I knew I was a Buddhist the moment I read a book by Chogyam Trungpa called The Heart of the Buddha. This is how I already think, only I didn't know it, I said to myself. I must be a Buddhist. From that moment, the fates conspired to place me firmly on the path. I began to practice in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, found an amazing meditation instructor, and immediately saw my life begin to change, even out, take shape. Rarely has anything in my life been so clear-cut.
After about six months of practice, I asked my meditation teacher what steps one takes to formally become a Buddhist. He told me that it's called "taking refuge" in these three things: the Buddha (the enlightened one, but also in the fact of enlightened mind in everyone, including yourself); the dharma (the teachings -- which range from the sutras, tantras, and their commentaries to any and everything that teaches you); and the sangha (the community of fellow practitioners, certainly, but also, as I understood him, the community of fellow humans seeking happiness on planet earth). His explanation was really good and encouraged me further. I wanted to do those things. Also, when he said the phrase, "Take refuge," I started to cry. I longed for refuge in this crazy world, and none of the traditional options -- things like career, relationships, money, knowledge, do-gooding, and what have you -- seemed viable.
I want to do it, I told him, but how do I know that I'm ready? I didn't want to take this step in a half-assed way. (I mean, I'm the person who, when thinking about getting married, wrote a whole book called The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do." Romance shromance. I'm against making lifelong commitments on the fly.) My meditation instructor said, "You know you're ready when becoming a Buddhist is simply a recognition of something that has already happened." Genius. (And not a bad benchmark when it comes to marriage and marriage-like commitments, I might add.) I knew that it had, and so I took refuge on March 10, 1995. It was definitely one of the most moving days of my life.
Now, in addition to practicing it, I write about being a student of Buddhism. Sometimes people muse to me about their connection to it. (It's not like I'm an expert in telling Buddhists from non-Buddhists or go around saying things like, yeah, you probably are, but you -- no way. Ha! For one thing, I have no idea. For another, you could make a very real argument that there is no such thing as "a Buddhist" anyway.)
Many, many people are deeply touched by the dharma and have a profound ability to naturally understand it. You know who you are. It takes up residence in your mind and moments of recognition ding repeatedly, whether on the spot or two years later. You simply notice that your mindstream and the dharma flow together easily, surprisingly, terrifyingly, joyfully, and so on. What a person does from that point forward is utterly individual. Some people, like me, benefit enormously from a traditional, prescribed path. I'm already spacey and self-centered enough. A path grounds me within and without, and I'm grateful for it. Others, though, may be too rules-based and the strictures of a traditional path could provide perfect hiding places for ego. Maybe they should throw off all rules and figure it out on their own. Ultimately, we all do a combination of these two -- learning from masters and figuring it out on our own, making a personal connection with the dharma over and over, hopefully until the end of our lives.
Into this very creative space of figuring it out for yourself can creep all sorts of distractions, otherwise known as spiritual materialism: looking, not at reality, but at ways to blur reality by using spiritual tactics. The phrase was coined (and written about) by Chogyam Trungpa. It's so easy to think you're a Buddhist and that it means something conventionally comprehensible and/or offers you something to cling to as a way of escaping the sorrows of samsara. Which would be awesome, but oh well, it's not.
How do you know if you're a spiritual seeker or a materialist? Some thoughts:
First, think that you are probably definitely both and that taking a fresh look at this question every day (or more) is a very helpful thing to do.
Second (and this is the fail-safe), find, if you can, a genuine master and study as hard as you can with him or her. I definitely believe in this way; the guru is the root of blessings. Personally, I have found this to be true.
Third, have complete confidence that you can figure it all out. You can. You are the only one who can. On some level, the most realistic level, you already have. You possess Buddhanature right now. Therefore, you can have confidence.
For each of us, the way will be utterly unique -- if not the path itself, then the way it is arrived at. There are no guarantees, and we have to keep figuring it out until (and beyond) the day we die. But if along your path the only thing deepening more rapidly than your capacity for love is your confusion, if what you are learning convinces you more and more that you actually don't know anything, and if your sense of humor is completely intact, then you're probably on the right track. Perhaps you are "a Buddhist." Maybe not. In any and all cases, I hope our paths will cross.