In the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism there is a schematic of the teachings that delineates nine categories, culminating with Dzogchen (Atiyoga) as the pinnacle. In the present era, the seventh category includes all of the teachings and practices that are known by the other Tibetan schools as Anuttarayoga Tantra, which culminates in the praxis of Mahamudra. Somewhat less known is the corpus of Nyingma practices introduced by Padmasambhava, referred to as the Eight Sadhanas. The Eight Sadhanas comprise the original set of Nyingma practices allocated to the seventh category (Mahayoga) of that nine-fold schematic. Fundamentally, the differentiation of the nine categories pertains to the practical differences of the various teachings in terms of their View, Meditation and Conduct. For a thousand years all of the teachings of all nine categories have been viewed as “Buddhism” by the Tibetans.
One of my first teachers admonished me, early on, to recognize the difference between what she called the “two Buddhisms”. One Buddhism is the practical codification, organization and institutionalization of teachings, teachers and students as a human sociological phenomenon. The other Buddhism is the self-perfected, self-optimizing radiance of our own, individual, ontological presence. If we can definitively recognize this essential presence and not lose sight of it amid the delusional machinations of all our chaotic no-win mental activities, we can realize self-liberation without having to do anything else. This is because our Essential Being is the real truth of the matter and just naturally radiates out, like the sun. However, most of us who have attempted this experiment in earnest have found that it is exceedingly difficult to not become re-hypnotized by our aforementioned mental activities. When this happens, our minds produce and project images that are opaque, occulting the natural light of our essence like heavy, dark clouds blocking the brightness of the sun. Although nothing has the capacity to actually alter the primordial light of our Essential Presence, our own minds can block our experience of it. So, in the Dzogchen Atiyoga view, the self-perfected, self-optimizing radiance of our own Essential Presence is essential Buddhism. Any activity or practice that is conducive to this knowledge is practical Buddhism. This differentiation corresponds to what the late Dudjom Rinpoche referred to as the Dharma of precept vis-à-vis the Dharma of realization.
Why did we start calling ourselves Buddhists? If you’re a smoker (or used to be), the same reason you started smoking is the answer to the question.
Perhaps it’s just my own experience but it seems that in years past there were more opportunities to declare one’s religious affiliation. I remember filling out many information forms over the years that included a blank for that. I also remember having a very distinct feeling associated with writing, Buddhist, in those blanks. And one of my fondest memories is the image of Sgt. James Satterwhite’s exquisite facial expression of absolute consternation when, like a scene from Full Metal Jacket, he first had the occasion to inspect my dog-tags bearing the word, Buddhist, beneath my blood-type. After a moment and to my complete astonishment, Sgt. Satterwhite then smoothly composed himself back into his default stolid demeanor, and with his prominent yet unarguably noble nose intimately close to mine, he drawled, “P-F-C, Sh-iii-la, as I’m certain you can appreciate, we don’t get too many Buddhists here at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. In as much as you will most likely die here by my very own military hand, please edify me as to what kind of funeral service a Buddhist, such as yourself, will require? Or, will you simply e-va-por-ate at death, thereby saving us all a lot of fucking trouble?”
It is doctrinal that Buddha Shakyamuni taught a viewpoint free from the conceptual limitations of Eternalism and Nihilism. Arya Nagarjuna is considered the quintessential champion of this view’s articulation. But Buddha is also documented as having once said that, although Eternalism and Nihilism are both mistaken views, for those who presently lack the merit to receive teachings of the ultimate view, Eternalism will undoubtedly serve them better than Nihilism in the interim. So, in some sense, it seems that Buddha was admitting that even a mistaken view such as Eternalism could serve as a field-expedient practice in the context of Buddhism as the inevitable conclusion of an undetermined number of wrong-view lifetimes. But certainly those who might be adhering to an Eternalistic theology would not consider themselves to be Buddhist, even if Buddha did sanction it, as alleged.
So, do we need to identify ourselves as Buddhists to authentically practice Buddhism? Of course not. Dudjom Rinpoche used to say, “As long as you think of yourself as a Buddhist, you’re not. And if you think you’re not a Buddhist, then you’re mistaken.”