Anyone can practice Buddhist meditation. Whether or not you wish to become a Buddhist depends entirely upon you. But it’s also true that not all Buddhists meditate. In fact, most Asian Buddhists, including many ordinary Tibetans, do not. Some chant and pray, some make offerings (candles, flowers, food incense, bows, and prostrations) before statues of the Buddha, or give charitable donations (money, food, medicine, service) to hospitals and the like. Some Buddhists attend lectures on the Buddha’s teachings, memorize scripture, or build temples or stupas–commemorative monuments or reliquaries–as their spiritual practice.
I recall the first Buddhism in America conference held in Boston three years ago where I ran into a woman, who had spent years meditating and reading about the subject. But it wasn’t until she started accessing the Internet and had to decide on subject areas to explore that she started to use the term “Buddhism” in conjunction with what had become her practice. Did this make her a Buddhist? she wondered. She didn’t think so, but she also didn’t really care.
I also recall Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has done much to promote meditation as a stress-reduction technique, saying that what he taught wasn’t Buddhism, but simple “mindfulness,” and that the focus should be on a liberating spiritual practice. Remember: Just as Jesus was not a Christian, Buddha was not a Buddhist.
On the other hand, many Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests and nuns meditate–even regularly practicing Buddhist meditation–without changing their religious affiliation. Moreover, there are various kinds and styles of meditation that have developed with Buddhism–everything from breath-counting and mindfulness to visualization, mantra-chanting, inwardly expressing loving kindness and compassion, Tibetan heat yoga, inner energy work, and more. Some involve visualizing and invoking Buddhist deities (archetypal representations of the highest spiritual qualities within us), while others have virtually no Buddhist content.
Meditation, in short, is a an excellent example of a spiritual practice that transcends “isms” and schisms. It’s post-denominational and can deepen any religious quest. (In addition to Buddhist meditation, there are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian, Taoist, and other forms of meditation, by the way.) Meditation helps awaken and enlighten us, grounding us more in the present moment, the holy now. Meditation helps us be more mindful and present in life, rather than mindlessly sleepwalking through our days. Meditation heals and help us heal our relationships with others as well, making us better listeners; more sensitive, aware, attentive, and, therefore, more receptive. It enables us to become better transmitters for the awakening of faith, for gentleness, love, and compassion.
Buddhism is not intent upon converting anyone, and there is no conversion ceremony in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself said recently that missionary activity is outdated and encourages sectarianism. “Contribute to others, don’t convert others,” he has said.
There are, of course, Buddhist commitment rituals, such the Refuge Ceremony, during which one formally asks a spiritual teacher, who is a member of a recognized Buddhist lineage, to administer a vow in which one pledges to take refuge in the Buddha (enlightened teacher), the dharma (liberating teaching and practice), and the sangha (spiritual community) while striving for enlightenment. But one does not need to renounce one’s cherished religious beliefs in order to turn toward dharma practice.
All beings are fully endowed with Buddha Nature–the very same inner luminosity of spirit that the Buddha and all buddhas throughout time have realized within themselves. So whether you are a card-carrying Buddhist is less important than whether you reach that state of inner illumination and full enlightenment available to all. But because Buddhism is a spiritual path explicitly focused on reaching that goal, I call myself a Buddhist. For me, it’s a helpful identification that fills me with joy.