Over the years I've frequently encountered the perception that referring to oneself as a Buddhist, or advocating any variation of “ist” or “ism,” is somehow unskillful, just another form of attachment or clinging. This idea proposes that proclaiming oneself a practitioner of a single spiritual path results in getting stuck in opinions and practices, leading inevitably to a denigration of other spiritual paths. Those who advocate the “Don't be a Buddhist or Any Other Ist” explain that compassion and harmlessness are universal qualities that don't fall under the exclusive domain of any spiritual practice, and this is certainly true. Additionally, it's often claimed that we should be encouraged to “take the best” from a variety of sacred traditions, creating a personal philosophy “cafeteria style.”
So why am I a Buddhist?
I view Buddhist practice as a commitment to bring into my life a perspective quite foreign to the views and behaviors that are ingrained through our present social institutions and culture. The default perceptions of late capitalism conform to an emphasis on individual self-interest above others, most notably in the form of an everyone-for-themselves rat race to accumulate increasingly scarce resources, social prestige and financial capital. We live amidst mindless consumption and acquisition that serve as the primary motivational goals for all human endeavor, at the notable expense of community interaction and spiritual practice. We're brainwashed with the delusion that everything we acquire in life came from our hard work alone, rather than our reliance on the labor so many unseen others: the vegetables we eat, for example, didn't arrive to our table by our hard work, it's the cumulation of migrant farm workers, truck drivers, grocery clerks and cashiers, so often unseen and unappreciated.
As a buddhist, I've made a commitment to process life in ways that transcend these run-of-the-mill views; to perceive events in terms of the Noble Truths:
1) noting which experiences fall under the category of life's inevitable challenges (old age, sickness, death, separation from the loved, setbacks and disappointing events);
2) noting how I've created unnecessary stress and suffering by taking so many universal experiences as personal affronts, viewing myself as separate rather than interdependent, attempting to resist experiences that are unavoidable, or projecting desirable qualities onto transient and ultimately unfulfilling distractions;
3) knowing that there is peace in relinquishing such unskillful defense mechanisms and addictive behaviors;
4) seeking lasting peace in available sources, such as appreciation of the happiness of others, compassion for suffering, balanced equaniminty in relation to life's setbacks, effort in developing ease via breath and body sensations.
These truths are not natural or inherent to the mind—there is no underlying “buddha nature” waiting to pop out, its a contemporary fantasy. Seeing impermanence and interdependence requires constant practice, reflection and appropriate action. To note where there's suffering in life asks that I look past the dogmas that justify vile workplace practices, indifference to suffering, cruelty and competitiveness. Being a Buddhist is embracing a duty to develop a path comprised of harmlessness, focused awareness, and wisdom—it doesn't require believing such beliefs are not present in other spiritual paths as well.
Finding a spiritual practice is akin to attaining a proper prescription for eyeglasses: we try various lenses on until we find a set that helps us see as clearly as possible. This doesn't mean the other available lenses are wrong; they'll work fine for other people. For me, being a Buddhist means that the dharma “fits” life perfectly and help process experience with greater clarity; The Four Noble Truths are my prescription.
To fulfill my commitment, in cultivating tranquil states via my practice I develop the ability to ask and answer "Where am I suffering right now? Which behaviors am I holding onto that are ultimately unskillful and harmful?" These are questions that must be reflected on frequently and require honest answers, as the world is constantly pushing us in the wrong direction, towards that which makes the flow of capital run smoothly. To be a Buddhist is simply the commitment to make inquiries that lead to limitless freedom; count me in.