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I have a decent amount of exposure to Buddhism. I have Buddhists in family, I took a class on Buddhism in college, have read some Buddhist books, and meditate on a regular basis. It only recently occurred to me that I might be Buddhist, but I’m really not sure! I have no Buddhist community to identify with, but I like a lot of the principles that I’ve read. How do you know that you’re Buddhist and not just someone who likes the ideas?
It sounds like you have some great circumstances to eventually answer this question yourself. One of the most important factors going for you right off the bat is your curiosity and sincere interest in the Buddhadharma. That speaks volumes.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that you can use any of the Buddha’s teachings that help you in your life without becoming “Buddhist” or adopting the Buddhist worldview. He particularly counsels Westerners to not hurriedly drop their religion of origin without careful investigation of Buddhism first. The real practice, whether designated “Buddhist” or not, is to live your life with deep meaning and purpose holding true to your deepest values that benefit yourself and others in a wise and compassionate way.
Let’s try and explore your question as far as what qualities are signposts of a student or practitioner of Buddhism and see if you might fit the bill. As we look at these qualities of a Buddhist practitioner, the most important question you may want to keep in mind is, “Does the Buddha’s teachings help me develop my good qualities and lessen the destructive unhelpful ones so that I can realize my full potential as a human being? Can I contribute to the peace and harmony of the world, not only because it benefits me but also because it benefits others, and does Buddhism help me to contribute in that way?”
When you read the Dharma or the Buddha’s teachings it is helpful to identify which points of the teachings are making sense to you and why. One of the core teachings is keeping good ethics and practicing non-harmfulness. And the Buddha was so wise in that he taught all of us to take his teachings and put them to the test. Check them with your own experience by asking yourself:
Are there behaviors or actions of body, speech, or mind that give me trouble that seem to have lessened since I started to read and reflect on topics in Buddhism? Am I harming others and myself less, becoming kinder, and helping others and myself more? Do I find my life less stressful, my heart more willing to go with the flow and be with what is happening, instead of resisting and complaining about what isn’t happening? Do the teachings give me some tools to work with my anger, craving, fear, or worry? If so, in what ways do they help me?
These questions can really help you identify what it is that Buddhism actually offers you and if it is making a difference in your life.
Three good qualities are important to cultivate in order to truly benefit from the wisdom of the Buddha. The first one is being open-minded and unbiased, which means not filled with a lot of misconceptions. Strong opinions or ideas, even here at the beginning, keep us from being open-minded.
The second one is to be intelligent—not the academic kind of intelligence but the kind of intelligence that can discern what qualities and behaviors would be good to let go of and what qualities and behaviors you have found through Buddhism would be helpful to grow. The last quality is to have a sincere curiosity and wish to explore, learn, and understand the Dharma so you can determine for yourself if it works for you.
If you put the teachings you have read and thought about into practice, you get to see for yourself whether they serve you well. You can take your time—there is no hurry. If there is a particular Buddhist tradition you are called to, focus on that and perhaps find a Dharma center where folks like you can connect and practice together.
A spiritual path deserves our full attention so take your time asking questions and pondering the answers until you have confidence that you are on the right path for yourself. Then you may want to give yourself the name Buddhist. The name is not as important as the transformation your mind and heart experience with the teachings. I wish you well in your journey.
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