Am I a Buddhist?


A new friend asked me yesterday whether I’m a Buddhist. I always have a hard time answering that question.

The evidence in favor: I have a daily mediation practice. I meditate in a room with a small shrine that includes a Buddha statue. I read a lot of Buddhist literature. I wear a mala bracelet (although I’m not a Buddhist in the Tibetan tradition; I just wear it as a reminder) and a necklace with an image of the Buddha. I have a copy of the precepts tacked to the wall in my bedroom. When I was on tour last year I carried a Buddha statue with me and took lots of photos of it.

The evidence against: I don’t have a sangha (a group of people with whom I practice). I don’t have a teacher. I don’t belong to any particular sect. I’m an atheist who is reluctant to self-identify with something many folks consider to be a religion.

I should point out that one of the reasons I don’t have a sangha or a teacher is because it’s hard for me to find one of either that fits my needs. I can’t stand the quiet-voiced teachers who populate so many Buddhist centers in the U.S. (Think Bob Ross in robes.) People like that, rather than inspiring equanimity, make me want to punch them. I think that’s why I find Josh Korda from Dharma Punx NYC so refreshing. If I could have any teacher, it would be him. (You can hear him for yourself here.)

And there’s a lot of wealthy white privilege in American Buddhist centers, but, in my experience, not a lot of acknowledgement of that fact or action in the outside world. I’m painting with a broad brush — there are certainly counterexamples. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship, for instance.

But despite all that, I recently updated my Facebook page to read Buddhist Atheist. (I know, I know.) Because for some reason it matters to me to be identified with other people who are walking this same path. Even though “Buddhist” can mean anyone from folks like me all the way to people who believe in demons and spirits and magic and such.

Whenever I write a post like this, I imagine a few of my oldest friends shaking their heads in sadness at my passage to the woowoo side. And some part of me feels the same way — like my need for group identification or membership is a sign that I’m not strong enough on my own.

That usually passes quickly, though, when I think of all the benefits that my practice has brought to my life. Simply put, I’m a better person because of it. I’m able to understand my emotions more fully, to gain a split second of time before I react to something, and to pay closer attention to my world and the people in it.

And there’s something about Buddhism in its basic form that I find very appealing. It speaks to the need to find peace and understanding in my daily life, and provides a way to do that. I’m sure it’s possible to use similar methods without the trappings of thousands of years of Buddhism, but I find them comforting and inspiring.

One of the books that made me more comfortable with Buddhism was Confession of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor. It helped me strip away the things that make me uncomfortable and adopt what, at least for me, is an essential Buddhism. Others might disagree, but Batchelor’s books have been a great help to me.

So yes, I guess I’m a Buddhist. And while that’s not the most affirmative way to put that, it seems like the right way to say it.

/ / /

p.s. — My friend Carmen once said to me, “All I can say is that if you call yourself a Buddhist you aren’t one.” She’s brilliant, but I hope she was wrong.

POEM: rowboat



you are in a rowboat
on the surface of a
I am swimming toward you
I am not trying to surprise you
but your eyes are closed
so you don’t
see me
when I reach your boat
I grab the side
to pull myself in
you sit up
but I was so peaceful, you say
I’m sorry, I say
I just wanted to share it with you

16 April 2013
Auburn, AL

/ / /

This poem is very loosely based on this famous parable by Zhuangzi. As retold in this dharma talk by Josh Korda.

My newly decorated ukulele

I’m a big fan of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as people, as musicians, as activists, and as decorators of instruments. Woody had this on his guitar:


And Pete has this on his banjo:

"This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."

I thought for quite a while about what to write on mine. I decided to use a phrase from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh on the front, and then drew a lotus on the back. You can click to see larger images:



POEM: eating Oreos with the buddha


eating Oreos with the buddha

The Buddha came over today
we ate Oreos and drank rice milk
I played him a song on the ukulele
he told me his most popular story
(spoiler alert: it was mostly
about him sitting under a tree)
he comes by most Sundays
because I get the New York Times
and he likes to do the crossword
(“what’s a seven-letter word for satori“?)
a couple weeks ago I asked him
to meditate with me for a while
but he said he doesn’t do that anymore
he told me to practice the ukulele instead
“it’s pretty much the same thing”

24 February 2013
Auburn, AL

POEM: morning meditation

morning meditation

letting the idea of you rise
from my stomach into my chest
like the memory of fields
carried on the steam
from a cup of tea

Buddha dances on the wall
to the beat of the candle flame
until he’s stopped for a moment
by a frozen flash of lightning
this morning I awoke!

with a desperate need to poop
had to wait for two other people
to use the bathroom
hopping from foot to foot
such is life

21 May 2012
Brooklyn NY