What is a Buddhist?

Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen was a leading Tibetan lama and a human rights activist. He founded the Gaden Shartse Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”), a center in Long Beach, CA for the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, in 1978.

gyeltsenI did not know him very well. I occasionally attended his dharma talks on Sunday mornings. He was very approachable. He often answered the phone at the center and you could engage him in a conversation. I always imagined that I could probably just show up any day and if he was available he would probably sit down with me and answer questions. I never did that. Long Beach is 30 miles away. It was a lousy excuse. I have always told people that for an opportunity to learn Buddha-dharma, you should be willing to travel as far as necessary. I should have practiced what I had preached.

He is gone now. He passed away in 2009. Fortunately we have audio tapes and videos of his teachings, and his books, although as far as I know he only published four. One of them is Mirror of Wisdom: Teachings on Emptiness. I was looking at it the other day and came across these words under the heading “What is a Buddhist”:

The Tibetan word for Buddhist is nang-pa, which literally means “one who is focused on inner reality.” This refers to someone who concentrates more on his or her inner world than on external phenomena. This is perhaps the most important point regarding Buddhist practice. Our primary goal is to subdue and transform our state of mind—our inner reality. In this way, we seek to improve all our actions of body and speech, but especially those of mind.”

The suffering within human beings cannot be transcended without the hard work of looking within and riding ourselves of delusions and attachments, work that heals and restores our original harmony with others and our environment.

I am afraid some people have the impression that Buddhism is all about transcending our mundane human existence to attain a supermundane state. It is to some extent understandable. In the past and even today, Buddha is presented as the “Perfect One,” superhuman, almost god-like, and the image that is predominate of a Buddhist is of the perfectly calm and uncommonly wise monk, who never craves for anything and never makes mistakes. But, that’s not it. A Buddhist, or a Buddha, is nothing more than an ordinary human being.

Another great teacher, Lama Anagarika Govinda, in A Living Buddhism for the West, put it this way:

The mere fact that the Buddha . . . led a full life in the world, with wife and child, and still attained enlightenment in that same life should teach us all not to obstruct our path through the enforced repression of normal human functions and capabilities. It is only through the fullness of experience and the living of a full human existence that we can attain to that turning within and transformation that alone can lead to the spontaneous experience of enlightenment.”

We talk a lot about emptiness, being a Buddhist is really about being full . . . a full human being.


2 thoughts on “What is a Buddhist?

  1. as it is said, it is about being full , empty, none, both. All, perhaps. Perfect renunciation. Letting go of identification of all forms, both external and internal.

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