say it loud, say it proud

This past weekend, at the opening of the new Jodo Shinshu Center in Berkeley (where I’ve gotten myself a new job, but that’s another story), there was a symposium on the varieties of nembutsu practice in Buddhism. It was, among other things, your typical academic symposium, full of very good, well-written papers by some very bright, wonderful scholars where I learned a good deal about things that are now hard to put into words. But that’s not what I’m writing about.

At the end of the day, when the panel opened the floor up to general questions from the audience, a woman raised her hand to ask a question and started off by saying, “I’m a Buddhist — well, I don’t like saying that. I’m a follower of the Buddha dharma.” Which set the panel off, of course, on a very long conversation about what that means. What it means to call oneself a Buddhist.

One professor asked pointedly why the woman had said that. Why she was hesitant to call herself “a Buddhist.” And the woman’s response was that she felt it was sort of arrogant. That it implied that she “knew something” or had “accomplished” something to be a Buddhist. But for her, being a Buddhist wasn’t at all about accomplishing something, rather it was a process of learning things. Or, more often, to be completely befuddled all the time.

The professor responded that she, too, felt uncomfortable calling herself a Buddhist. In part because of the things the audience member had said, but also because whenever someone asks her “Are you a Buddhist?” she feels like she has to say yes but in defense of some preconceived notion the questioner has in mind. Like the question is coming with a fair amount of baggage. It’s a loaded question, so the response “Yes, I’m a Buddhist,” is almost certainly going to be qualified with a “but…”

Needless to say, I very much relate to these women’s experiences. Whenever I have a conversation with someone about Buddhism (who doesn’t know a great deal about the subject) I feel as though I’m fighting preconceived ideas about what that means — anything from being a vegetarian to whether or not I sit in mediation to the extreme assumption that being a Buddhist means that I’m somehow more “spiritually” advanced than I really am, that being a Buddhist means being a Buddha.

Which it certainly does not.

At any rate, my very good friend (and the man who’ll be performing my wedding ceremony next summer) Harry said to all this, “Say it loud. Say it proud. I’m Buddhist and I’m proud!”

Which I like. I like it a lot.

So I’m claiming the label. Even if I have to qualify it and explain it. I’m a Buddhist. And damn proud of it.