I have recently seen a few YouTube vids of talks and discussions in which renowned Dharma teachers assert that there can be no Buddhism without rebirth, and in a couple of cases they go as far as to say that those who don’t believe in rebirth shouldn’t call themselves Buddhists. Debates about this issue have, of course, been rumbling on at least since Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs, and probably for a lot longer. I’m not going to get into the debate about rebirth here, but just for the record I don’t believe that rebirth happens and I don’t believe that it doesn’t happen. I just don’t know (and yes, I have read Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker, and no, I am not a committed materialist).
So I suppose that in the eyes of some people I am not a Buddhist.
Of course, there is no reason why I should care in the least. If I am so desperate for another identity label to shore up my sense of self, then there are plenty I can use, based on my ethnicity, citizenship, gender, sexuality, profession, age, and so on. I don’t need the label “Buddhist.” But this has got me thinking about what “counts” as following the Buddha-dharma—or what might count as NOT following the Buddha-dharma.
One stereotype about convert, Western, modern, or nontraditional Buddhists (whatever term you like—I’ll stick to nontraditional Buddhists—“nontrads” for short) is that we tend to equate Buddhism with meditation, and are very relaxed about, or ignore altogether, other aspects of the path, especially ethical aspects. There may be some truth in this. Certainly, if you ask a nontrad about their practice, you are likely to be told about what kinds of meditation techniques they use, not how they are trying to apply certain precepts in their daily life or how they are cultivating paramitas such as generosity, renunciation, or patience. And on the odd occasion, I have been a bit surprised after a meditation session to hear someone talk about how the stock market is doing or where to get some good red wine at a reasonable price. But on the whole, although trying to evaluate others is difficult and definitely unwise, I have no reason to think that most of the nontrads I know are not taking the development of all aspects of the path seriously. Also looking at what is currently happening and has happened in the past in some traditionally Buddhist countries, it would be hard to argue that examples of unethical behaviour are commoner among nontrads than trads.
From the other perspective, nontrads are often surprised when they learn how few laypeople or even monks in traditional Buddhist countries have a regular meditation practice. How can you be a Buddhist and not meditate? But of course it has long been the case in Buddhist countries that meditation has been a practice for a minority of specialists. The majority of laypersons have expressed their commitment to the Buddha-dharma by such things as keeping a certain number of precepts, supporting the Sangha, listening to Dharma talks, and taking part in various rituals. It would certainly be very arrogant for nontrads to conclude that such people are not following the Buddha-dharma. I remember once, after having made some derogatory remark about people following “empty rituals,” being quite rightly reprimanded by one of my teachers for presuming to know what is in other peoples’ minds.
Personally, I do think it is a pity if people do not try to cultivate all three aspects of the Buddha-dharma—meditation, morality, and wisdom, as to me the beauty of the path is in the way these three aspects are integrated and how cultivating any one of them can support and be supported by the other two. But I wouldn’t want to take that as a basis for evaluating or commenting on other people’s paths. I think it is best to take people at their word when they say they are Buddhists, or followers of the Buddha-dharma. Unless we are looking for a teacher, that is. We would certainly be justified in having doubts about a teacher who, for example was unable to control his or her addiction to alcohol, sex, or money, or who had never been known to meditate, or who showed no signs of wisdom.
Coming back to the beliefs issue, it is true that the first “fold” of the noble eightfold path is “right view.” The usual (and somewhat circular) traditional gloss on this is that it refers to understanding suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the end of suffering, i.e. the four noble truths themselves. I am sure there are other unpackings of “right view,” but as far as I know, none of them imply that a particular belief is a prerequisite for a person to walk the path. Whether you want to call such a person a Buddhist or not is irrelevant.