What Does It Mean to Be Buddhist?

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When I started on a path of spiritual exploration several decades ago, I used to refer to certain times as being in the “spiritual gutter.” What I meant by that was that sometimes it felt like I was climbing up a ladder and then would suddenly push myself off. I would watch as I flailed about gasping for air and struggling to climb out and work my way back up. Recently, I realized that metaphor stills fits (as my last blog may convey).

If we’re not careful, we can allow darkness and doubt to block us from perceiving escape routes. So I did what I could to keep the light on, look for a transition, and find my way out. I meditated, reflected, read, listened to Dhamma talks, and prayed for healing and guidance. Thankfully, the law of impermanence can work in our favor regarding unpleasant states of being. Knowing that, I sometimes feel like I just want to hang on until the ride is over.

Ahhhh, and there it is. I’ve climbed off and find myself enjoying being out of shadows of the gutter and enjoying fresh clear air.

As I look down on the valley below, I realize that behind the push is an avoidance of fully facing some choices that I am making. At the core, is an ongoing questioning by my ego regarding being Buddhist. It can be a challenge to sort through the various layers of reality. Fear, aversion, doubt, clinging, attachment, and all the usual suspects of delusion all join as a glorious choir: You’re doing what!? Are you nuts? It feels like my soul is gallantly moving forward while my personality and ego self scurries to catch up. This can create a sense of being pulled by a force outside of me even though I know it is coming from within. I did choose to get on the ride after all.

What does being a Buddhist mean to me? First, it asks me to get off the fence. By that I mean to stop hiding behind a lack of commitment because I am afraid of leaving the comfort of my diversions behind. Not that I will ever be totally free of delusions and diversions. If I am, I will be enlightened and not writing this blog! But, if I truly hold the Buddha in my heart, then I know that I am asking to see the same potential in myself. To be honest, I’m not even seeking such a lofty goal as enlightenment. I am simply seeking a happier, more peaceful, compassionate, and loving way of being and existence.

The reality is that I have been living a life that embodies Buddhist principles my whole life. Just because I now refer to myself more formally as a Buddhist, doesn’t really change much for me. My ego is another matter. As human beings, we do tend to find comfort in the familiar. In my experience, all too often enjoying the familiar translates into supporting weakness, perceived failures, and fears instead of strengths and potential. No wonder nurturing loving kindness can seem like a challenge.

Committing to a Buddhist path asks me to put down my weapons of self-defense, teach myself how to recognize my arsenal more quickly and easily, and to offer more peaceful and kind alternatives. Isn’t that what most of us want anyway: More peace, less war?

For me, being Buddhist represents a way of being not a label for a religious choice. It’s funny really. If you ask people who know my husband and me, many would probably tell you they already thought we were Buddhist. For me, I kept avoiding referring to myself as a Buddhist because of my hesitancy to commit even more deeply to facing my deepest fears of inadequacy. I have to laugh at myself because only delusion would suggest that I am not fully committed to spiritual and personal growth. My life choices scream it!

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Learning new language and delving into teachings more deeply doesn’t change my core intention. I was born with it. My life has supported my path in leaps and bounds. I can twist my interpretations to suggest that I have failed, just don’t get it, or am lost and confused. But, that doesn’t change reality which includes infinitely more than our fears suggest. I am what I am. Or, more accurately: I am NOT what I am.

When this incarnation is over, I do not want to look back and ask: How did I get here? I don’t even remember driving! As a Buddhist, I am asked to be present with the task of driving and not sleep through my life. For now, I am Buddhist because it means that I am willing to face my weaknesses and doubts in an effort to wake up and appreciate my life – all of our lives – more fully.

In Buddhism I am able to take refuge in The Three Jewels: The Buddha, The Dhamma (teachings), and The Sangha (community). That sounds a lot more enjoyable than slugging it out on my own – even though my ego may try to convince me otherwise.



© 2012 Sallie Odenthal



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