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The Non-Practicing Buddhist?

A friend of mine is a teacher. As an exercise, he asked the people seated before him in class to write down some words that described them. When the papers were handed back, not one of them contained the word “student.”

He then asked everybody to add the word to their list. They were, after all, “students,” and it was important for them to think of themselves this way while in class.

In some instances, a definition is easy, or obvious. You attend school, you’re a student. You help land planes, you’re an air traffic controller. Nobody argues.

Certain areas are less clear. The difference between professional and amateur (those who are paid, and those who aren’t) is often cited, particularly in the arts. That is, you’re not really “a singer” unless you’re paid to sing. But that always struck me as mean-spirited and narrow. Who’s to say what a person is in this sense, or believes themselves to be?

Another friend of mine recently declared herself to be a Buddhist. It was news to me. I asked if she’d taken the refuge vows. She had not. Or whether she took classes. She does not. Or whether she meditates. She does, sometimes. Or whether she could list the Four Noble Truths. She wasn’t exactly sure.

My point was not to be belittling, but to understand what her definition was. (For the record, I don’t call myself “a Buddhist.” I’ve never felt that I earned that right.)

Her reply was curious. “Well,” she said, “I try to be good, and be conscious.” Far be it for me to point out that a lot of people diametrically opposed to her views on the world feel they do the very same, though they would hardly qualify as “Buddhists.”

And so it was that I found myself with a non-practicing Buddhist, claiming to be Buddhist nevertheless. Which raises the question:

What does it mean to be a Buddhist?

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