What happens when you decide not to call yourself a Buddhist

I’m a week or so away from my 35th birthday and I can confidently say that the Dhamma (dharma) has been a big part of my life for the better part of the past 20 years, arguably even the whole of it. My family’s not Buddhist, and I didn’t have any Buddhist influences growing up, but I was always questioning, investigating, wanting to understand the ways of the mind and heart. Even though I was lucky enough to come across my first book on meditation at 14, and my first formal instruction at 18, it honestly wasn’t until just before my 31st birthday that things started to click. And it wasn’t until another couple of years passed that I truly learned how to meditate—meditate as a way of life.

I don’t think it necessarily had to be this way but, in my case, it required dropping the books, doing intensive practice, and studying closely with a teacher which just so happened to be in Burma. Although there are a wealth of valuable teachings available here in the US, there’s something about learning in an immersive environment, in a culture so supportive of contemplation, with the added support of a dedicated teacher and fellow yogis day in and day out, that really made it possible to integrate the practice into my life. I had no idea what a tyro I was until my-what seemed like a complete moon landing at the Shwe Oo Min Dhamasukkha Meditation Center in 2009. My teacher there, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, is a householder-turned-monastic who stresses mindfulness, daily life practice and vipassanā samadhi – something which he explains is derived from right understanding (i.e., “it’s not personal”) and continuity of mindfulness as opposed to one-pointed concentration or focus on a particular object of meditation. This practice really fits with wanting to live in the world and to seeing relationship as an inherent part of self-inquiry and the path to freedom and happiness. His presentation is so ridiculously simple and straightforward and yet, it is an extremely difficult practice to do. I didn’t really start to get it until three months into retreat, and that was after sitting meditation for almost ten years and working closely with a teacher for two! I also had no idea how much I’d learned during my stay in Burma until my return to the US a little over half a year later, as I saw conditioned patterns reemerge and now had tools to be with difficult emotions, to divert habitual reactions, to be present fully.

I had always seen meditation as a way of being in the world, as opposed to something someone does under certain conditions, but after spending several months at Shwe Oo Min, I realized that there were many under-currents of wanting particular outcomes and states, of comparing, of results-driven behavior (big surprise, I’m American). Everything was informed by defilement as opposed to wisdom. And then, slowly, there was some awareness of that. I think of one of my teacher’s most quintessential teachings to be, even if you’re realizing you’ve been unaware, “Just be happy you’re aware!” I had the tendency to judge myself ruthlessly, believing myself to be a bad meditator because I had no samadhi, no continuity of awareness. Hearing my teacher say in each moment of recognizing what the mind is doing that you can choose to celebrate the fact of awareness helped something major to shift. Really hearing the meaning of those words. I learned to recognize how important it is to see fixed ideas, beliefs, opinions for what they are – to not hold them too tightly, and to embrace clear seeing of them as an invaluable practice in and of itself, a truly functional practice. Now, in my daily life, I find that there is far less emphasis on formal meditation, and much more interest in whatever is being experienced.

There is no doubt that the study and practice of Dhamma single-handedly defines my life. But I struggle to say I’m a Buddhist. A reverend’s granddaughter, I was raised in the Episcopal church (sleep away camp and high school included), but nor do I consider myself a Christian. My brother chose the nonreligious route, my sister conversion to Judaism but I, I am not a convert. I am learning. I am being. I am awaring. I take refuge in my own understanding of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha every day. Each moment of remembering. It’s changing, growing—porous and expansive, like the boundless nature of awareness itself. And yet, a contemplative since a small child—since I can remember, the Dhamma is also the solid ground on which I walk, on which this little life unfolds.

What does Dhamma mean to me? It means truth, it means God, it means this: just this. It’s not some fixed thing. It’s also continually revealing itself as a result of my direct understanding in practice, in daily life, in relationship, in formal meditation. The Buddhadhamma? As far as I can tell, there are some things that sound pretty universal like those teachings about the stressful aspects of being human, of our very consciousness, and the ways in which we can manage it, not be a prisoner of it. Maybe even transform it altogether. I experience these truths every day, in every waking moment. And freedom too, it’s there embracing it all, available in each moment.

While the Buddha may have talked about this practice as being against the stream in his day, it seems that in fact it may be even more contrarian now (warning: speculation, i.e., delusion at work!). As my practice has deepened, admittedly my ability to be in the world in a conventional way has become all the more untenable. If I were born a man, if I lived in a Buddhist culture, if a number of conditions were different, I may very well be living a monastic life. Instead, I try and carve out a dedication to practice in the midst of the marketplace, fully engaged in a life where the forces around me stress everything but contemplation. This is one of the big challenges, I think, of practicing in the US. In particular, and one of the reasons I think it took so long for my practice to really get seasoned; “doing nothing” is so anathema to our culture. Truly. The fact that homemakers and volunteers are not accounted for as part of our workforce in any way, or, on the flip side, that the environmental cost of global shipping is excluded from the actual cost of the product, are subtle examples of this. The emphasis on intellectual knowledge—and the idea that we must grow wisdom through studying books, not our own minds and hearts, is another more obvious manifestation of our emphasis on productivity.

Two years ago I left a career that felt dis-integrated, because while it was satisfying to the intellect, it was not supportive of my emotional and spiritual development. Since then, I have spent time in intensive retreat, doing hospice work, in addition to writing about my practice and connecting with people in distant places. Although I feel like this has been the most valuable education and experience of my whole life, it does not meet conventional measures of success. Nor is it something I am able to do without frugality, family support, and a host of other things which again fall outside of our societal norm of production-consumption as well as individual autonomy

What is right livelihood? That has changed for me over time, but it has become something that I feel must more directly relate to my spiritual life. It also must be something for which I do not receive direct fees from the people I serve—in other words, I could see myself working as a chaplain for an institution, but I could not as easily see myself ministering to a community where I depended on dana. I dream of a different model for residential retreat in this country, where the source of revenues is diverse enough that long-term retreat would actually be feasible for people.

While I believe that relationship is praxis, I also believe that culturally speaking we value one model of relationship over all others. Even within the Buddhist community, I sense a strong emphasis on marriage and parenthood. I feel it is upstream on both ends to be single and to be childless. But of course these are the conditions that have allowed my practice to take the particular shape that it has. There are many ways for us to be in relationship, in community, taking the Noble Eightfold Path to the street. My service in hospice is one of the ways that I explore that part of practice. But what if I want to do this kind of a work for a living? My practical experience in retreat is undervalued, and academic training which may or may not be relevant to my profession is overvalued. What to do? How do we play a part in creating more supportive conditions for contemplatives to be in the world in a meaningful way? I believe this is the responsibility of the next generation of Dhamma practitioners. And something that will likely be a part of my life service.

May we find ways to reach across seeming divides, of language and culture, of form and tradition, of contemplation and engagement. May we find ways to help one another on the path of awakening. May we be good stewards of the Dhamma.

[Note: Originally published on the Under 35 project site, which appears to no longer be online. Unfortunately, the nice comments I received there from readers are no longer.]

Leave a comment


  1. Elizabeth

     /  October 9, 2011

    Such a beautiful summary of your journey Katherine!

  2. The fantastic thing is, my dearest sister, we’ve been waking up together.

  3. Fantastic essay Katherine.

    I was having a similar discussion with my wife last night…do I call myself a Buddhist? Do I not? How can I not? Why am I afraid to? Etc.

    On the level of “how to integrate practice and the call to do something awareness oriented for a living”…that’s a hard one. I’m right there with you searching and stumbling. Maybe it will be as a mental health counselor, maybe through coaching, maybe through professional mediating…who knows. For now, I’m just exploring some local options and continuing to go with the flow of the stumble to see what happens…daily life practice, writing, reading, engaging…maybe that’s all that will be available to you or I in this life…would that be a bad thing? Something more to ponder…there’s a defilement in there somewhere I’m sure ;)

  4. Even though I practice meditation, read my share of Buddhist writings and so forth, I’ve never considered myself “Buddhist.” Part of what appeals to me about those elements of Buddhism is that it opens many paths to me and I can decide the “right” one, because the practice shouldn’t be about definitions, just as a journey shouldn’t be about the destination. Anyway, I enjoyed your post very much. Thank you for sharing.


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