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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