Book Reviews

Review: What makes you Not a Buddhist

This week I’m reading What Makes you Not a Buddhist, a brilliant and lucid book from a Tibetan Buddhist master who doesn’t pull his punches. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse gives it to us straight: so you think you’re a Buddhist? Think again!

This book challenges common misconceptions about Buddhism, particularly those held by practitioners, and demonstrates what it really means to be a Buddhist. It’s not about the incense, beads and robes. Forget the stereotypes and the fantasies about enlightenment. With a great sense of humour, Khyentse shows that Buddhism isn’t about renouncing the world, sneaking out on your wife while she’s sleeping and starving yourself silly, the way the Buddha did.

Being a Buddhist is about being present in the world and accepting the four seals – not the same thing as the four noble truths. These are:

  1. All compounded things are impermanent.
  2. All emotions are pain.
  3. All things have no inherent existence.
  4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.

The book goes into detail on each of these truths to help you understand them and it’s worth reading several times to really get to grips with the philosophy. But be warned, as Khyentse says, the answer to what makes you a Buddhist doesn’t make for light dinner conversation!

Here’s a quote:

“Like a child at the cinema, we get caught up in the illusion. From this comes all of our vanity, ambition, and insecurity. We fall in love with the illusions we have created and develop excessive pride in our appearance, our possessions, and our accomplishments. It’s like wearing a mask and proudly thinking that the mask is really you.

“Once there were five hundred monkeys, one of whom thought he was very clever. One night this monkey saw the reflection of the moon in the lake. He proudly informed all the other monkeys, “If we go to the lake and collect the moon, then we will be the heroes who saved the moon.” At first the other monkeys didn’t believe him. But when they saw with their own eyes that the moon had fallen into the lake, they decided to try to save it. They climbed a tree and held each other by the tail so they could reach the shimmering moon. Just as the last monkey was about to grab the moon, the branch broke and they all fell in the lake. They didn’t know how to swim and they all struggled in the water as the image of the moon shattered in the ripples.

“Driven by the hunger for fame and originality, we are like these monkeys, thinking that we are so clever in discovering things and convincing our fellow humans to see what we see, think what we think, driven by ambition to be the saviour, the clever one, the seer of all. We have all kinds of small ambitions, such as impressing a girl, or big ambitions, such as landing on Mars. And time after time we end up in the water with nothing to hold on to and not knowing how to swim.”

Read this book to stop yourself drowning in illusion.

Check out the Buddhism Bookshelf


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