What Makes You Not a Buddhist
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2007
128 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)

What qualifies someone to identify himself or herself as a Buddhist? Often this very question seems presumptuous and circular. Claiming Buddhism as our own appears almost self-defeating, or at least tricky. It inevitably preys on our tendency toward egocentric pride. “I am a Buddhist!” Well, isn’t that wonderful for you! But what does that statement actually mean? In his first major publication, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, also known as Khyentse Norbu, confronts our misconceptions of what Buddhism is really about, and seeks to underscore the pith elements of Buddhist teaching—Buddhism above culture. Readers may already be familiar with Khyentse Rinpoche through his two films, The Cup (1999) and Travellers and Magicians(2003), both of which address the concept of contemporary global consciousness and have received substantial international attention. What Makes You Not a Buddhist is directed specifically to a Western audience and showcases Khyentse’s complex understanding of Western cultural idioms, which he employs skillfully throughout the book.

Khyentse acknowledges Buddhism’s largely positive reception in the West, yet he cannot help but feel that something of the authentic character of its tradition risks being lost along the way: “As a trained Buddhist, I also feel a little discontented when Buddhism is associated with nothing beyond vegetarianism, nonviolence, peace, and meditation. Prince Siddhartha, who sacrifices all the comforts and luxuries of palace life, must have been searching for more than passivity and shrubbery when he set out to discover enlightenment.” Throughout his reflections, Khyentse’s main point is that Buddhism is not a matter of external behavior and appearance, but rather one of perspective, or what he calls “view.” Just because someone walks, talks, and acts like a Buddhist doesn’t make him a Buddhist, argues Khyentse. What we do in practice is only authentic to the extent that it is informed by Buddhist vision. Otherwise, we are just substituting one form of self-delusion for another, and calling it “Buddhism.” We have fashioned ourselves as spiritual aficionados and become very pleased with ourselves, completely unaware of the pickle we have gotten into. After a moment of reflection, this all begins to sound painfully familiar.

What Makes You Not a Buddhist is not a practice text. Rather, it attempts to address the more fundamental nature of the Buddhist view that serves as the groundwork for any subsequent practical application. Simply put, you are not a Buddhist unless you accept the “four seals”:

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