One of the occupational hazards of being a professor of Buddhism, at least in the United States, is that one is inevitably asked at some point during the semester, “Are you a Buddhist?” Sometimes at the end of a lecture, I will ask, “Any questions?” and a student will raise her hand and say, “Are you a Buddhist?” Answers in the affirmative are often followed by, “Do you meditate?” From speaking to colleagues in departments of religious studies, I have determined that professors of New Testament are very rarely asked in class, “Are you a Christian?” and when they are, they do not receive the follow-up, “Do you pray?”
The British philosopher J. L. Austin argued that words don’t simply say things, they sometimes do things. That is, in addition to describing a state of affairs, words can also perform an action. When someone says, “I do” in a wedding ceremony or smashes a bottle of champagne against the bow and says, “I name this ship Queen Elizabeth,”something happens. Austin called such statements “performative utterances” and considered the way such words work on those who hear them, the effects they have on their listeners.
The statement “I am a Buddhist” is in some ways such an utterance. Consider how different the words “I’m a Buddhist” are from words like “I’m a Catholic,” “I’m a Jew,” or “I’m a Methodist.” Austin emphasizes that one of the crucial factors in determining what words do is the context in which they are spoken. To say “I am a Jew,” or to point to someone and say “She is a Jew” did different things in Germany in 1937 than those words would today in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv. In our ordinary life, of course, it is rare that someone would make a declaration of his or her religious affiliation. Someone might say, “I was raised Catholic,” but this is somehow different.
But how to answer the question about being a Buddhist? To say “Yes” is not quite right; it sounds a bit pretentious and can easily lead to a kind of cult of personality in the classroom that is not conducive to critical thinking. I am also uncertain what it really means for a white guy from the D.C. suburbs to say “I am a Buddhist.” To say “No” is also not quite right: I have said the refuge formula many times and received teachings from many Buddhist teachers and have devoted my life to the study of Buddhism; Buddhism is my business. And to respond by saying “That’s an impertinent question” is a bit much.
What about saying nothing? The Buddha was famous for remaining silent when he was asked any of fourteen questions, questions like “Are the self and the world eternal? Are the self and the world not eternal? Do the self and the world have an end? Do the self and the world not have an end?” Although much has been written about the deep meaning of his noble silence, one of the more plausible interpretations (which actually occurs in a Buddhist text) is that the Buddha remained silent because he knew whatever he said, he would be misunderstood. If he said that the world was eternal, people might get discouraged and not practice because they would conclude that they could never get out of samsara. If he said that the world would end, people might not practice because they felt they could just wait around for samsara to end naturally.
I don’t know what to say when a student asks me if I am a Buddhist. But I suppose I would rather appear a fool than a hypocrite. So I say nothing, but raise my shoulders and turn my palms upward, adopting a mudra rarely found in Buddhist iconography. If I had to put it into words, it would be: “Who knows?”
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