“Buddhist” in Berkeley means the same thing as “Christian” in Foley. Most Foley Christians may be ignorant of basic Christian doctrines, and rarely if ever go to church, but that’s not the point. Most Berkeley Buddhists may be ignorant of basic Buddhist doctrines, and rarely if ever go to a meditation group, but that’s not the point. That’s not what Buddhism is for. It’s a way of saying what sort of person you are. At least, that’s one thing it is for! What is “I am a Buddhist” supposed to say about you? The rest of this page suggests that it is a statement of allegiance to the monist-leftist side of the American culture-war tribal split; it is a sign of moral piety; it is a claim for high status within the middle class; and it signifies particular personality traits such as openness and agreeableness. This used to work well, because it was a “costly signal.” However, the strategy’s effectiveness has declined over time. Saying “I am a Buddhist” may now be heard as “I’m cowardly, disorganized, boring, and dumb.”
I don't know if I agree with the idea that "Buddhist" sends that kind of message (maybe I just hang with a crowd that isn't , but I do agree that it sends a message, and that the message isn't always a positive one. The more tuned-in Buddhist folks who have a soapbox to orate from (and an audience of more than a few dozen to hear it) are fond of saying things to the effect that being a Buddhist does not mean being a doormat. (Who was it that said, "Pacifism doesn't mean 'passive'-ism"?)
Buddhism can be a tough sell for the same reason most any spiritual system is a tough sell for people who weren't born into an environment that had it. Maybe that's okay; it's not a good idea for people to fall headfirst for any old interesting thing that comes their way. Some do, but don't tend to stick with any one thing long; Buddhism winds up becoming one of a number of things they sample from but never actually sit down to eat a proper meal of.
I suspect a lot of the atmosphere around the genesis of and transmission of Buddhism in this country is a big part of why I don't identify with it more vocally. For one, it gives too many people the wrong idea, since most of what they know about Buddhism is b.s. Pop Buddhism "mindfulness" isn't Buddhism; it's a hijacking of some of Buddhism's ideas, wrenched entirely out of context, and pressed into the service of big-business soul-sucking.
Better people than I have excoriated the watering-down of Buddhism into such a form, but I will chip in my cents here: you can't selectively lift out bits of any tradition and not expect context to be lost. But the folks doing said lifting — sometimes with a fishhook, sometimes with a forklift — couldn't care less about such mingy little details as historical context or continuity.
The other reason I don't talk about my belief systems much — save for here — is because of something that has always soured me on belief systems generally. I don't care what people call themselves, or what they identify with by way of symbols or gestures. I care about their actions, because their beliefs are embodied in what they do. Sometimes speech is an action, sure, but the history of what someone's done is the best indicator of their spiritual character, and not what particular dogma they adhere to (or claim to be an apostate from).
One other thing. Not talking about Buddhism with the uninitiated saves me the trouble of having the same tired and ill-informed conversations about the Dalai Lama. Or, for that matter, Steven Seagal.
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