How do people’s conceptions of Buddhism – “right,” “wrong,” or in-between; others’ or their own – affect Buddhists themselves?
It’s a good question, and so we’re turning to you to weigh in with your thoughts, whether you’d consciously call yourself “Buddhist” or not. Being one of those people who does call himself that, it took a non-Buddhist to put the question to me in a very direct way. So yes, I’m a Buddhist, and as such I’ve met all kinds of people who share the label, from the devout to the dabblers. I don’t usually see a problem with people categorizing themselves that way when they’re dabblers; they’re likely expressing a kind of personal/philosophical convergence. Hey, cool. And dabblers can often become divers-in.
But I was talking to someone last night who works in an industry that, while not specifically Buddhist, attracts people of the Mind/Body/Spirit-driven persuasion. She’s found that many of the people she works with declare themselves to be Buddhist very freely. However, she notes, such folks can be unbelievably rude, exhibiting little of the qualities that so many assume to be part of the (generalized) Buddhist Package (kindness, patience, self-awareness).
I gave these folks the benefit of the doubt, explaining that I may in fact be a Supreme Jerk, but believe me, I’m a heckuva lot less of a jerk than I was before I took up dharma practice. Fine, my friend said, and she conceded that there are of course “flakes” in every religion, every demographic, every subset of folks.
It could be, she said, that so much of what people consider to be “Buddhism” is really media-driven. “Some people,” she offered, “might just think Buddhism is ‘the Dalai Lama,’ and ‘peace’, and really go no deeper than that – just as others might look at Buddhists as ‘heathens who worship false idols.’ Neither’s right.”
So: what do you think? How have people’s assumptions about Buddhism – false or not – affected you by turning into assumptions about you?
How do you prefer to perceived? Do you encourage some ideas people might have about you and your connection to Buddhism, whatever it might be? Do you discourage other such ideas?
Over lunch a couple weekends ago, Ethan Nichtern of the Interdependence Project suggested to me that the word Buddhist might best be replaced – in part to de-limit the public image of dharma practice, and to re-emphasize that, for so many, it’s not about capital-r Religion. Instead, it’s about the universal lessons that the dharma offers to any and every one of us – what our publisher Jim Gimian calls “the practical and the profound.” I thought Ethan’s comment was pretty smart, as was his suggestion, which suggests Buddhist thought but without the classic underpinnings: Awakeist. Which leads me to my last question: would Buddhism, by any other name, smell so sweet?