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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 33 PHOTO©2008MUSEUMOFFINEARTS,BOSTON THE OTHER DAY, someone who attends the zazen classes I lead told me about an argument she’d had with her boyfriend. At one point in the argument, her boyfriend pointed out something she’d done and said, “That’s not very Buddhist!” How often have all of us heard that one? These days the average person has been bombarded with enough media images of what the folks in Hollywood think Buddhism might be for pretty much anyone to start believing they know exactly what it means to fol- low in Gautama’s footsteps. Whether it’s Yoda from Star Wars, or Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu, or that supposedly Buddhist guy in the tissue commercials who gets horrified at the thought that his medicated hankies are killing poor innocent germs, it all filters into the generalized idea of how Buddhists ought to look, sound, and behave. And when we don’t live up to these idealized images, look out! Few of these images were created by people who have the slightest inkling of what it really means to follow a Buddhist practice. Most of these caricatures are based on fragmented im- pressions of Buddhist philosophy filtered through the distorting lens of the Judeo-Christian dualistic outlook. Yet our friends and families often expect us, as flesh and blood human beings, to live up to these highly idealized and unrealistic images. As if anybody could be like that—or even aspire to such a thing! Those of you who’ve read my books and blogs know that my own particular mode of expression is more likely than most to strike people as “not very Buddhist.” But all of us are subjected to this to some extent. So what do we do about it? It’s useless to try to explain what Buddhism actually is to some- one who’s not sincerely interested. In Zen there’s a saying that you shouldn’t try to answer a question about Buddhism until the ques- tioner asks at least three times. No one I know follows that literally. But I find it’s a good rule of thumb not to talk about Buddhism to someone who shows no more than cursory interest. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to try to encapsulate 2,500 years of philosophy into something the guy at the desk next to yours can digest as he waits for the person he’s calling on his cell to pick up. On the other hand, even when someone who doesn’t know dip about Buddhism tells me I’m not being very Buddhist, I al- ways take the statement seriously. Sometimes they’re perfectly right. Sometimes they’re not. Even when they’re wrong it may, in that situation, be better to do something different. That still may not be something they’d consider “Buddhist.” But that’s of no consequence. Other times they’re just dead wrong, and I need to continue to do exactly what I’m doing. It’s important for us as Buddhists to put forward a good image of what Buddhists are like. We need to follow the precepts as best we can, use kind speech, be upstanding citizens, and all that. But it is of no importance at all to try to live up to some media stereo- type of a supposedly “typical Buddhist.” In fact, that’s one of the most self-destructive activities you can engage in. That image is based in fantasy. Buddhism must always be grounded in reality. Because this is the case, there are times when the most truly Buddhist thing to do will strike those who have no experience That’s Not Very Buddhist of You Have you ever had that accusation thrown in your face? BRAD WARNER has, and it’s made him think about what it really means to act like a Buddhist. It’s not as simple as right and wrong. “The Zen Patriarch Nanchuan [Nansen] Killing a Kitten”: Whether it is symbolic, apocryphal, or true, this Zen story has sparked fierce debate over correct Buddhist behavior. Detail from a painting by Hashimoto Gahô (1835-1908). MAR 18-41.indd 33 MAR 18-41.indd 33 12/19/07 2:34:41 PM 12/19/07 2:34:41 PM