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What would Sid do: 7 steps that make for a "good Buddhist"


Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Each week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What would Sid do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Each week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddartha, would do. Like us, Sid is not yet a buddha, he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it, you and I are Sid.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I'll probably get to it!

My ex-husband insists that I cannot call myself Buddhist since I do not meditate daily and am not part of a sangha. Are there any particular requirements to identify oneself as a Buddhist? Personally, I think he is waaaaay to hung up on labels -- one reason he's my ex. Thanks, Mona


I think if Sid ran into you and you mentioned something like this he might get a little pissed off at your ex. He would probably agree with you and say, "Why do you have to label yourself at all?" The historical Siddhartha wasn't a Buddhist. Even when he became enlightened he did not exclaim "Now I'm a Buddhist!" He said he was a Buddha. At no point thereafter did he turn to his followers and say, "I want you to make a religious movement based off of my identity. Call yourself "Awakened-one-ists."

Yes, people practice following the Buddha's example. He's a hell of a role model. Still, instead of weighing in on what it takes to be a Buddhist I bet Sid would just encourage your meditation practice, mention that it is helpful to have spiritual friends with whom you can discuss your practice, and tell you to call yourself whatever you like.

I'm not Sid so I'm gonna go more in-depth since this raises a larger question, namely "What would make for a 'good Buddhist?' Would it be going to lots of Buddhist temples? Knowing all the sutras by heart? Having hundreds of Buddhist meditation practices? I don't think so. Without further ado here is my top seven list of things that would make you a good Buddhist (I couldn't think of ten, sue me):

The top seven things to do if you're going to call yourself a good Buddhist even though I highly recommend avoiding the label entirely

1) Have a connection to mindfulness-awareness practice
It's hard to call yourself a Buddhist if you aren't even working with your mind. So it's important to learn shamatha meditation, visualization practices and so on from skilled and authorized teachers within a Buddhist lineage

2) Seek enlightenment/further awakening
What's the point in having a meditation practice if you're not trying to change at all? In my experience when people come to any of the meditation centers I'm involved in they aren't yet seeking enlightenment; they are seeking a way to work with their mind to reduce their own suffering. I think any motivation in between wanting to be less mired in confusion and ultimate awakening is damn fine since it's based in a desire to better oneself.

3) Learn something
Study. Study a lot. Read a dharma book. Go receive instruction from great teachers (I'm inclined to plug Kilung Rinpoche's upcoming visit to the New York Shambhala Center). Listen to a podcast. Watch a video. But meditation without study is like riding a bicycle with one wheel - you're not going to get very far. I am always impressed by the greatest meditation masters who just exude wisdom and compassion. They continue to study every day. As the great scholar Sakya Pandita said, "Even if you are going to die tomorrow you can still learn something tonight."

4) Learn from fellow practitioners
Just because they're not enlightened doesn't mean you can't learn from a sangha. Personally speaking I've found it essential to have fellow travelers on the path to discuss my experience of meditation practice, to debate philosophical topics, and to call me on my shit. I talked about that in more depth in this post.

5) Don't cause harm
Nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try. It does take time and care though. So often even the most seemingly harmless comments can cause negativity in the minds of those around us. The more we become mindful of our words and actions the less we find ourselves creating harm in the world.

6) Do some good for the world
The Buddha could have sat under the bodhi tree content to believe that none of us jerks would really be able to understand his teachings. Instead he got up and went about trying to lead everyone he encountered towards awakening. Granted we're not yet buddhas but beyond trying not to f things up in the world around us we can try to plant some positive seeds. While a bit corny I think even just smiling at someone who looks like they're going through hell has a ripple effect not unlike that of a butterfly's wings leading to a tsunami.

7) Last but not least, consider meditation practice practice for our life
It is wonderful to sit on a cushion for a period of time each day or week. However, it doesn't really mean anything unless we consider that we call it practice because we are training ourselves for the 23 1/2 hours of our day when we are not meditating. We can do any number of outwardly spiritual things to show the world how holy we are but if we do not take the teachings on wisdom and compassion to heart then we're just spouting confusion under the label of Buddhism.

I remember when I was a beginning practitioner I went on a long drive with my mother, someone who had at that point been practicing meditation for over twenty years. She was speaking negatively about someone and, once frustrated, I turned to her and exclaimed, "How can you say that and still call yourself a Buddhist?" I feel quite foolish looking back on that incident. I know many Buddhists who are much sloppier with their speech, who drink forties for breakfast, who will try to fuck anything that moves. Still, I would never deny them the right to call themselves Buddhist because their primary motivation is not to give in to negative habits but to wake up from them.

The Buddhist path is that of change through working with your own mind and heart. It seems you're into that Mona, so feel free to call yourself whatever you like. The important thing in my mind, and I imagine Sid would agree, is that you are trying to wake up.

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Big view

I agree with avoiding labels. If you are a Buddhist you compartmentalize yourself to the exclusion of anyone who is not a Buddhist. Some would say we have all been Buddhists and also non-Buddhists, perhaps many lifetimes over. It doesn't matter. Find your path, then keep finding your path.

good points

Good list and good points. What is a "buddhist" anyway? I know people who describe themselves as Buddhist for completely different reasons than I do. I know a woman who told me she'd grown up a practicing Buddhist in a Chinese family, but what that meant to her was nothing like what it meant to me. I know other people who call themselves Buddhist who mostly do lots and lots of chanting. And others who call themselves Buddhst because they wear Buddha shirts and keep a Dalai Lama book on their coffee table. That sounds judgmental I know but it's not - that's where they are on their path. I probably thought of myself as a Buddhist when I was listening to an occasional podcast, going to see the Dalai Lama in Central Park, and meditating to Holosync CD's.



Your comment about labels rings true for me.  I shrink from political and religious labels.  There are so many things that do not describe me when any of these labels are used.  Yes, that makes life messy and difficult to pigeonhole.  Perhaps we need more of that and less of the (mis)characterization that happens when we rely on them.  Just think of all the baggage that attaches to these words: liberal, conservative, catholic, muslim, republican, democrat, buddhist. 

What makes a buddhist?

I prefer dharma student or dharma practitioner. Understanding the Four Seals as a basis for understanding what is "Buddhist" is essential. These "top seven" things are far to generic - how can one be a Buddhist (or dharma practitioner) if one has no understanding, intellectually or experientially, of emptiness?


Hi Anonymous,

I would group understanding the Four Seals or an intellectual exploration of emptiness as part of the  study component I mention above. While practice and education can lead you to an experiential sense of emptiness I can't agree that you're not allowed to call yourself a Buddhist because you have not yet had such an experience.



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