September 25, 2009

Buddhists on Purpose

On the way home tonight I heard Craig Ferguson on the radio talking about his book American on Purpose. That title really got me thinking. Wouldn’t Buddhist on purpose be a great label?

I’ve never been a fan of the term convert Buddhist. The very word “convert” emphasizes change as an integral part of identity, which honestly doesn’t strike me as fair. In contrast, “Buddhist on purpose” asserts a meaningful and engaged claim to one’s identity without dwelling on the past. It also describes those of us who may have been born into families where Buddhism was embedded in our identity, but who later became Buddhists on purpose. In a larger context, this term underlines a common bond among people who otherwise would be separated by labels like “convert Buddhist” or “heritage Buddhist.”

Buddhist on purpose also has its own downsides. The strength of this term lies, in part, in the implicit converse: those who are Buddhist, but not on purpose. The accidental Buddhists. The purposeless Buddhists. It’s pretty insulting when it’s implying your mom was a Buddhist by accident (even if it may be true in a strict sense of “accident”). This antonymity makes a lot of otherwise great labels sound pretty bad, and probably explains why terms like “convert” and “heritage” are still in common currency for all their drawbacks. So what if it’s implied you’re a non-convert or non-heritage Buddhist?

Of course, there’s my mother’s favorite alternative label. You can always call them by their given name.

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