Are You Buddhish?

Saturday March 10, 2007


I have, for several years, been uneasy with the idea that I might be a Buddhist. Sometimes I refer to myself as a Buddhist as a form of shorthand; but most of the time I tend to avoid the term. There are too many associations. I don’t think of myself as religious in any sense. My usual cast of mind is distinctly unmystical. I find the traditions of Buddhism compelling to the extent that they pay attention not to concerns beyond the bounds of this life (rebirth, other realms attainable by the mystics and so on) but to the practical business of how we are to go about living, whilst we are still here.

The trouble with the term ‘Buddhist’ is that it takes its place within the context of the idea of world religions that can be traced back to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The parliament was held at the Chicago world fair, held to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in America, and was organised in an attempt to seek the unity behind the bewildering variety of beliefs, philosophies and practices around the world. Both the idea of world religions and the discipline of religious history can be traced back to this event. Wendy Doniger writes, “It is surely significant that the discipline of the history of religions was born and raised in the context of the World Parliament of Religions, which spawned the still operative optimism that the more you know about other people (even when you do not like what you know), the less likely you will be to kill them.” ().

Although there may be some benefit in this optimism, what Doniger overlooks is the sheer oddness of the idea of world religions in the first place. These days we tend to think of World Religions as a canonical list including Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and perhaps Taoism. Each of these is treated as a relatively stable, well-bounded entity, but each in some way is claimed to exhibit the characteristics of some essence called ‘world religion’. And in schools where these things are studied, we then look at the various religions, exploring for each of them their beliefs, their festival days, their picturesque customs and exotic head-gear and so on, usually with some vague subtext of unity in diversity, some hunch that all religions are one although probably our own (if we have one) is better than all the rest.

This idea of world religions leaves out a whole mass of human religious behaviour. It leaves out Caodaism, the Vietnamese religion that counts Victor Hugo amongst its prophets. It leaves out Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese ‘doomsday cult’ that claimed to be Buddhist and that was responsible for releasing sarin gas into the Tokyo subway. It leaves out Marxism. It leaves out modern pagans, druids and wiccans. And so on. But also this very idea of world religion is rooted in an idea of religion that is itself deeply formed by Christianity. Here is an extract from the collection edited by John Henry Barrows and published in 1893 to coincide with the Parliament.

This Book will show Man seeking after God, and it will also tell the diviner story of God seeking after Man.
  Striking the noble chord of universal human brotherhood, the promoters of the World’s First Parliament of Religions have evoked a starry music which will yet drown the miserable discords of earth.
  This book is the record of Man’s best thinking to-day on the greatest of themes. For the first time in all the centuries, the wonders of Art and Science and the wonders of Faith and Thought have been exhibited side by side.
  The faces of living men of all Faiths, the Temples wherein they worship, the record of their highest achievements, the reasons for their deepest convictions, and the story of their earliest meeting together in loving conference, are for the first time presented in one comprehensive work.The Western City which was deemed the home of the crudest materialism has placed a golden milestone in Man’s pathway toward the spiritual Millennium.
  As some of my readers look into the pictured faces of robed and mitred ecclesiastics, earnest pulpit orators, highhearted women, grave reformers and strange-featured wise men from far Eastern lands, the scholarly representatives of Faiths which are alien to the habitual current of Western thought, and as they read these varied chapters in the wondrous history of the Soul, I am confident they will experience a widening of thought, and be glad that the Providence of God has, in the process of the suns, blessed them with truer tenderness and a broadened sympathy.
  This Book will also be read in the cloisters of Japanese scholars, by the shores of the Yellow Sea, by the water courses of India and beneath the shadows of Asiatic mountains near which rose the primal habitations of man. It is believed that the Oriental reader will discover in these volumes the source and strength of that simple faith in Divine Fatherhood and Human Brotherhood, which, embodied in an Asiatic Peasant who was the Son of God and made divinely potent through Him, is clasping the globe with bands of heavenly light.

Of course, things have moved on since 1893, but even if references to Divine Fatherhood as a basis for unity are now less common, nevertheless our thinking about religion is still deeply formed by an idea of religion that is rooted in Christianity. For example, one of the first questions that is asked of Buddhists is usually “What do Buddhists believe?” The second question is “What are Buddhists not allowed to do?” Yet these are not the only ways of thinking about systems of human practice. They are questions that are themselves formed by the long Christian tradition.

What would be interesting to trace – there’s no doubt a PhD project or three in such an idea – is how modern Buddhist institutions have themselves been formed by this idea of ‘world religions’, how they may perhaps in many ways have grown to fit this idea and these expectations of what a religion is and what it does. But that would be a long digression that I don’t want to pursue here. Instead, I want to suggest a new term that might enter the lexicon for hopelessly and irredeemably irreligious folks like myself. Instead of saying ‘I am a Buddhist’, which is a noun suggesting identity, and which seems to indicate membership of a particular world religion, how about saying, ‘I am Buddhish’?

Buddhish ( adj. ):
i) not quite Buddhist
ii) spuriously or falsely claiming to be Buddhist.
iii) influenced in some fashion by aspects of Buddhism.
iv) saffron in colour (for example, “That’s a lovely, Buddhish flower you’ve got there…”)

Buddhish, then. An adjective rather than a noun, as in ‘peevish’ or ‘liverish’. And the pronunciation? That’s easy. Just try saying “Buddhist” when you are drunk…

# · Tim

Thanks for putting forward in print what describes me perfectly as this moment, not “Buddhist” with all the trappings and labels of officialdom, but rather of being “Buddhish”, a state of present process, a thinking tranforming. Perfect.

But is it a “cop-out”, a failure of commitment?

# · Will

Hi, Tim, thanks for the comment.
Whether it is a cop-out or not, I am not entirely sure although I don’t think so. It does not rule out the possibility of committed practices of one kind or another. And there are some circumstances in which failure of commitment might be seen to be a good thing… It depends what you are committed to.

All the best,


# · Sunstone

I think Buddhish will be a very useful word in this age when the world is coming together and people are increasingly picking and choosing their beliefs from various cultures and societies, rather than from their own alone.

I can see that happening on the interfaith religious forum I administer —- there are people who describe their religion in such strange ways as “Christian Wicca” or “Part time Buddhist” or “Muslim Taoist”. Some folks are becoming cosmic dancers, with feet that never rest too heavily in any one position, but lightly move from one religion to another.

# · katie

I love your ideas and I could not agree more with the concept of being “Buddhish.” As a teenager I am often incredulously questioned about “being a Buddhist” and I never know exactly how to respond (especially since my mom is a Presbyterian minister), even though I regard myself as more Buddhist than not, if that makes any sense. However, I am intrigued with Buddhism and it seems paradoxical to claim I am a Buddhist, since is not the principal aspect of Buddhism to not “be anything” but simply “just to be”?

# · Jenn

Buddhish: the quintessence of Buddhism. Not Buddhist, but Buddhist, form is emptiness, emptiness is form…well done, sir.

# · "James"

and it seems paradoxical to claim I am a Buddhist, since is not the principal aspect of Buddhism to not “be anything” but simply “just to be”?

Well said and exactly what I was thinking.

# · Alex M.

This is interesting… a post that seemed to echo what I was thinking as I was walking home today. Yet the post was written six days ago by another person somewhere in the world! The word I was thinking of to describe it was “Buddhistic”, which is kind of a knowing abuse of language. Very similar, hmm? I do not consider myself religious either.

Thanks for the interesting post! :)

# · Anthony

Will, you wrote that the questions ‘What do you believe?’ and ‘What are you not allowed to do?’ are formed by Christianity, but I suspect the roots are deeper than that. I live in Japan and come across just the same kind of language and assumptions with regard to religion. The idea that religion is primarily about belief in certain propositions about the world, and/or a system of seemingly abritrary ethical rules, is perhaps a manifestation of the human mind’s need to fix, categorise, and reify, and is to that extent universal. For example, when I tell people I’m vegetarian (pretty much unheard of in modern Japan), I often find that just about the only way of explaining myself, and being understood, is to say that ‘I’m a Buddhist’. If the idea of a thought-out and freely-chosen ethical decision is hard for some to comprehend, almost everyone can understand that: ‘Ah , yes, he’s a Buddhist, they’re not allowed to eat meat.’

# · scott

Reminds me of the old joke: I’m not a Jew, I’m Jewish.

I’m not a Buddhist, I’m Buddhish. Works for me.

# · Will

I’d never heard that joke before, Scott! Thanks for posting.
All the best,

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