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On this page we want to share some reflections about Buddhist enculturation by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, a Bhutanese lama and filmmaker. These questions (about what is cultural and universal in Buddhism) are far from answered.
We offer these thoughts, not as and end but as a starting point, as food for thought to inspire you to take part in this fascinating debate.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

Dzongsar Khyentse: what makes you (not) a Buddhist?

“It’s not the clothes you wear, the ceremonies you perform, or the meditation you do. It’s not what you eat, how much you drink, or who you have sex with. It’s whether you agree with the four fundamental discoveries the Buddha made under the Bodhi tree, and if you do, you can call yourself a Buddhist.”

“Over time I have come to realize that people often associate Buddhism and Buddhists with peace, meditation, and nonviolence. In fact many seem to think that saffron maroon robes and a peaceful smile are all it takes to be a Buddhist. As a fanatical Buddhist myself, I must take pride in this reputation, particularly the nonviolent aspect of it, which is so rare in this age of war and violence, and especially religious violence. (…) However, as a trained Buddhist, I also feel a little discontended when Buddhism is associated with nothing beyond vegetarianism, nonviolence, peace, and meditation. (…)

Many people mistakenly think that Buddha is the “God” of Buddhism; even some people in commonly recognized Buddhist countries such as Korea, Japan, and Bhutan have this theistic approach to the Buddha and Buddhism.(…) However, Budda himself pointed out that we should not venerate a person but rather the wisdom that person teaches. Similarly, it is taken for granted that reincarnation and karma are the most essental beliefs of Buddhism. There are numerous other gross misconceptions. (…)

So what makes you a Buddhist? You may not have been born in a Buddhist country or to a Buddhist family, you may not wear robes or shave your head, you may eat meat and idolize Eminem and Paris Hilton. That doesn’t mean you cannot be a Buddhist.

In order to be a Buddhist, you must accept that:

  • all compounded phenomena are impermanent,
  • all emotions are pain,
  • all things have no inherent existence, and
  • enlightenment is beyond concepts. 

It’s not necessary to be constantly and endlessly mindful of these four truths. But they must reside in your mind. You don’t walk around persistently remembering your own name, but when someone asks your name, you remember it instantly.

There is no doubt. anyone who accepts these four seals, even independently of Buddha’s teachings, even never having heard the name Shakyamuni Buddha, can be considered to be on the same path as he. (…) Siddhartha was not interested in academic treatises and scientifically provable theories. Whether the world is flat or round did not concern him. He had a different kind of practicality. He wanted to get to the bottom of suffering. (…) But Siddhartha also said that his words should not be taken for granted without analysis.”

(Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, What makes you (not) a Buddhist,
Shambhala, Boston & London, 2007 (from the introduction))

Dzongsar Khyentse: the tea and the teacup: wisdom within culture

“The four seals are like tea, while all other means to actualize these truths—practices, rituals, traditions, and cultural trappings—are like a cup. The challenge is not to get carried away by the cup. The essence of Buddhism is beyond culture, but it is practiced by many different cultures, which use their traditions as the cup that holds the teachings. If the elements of these cultural trappings help other beings without causing harm, and if they don’t contradict the four truths, then Siddhartha would encourage such practices. But however good the intention behind them, and however well they may work, they become a hindrance if we forget the tea inside. Even though their purpose is to hold the truth, we tend to focus on the means rather than the outcome. So people walk around with empty cups, or they forget to drink their tea.

We human beings can become enchanted, or at least distracted, by the ceremony and color of Buddhist cultural practices. Incense and candles are exotic and attractive; impermanence and selflessness are not. Siddhartha himself said that the best way to worship is by simply remembering the principle of impermanence, the suffering of emotions, that phenomena have no inherent existence, and that nirvana is beyond concepts.

Now that Buddhism is flourishing in the West, I have heard of people altering Buddhist teachings to fit the modern way of thinking. If there is anything to be adapted, it would be the rituals and symbols, not the truth itself. Buddha himself said that his discipline and methods should be adapted appropriately to time and place. But the four truths don’t need to be updated or modified; and it’s impossible to do so anyway. You can change the cup, but the tea remains pure. After surviving 2,500 years and traveling 40,781,035 feet from the Bodhi tree in central India to Times Square in New York City, the concept “all compounded things are impermanent” still applies. Impermanence is still impermanence in Times Square. You cannot bend these four rules; there are no social or cultural exceptions”

Read more on: What makes you a Buddhist?

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