Become a Buddha, not a Buddhist

From time to time, I receive inquiries from individuals who are interested in attending a service or study class at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple. Often they begin the conversation by asking if non-Buddhists are permitted to attend our services, or if there is a special initiation they need to participate in before taking part in temple activities. On a few occasions, individuals who have been studying on their own have contacted the temple ready to convert to Buddhism and become a Buddhist.

My first response to these inquiries is that everyone is welcome to join us for service and participate in temple activities, whether they identify as Buddhist or not. For example, if a person who identifies as a Christian or a Hindu enjoys the companionship of our Sangha and receives peace of mind and useful insight from hearing the teachings of the Buddha, we are delighted to have him or her join us.

We do have special rituals for affirming our resolution to live a life guided by the wisdom of the Buddha. Examples include the group recitation of the Threefold Refuge at a Sunday Service or the Affirmation Ceremony (Jpn. Kikyoshiki/Kieshiki) conducted on special occasions, in which one receives a Buddhist Name. These ceremonies are wonderful opportunities to express one’s personal commitment to the Buddha’s teachings, but participation in these ceremonies is not required, does not grant any special status within the community, and does not make one a Buddhist.

The Buddha teaches that we create suffering by clinging to the ideas of “me” and “mine.” With that in mind, the purpose of his teachings is to help us let go of the ideas of “me” and “mine,” including “my identity as . . .” As I endeavor to live the Buddha’s teachings in my daily life, I come to see that all the labels I apply to myself, such as “I am white,” “I am a man,” “I am American,” “I am a graduate of Saint Olaf College,” and “I am a resident of San Mateo,” create an illusion of difference that prevents me from seeing the profound kinship that I share with all people and all living beings. The teachings of the Buddha that we hear at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple are not intended to give us one more identity—“I am a Buddhist”—to cling to, but rather to help us realize freedom from the mind that discriminates between self and other.

On February 14, at 9:30 a.m., we will observe our Nirvana Day Service, commemorating Sakyamuni Buddha’s passing into perfect tranquility at the end of his life in this world. As the time of his departure drew near, many of his disciples became increasingly distraught, worried about how they could continue their journey to liberation without Sakyamuni there to guide them. His message to them was simple: “Take refuge in the Dharma. Take refuge in yourself.”

When the Buddha instructs us to take refuge in the Dharma, he is calling us to rely on the truth to which he awakened, not cling to words and ideas. The Buddha’s wish for us is to become Buddhas, not Buddhists. When I examine myself, with all my tendencies toward prejudice and foolishness, I cannot help but recognize that I am not a suitable object of refuge. At the same time, if I focus too much on striving after an idealized “enlightened” version of myself, constantly wishing to become somehow different from the foolish person I am today, I run the risk of losing sight of my life as I am living it at this very moment. When the Buddha calls us to take refuge in ourselves, he is reminding us to remain grounded in this life that we are living everyday driving to work, sitting in meetings, and cooking dinner. Our liberation is to be found right here, right now.

The Buddha’s call to realize our path to awakening right here in our present lives echoes through the Nembutsu. I hear it in the following words of Shinran:

For all people – men and women, of high station and low – Saying the Name of Amida is such That whether one is walking, standing, sitting, or reclining is of no concern And time, place, and condition are not restricted.

(Hymns of the Pure Land Masters, Genshin No. 94)


Namo Amida Butsu