Who Practices Buddhism and Why Do They Practice It?
Taken from the article 'Practicing Buddhism in a War Zone' first published in The Buddha Mag

What type of person practices Buddhism? Even if your first mental picture of a Buddhist is of a robed monk on a hilltop or a hippie-type student on a college campus, neither picture is close to the best answer to the question about the typical Buddhist. Or maybe you've known one of those annoying people who pride themselves on being able to recite all the nearly-impossible-to-pronounce Indian terms and who would like you to believe that they know all the answers to questions of Universal Truth. But none of these characterize what it really means to be a Buddhist.

To answer the questions of who practices Buddhism and why, we should go to the roots of Buddhism. Buddhism's whole purpose was and is nothing other than eliminating human suffering. Shakyamuni Buddha categorized the suffering he saw into four categories: suffering associated with being born, with sickness, with aging, and with death (or more specifically, fear of death). Since these are so-called universal truths about life, they pertain to all life. So in looking at yourself, you should ask, 'do I suffer?' If your answer is 'yes' then you are the type of person Buddhism was developed for. You are the type of person who should practice Buddhism. And the answer to the question of why you should practice Buddhism is equally clear: to eliminate your suffering.

But just because you suffer and are aware of it, you're not necessarily a Buddhist. A true Buddhist is a person who has a strong desire and has made a 'stake my whole life on it' determination to seek out the answers to why suffering exists and how to eradicate it. This is what characterized Shakyamuni Buddha. And although he went through many different practices and developed many different teachings that, plainly put, didn't work to eliminate suffering, he eventually, by virtue of his strong determination and compassion, discovered that it really is possible to eliminate all suffering and attain enlightenment. So later on, toward the end of his lifetime, he taught the Lotus Sutra, wherein he came out and told everyone to disregard all of his earlier teachings and focus on the eternal nature of their lives. He did this in the Life Span chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

It wasn't until much later that a Buddha named Nichiren specified the practice by which people really could focus on that eternal nature within life. Nichiren didn't re-invent Buddhism; he simply carried on with Shakyamuni's grand experiment and struggled throughout his lifetime in order to see what worked and what didn't to overcome suffering. And what he established in his life that worked was a meditation based on chanting the phrase Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.

Despite what you may have heard, neither Buddha had their enlightenment appear to them in a flash of light or insight. Nor were either of them born as Buddhas. Both struggled with the solution to this problem of overcoming human suffering. Both poured themselves into the task. Neither were Gods. Their lives would be less relevant if they were. They chose to spend their lives, actually "offered" their lives, searching for the answers. We can imagine their logic went something like this: "Everyone is struggling with suffering imposed upon them throughout their lives…then they die. I'm going to choose to struggle with every ounce of effort and intellect I can muster, and I'm going to impose my life on human suffering instead of the other way around."

If you choose to become a Buddha, and have the courage and compassion to follow through with your decision, you will discover what it takes to become enlightened (free from suffering) too. And you will place yourself among the lineage of those who have become Buddhas and who have given their all for the sake of humanity. But this requires development in your life, development of your life at its deepest and purest level. So what does this mean?

There is no need to change personality, diet, or abide by any specific set of rules or codes of conduct. You don't need to look or dress any differently than anyone else. You only need to concern yourself with one thing: eliminating suffering - from your own and from others' lives. Appearances are only superficial. It is what's in a person's heart, mind and character that defines them. And compassion (deep caring for another) sets the whole elimination of suffering process in motion and is the definition of what it means to be a Buddha. You can become a Buddha in this lifetime. That is the reason people practice Buddhism. And the more people there are that become Buddhas, the less suffering there will be in the world. That is the reason you should practice Buddhism - just as you are, right where you are, right now.


So you find yourself in a war zone now. Looking around when you awaken from sleep you may have a moment or two when you're looking in amazement at your surroundings and thinking, "how in the hell did I get here?" Buddhism answers this question by pointing out that people "get here" (anywhere, really) because of the choices they've made so far in their lives. This, in Buddhist terms, is your karma, or, more precisely, the karmic chain of causation. Simply put, you made decisions in your life that have resulted in your being precisely where you are. Most of these decisions were strongly influenced by the many personal factors that have "surrounded you." Your family, your personality, your intelligence, your physical stature and appearance, and very importantly, the beliefs you've been taught, all have influenced your decisions. These factors, and others, still do influence your thoughts and decisions. You're still linked to the karmic chain of causation that got you where you are in your life. And when you leave these surroundings, that chain of causation will still be with you...unless you 'break the chain' and develop a new basis for your life's decisions - a.k.a. become enlightened …become a Buddha. Breaking the chain of karmic impediments is why you should practice Buddhism.

Here's something that very few people can believe (even those who already claim to practice Buddhism): You really can change your life and break the karmic chains of causation that led to your present suffering - right where you are. You can be a Buddha in a war zone. But we're not talking about superficial change here. 'Surface level' changes, like trying to have a more positive attitude, smiling more, being kind to others, being generous to people in need, are all simply superficial changes. They do not affect the level of your life that you need to affect in order to eliminate your suffering. The only thing that has been proven time and again to affect a person's life at the deep level necessary to change karma is the practice of Buddhism. See? I told you that people can't believe it. And right now you too are probably full of doubt and questions. But that's ok. You see, Buddhism is not something you have to accept blindly. You can try it on an experimental basis and prove or disprove its efficacy to yourself.

If you couldn't change your karma and eliminate your suffering, there would be no point to Buddhism. We'd all be stuck suffering the consequences of poor choices we've made in life, both as a species and as individuals. But doing this requires that you start thinking about and inquiring about your life in a much deeper way than you have so far. And the changes we see - and you definitely will see changes right from the very early stages of your Buddhist practice - are going to happen in ways you wouldn't expect. But the changes we're talking about only occur when you begin your practice of Buddhism. Or another way of saying it is that when you decide to reach the deepest levels of your life and make fundamental changes that will bring about an end to your own suffering and the suffering of all others, you have become a Buddhist. My hope is that every reader of this has already decided, at this point, to become a Buddhist. Your life as a Buddha is your life as you have never seen it before.