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Am I a Buddhist?


Image previewHow do you know if you're Buddhist?

I knew I was a Buddhist the moment...



...I read a book by Chogyam Trungpa called The Heart of the Buddha. This is how I already think, only I didn’t know it, I said to myself. I must be a Buddhist. From that moment, the fates conspired to place me firmly on the path. I began to practice in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, found an amazing meditation instructor, and immediately saw my life begin to change, even out, take shape. Rarely has anything in my life been so clear-cut.

After about six months of practice, I asked my meditation teacher what steps one takes to formally become a Buddhist. He told me that it’s called “taking refuge” in these three things: The Buddha (the enlightened one, but also in the fact of enlightened mind in everyone, including yourself); the dharma (the teachings—which range from the sutras, tantras, and their commentaries to any and everything that teaches you), and the sangha (or community—of fellow practitioners certainly, but also, as I understood him, in the community of fellow humans seeking happiness on planet earth. Or wherever.) His explanation was really good and encouraged me further. I wanted to do those things. Also, when he said the phrase, “take refuge,” I started to cry. I longed for refuge in this crazy world and none of the traditional options seemed viable, things like career, relationships, money, knowledge, do-gooding, and what have you.

I want to do it, I told him, but how do I know that I’m ready? I didn’t want to take this step in a half-assed way. (I mean, I’m the person who, when thinking about getting married, wrote a whole book called The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do." Romance shromance. I'm anti-making lifelong commitments on the fly.) My meditation instructor said, “you know you’re ready when becoming a Buddhist is simply a recognition of something that has already happened.” Genius. (And not a bad benchmark when it comes to marriage and marriage-like commitments, I might add.) I knew that it had, and so I took refuge on March 10, 1995. It was definitely one of the most moving days of my life.

Now, in addition to practicing it, I write about being a student of Buddhism. Sometimes people muse to me about their connection to it. (It’s not like I’m an expert in telling Buddhists from non-Buddhists or go around saying things like, yeah, you probably are, but you—no way. Ha! For one thing, I have no idea. For another, you could make a very real argument that there is no such thing as “a Buddhist” anyway.)

Many, many people are deeply touched by the dharma and have a profound ability to naturally understand it. You know who you are. It takes up residence in your mind and moments of recognition ding repeatedly, whether on the spot or two years later. You simply notice that your mindstream and the dharma flow together easily, surprisingly, terrifyingly, joyfully, and so on. What a person does from that point forward is utterly individual. Some people, like myself, benefit enormously from a traditional, proscribed path. I’m already spacey and self centered enough. A path grounds me within and without and I’m grateful for it. Others, though, may be too rules-based and the strictures of a traditional path could provide perfect hiding places for ego. Maybe they should throw off all rules and figure it out on their own. Ultimately, we all do a combination of these two—learning from masters and figuring it out on our own, making a personal connection with the dharma over and over, hopefully until the end of our lives.

Into this very creative space of figuring it out for yourself can creep all sorts of distractions, otherwise known as spiritual materialism: Looking, not at reality, but at ways to blur reality using spiritual tactics. The phrase was coined by Chogyam Trungpa. (To learn more, check Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.) It’s so easy to think you’re a Buddhist and that it means something conventionally comprehensible and/or offers you something to cling to as a way of escaping the sorrows of samsara. Which would be awesome, but oh well, it’s not.

How to know if you're a spiritual seeker or materialist?  Some thoughts:

First, think that you are probably definitely both and that taking a fresh look at this question every day (or more) is a very helpful thing to do.  

Second, and this is the failsafe, if you can, find a genuine master and study as hard as you can with him or her. I definitely believe in this way; the guru is the root of blessings. I have found this to be true.

Third, have complete confidence that you can figure it all out. You can. You are the only one who can. On some level, the most realistic level, you already have. You possess Buddhanature right now. Therefore, you can have confidence.

For each of us, the way will be utterly unique—if not the path itself, then the way it is arrived at. There are no guarantees and we have to keep figuring it out until and beyond the day we die. But if along your path, the only thing deepening more rapidly than your capacity for love is your utter confusion, if what you are learning convinces you more and more that you actually don’t know anything, and if your sense of humor is very much intact, then you’re probably on the right track. Perhaps you are “a Buddhist.” Maybe not. In any and all cases, I hope our paths will cross.

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Love it

This is exactly how I feel. I started attending a meditation class, and then began to read about Buddhism, and found that it was persuading me to think in a certain way, but that rather I thought about things already the way that Buddhism teaches.

Re: Spiritual Materialism

Good point about checking regularly with our motivations for practicing....and acknowledging that we almost certainly have a little spiritual materialism in us (otherwise what keeps us coming back to meditation, at least at first).



Re: Spiritual Materialism

Good point about checking regularly with our motivations for practicing....and acknowledging that we almost certainly have a little spiritual materialism in us (otherwise what keeps us coming back to meditation, at least at first?).



Great post!!

Thanks for being here!!

My complete pleasure, Jon!

My complete pleasure, Jon!

Great to have you

Susan, great to have your awesome perspective and voice on our blog.

I would highly recommend following Susan on twitter:


Thanks and glad to be here

Looking forward to connecting w IDP-world. You guys do amazing work/generate good karma. (My twitter @ is @spiver.) There is an @susanpiver who appears to be a lovely 19-yr old student in New Jersey.

Whoops, sorry!

Fixed it, @spiver.


on the other hand, is the website of a lovely awesome author from Massachusetts

more on going for refuge

This is a great affirmation of what it means...even for those who have trouble identifying!

Here's a Theravada explanation from Bhikkhu Bodhi:


relevant podcast

 On Taking the Refuge Vow: Am I Buddhist? with Ethan Nichtern (Podcast)

Post date: Monday, February 15, 2010 - 6:13pm

The Refuge Vow: Am I Buddhist?

Ethan Nichtern explores what it means to take the Refuge Vow. What is the purpose of identifying with a tradition that itself is meant to help us not attach to our identities? This paradox and social piques are explored.

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