What do Buddhists Look Like?

Tuesday September 19, 2006


A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation between two meditators which ran something like this:

A: Apparently x has been meditating for twenty years.
B: Well, they don’t look as if they have…

I didn’t think much of this at the time, but when I reflected on it later, it seemed a rather curious kind of thing to say. After all, what is somebody who has been meditating for twenty years supposed to look like? Pondering long and hard on this matter, I complied a little check-list of common characteristics of dharma practitioners, first for general edification, and secondly so that it might be used as a handy field guide:

A Field Guide to Dharma Practitioners

Look out for the following characteristics.

  1. Spectacles (the result of long hours studying the Perfection of Wisdom texts)
  2. Slightly too short trousers (indicating an admirably unworldly lack of fashion sense – also look out for sandal and sock combinations, signifying the same thing)
  3. Slow and deliberate movements (to demonstrate level of mindfulness practice)
  4. A soft, sad smile about the lips (indicating awareness of and aloofness from dukkha)
  5. Frequent bowing at anything that seems remotely worthy of reverence (suggesting deep humility)
  6. A gentle odour of incense (indicating hours spent in meditation, letting the burning sandalwood fumes penetrate the clothing)

* * *

With this list, you can have fun sitting on the bus or walking the streets, and spotting who is a practitioner and who is not. You can even add your own characteristics to the list, helping to refine it a little.

When considered in the light of this list, x seemed to score pretty badly. But of course, putting it like this, it seems absurd. Nevertheless, implicit in this overheard conversation is the idea that a dharma practitioner should look like something or other. Thinking about it now, I wonder whether this idea can lead to a particular kind of Buddhist pose, not unlike that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous Parisian waiter:

Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tight-rope-walker. All his behaviour seems to us a game… But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. (Being and Nothingness, 59).

The difficulty with our waiter is that his actions are accompanied by a profound self-consciousness. He is acting out a part. Nothing quite feels natural. This is not a problem that only afflicts waiters. It is possible as a dharma practitioner as well to assume a kind of Buddhist or meditative pose, to take on a holy air; but this kind of self-consciousness seems to me to be a long way from genuine mindfulness, which has a kind of naturalness to it, a kind of ease. Just assuming the pose reduces practice to pantomime.

So whilst some saw x’s not particularly Buddhist demeanour as a cause for doubt about the depth of x’s practice, I wonder now if perhaps it was precisely the opposite.

# · Jonathan Apps

There’s a Zen story which goes something like this conversation:

“I think my teacher is enlightened.”

“Hit him hard with a stick. If he doesn’t get angry, he’s probably enlightened”

Perhaps this is the only way to tell. Not literal stick-hitting hopefully, but if someone “loses it” easily or often, they’re probably not a very experienced, successful dharma practitioner.

I was once having coffee in M&S with someone I respected quite a lot, and who had been an order member for about 25 years. They spilt their coffee all over the counter, got in a strop and went “oh come on let’s go somewhere else”. I lost a bit of respect for them there and then, but perhaps I was expecting too much…

# · Nacho

Great post! I don’t know about what meditators look like, but it sure seems as if we can spot Yoga practitioners! : ) What with the carrying of the roll everywhere… the healthy glow, sharp cheekbones, tight buns, longish toes, and for those who are past 40 a certain “agey but cool healthy hyper-natural” look.

All which reminds me of Baudrillard’s hyper-real, realizing always that there is no real “look.”

Boy, I miss the boat on the meditator’s “look” but then again, I don’t even have a shirt that says Buddha, or Zen, and for a while there the only thing that in people’s mind connected me to the Buddha was my belly (which I’ve lost!).

Thanks again!


# · Sam

I think that’s an excellent point, Will. It is so easy to unconciously start to act a part, to try to appear saintly, to pretend to be something special. I say just be yourself, be mindful and bear in mind the precepts.

# · Elee

It’s interesting to think of us all dressing and acting a role, although I think there is something a lot more subconscious to it than that as well. Often we end up dressing a bit like the people we hang around with, and also picking up their mannerisms. This isn’t because we’re trying to be like them, but because these things just rub off (memes etc…).

As for being ourselves, is that even possible? Every mannerism or clothing style is dependent on other people. There isn’t really a ‘self’ in me that ‘naturally’ looks and acts one way or another. It all depends on outside influences and changes all the time.

Obviously some people are more self-conscious than others about the way they look and act. These are probably the ones who grate on us a bit, like Sartre’s waiters. But don’t be too harsh, we can’t all be completely original!

# · Sam

Yes, of course we are much the product of our experiences and are massively affected by people and places. I think we have to be careful with the word “subconcious” however. A major part of Buddhist or at least Zen practice is in noticing what our mad monkey-mind is doing all day! In noticing that we are not really concious. You could say we shine a light on what is ‘unconcious’. In meditation it is quite easy to recognise that I am not my thoughts. Thoughts come and go. And plenty of those thoughts are about trying to impress, to fit in, to keep myself safe and protected.

Perhaps trying to “be myself” doesn’t really work. But noticing when I am trying to be like someone else? That’s more useful.

# · Sam

Hmmm. It’s funny when I re-read a post I wrote the day before. It sounds pompous now. I was really trying to respond to Elee’s post.

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