Buddhism does not depend on or assume any external authority whatsoever. It is neither exclusive nor possessive. Being Buddhist is a matter of living a sublime way of life, the brahmacariya, wherein one explores the law of nature and lives in harmony with it. It is not a matter of external identity or affiliation. Therefore, you need not convert or register yourself as a Buddhist in order to study and practice Buddhism. You can follow whatever religion pleases you or follow no religion at all, and still study and practice Buddhism. It is simply a matter of how you live your life. Any who are willing to approach, learn, investigate, practice, and live according to natural truth can experience this. Buddhism is available to everyone and is not exclusive in any way.
From Under the Bodhi Tree: Buddha’s Original Vision of Dependent Co-Arising, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications. Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906–93) was one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in the history of Thailand and founder of the first modern forest monastery there.
The qualities of a student have been long established in Buddhism. They include the checklist you might expect—concentration, application, respect for your teacher and the dharma. But they also include the quality of having a questioning attitude, specifically an attitude ensuring that the teachings you receive are in accordance with the established dharma.
One of the most common criticisms of Buddhism I come across is the idea that in following a particular teacher, practitioners are somehow allowing themselves to become brainwashed. From the outside, it’s easy to see why people might think that practitioners fall under the spell of their guru, given their efforts to carry out instructions.
But as this teaching shows, there is no room for passivity on the part of a student. This is not a one-way process, like watching TV. Students are, instead, engaged in a dynamic activity in which we are constantly assessing and questioning the teachings, thinking about how they apply to our lives. In following a teacher, dharma students are not abdicating responsibility for their future to someone else. Quite the opposite. Just as the occupants of a prisoner-of-war camp might value the advice of a tunnel engineer, or a group of lost explorers would have much to learn from a navigation expert, the actual business of escaping from samsara is something we need to do for ourselves—and, of course, for others.
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