Buddhist monks 2

It may sound like a rather theoretical and perhaps not very useful question, but I see so many questions in social media around the term “Buddhist”, what it means and “who is one”, that I thought I might take a stab at answering!

Another “label” I hear you cry, and you would be right, but at a conventional level it is difficult to completely avoid labelling even though there are strong arguments to propose that “labelling” things is a fundamental part of how our mind “creates” suffering! That accepted let’s try to look at how we can answer the question – “what / who is a Buddhist”?

From my reading of Lama Tsongkhapa’s Lam Rim Chem Mo, it states that the Indian scholar Atisha differentiated between a “Buddhist” or “non- Buddhist” according to their refuges, ie a “Buddhist” will have taken refuge in the “3 jewels” (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) also not “forsaken” that refuge. Taking refuge is a topic in it’s own right but, put very simply, it means that when the going get’s tough where do you look for answers / “refuge”? In the case of a Buddhist that would be the Buddha (and indeed Buddhas plural); the teachings of the Buddha, ie Dharma; and those that will support you on the Buddhist path (to nirvana and enlightenment), ie the Sangha (fellow practitioners of all the various levels).

When you take “refuge” you are promising (to yourself) that these 3 jewels will be your guiding light in life (and death!!) and, as I say, when you need help (which is basically the whole time when you understand the meaning of suffering and cyclical existence, from a Buddhist perspective!) that is what you will turn to.

While that might be sufficient to define what a “Buddhist” is I think there are a few other points that can be highlighted, although to be fair it could be argued that the are encompassed in the “Dharma” ie teachings. For me these additional areas are:

  • That the person has an aspiration for “liberation” (from suffering) and thus attain “nirvana” or enlightenment (so understands and has started to meditate in the 4 Noble Truths).
  • That they have accepted (even if they still have not understood the teachings surrounding these topics) – rebirth; karma (everything arises from causes and conditions); and dependent origination and impermanence (they follow on from “cause and effect” and explain the reality that no phenomena exist “intrinsically”).
  • Finally one could add that a Buddhist will also have committed to one or more of the sets of “vows” including, most obviously, the refuge vows (commitment to the 3 jewels) and perhaps what are termed the “lay vows” (vow not to kill; steal / take what is not given; sexual misconduct (in the main part infidelity); tell lies; and take intoxicants (this latter is not a root vow so in most traditions one can still be regarded as a “Buddhist” and drink alcohol, although it should be understood that alcohol, and other intoxicants, effect the mind, and the mind is at the centre of everything in Buddhist philosophy, so one should always try to avoid taking too much!)


This article contains my humble opinions and thoughts and should not be mistaken for the wisdom of my teacher, the Venerable Geshe Tsering Palden, or any other fully qualified Buddhist teacher or Guru. My only aim in writing this Blog is to try and train my mind in the path of the Buddha and if by so doing I am able to benefit others I dedicate all merits for the relief of suffering of all sentient beings.

Note: Any error in this text is entirely attributable to me, and only to me, and should never be attributable to the perfect teachings of Dharma. I sincerely apologise for any mistakes.