Does Meditation Make You a Buddhist?

This is the question I have been waiting for someone to ask me ever since I started teaching mindfulness to lawyers. After several years and countless events, nobody ever has. Maybe it’s because people don’t know the origins of most of the practices I teach. Maybe people are busy focusing on learning the practices instead of a deeper question like this. Or maybe they are just too polite to ask.

Since I have been waiting years to answer this question, I have practiced many different versions of my answer in my mind. To be totally upfront about it, I think that there are many valid ways to answer this question. This blog post is a summation of all the different ways of considering the question so that you can answer it better for yourself.

1. What does “Buddhist” mean?

Sorry to be a total lawyer about this, but when this question has crossed my mind I always wonder what the term “Buddhist” means. It can refer to one’s religion or spiritual identity. On the other hand, it can also refer to one’s allegiance to a philosophical perspective or set of ideas.

For many people, being a Buddhist may include both of these ideas. For me, though, only the latter feels right. Buddhism, as a religion, is connected to a myriad of cultural practices and ideas. Given this, I don’t feel right calling myself a Buddhist when I share in only a part of the practices that other people do for their religion.

On the other hand, I regularly do and teach many practices that have emanated from Buddhism. I believe in and have developed faith through life experience in traditional Buddhist concepts like compassion, the value of clear awareness, and even tricky concepts like not-self. Thus, clearly I am a Buddhist in the philosophical sense.

2. Does meditation alone make you a Buddhist?

My opinion on this question is that meditation by itself probably does not make you a Buddhist in the religious or philosophical sense. For one thing, there are many styles of meditation out there and not all of them emanate from Buddhism. Moreover, you can practice and benefit from meditation without ever understanding the philosophical or spiritual aspects of Buddhism.

Of course, this answer could change depending on the extent of your practice. A few minutes a day is not likely to immediately change your personality, worldview, or beliefs. However, more extensive experience in retreats or with different groups and teachers could change the answer over time.

3. Does it really matter?

When people ask me a question, it always helps to know why they are asking so I can address the real concern. Some people may be concerned that “being a Buddhist” could take away from other religious practice or faith. You are the best person to judge the requirements of your own religion.

I can say, however, that Buddhism is relatively free of metaphysics in comparison to other religions. Meditation groups and classes are also not uncommon these days in secular spaces, churches, synagogues, and mosques. Based on this, there seem to be plenty of people who believe meditation is not in conflict at all with other world religions.

The harder question to answer is whether meditation or potentially “becoming a Buddhist” may change your self-image. My experience is that, of course, it can. Meditation and exploring Buddhist concepts and practices changed my life, including my identity and how I thought of myself. I am incredibly grateful for that experience but I don’t claim that it was easy.

Though it can be liberating, it can also be scary to watch habits change or see lifelong assumptions fall apart. The practice of meditation, even for just a few minutes a day, has the potential of causing that kind of change. As I have written before, though, this isn’t something that is likely to happen overnight. Moreover, the good thing about meditation is that it helps you pay more attention to your life. So, if you don’t like the change, you can stop or adjust the practice.

4. Summary and Conclusion

In short, meditation alone does not necessarily make you a Buddhist, but with enough time and experience that answer could change. Being a Buddhist, in terms of religion or philosophy, does not necessarily require abandoning or changing other faith practices or beliefs.

Meditation is most likely to change habits, assumptions, and your self-image but that may not be a bad thing. In fact, those changes are often what many people want when they try meditation whether they realize it or not. In the end, the real question isn’t whether I think mediation makes me (or anyone else) a Buddhist. The critical questions are whether you think that and what that conclusion means for you.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Why to Visit Your Local Dharma Center and How to Be a Good Guest

1. Please tell me about yourself and your work with the Dharma Center.

I’m in a 12 step recovery program and the 11th step has to do with prayer and meditation.  I was rather resistant to the idea of prayer to some deity and focused more on meditation.  After a couple years of trying it on my own (with not much of what felt like success!) I spoke to a couple people I had heard talk about meditation.  One person gave me a copy of Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn.  The book was intimidating, but it came with a CD of guided meditations.  My other friend directed me to the Buddhist Dharma Center’s Wednesday evening beginner’s session.  

I attended those sessions for 10 years, eventually becoming one of the peer leaders, introducing others to the practice of meditation and the teachings of Buddhism.  That led to me begin teaching some University of Cincinnati Communiversity courses, starting a Buddhism and 12 Steps group, and becoming a member of the Board.  I’ve also started a book group and a couple contemplative reading groups at the Center. 

2. What does a Dharma Center do? Why would a professional like a lawyer want to visit a Dharma Center? What could they expect to gain from the experience? 

The Buddhist Dharma Center of Cincinnati provides an open and supportive environment for practicing meditation and studying the dharma. Our purpose is to cultivate a path which leads to awakening through:

  • Maintaining a weekly schedule of silent group meditation
  • Providing instruction in simple sitting and walking meditation common to all Buddhist traditions
  • Offering opportunities to deepen one’s practice through dharma study, periodic extended meditation, open discussions, and dharma talks
  • Supporting dharma practice at all levels
  • Sharing a compassionate approach to life with the larger community.
  • Openness and inclusivity are at the heart of dharma teachings and practice; the center is committed to kindness and respect for others, regardless of race, religion, cultural expressions, gender, gender identity, age or abilities. All are welcome!

We’re really a very casual, relaxed place.  There’s no teacher, no affiliation with any other group–we truly are just a group of people who want to practice and study together.  

I know your blog has talked a lot about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness—a clarity of thinking, less reactivity, lower stress levels, a more open and loving heart. But meditation can feel hard to do! My experience is that guidance from someone more experienced and the support of like-minded individuals is hugely beneficial.  Even after sitting for a number of years, there is still something wonderful about meditation with others.  Shared silence is palpably different than silence alone. 

3. How might the discussion or practice of meditation/mindfulness differ from what someone might encounter at a yoga studio or other source of secular mindfulness? 

I practice in the Theravedan, or Insight Tradition, where the primary form of meditation is Vipassana which means “seeing clearly.”   So for me the reason for meditating isn’t to relieve stress, calm my mind, or become less reactive (those are all great things!), but to clearly see how this mind works.  The Buddha taught that suffering arises from craving and that craving arises in the mind.  The way out of suffering is to clearly see the nature of the craving and how it leads to suffering.  So meditation is part of the path to total liberation!

I use the example of experiencing opera.  My first experience was listening to Sunday afternoon opera from the Metropolitan on a small radio.  It was probably AM! But I was enchanted.  Then some years later I heard and saw Beverly Sills on the Ed Sullivan Show and a new appreciation grew.  Then I saw an entire production of an opera on TV and experienced the visual element of opera.  And finally, I saw a live opera in a theater and was blown away by the sensory/emotional experience.  Every single one of those experiences was valid and valuable. Any form of meditation is valid and valuable, but when held in the context of the Buddha’s teachings, meditation takes on a much more profound and life-altering meaning.  

But having said that, many mindfulness and yoga teachers have strong spiritual practices and their teaching is often very similar to Buddhist teaching, just in a more secular language. 

4. Is there any etiquette or are there rules for visiting the Dharma Center? How can someone be a good guest? 

We ask that you follow the below guidelines to help ensure an environment and culture that honors the Dharma and this space of practice, teaching and inquiry. 

  • Please arrive a few minutes before a session starts
  • Once inside, before meditation begins, please remove your shoes and place under the bench along the wall.
  • Maintain silence during meditation.
  • Dress modestly, in attire appropriate to the occasion.
  • Turn off your phone and other noise making devices.
  • You may leave a session during walking meditation, which is also the time to use the restroom.
  • Keep your valuables with you during meditation.
  • The center has cushions, chairs and benches for meditation. Please brush off and straighten your cushion after meditation concludes.

5. Do you have to be a Buddhist or a religious person to benefit from practices or teachings at the Dharma Center? Is any experience with meditation required? 

In our Buddhism and 12 Step group we say “No meditation experience or particular faith or spiritual practice is required. Neither is membership in a twelve step program. We are simply people exploring the path out of the suffering brought about by craving and clinging in whatever form it arises.”

Many people who come to the Dharma Center also participate in other religions or spiritual programs.  One nice thing about silent meditation is that no one else knows what your intention is, how you are meditating, or what your beliefs are.  I think many people just find it beneficial to sit quietly with others.  

Our Wednesday  night group is especially good for people new to meditation.  There are shorter guided meditations, brief teaching and time for check-in and discussion.  

6. Are there any resources you’d like to share for those new to meditation? 

I’m a huge fan of the Insight Timer Meditation App.  There are thousands of guided meditations, a timer so you can set the length of time you want to sit, and even a way of tracking your meditation. I’ve also found to be very helpful.  It’s a print/online magazine with articles from all different Buddhist traditions.  It’s a great way to explore different styles of meditation.  

7. What is the most important thing you’d like those new to meditation, mindfulness, or Buddhism to understand?

Just do it.  Start small–five minutes at a time is how I started.  Let go of what you think meditation should be.  Practice mindfulness all the time.  Practice seeing clearly, hearing clearly, moving with intention.  And always, always be kind to yourself and others.  

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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