what makes us (not) mystics

I read a book recently called What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. The subject of the book is the “four seals” of Buddhism:

All compounded things are impermanent; all emotions are pain; all things have no inherent existence; nirvana is beyond concepts.

I had heard of the book while practising the lam rim at a study retreat, at a time when I was considering ordination ~ reading the book was part of my investigation into whether I actually wanted to be a Buddhist. The teachers at the retreat recommended the book as a good introduction to what a student should understand before they consider even taking refuge.

So I read the book with fervour and very much enjoyed Khyentse’s style ~ so much so that I eventually travelled up to Sydney to watch him speak at a day-long teaching that was more reminiscent of a rock concert than it was of any teaching I had ever attended before. He was very funny, and he managed to convey a lot of insights that were valuable without talking directly about Buddhism very much.

He remains one of my favourite Buddhist teachers, but there was something in the introduction to the book that has just now popped into mind and caused me to question the value of asking the question, “What makes me not a Buddhist?”

No wait … it wasn’t in the introduction to that book ~ it was in another book that was discussing the same concepts, the four seals. Anyway,

wherever I read it, the author was drawing on the same notion: that to be a “card-carrying” Buddhist, one needs to agree with or understand the essence of the four seals.

Based on the current state of my research/understanding, this includes me. I believe I understand and agree with each of these four principles.

These principles, however, are not exclusive to Buddhism ~ they are principles understood by mystical traditions everywhere … or perhaps almost everywhere. If we agree with or understand these principles, we are not necessarily Buddhist, but to identify as a Buddhist we need to agree with these principles.

I understand that doctrine is a valueable guide in the search for truth, but this feels a bit too-dogmatic to me, especially now, but even a little bit back then. I was willing to let the dogma-feel slide, because I was (and still am, sometimes), eager to feel like part of a group that shares the same beliefs ~ it’s comforting, no?

But just now when I was doing something other than actively thinking about truth (I was doing a sort of zentagle, a form of art therapy … and waiting for Centrelink to take me off hold … 1:02:51 hours so far ;/


I was doodling and it came to mind that if we want to call ourselves a “card-carrying” Buddhist, we need to look at that:

the mystical path is a search for our true identity, our true nature ~ in Buddhism it is taught that what we believe to be our identity, our self, is an illusion: our identity is comprised of such elements as, say, male, thirty-four years old, brunette, dread-locked, quite handsome but a bit lopsided 🙂 Other elements include our cultural affiliations: Australian, public-school educated, progressive and a little bit Buddhist.

It’s that term “card-carrying” that caught my attention while I was doodling. A card-carrying member of a club has easy access: show the card; people trust you won’t get drunk and trash the place; they let you in. To say that understanding the four seals makes you a card-carrying Buddhist just renders the whole purpose of understanding these truths irrelevant, because these concepts are also an illusion. Yes? No?

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse ~ he kinda looks like John Safran, don’t you think?

Something I remember now from the Khyentse book is that the conclusion, maybe even the final line of the book, is the statement that if you realise enlightenment and still think you’re a Buddhist, there could be a problem, you know what I mean?

I really appreciated that Khyentse concluded his book with that sentiment. I want to be accepted as part of a group as much as the next bloke, but if we look around and cling too much to various labels to know whether we are or are not making progress along the spiritual path … well, that’s a lot different from just straight-up knowing we are on the path without having to identify as a Buddhist or a Gnostic or a shaman or a Hindu or whatever.

I think it’s realy important to remember this. What do you think?

What makes us not Buddhists/shamans/whatever is what makes us mystics, I reckon.

~ ~ ~

featured image: gildedlilycharms

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