion of how vehemently I disagree with those four statements will have to be done elsewhere.
    ~mags the wordy

  2. It seems if the first door of understanding the dharma for someone is intellectual that shouldn't be a problem. It was so for me also. I have found it sort of works itself into the rest like adding flour to bread dough and kneading it.

    If "perfect" embodiment of all Buddhist thought and practice were available just by taking vows or something then practice itself wouldn't be necessary at all. It would be like taking an enlightenment pill and voila!

    Uniforms don't matter at all really. Their purpose is social, like all uniforms-to signify to others one's role and in the Buddhist context the essential activity going on within-a sticky note to self would be equally appropriate.