Why I call myself a Buddhist

Figure with weird bulging eyes, from a Tibetan thangka painting.

When I became a Mitra (friend) of the Triratna Buddhist Community earlier this year, I was surprised by the surprise of my non-Buddhist friends. They seemed aggrieved.

This was the general message:

‘We know you’ve benefited from meditation, and going on silent retreats. Although that’s not our idea of a holiday, we’re pleased for you. But why spoil everything by espousing a weird Eastern religion? Can’t you keep it secular? And if you have to be religious (though God knows why) can’t you stick to your own? OK, maybe not the Church. But what’s wrong with the Quakers? They sit in silence and meditate, don’t they?’

Fair enough questions. And I tried to answer them. I talked about the value of meditation, the common sense of the precepts. I talked about enjoying chanting, and finding ritual moving.

This was all true. But my explanation, even as I gave it, struck me as just so much hot air. After a lot of apologetic shrugs at dinner tables and in cafes, I realised that my decision to become a Mitra hadn’t been ‘thought through’ at all.

The commitments involved in becoming a Mitra – coming out as a Buddhist, promising to live by the precepts and choosing the Triratna Buddhist community as my spiritual home – didn’t feel like things I had ‘decided’ on.

Rather, all my experiences within the Triratna Buddhist Community had added up and reached a tipping point. I suddenly felt ‘at home’ with it all.

By experiences, I mean acts of kindness I’ve felt and witnessed. I mean the teachings of Order Members and the warmth or sometimes lacerating sharpness with which those teachings are delivered. I mean stuff I read in Buddhist books that speaks directly to personal problems I didn’t realise anyone else had. I mean the intimacy of joined voices reciting the seven-fold puja (one of the core rituals in the Triratna Buddhist Community) and the hypnotic beauty of the Heart Sutra, the poem at its core. I mean the pregnant sense of strangeness and mystery that often suffuses me when I sit in silence with myself or with others, at home, at Leeds Buddhist Centre, or on early morning meditations on retreat where you enter the shrine room in the dark, meditate while dawn gathers, and step out utterly and completely in the day.

I can no more justify or quantify this than I can tell you why somebody falls in love with one person – perhaps a person from a different background – and not another. My Mitra ceremony felt like a kind of marriage. Most marriages go through rocky patches, I know. I’m going through one even as I write this, not having meditated for a fortnight. But Buddhist practice gives me a home to come back to, a structure to see my struggles in the context of. That’s why I was happy to say ‘I do.’

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31 Comments. Leave new

  • I am a Buddhist too! I “came out” about it because of people’s problem with it. To be a thorn in Christian society’s side. It’s amazing that I have the “weird” religion. Clearly they have not looked at thier own in any depth. Also, it’s just easier to say when meeting new people or if it comes up.

    • Mandy Sutter
      May 28, 2011 3:49 am

      Congratulations, Ed! I think you’re right that being a Buddhist in a broadly Christian society does in some way ‘throw down the gauntlet’ whether we want it to or not.

  • I’m not quite sure any longer what I would call myself if someone were to ask me what religion I follow, and in the recent filling-in of the census form my husband joked that I should put ‘well, this week I’m a Buddhist’. The thing is, I didn’t go looking for Buddhism, it felt much more as if it found me, (an experience I’m not unfamiliar with actually) and when I stumbled upon Wildmind not so very long ago, I had the same sensation you describe of feeling in a strange way that I was coming home.

    I have a really eerie feeling of connection with a whole host of people who are mostly nameless and unknown to me and yet share the same inner perplexities and wonderings. Time and time again I open the Wildmind blog page and find something that speaks so clearly to my condition that I just have to sit and smile in a state of pure wonder.

    This is more than just a thank you for this article, though saying ‘thanks’ to you for this is the simplest way I can think of in trying to say thank you in a much wider and deeper sense and to a far greater number of people. Thanks to all of you.

  • Mandy Sutter
    May 31, 2011 4:12 pm

    Thank you very much for the comment, Deborah. It’s good to know that our blog posts resonate with you. And it’s fascinating isn’t it, that sense that something (or sometimes someone) finds you, rather than the other way round. Seems like a minor miracle when it happens.

  • I also feel that I didn’t “decide” to become a Buddhist more like I discovered I was one. The decision to become a mitra came about while on retreat a few years ago when I realised that I was a mitra, so to speak, so had better come out in public. No big deal I thought, but then during the actual ceremony the implications of the commitment I was making emerged. Not worrying, felt like coming home to somewhere I hadn’t known I’d left.

    • Mandy Sutter
      June 2, 2011 6:18 pm

      Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment; it’s really good to hear about your experience too.

  • Hi Mandy

    Nice article.
    I have for over 20 years considered myself a Buddhist but never become a Mitra and am not sure why not. I meditate daily, i try to live mindfully and follow the precepts, i attend classes and teachings. As a Yoga and Meditation teacher Buddhism and its teaching resonate with me. I wonder if becoming a Mitra would change anything for me?
    My parents have never understood my need to be involved in the Buddhist teachings as they are Jehovahs Witnesses and BUddhism is so far from their fear based faith.
    But everyday i count my blessings for the love and understanding of the Buddha and my teachers.

    Peace and Light.

  • Russell Sims
    June 5, 2011 2:53 pm

    Hi Mandy

    I have just made the decision to become a Mitra, Following the last few months of seriously studying Buddhism. Your article has really encouraged me to the the next step.

  • Hi Mandy, I’ve literally just stumbled upon your blog and have only read a few lines so far, but wondered if you could offer some advice?
    I’m 42 and have been interested in Buddhism from the age of 15 or so when I discovered Kelsang Gyatso’s ‘Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition’. Now dogeared but still on the shelf, it has been joined by many other books over the years. I have drifted in and out of Buddhist practice, each time returning to it with a renewed vigour and pledge to ‘commit this time’. In 2008, just before the birth of my first and so far only child, I decided to take refuge at Samye Ling Tibetan Monastery. Since then however I have moved to an area with no Buddhist community that I know of and with the rigours of parenthood, I no longer practice as such.
    Recently I have been unwell and thoughts of my own fragility prompted me look at the Path again; but I became dazzled by neo-advaita teachers and was left feeling utterly hopeless (which is OK apparently!). My worry is that I have in some way violated my refuge vows and that by returning to practice it is from a self-serving motivation rather than anything else.
    This doesn’t seem that clear really and I do apologise.
    I wanted to speak to Lama Zangmo at Samye Dzong London but I gave up going about 2 years ago as I found it all too impersonal.
    I know the Buddha said ” It’s not how long you forget but how soon you remember (the Dharma) that counts”
    Perhaps that’s it. Just get on with it. What is done is done. Negative Karma generated, nothing I can do except try not to generate more. Is it worth retaking the refuge vows?
    I don’t expect answers to all this…just rambling now!


  • Mandy Sutter
    June 7, 2011 11:55 am

    Dawn, I’m interested in your question about whether becoming a Mitra would change anything for you. We are all different so maybe the answer might be found through looking at other commitments in your life and asking whether making them changed anything for you and if so how.

    For me, the visual, aural and emotional memory of my Mitra ceremony forms a powerful reminder of the value of practice. I need that reminder because my practice goes through such lows. I also feel that becoming a Mitra supports my sangha. And might encourage me to bring more of myself to the sangha (whether this is of benefit remains to be seen!)

  • Mandy Sutter
    June 7, 2011 12:28 pm

    Russell, that’s great. Congratulations and I hope you really enjoy your ceremony.

  • Mandy Sutter
    June 7, 2011 1:09 pm

    Dear Graeme, thanks for sharing your thoughts so honestly.

    I’d say you aren’t alone in drifting in and out of Buddhist practice, or indeed any other practice. Isn’t that just our human nature talking? Not to mention the demands of parenthood! I’m not a parent myself but from what I see it has a habit of pushing all other considerations aside. I haven’t come across ‘neo-advaita’, but like you I struggle at times with feelings of alienation and impersonality.

    I’m probably too inexperienced to offer an opinion about your vows. But from my admittedly limited viewpoint it seems that awareness of one’s own fragility is what brings many people to the Dharma, and also to each other. That may be self-serving in one sense but perhaps it’s partly through awareness of our own suffering – and making an effort not to forget about it when/if it passes – that we develop compassion?

    I do wish you all the very best in your quest.

  • Thank you for your reply Mandy. It’s good to know I’m not alone in my drifting practice. I see what you mean about self-serving motivation being a legitimate reason for resuming Dharma practice. In fact it is usually some disatisfaction or traumatic event that draws most people towards it I think. If all was good then why would anyone seek an alternative way?
    many thanks again.

    warm regards


    • I completely agree with Mandy. She’s a wise woman. I wouldn’t even use the language of “self-serving” motivations, though, because it’s so pejorative. I suppose that to say something is “self-serving” really means that it has the appearance of benefiting others, but is really designed to help ourselves. And that doesn’t apply here. As Mandy points out, the Dharma is all about reducing our suffering, so coming to the Dharma for that motivation is perfectly appropriate and honest. There’s nothing wrong with needing tools to help you deal with suffering.

      Of course as the Dharma bites deeper, we have to recognize that alleviating our own suffering is tied up with helping others. But even then it’s not that we ignore our own suffering or that alleviating our own suffering ceases to be our motivation. It’s just that we lose a narrow focus on ourselves and realize more and more that we’re all in it together.

  • Bodhipaksa, I agree. My use of the term ‘self-serving’, in this sense is pejorative and illustrates how harsh we can be with ourselves sometimes. Perhaps another phrase would have hit the mark better. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that, having not practised during the ‘good times’ (as is the advice of Buddha and every other Dharma teacher I’ve come across) now that health-wise things are not so solid and dependable I find myself turning back towards the teachings. Now, to take refuge in the Dharma in times of suffering is totally acceptable, indeed when things get rough, it is said that only the Dharma can help us. I’m just acutely aware of the reasons why I pick up my Dharma books again and feel a bit of a fraud!
    Pema Chodron says we should be gentle with ourselves and always start from where we are, so that is what I’m doing now: starting again from where I am (guilt and all). You’re right when you say that alleviating our own suffering is tied up with helping others and, yes, we’re all in this together.
    Amazing how a short dialogue with other Buddhists can shift my perspective! Thank you.

  • ~ hi mandy . . .

    ~ thankyou for sharing your experiences
    ~ I have considered myself a buddhist for about 10 years now but never felt that I needed to become a mitra
    ~ I love meditating and try to live mindfully
    ~ I attend the buddhist centre in newcastle but only now and again
    ~ my daughter introduced me to buddhism but the rest of the family and some friends do think we’re a bit strange !!
    ~ like you I never felt that buddhism was something I had searched for or decided upon
    ~ it just found me and felt right
    ~ like winnie the pooh said ” poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you, and all you can do is to go where they can find you ”
    ~ I must have been in the right place at the right time to get buddhism !! ~
    ~ with metta ~ irene ♥

  • Hello Irene

    Thanks very much for your comment; it is good to hear about your experiences, and the connection you make re the Winnie the Pooh quote is inspired.

    It’s so true: a hum never feels willed in any way, does it, and couldn’t possibly be a strain (whereas singing a song might be). A great metaphor for an approach to meditating!

  • Why am I Buddhist?
    It has become a kind of koan the last seven years of my life. A ‘kind of koan” because I am still trying to rationalise it sometimes. But ultimately it is to let the rational mind “kick out”. Although one I realises – on a rational level – that there is no such thing as a “Buddhist” per se one is still caught up in conceptual thinking or coinditioned thinking. Thinking of myself as a “Buddhist” (in a community with very little Buddhist, if any, around) one tends to “feel” (another conditioning) alienated. The reason might be because of an approach of “me and them” (dualism). Most people around me are either Muslims, Christians or “does not care either way about religion”. By respecting other people’s traditions (during the Holy Month of Ramadan I am trying to do a Buddhist fast; i.e. not shaving, not eating fish, meditating more and generally try to follow the precepts more stringently). And already I am “feeling” (again that horrible conditioning that causes much of one’s dukkha) less alienated to the people around me. When seeing the Muslims during the day I can (at least) empathy for the Muslims (still a minority in my country).

    Thus I do not call myself a Buddhist, but rather “a human aware of his suffering”.

  • Sorry; failed to mention I do not eat meat.

  • Hello Hein

    Thanks very much for your interesting and articulate comment. I agree there is something limited in calling oneself anything – I heard recently that in some countries, Buddhists say ‘I follow the Dharma’ rather than identifying themselves as Buddhists. Perhaps, sometimes, what we call ourselves is purely for the benefit of others’ understanding, an inevitable compromise. Perhaps also in our hearts, and privately, we don’t really call ourselves anything at all?

  • I remember the same sort of comments when I became interested in an ‘Eastern religion’ over 27 years ago. I gently reminded questioners that Christianity too was once a weird Eastern religion.

    Go well and sadhu on your mitra ceremony!

  • Interesting discussion. Hein- I you’re right that naming oneself is getting caught in conceptual thinking. Over the years I’ve called myself many things and then struggled to fit the world into what ” I am”. As an anarchist I had to generate a feeling of distrust towards authority, as a socialist generate a healthy loathing of the capitalist classes, as a christian try to generate a belief that Jesus was the son of God etc etc. Such a struggle and totally a skewed way of conducting myself and my life!

    These days I talk little about what “I am”. If it comes up, I say “I’m Buddhist” or “I’m a vegan”. But in the knowledge that I am neither. Therefore I do not feel compelled to defend all the time…defend “my” veganism” or ” my” Buddhism. I sit with my local Quaker friends occasionally and when there feel a part of that too, sharing the silence and waiting in anticipation of the “small voice within”. I feel no conflict. So does that make me a “Buddhist Quaker” ? Probably and again neither!
    Finding a group of like minded people or sangha is very important. I go to a Zen meditation group every week for a couple of hours…to sit and also to be in the presence of others who share something with me. I visit my Quaker friends when I can.
    Ultimately it’s not in a name. As the Buddha may have put it ” What is your original name?”
    I like this blog!

  • Hi Graeme

    I like your approach, the way it takes in the paradox of the whole ‘I am’ business.

    When I visit a new city, the cathedral is often my first port of call, and I often bow to the cross and light a candle, and even say a prayer, without being sure who or what I am praying to (maybe just myself). No conflict there for me, either.

  • Hi Mandy
    Yes, me too! Visited Rochester cathedral recently and felt moved by the whole atmosphere. I lit a candle ( well actually my 3 year old daughter did, with guidance!) and we stood in the crypt in front of a stained glass window, in awe.
    Like you say Mandy, no conflict.
    I always remember, harking back to younger political days, a colleague ( we used to say comrade) who took me to task for suggesting one could be a communist and believe in God. I backed down and recall struggling internally with that for a long time. I was 14 years old. It dawned many years later, exactly what we are discussing here, that there need be no conflict in the vast mystery of all that is. Some would call that wishy washy, nowadays I would smile quietly and probably just say nothing.

    • ‘The vast mystery of all that is’ – absolutely, Graeme. Thanks for saying it because I struggle at times with self-accusations of both a wishy and a washy nature! It helps to know that some of us feel similarly about these things.

  • Graeme; like you I also attend a once weekly Chan (Zen) group. We call it simply “sitting”, but we chant the Three Refuges and the Four Vows.

    I like the expression of ‘the vast mystery of all that is’; but again I have learned to you experience ‘what is’.

    You mentioned communism. I assume you were a communist or is still one or is interested in communism? I was conditioned (brainwash sometimes sound more appropriate) during the apartheid era that communism is “evil”. Strangely (for me); after commecing the journey on the Way of the Buddha I found some (not all) attractive features in communism. Perhaps it is – as the name suggest – “communal” or to use a more Buddhis phrase “dependent origination” that resonated with me.

    Regrettably where I live there is not many (if at all any) of the old cathedrals one is bound to find in Europe and the UK. But there are many holy places (i wish mosques were more accessable) and the quietness of the open veld or mountain tops are some of the enduring “luxuries” one can still find in Africa.

    Namo Amitofo

  • Just came across this post by googling ‘triratna becoming a mitra quickly; – I’m very early in my Triratna experience, but feel very much at home already. Having listened to a number of talks by mitras, often people come to it quite late (after a number of years) or reluctantly and I wondered whether some people might just have ‘a feeling’ that this was right for them, and might not be so reticent. You really articulated this ‘feeling’ so beautifully!
    Then I read your name Mandy, and realised you taught me creative writing ages ago at Leeds Uni! I used to work in the continuing education library at the uni, whilst I was doing my masters and I did your ‘ways into writing’ course!
    Small world – and glad to have read this lovely article. Hope you’re well

  • Hello Sarah! Thanks for your comments. It’s lovely to hear that you feel at home in the Triratna community after only a short time. I wonder if some of us come to Buddhism through our ‘hearts’ as much as through our ‘heads’?

    And how amazing that we knew each other at Leeds Uni!! I wonder if you carried on with the creative side of your writing? Anyway it is wonderful to hear from you.

  • Hi Mandy,
    Your post resonated with me as i’ve not been my Sangha or two years for a number of excuses, yes excuses its a 30minute ride to Manchester, however I’m meditating at home daily and have been since Chandana took me through to level 3 Dharma teachings, many years ago.Its been a fight internally to go forward, with my studys, its like a calling, ive been trying to ignore it but why I dont know ? After reading your post maybe its time to return to my other family in the new year.
    Thanks Neil

  • Hi Neil

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I identify so much with the ‘fight’ you talk about – I recognise in myself a similar resistance which sometimes gets the upper hand. Perhaps we are just being human! It’s great that you have a daily practise. With metta, and wishes for a happy new year!


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