on being and not being a buddhist

There’s a book on display in the BCA bookstore called “What Makes You NOT a Buddhist?”, which, of course, reminds me of a recent piece over at the Dharma Folk blog about being a not Buddhist, which, of course, reminds me of Harry’s and my discussion about being (or becoming) a Buddhist on our podcast. See, it’s all a big circle.

At any rate, the “not” got me thinking. It got me thinking because I’ve been reading a very interesting, albeit highly theoretical, book about religion in global society.1 Being written from a sociological perspective, the author takes it as a given that all religious institutions are constructed realities. Of course, all social institutions (religions, nations, “the media”, marriage, you name it) are constructed realities. What this means is that they’re created by societies. They do not exist in some pure form, in some vacuum or idealized Platonic state. They exist because we, collectively, say they exist.2

Buddhism, as a religion, falls into this category. As a religion, it was “constructed” around the same time the other great “world religions” were constructed and, this author argues, they were all constructed in opposition to (or at least in conversation with) Christianity. In other words, when folks started running around saying “what these people over here are doing is Buddhism,” they knew it was Buddhism because it wasn’t Christianity.

I really like this sociological take on things. Then again, as much as I geek out on computer stuff, I geek out ten times harder on sociological theory and social criticism. But what I think is lacking in this book is the human element. It’s one thing to say that religious institutions are constructed realities; but that says nothing about how these constructed realities are internalized — embodied — in actual people. That there are actual Buddhists out there acting out their internalized and socially constructed Buddhist selves.3

What’s this got to do with being (or not being) a Buddhist? I think that in a very real way we are defining our identities in opposition to that which we are not. Part of my Buddhist identity is formed by the things that I don’t do, the things I don’t believe. I’m a Shin Buddhist, in part, because I don’t meditate. I’m a Buddhist, in part, because I don’t accept Jesus as my personal savior. And so on.

Any time I make the claim that I am a Buddhist, I am making a claim about what it means to not be a Buddhist. But what I’d like to call attention to here is the idea that both positions are imbued with meaning. That is, whether you claim to be “a Buddhist” or to be a “not Buddhist,” you are helping to define yourself in some meaningful way to the rest of the world.

Consider the “institution of marriage.” Four years ago, I was “single.” Then I was “in a relationship.” Then “engaged.” Now “married.” Each of these positions has social and cultural meanings attached to them and each of them are defined, in part, by what they’re not. Being single means not being in a relationship. Being in a relationship means not being single. The recursive nature of the definition often strikes people as completely arbitrary and absurd — which it is. But that does not mean that the terms “single” or “married” are without meaning and without consequence. We live in a society that places a huge value on one’s relationship status. If you don’t believe me, watch the California ballot this November. Check out your IRS 1040 form next spring. My marriage actually has a dollar value to it encoded in U.S. tax law.

Marriage means very specific things to me, personally. I chose to get married for very individual, very personal reasons (apart from being madly in love, of course). These personal meanings sometimes directly contradict the socially constructed meanings of “marriage.” But I still enjoy the perks. That’s the nice thing about the “institution of marriage”; it gives me a convenient short-hand and certain social benefits and privileges not given to single people. To understand what that means, consider the difference, to the gay and lesbian community, between “marriage” and “domestic partner.” When you meet someone for the first time and say, “Oh, I’m married,” everyone knows what that means. It’s got a built-in system of meaning that everyone accepts (even if every marriage is different). If you meet someone for the first time and say, “Oh, I’m in a domestic partnership” — what the hell does that mean? It can mean a thousand different things in fifty different states and carries with it no social perks apart from a convenient tax break.4

When I say I’m a Buddhist, everyone knows what that means, even if what they think it means doesn’t describe who I am or my practice. But it’s an easy short-hand. If I’m in the mood, I can explain the complexities of it; and sometimes I do. But a crucial difference between the institution of marriage and the institution of Buddhism is that the institution of marriage is an institution of two. Dana’s and my institution has a system of meaning relevant really only to us (a system of meaning I love, by the way). The institution of Buddhism has a system of meaning (rules, mores, codes of conduct, “proper” behavior, etc.) that’s relevant to millions of people around the world.

Even though it’s socially constructed, it’s pretty freakin’ relevant on a day-to-day basis for millions of people.

Sometimes there is overlap between the institutional meaning system and my own personal take on things, on my own identity. Both in marriage and in Buddhism. Sometimes, there are disagreements. In the socially constructed institution of marriage, fidelity is expected. Dana and I expect it our marriage, too. Gender roles in marriage (like me being the sole-provider and Dana being expected to do all the housework), aren’t expected in our marriage. The same could be said of Buddhism. In Buddhism, there’s the expectation of mindfulness and compassion. These are virtues I expect in myself, personally. The stereotype that the normative form of Buddhist practice is seated meditation, however, I don’t agree with, it’s not part of what it means to be a Buddhist for me.

There is a trend in the West (and elsewhere I expect) of claiming that Buddhism is not a religion. That it is merely a philosophy. A way of life. That spirituality is more important than religion. In some circles, the notion of “religion” is such a turn off, but Buddhism is such a turn on, that there is no way to reconcile the two. Thus, Buddhism must not be a religion. It must be a “way of life.”

Personally, I really want Buddhism to be a religion. I want Buddhism to be a religion because of the First Amendment. This is no small matter. Just ask those Scientology folks.

Institutions, and the people at their helm, have power, have relevance, have deeply embedded meaning. Just as the Dalai Lama.

Where is all this going? What’s the point of this long and meandering post? Is there one? Have I actually said anything about what it means to be a Buddhist? Or not a Buddhist? I don’t know. But I do know this:

It does mean something to be a Buddhist. Every day people make claims about Buddhism. And every day we think of ourselves as Buddhist or not Buddhist in some way. And those claims, ultimately, effect what Buddhism means. Buddhism as an institution, as a socially constructed reality, exists as such because we keep talking about it in very specific ways. Which means (and I think here is my point) that we can change it. The institution of Buddhism can be whatever we want it to be, based on whatever interpretation of the Dharma we think is most apt, or most applicable to our lives today. Which is both terribly liberating and a little unnerving.

So that’s my long-winded intellectual thought experiment for the day.


  1. Religions in Global Society. [ back ]
  2. This take on society can be a bit disconcerting if you find yourself really attached social institutions. We like to believe that these institutions have some inherent meaning, and that “constructed reality” bit makes us think that they’re not important. But just being constructed by society has nothing do with meaning. Or, to put it another way, part of being constructed realities gives them meaning. In other words, marriage is a meaningful social institution not because “god says so” but because we do. We live in a society that gives the institution meaning, so it has meaning. Which can be a rather empowering idea. [ back ]
  3. I think I ought to put in here somewhere that sociological analyses of religion having nothing to do with the truth claims of those religions. They have nothing to do with whether or not god exists, whether or not the Dharma is some sort of Ultimate Truth. Those are different conversations than the one I’m having here. In a sociological analysis of religion, you’re looking at the social institution of religion, not it’s philosophy. Regardless of whether there’s a god or regardless of whatever the Buddha may or may not have taught, people created social structures and institutions to worship god or talk about the Buddha. [ back ]
  4. Check this out. It makes this point much more eloquently than I could. [ back ]

2 thoughts on “on being and not being a buddhist

  1. Thanks for this great post, Scott! I think you were right on when you said, ‘These personal meanings sometimes directly contradict the socially constructed meanings of “marriage.” But I still enjoy the perks.’ If you take the analogy to Buddhism, I think it still holds.

    Even “non-Buddhist Buddhists” would object if Buddhists weren’t allowed a seat in American interfaith dialogue or if monasteries were denied the religious perks in the tax code (“the power of tax is the power to destroy”). We can build our own personal definitions of what it means to be Buddhist, sometimes at odds with what it generally means to be religious in America. But we still enjoy the perks of an “American religion”.

    Nevertheless, on a social level it’s probably a little to strong a claim to say that “the institution of Buddhism can be whatever we want it to be.” Maybe I’m reading you wrong here (I do that a lot), so if I am, then my sincere apologies. More often than not, it’s the government that decides what Buddhism is and what it’s not, and as Buddhist communities, we are just tweaking the details. We can only define Buddhism within the parameters of the society that we live in.

    For example, during the French colonization of Vietnam and even in the South Vietnamese government, Buddhism was not recognized as a religion (while Catholicism was). In Indonesia, Buddhist organizations cannot contradict the “belief in the one and only God.” In Malaysia, ethnic Malays cannot be officially Buddhist. In Bangladesh, your Buddhist identity is usually given by your last name. Each of these social contexts had led Buddhism to evolve differently in each locale in the past fifty years. It would be hard to convince a Bangladeshi Buddhist that the institution of Buddhism can be whatever he wants it to be. Sometimes it just can’t…

  2. Wow. Excellent point, Arun. (That’s both what I meant and not what I meant, by the way.)

    I think, yes, on the one hand, you’re right. In many circumstances, what any religion is is related to its larger social context. Absolutely.

    But, and keep in mind this is a late-night comment after a glass of wine, the other social constructs can also be changed. The government is formidable. No doubt. But it can be changed. It might not be the easiest choice or even realizable in our lifetimes, but it does change. So, somewhere in there is a really good point that I must return to!

    Thanks for your comments. An excellent point to keep in mind to be sure.

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