If you like conformity for its own sake, Buddhism is likely not for you. This book identifies a number of principles that are common to all Buddhists, but it also tries to make very clear that Buddhists do not much care for dogma or orthodoxy. Again, the Buddha himself said, try my teachings out. If they work for you, great, if not, good luck on finding a path that does. In 2010, the Dalai Lama published an op-ed column in the New York Times in which he stated that, as a boy, he thought Buddhism was superior to all other faiths, but he has since come to appreciate how dangerous religions chauvinism is. He then went on to discuss how compassion is a central principle, not only in Buddhism, but also in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam.

So Buddhists tend to take the position that Buddhism is right for them, but it may not be right for anyone else. That is up to you to decide. This is one way in which Buddhism is fully consistent with American values, religious pluralism being a defining feature of the United States.

This also means that Buddhists don’t proselytize. Again, I expect that you will receive a warm welcome at any Buddhist center you choose to visit, but no Buddhist will ever knock on your door to tell you about Buddhism, much less to tell you that you will suffer a horrible fate if you do not immediately choose to become Buddhist.

Another implication of what I will call the idiosyncrasy principle is that, just as you cannot tell anyone else what is the correct path for her/him, you also cannot tell anyone else who has chosen the Buddhist path how to travel it. Okay, I know, you’re thinking, but I just got through telling everyone about the Noble Eightfold Path, but that’s not my idea. I’m just repeating what I understand the Buddha to have said. You can confirm that independently if you doubt me. I’ll never know, and even if you email me to tell me, it won’t hurt my feelings. That’s what the Buddha said you are supposed to do. Even if you make it all the way to awakening (may it be so), exactly how you’ll get there is an open question at this point. Also, remember, the Buddha first explained the Noble Eightfold Path some 2,500 years ago. No idea can last that long, in active use among humans, without undergoing some serious amendment and variation in the process. Jesus was around roughly 2,000 years ago, and look how many different versions of his key ideas there are in the world.

Brad Warner, who we’ll recall had a plop moment while crossing a river in Tokyo, writes amusingly about how, in all the Zen stories he read, monks would awaken after some signaling event, such as instructions from the teacher or the sound of a pebble hitting the ground or some such, and how it was mildly disconcerting for him that he could identify no such signaling event as having preceded his plop moment. This should perhaps not surprise us since, if we transfer the path metaphor to a road trip on an interstate highway, we can be sure that among a group of people, all of whom are traveling in the same car, they will all notice different things by the side of the road, and even if they all arrive at their destination at the same time in the same car, they will remain yet different persons with different knowledge, understanding of the world, and characteristic psychological states.

In sum, if you’re into conformity for its own sake, Buddhism is not for you. There is no conceptual basis for claiming that everyone has to be Buddhist, or face dire consequences, and among those who choose to be Buddhist, there is a lot of room for variation in exactly how those who choose to follow the Noble Eightfold Path will do so.

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Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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