Thursday, August 9, 2012

The problem with labels

In my last Buddhism in the News, July 2012, I provided a link to an article about a man who escalated a road-rage incident by whipping out a crossbow and pointing it at the other driver. It was later discovered on his facebook page that he described himself as 'a Buddhist who holds tolerance in great importance'. This was something I found quite humorous (not to mention ironic), considering that anger and purposely inflicting harm are big no-no's according to Buddhist beliefs.

While I posted the link mostly in jest, a dear 'blog friend' of mine also pointed to lessons that could be learned. He expressed concern about how anyone who is not familiar with Buddhism could not only jump to conclusions about this individual, but about Buddhists in general. He added that whenever someone does something wrong, any labels they have attached to themselves can reflect badly upon others identifying themselves with that label.

These statements got me thinking about labels in general. Lately I have noticed how often people attach labels to themselves, sometimes moments after meeting someone for the first time. Although labels such as nationality can be useful, most are fairly ambiguous. Even if they have a completely different perception about what a label means, the minute we label ourselves, people think they've got us figured out. Based upon assumption, this prevents people from truly getting to know one another as individuals, and can also be a source of great misunderstanding. 

So then why do we need to make it so clear to others that we are Buddhist, Christian, minimalist, hippie, vegan, omnivore, republican, democrat, conservative, liberal? Is it an ego thing, to show others just how sure we are of our own identity? Or are we actually very insecure about who we really are, so we need to find ways (or in this case, words) to make ourselves appear solid and consistent? 

Of course since the basis of ByChanceBuddhism is my journey on the Buddhist path, it is clear that here I am identifying myself as a Buddhist. Fair enough. But in regard to my off-line existence, one of the first things I learned while studying Buddhism is that Buddhists don't necessarily have to go around telling everyone they are Buddhists. Many of the first books I read on the subject made it clear that our actions in daily life are much more important than 'being Buddhist'. 

Over time, I've begun to temper the impulse to reveal my 'labels' to people I meet. I also have started to let go of the constant need to define myself to others, and tested the idea of being just a little bit more mysterious. For the most part (and actually, to my amazement), this has resulted in more authentic interactions between myself and others. I guess that when it comes down to it, if I care at all about what others think about me, I would rather they think I am a good person than 'getting' the fact that I'm a Buddhist. I just need to remember that it's okay if others don't always know exactly where I are coming from, as long as I know where I'm going. 

I would like to thank Dan Kurtti over at for inspiring me to think critically about this topic and post. If you have a moment please click over to Dan's blog and check it out! 

"Don't try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are." H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama

May all beings be happy!


  1. Renata, I enjoyed your post and it is so very true. The "more authentic interactions" just naturally happens when a new acquaintance can't assume they know everything about you when they are given a label from the start.

    I remember one time when I told a new friend in jest that I was "20% Christian, 30% Buddhist, 35% Taoist, 20% ..." etc., etc. He then retorted, "But Dan, this means you are 125% of a person." (He added all the parts together.) We both had a good laugh! The next time I rehearsed my statement, so it didn't add up to over 100%.

    Also, I like your quote at the end. The Dalai Lama was a great sense of humor.

    1. Thanks so much, Dan, I am so glad you enjoyed this post. Your 125% story really made me laugh- but hey, maybe you are really 25% more of a person :)

      Also glad you liked the quote- it really resonates with me. I love that a religious leader as important as the Dalai Lama has such a simple yet inclusive and welcoming suggestion for all human beings, whatever path they may follow.

  2. This has really got me thinking! I suppose the less we define ourselves (and others) with such labels, the more open we are to what arises - which is far more Buddhist, than attaching a label of Buddhist to ourselves, if you see what I mean ;-)

    1. Thanks so much, VivJM, for your comment! As for being more 'Buddhist' by being 'less' 'HI! I'm Buddhist!', I really think you're on to something! :)

      May you be well, and have a wonderful day!

  3. Labels is a very interesting topic. And sadly, it influenced our life.

    An example when I go to a park. I look at a mango tree and I know it is a mango tree because I love to eat mango. But thats about it. In truth I dunno anything about the tree that produces the mango but I know and understand only the fruit.

    But since I know this tree produces mango and I know its name so I assume I know everything. So the label "Mango Tree" stop me from understanding and knowing the tree.

    The tree is a total different story for it has a life force of its own. Deep within the tree radiate life that if we were to sit under it or meditate under it, then we can feel its pulse. The tree is alive so why do we not enjoy its presence but instead choose to stop at the word "Mango Tree".

    Peace be with you.

    1. Wow xenusfreeman, I am really touched by your eloquent and realistic metaphor. Thanks so much for your comment- you have really given me something to think about! Would you mind if I used this lovely metaphor in my next post?

      May peace be with you as well!

    2. Wow, I saw your post. Didn't expect to hit the Front post... LOL.. You have my blessing for sharing.


      Peace be with you.

    3. Hello xenusfreeman! Glad you saw the post :) Your comparison was so great I just had to share. Of course, if you had been uncomfortable with it, I would have taken it down, but I am glad to have your blessing :)

      May peace be with you also, have a wonderful day!


Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and leave a comment! If you enjoyed this post, please share with others. -With Metta, Renata