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How do I know if I’m a Buddhist?
Many people resonate with certain aspects of Buddha’s teachings and adopt Buddhist practices without abandoning their previous religious or spiritual identifications or declaring themselves to be Buddhist.
It’s not necessary to “become a Buddhist” to learn from Buddhist ideas or assume Buddhist practices. The purpose of Buddha’s teaching is to benefit living beings. If the ideas and practices are helpful, by all means use them!
In fact, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he speaks to Western audiences, regularly states his view that in general, it is better for people to stay with their religion of origin. He happily invites people to take on the Buddhist principles of non-harming and developing love and compassion, pointing out that these values are shared across all religions and philosophies.
However, His Holiness eventually says that if, upon deep examination, someone feels a stronger affinity with Buddhist teachings and wishes to study and adopt a Buddhist view, he or she is certainly welcome. Although I have heard His Holiness teach this many times, I always feel relieved when he gets to this last part. Hearing it gives me an opportunity to examine and re-commit to my chosen Buddhist path.
Buddhism emphasizes inner development and personal responsibility. It is a path based in reasoning and validated by experience. Consequently, it’s important to investigate the teachings critically to see if they make sense for you. While Buddhism speaks of faith, it is a certitude that comes from close examination.
In essence, Buddhism teaches us to avoid harming others and to help them as much possible. Buddhist teachings outline detailed methods to realize these aims. All Buddhist traditions also rely on the foundational teaching generally known as the Four Noble Truths: that ordinary existence is unsatisfactory by nature, that there are identifiable causes for this state, that these causes can be eliminated, and there are methods to do so. After studying these basic ideas, if you become inclined towards the Buddhist worldview, you are on your way to becoming a Buddhist.
When, through learning and practicing the Buddha’s teachings, you feel certain that these teachings make sense and this is the path you want to follow, you may want to participate in a refuge ceremony. In the ceremony, you will repeat a short verse saying that you take refuge in the Buddha as your teacher, the Dharma as the teachings you will follow, and the Sangha as the realized practitioners who help to guide you. Together, these Three Jewels will show you the path to liberation and support you as you practice it. During the ceremony, you may also take one, some, or all of the five lay precepts—to refrain from taking life (killing), taking what hasn’t been freely given (stealing), unwise or unkind sexual behavior (principally adultery), lying, and taking intoxicants—as your personal ethical guidelines.
My teacher, Venerable Thubten Chodron, gives a thorough explanation of this in her book “Open Heart, Clear Mind.” You can read the chapter on taking refuge on her website. There’s a wealth of teachings on other topics as well, including a section called New to Buddhism, that can help you determine if you are, indeed, a Buddhist.
Sending best wishes for your spiritual journey!