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”:
All compounded things are impermanent.
All emotions are pain.
All things have no inherent existence.
Nirvana is beyond concepts.
There you have it. Unless you really internalize these four principles, it does not matter if you shave your head and start wearing maroon robes; it does not matter if you start walking around with mala beads hanging around your neck; it does not matter if you get a Sanskritom tattooed on your forehead; it does not matter if you are Tibetan—you are not a Buddhist. Conversely, however, if you do accept the four seals and adopt them into your existential worldview, you are a Buddhist, regardless of your lifestyle, job, ethnicity, or social status. Of course, it’s all a little more complicated than just that, and Dzongzar Khyentse devotes the rest of his work to unpacking these basic points of Buddhist doctrine.
Throughout the book, Khyentse turns to the life of Siddhartha Gautama as a platform from which to contemporize the Buddhist teaching. Interwoven with more abstract ruminations on Buddhist philosophy is a stinging indictment of contemporary Western culture. Khyentse incorporates current events, popular fashion, the War on Terror, and even Viagra as examples of how skewed our values and understanding of progress have become. Fundamentally, each of us is the young Prince Siddhartha, insulated from reality by constructions of our own minds that we have been socialized to think of as “reality.” Even when we enter into formal Buddhist practice, we still habitually play the same game, which leaves us restless, anxious, and disoriented. This is exactly why revisiting this first level of reflection is so necessary. We can play bells and whistles and do all the spiritual backflips described in the book; we will never experience freedom so long as we cling to apparent reality. We actually run the risk of compounding our ignorance all the more because we think we’re on the path: the whole time we are actually lost in the woods, walking around in circles.
What Makes You Not a Buddhist is decidedly unesoteric. There are no exciting visualization techniques, no mantras. Khyentse doesn’t dismiss the value of these elements of Buddhist practice, but his book is a revaluation of what is most essential within the tradition. It is an internal response to degeneration and misconceptions within the Buddhist community, and an engagement with the world at large. Khyentse mixes harsh social criticism with an arid sense of humor and tactful lightness in his call back to Buddhist fundamentals. While he offers prospective newcomers a distilled, colloquial, and readily accessible introduction to basic Buddhist principles, Khyentse also demands that so-called veterans cast a sharp glance at themselves and reevaluate their own authentic fidelity.
Khyentse emphasizes the adaptability of Buddhism to various cultural contexts. He uses the analogy of tea to represent the four seals, noting that whatever sort of receptacle you pour it in, your pleasant warm beverage remains the same. It’s the same with truth, although we are typically seduced by the cup’s form and ignore its contents. After all, Khyentse admits, “Incense and candles are exotic and attractive; impermanence and selflessness are not.” For all of us who tend to think that enlightenment consists of the perfect meditation cushion color combination, Khyentse Rinpoche reminds us otherwise. Buddhism may sound all well and good until we really look carefully: all emotions are pain. This is an often-heard but extremely challenging proposition, one that demands serious consideration. Ultimately, argues Khyentse, this is what Buddhism looks like. It is the four seals. It is not fashion, and it is not meditation. We don’t all need to quit our day jobs and move to a monastery, although we certainly may. We are taught, nevertheless, that this is all provisional: “Ultimately one must abandon the path to enlightenment. If you still define yourself as a Buddhist, you are not buddha yet.” As a social critic, Dzongsar Khyentse reminds us that it is interior transformation that establishes the groundwork for meaningful activity, and not vice versa.