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Incognito Buddhist

February 18, 2018

“Hidden Buddha,” by Sakkra Paiboon via

As the first week of my new position in Rochester drew to a close, I pondered when and why I choose to disclose to others that I am a Buddhist. Why did I tell the Jewish student-leaders and the Hindu gentleman who visited us, but I did not tell the Catholic bishop or the Campus Crusade for Christ students? What is Right Speech in this instance?

Sometimes it has to do with the natural flow of the conversation. When speaking with the Muslim chaplain, we were joking about who was older and I asked if the past lives of Buddhists counted. We had a good laugh.

Sometimes disclosure creates a sense of empathy and solidarity between religious groups. With the Hindu gentleman who was completing CPE at a local hospital, we commiserated over the novelty of chaplaincy as a profession for both Hindus and Buddhists.

At other times, I did not disclose. I attended the Catholic mass for Ash Wednesday and I was very happy to see a packed chapel, with several rows standing in the back. However, I did not get ashes or receive communion, and so it was very obvious I was not Catholic. Yet, when I introduced myself to the bishop emeritus who had kindly presided over the lovely service, I only mentioned my new position.

I also attended the Campus Crusade for Christ meeting on Friday night, or Cru, for short. They are a very energetic and charismatic group. After the presentation (I hesitate to call it a “sermon,” though it had certain flavors of that), we were encouraged to discuss four questions about grace with one another. I joined a small group and listened, but did not offer any opinions. I thanked them for letting me listen.

Cru offered a good opportunity for students to develop what one might call a “self-authored worldview” – to think deeply about the beliefs with which they were raised (or not) and decide for themselves what they will follow (or not). Yet, again, while I introduced myself by my title, I did not mention I was not Christian. If they assumed so, I did not correct them.

The Catholic mass was formulaic and beautiful. I deeply enjoy their message of being mindful of our failings and resolving to do better. The Cru meeting less ritualized, but still compelling. I felt that the Cru meeting deliberately engaged more critical thinking skills. Though I naturally disagreed with several assertions and chains of reasoning presented, it wasn’t the time or place to say so.

In general, I noticed that I tend to disclose my Buddhist identity to other religious minorities in order to foster a sense of empathy and solidarity. I don’t know if I always succeed. Am I highlighting a reassuring commonality? Or simply noting a difference?

I am less quick to disclose my religious identity to the religious majority (i.e. Christians) as I feel it would create a sense of separation, rather than a drawing closer. But I wonder if this assumption has more to do with me and my baggage (however light)? I have no doubt that the Catholic and Christian chaplains know and welcome me, but what would a freshman student who’s interacted very little with someone from another religion do with that knowledge?

Nor have I felt it necessary to disclose my religious identity to colleagues from other departments with whom we might collaborate on programming. Rather I reassure them that my department is happy to provide programming both for specific people with specific religious needs and for non-religious and inter-religious populations on common topics. In other words, we can tailor our offerings to welcome the nonreligious constituents of the university.

Self-disclosure is a question that Buddhist chaplains commonly face no matter where we work. When is it Right Speech to disclose our Buddhist identity? Generally, I only disclose when it is timely, relevant, true, and helpful to do so, but that is still a judgement call. There is no way to control how another will receive that information and what they will do with it. Will it build a bridge or a wall in their minds?

But there is also a flip side to that question. When it is not Right Speech to withhold our Buddhist identity? Can silence ever be wrong speech? This is especially pressing for those of us who don’t “look Buddhist” or wear any outward signs of our religious commitments. Am I doing harm by allowing others to assume I’m Christian or another religion? Could this later foster a sense of distrust?

Of course, it is also hard to know just what they assume. When someone makes an overt statement about my religious identity, I have corrected them (not this week, but in the past). But mostly people keep their assumptions to themselves. I can only assume what they are assuming, and assumptions are dangerous things, as we Buddhists know.

I can only proceed with Right Intention, Right Mindfulness, and Right Speech and hope that the seeds I plant create good fruit. But I’m sure I’ll also have to do a little weeding.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2018 7:25 am

    When is it Right Speech to disclose our Buddhist identity? = Always, it was stamped on my dog tags and it would shock some follow Marines and soldiers to see that during our inspections.

    When it is not Right Speech to withhold our Buddhist identity? = Never, you live in the greatest nation on the planet, this is one of your constitutional rights. Take pride in that fact.

    Am I doing harm by allowing others to assume I’m Christian or another religion? = You know what they say about the word assume, it makes and ass out of u and me. Also it solidifies the fact that people still judge each other by first impressions and a book by its cover. Why does the Dalai Lama still wear or must wear a habit / tunic in public?

    I dream of my great, great, great, great grandchildren living in a Star Trek universe where there are little possessions, no religion and no covers on books to judge one another by, with freedoms, abundant resources and free medical and dental, replicators and hollo-decks that satisfy and cleans.

    Lots of love and hugs from Manteca, California, Peace!

  2. February 18, 2018 2:29 pm

    I agree with Blaydes2001. Since you are a Buddhist chaplain why not disclose who you are? It’s different if you work in an office, restaurant or other place where it’s nobody’s business what religion or non-religion you are. I tell people I am Buddhist when the situation to disclose this information is pertinent, like a fundamentalist Christian wanting to “save my soul.” I don’t think Right Speech means telling anyone and everyone your beliefs; it means being respectful of others. Like the person wanting to save me from damnation. I can see her as coming from a place of love and thanking her and at the same time telling her I am Buddhist. That usually ends that conversation right there… On a different note, Blaydes2001, I live in Amador County. Thirty minutes from you. Are there any Buddhists or temples close by where I can join a group meditation and dharma talk?

    • February 19, 2018 7:07 am

      Ingebird, oh yeah, you’re up there by the Sutter Creek area, so beautiful when get into the hills. As for your question, unfortunately no, my family and I travel all the way to San Francisco to attend the Soto Zen Mission of San Francisco – Sokoji. They’re very inviting and open to the public, no pressure to join and have a wonderful new years ceremony and it’s in the heart of Japan town. We make a day of it, shopping, sight seeing, lunch, etc. Plus the best time of the year to travel to SF is on New Years day, almost no traffic. :-)

      • February 19, 2018 10:02 pm

        Oh yes, I know that place. I used to live in SF and went to the Zen Center on Page Street. I will plan a trip when the weather is warmer. Namaste!

    • March 6, 2018 1:29 pm

      The biggest reason to not disclose is that the conversation is not about me. The event is not about me. Being Buddhist frequently does not meaningfully change what is happening or have any bearing on the discussion. Disclosure can derail a conversation from topics meaningful to the other party. This is often the case with minority identities, especially if one can otherwise “pass.”

      In addition to not derailing the conversation, it can also help to wait to disclose until a certain level of comfort and trust has been built. People do carry assumptions, but that’s not always bad. I assume my brake pedal is going to work when I get in my car tonight, although it could break. Assumptions are just mental models that help us navigate in a world in which we always have incomplete information. If I disclose too early, someone could mistakenly assume that I am not a good dialogue partner and stop talking to me. Whereas, if I wait until some trust is built, then it won’t matter because they’re already learned from experience that I am a good person to talk to and it doesn’t matter much what I believe. It matters what they believe. Again, it’s not about me.

      Likewise, I don’t interrogate my discussion partners about their religious identities and beliefs. I let them lead the conversation and choose to disclose or not disclose as much as they feel comfortable doing. Nor would I disclose someone else’s religious identity for them in a mixed group. That is their choice.

      Finally, I would not disclose if it put me in physical danger, which is a distinct possibility in some spaces. For this same reason, I would never “out” someone else’s religion without their permission or a very good reason.

      I don’t believe there are such easy black and while lines as always and never in relation to these questions. People get killed as a result of their religious identities. I’ve never faced a direct threat, but people I know have. People break off dialogue and collaboration as a result of assumptions about religious identities, which is sad. Every situation is different and I do disclose when it seems relevant or useful. But it’s often beside the point.

  3. April 15, 2018 8:12 am

    I have that dream of blaydes2001, and it is good to know others do share it. I was very naive. I thought there was religious freedom, but not in some areas, still. Your job can be affected, property damaged, physical threats and bullying. Made me want to disclose in the hopes of mind opening. Fortunately, in the next larger town from me, there’s a lovely dharma center, welcoming, educating, community minded, giving people a place to come together in a generous spirit. Now, I am careful to ask those questions of myself– kind, useful, timely? To watch that I’m not defending based on assumptions from past experience.

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