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The Fake Buddhist, Pt. I

(Originally posted Feb. 23, 2021 to my Artful Buddhist blog on Substack)

Without fail, every semester students ask my religious affiliation, and as always, I tell them briefly why I never answer that question – until last year.

I told someone I was a Fake Buddhist.

Can a person fake their religious identity? I mean “fake” in the sense of pretending to be part of a religious group, like an actor.

Vikram Gandhi did it. In his documentary film, Kumare, he even said, “I’m the biggest faker I know.” He was pretending to be a Hindu guru, only later to reveal that he was faking it all along. My students regularly say they can’t believe how gullible his followers were, and that they would never have trusted “Kumare” so easily.

In religious studies, we would probably label his followers “Seekers,” people not associated with an organized religion, but interested in finding a spiritual home. In the film, they were drawn to what appeared to be an authentic guru, complete with his:

· South Asian heritage;

· Believable accent (though faking that, too);

· Saffron-colored robes of a Hindu sannyasi (renouncer/monk);

· Teaching of verses (mantras) that sounded realistic;

· Leading chanting rituals;

· Tall, metal walking stick that mimicked the three-pronged staff associated with Lord Shiva (a major Hindu god);

· Modeling of meditation and other ritual practices; and

· Broken English that feels, well, authentic!

Kumare’s followers were hardly gullible. He brought hope to several people who are part of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd (SBNR for short), created community and friendships, and gave people a renewed sense of purpose, direction, and degree of self-confidence that had been sorely missing.

Kumare faked his identity for the purposes of a documentary.

How long will I be a Fake Buddhist? Maybe I was just faking being a Fake. Does that mean I’m really Buddhist? Or does it mean that I really was just pretending to be a Fake Buddhist? Either way, I don’t look like an authentic Buddhist, at least not Sharon Suh’s wonderful study, Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film (2015), where she points out Buddhist stereotypes that appear in films:

· Being Asian-born or Asian-American;

· Speaking in riddles, or mimicking Orientalist stereotypes of an ancient wise man

· Wearing monastic robes;

· Shaving my head;

· Carrying an alms bowl for daily round; or

· Sitting in meditative calm, preferably a silhouette at sunrise or sunset, at the base of a tree reminiscent of the Bodhi Tree, under which Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the Awakened or Enlightened One.

If even “authentic Buddhists” fit such stereotypes in the US, it’s no wonder, then, that students seem always to tell me that Buddhism is “very strict and a difficult path.” That would be a good reason to retain the Fake Buddhist moniker: it’s so difficult, and I don’t intend on becoming a monk! Ha!

And who cares what my religious identity might be? It’s just not that interesting.

As I told another friend, “In American Buddhist circles, if I were to say I’m a Buddhist, I would be a walking cliché: another highly-educated, straight, white male.” We laughed, but the demographic fits. According to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a popular publication for American Buddhists, here is some information about their readers:

You can access the 24-page document here.

What might lead me to retain the modifier, Fake?

· I don’t have tell anyone who I really am, thereby maintaining personal privacy

· I don’t have to make a commitment to anything, since I hate being tied down

· I can continue joking about a serious topic

· I can continue to have colleagues near and far not think I’m “one of those” scholars: the dreaded scholar-practitioner

· I can continue wearing a “mask,” like so many other people in academia (and not one for COVID)

· I can avoid potentially stressful (or stress-filled) conversations about this post!

· I don’t have to explain myself to the Christian majority, or anyone for that matter; after all, I’m just faking it!

So, remaining a Fake has some advantages.

But, if I’m faking it, what do I make of these coincidences?

· For the New Year, I started a daily meditation practice and haven’t skipped a day; Most convert Buddhists engage in some form of meditation, even while meditation is not widely practiced among Buddhists globally. (See Ann Gleig’s American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity [Yale, 2019] for an amazing study of American convert Buddhism.) I’m practicing a traditional breathing meditation called “calm”: samatha (Pāli) or śamatha (Sanskrit), an explicitly Buddhist practice. This has some overlap with vipassanā, or “insight” meditation popularly known as mindfulness meditation.

· I started the OYNB – “One year no beer” – program that people pay for, but I’m just doing it on my own. Abstention from intoxicants is one of the Five Precepts that lay Buddhists practice under certain conditions, like while on a retreat; others may take them for life. Of course, with the pandemic still raging, it’s been easier to make the OYNB vow, since I’m not tempted to visit my favorite pubs. This practice, while starting off just as a “dry January,” has turned into a way of being. I don’t intend on being a teetotaler, but I may end up extending this OYNB for the full year.

· I expanded the OYNB to mean “One Year No [Buddhism] Books” – I have plenty, but I always want more, and I have an insatiable desire to learn more about areas that I see as weak spots for my teaching; but I’m also reading “how-to” books, so I’m not fooling myself into claiming this is “just research,” a common excuse I’ve deployed to maintain my “Fake Buddhist” identity intact. Here, again, I can say that I’m engaged in Buddhist practice of first recognizing, and then doing something about desire, attachment, or thirst (tṛṣṇa), the Second of the Four Noble Truths, and the one that keeps one enmeshed in a vicious cycle: desire for happiness, disappointment that the momentary joy is always (and by definition) fleeting, constantly changing, or marked by impermanence (anitya).

Dropping “fake” has a huge advantage: living authentically.

But I still hesitate.

Until recently, the subdomain name of my website was “The Artful Buddhist.” Yes, I thought it was rather a clever title (pun intended), since I like including the word “art” even while feeling weird at the time about calling myself an artist. This is yet another example of hiding in plain sight: like Kumare, I could say I’m the greatest faker I know, and hide behind the intentionally vague, opaque title.

Yes, I could make a simple proclamation, but that would be so out-of-character. Plus, not only would I be a walking cliché according to Tricycle, I would also now open myself to the intense cultural critiques leveled at convert Buddhists in the West.

If it sounds like I can’t decide whether to drop the Fake from my would-be religious affiliation, here are two more things to consider. Actually, there’s a lot more to consider, as I’ve scratched the surface of several topics that deserve a whole lot more explanation:

· (1) Aspies need to know a lot of information before making a decision;

· (2) This decision seems weighty, so it will take even more time

A couple of years ago, I confided in a good friend about how I have always been drawn to Buddhism, and that I wanted to write a book about the intersections between art, spirituality, and Buddhism. His response, “Do it, without qualification, hesitation, or excuse. It’s your life.”

I really should listen to my friend.

But I struggle with being direct in my actions.

Besides, Vikram Gandhi faked it, so why can’t I?

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