Definition of a Buddhist, by David N. Snyder

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Definition of a Buddhist, by David N. Snyder, Ph.D.

What makes a person a Buddhist?

Some of the controversy regarding the number of Buddhists is attributable to misinformation about who is a Buddhist and what the definition of Buddhist is.

The Princeton dictionary defines Buddhist as:

  • adjective 1. of or relating to or supporting Buddhism;
  • noun 1. one who follows the teachings of Buddha

This is a very broad definition and does not require any core set of beliefs that must be followed. Buddhism is known for its tolerance and inclusiveness so a broad definition appears appropriate. As mentioned in the Buddhists in the world page Buddhism allows its members to belong to other religions and many Asian cultures have followers who practice more than one religion.

A Buddha is someone who is fully enlightened. A person who is fully enlightened, but not the Buddha of our time, is called an Arahant in Pali. Such a person has eradicated all ten hindrances to enlightenment:

  1. The belief in a permanent personality, ego
  2. Doubt, extreme skepticism
  3. Attachment to rites, rituals, and ceremonies
  4. Attachment to sense desires
  5. Ill-will, anger
  6. Craving for existence in the Form world (heavenly realms)
  7. Craving for existence in the Formless world (heavenly realms)
  8. Conceit
  9. Restlessness
  10. Ignorance

An anagami (non-returner) has completely eradicated the first five hindrances and never returns to earth or any other world system (planet, solar system). Such a person is re-born to a heavenly realm and attains enlightenment from there.

A sakadagami (once returner) has eradicated the first three hindrances and greatly weakened the fourth and fifth; attachment to sense desires and ill-will. Such a person will be re-born to either the human or heavenly realm and will attain enlightenment there.

A sottapanna (stream entrant) has eradicated the first three hindrances and will be re-born no more than seven more times and re-birth will either be as a human or a deva in a heavenly realm.

Attaining any of the noble levels above is very difficult and takes countless rebirths to achieve. Defining a Buddhist as only those in the above noble states would be very limiting and contrary to the teachings of Buddha.

Another definition that is used by some is all those that take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha. Taking the triple refuge basically means accepting the full enlightenment of Buddha, following the teachings of Buddha, and respecting the ordained Sangha (community) of monks and nuns. Some temples offer a refuge ceremony where one officially becomes a Buddhist. But in all traditions this is considered voluntary and not necessary to be known as a Buddhist. One can take the refuge formally at a temple or privately in your own home in your heart.

But even this definition as only those who have taken refuge is not broad enough. If we look at one of the teachings of Buddha:

Bhikkhus, there are these five faculties. What five? The faculty of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. These are the five faculties. One who has completed and fulfilled these five faculties is an arahant. If they are weaker than that, one is a non-returner; if still weaker, a once-returner; if still weaker, a stream-enterer; if still weaker, a Dhamma-follower; if still weaker, a faith-follower.” Samyutta Nikaya 48.12

The Buddha states that even if one is not a Dhamma follower, one can still be a faith-follower. A faith-follower may not be even following the teachings very well or at all. This is fitting with the general definition as a person who simply supports the teachings of Buddha and attempts to follow them as much as he or she is able. One need not go for refuge either in a public or private ritual. Buddhists acknowledge that people are on a Path to enlightenment and that some will be further along than others and judgment is not used against any others who may be at a lower level in their progress along the Path.

So what makes a person a Buddhist? Anyone who wants to be called a Buddhist, is a Buddhist. It does not matter if they have taken refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha or not. There are actually some studies that have not counted some people as Buddhist even after they have identified themselves as Buddhist, for some lack of certain rituals or practices by those who identified as Buddhist. If one practices some Buddhist rituals or some type of Buddhist meditation or if one is just studying Buddhism and would like to be called a Buddhist, then one is a Buddhist. This is not to say that everyone in the world is Buddhist in some new age kind of way; there are differences between the various world religions, but if one wants to be called a Buddhist and does some rituals or some Buddhist meditation or some study of Buddhism, then one is a Buddhist.