The [Approximately] 32 Marks of a "Good" Buddhist

I encountered this opening phrase in a blog post recently.  “In my opinion, one mark of a good Buddhist is…”  That kind of sums up a lot of what Buddhism has come to be about. It begins with one’s opinion and ends with a behavioral prescription.

Here’s a roundup of what constitutes a “Good” Buddhist according to the Internet. [Yes I’ve collected these things in a manner similar to Bodhipaksa’s Fake Buddha Quotes]

The marks of a “good” Buddhist:

  • Just BE GOOD!
  • respects others first
  • Obey the laws of the country
  • can admit that they are not very good at following their religion
  • keep the precepts
  • Celebrate important Buddhist holidays
  • won’t be a leader as that’s showing ego
  • never being lazy
  • Try to not be rude or mean.
  • follows the Dalai Lama
  • Uttering and promoting slander will hold you from nirvana.
  • Speak only true and helpful things
  • is a whole person
  • don’t gossip.
  • Speak gently
  • become a vegetarian or a vegan
  • Certainly we do not offer consolation or turn to others for support
  • Try to live simply
  • don’t seek comfort
  • Limit TV time, computer usage etc
  • won’t make jokes or laugh
  • Shave your head
  • It is good to set up a shrine
  • must become completely detached
  • should not question things
  • follows karma
  • has respect and humour
  • have no knowledge of good and evil
  • Only think good thoughts
  • Hostility is very unbecoming of a true Buddhist [from an evangelical Christian blog-all the rest here are from Buddhist related or affiliated sites]
  • Learn all you can about Buddha, the 4 noble truths, the Buddhist laws, etc
  • Meditate as often as possible
  • Show respect to parents, teachers, monks and nuns, and the elderly.
  • Help those in need where-ever possible, such as the poor, the infirm, disabled and homeless.
  • respect and accept all religions
  • show disregard for everything or else they have to admit attachment
  • be the best person they can be
  • has overcome personality
  • is cheerful
  • makes no choices and accepts all
  • should not travel regularly and stays in one place
  • follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which is the path to the realisation of Nibbana.
  • isn’t hung up about rules and prohibitions
  • never argues
  • do not create desire in others
  • discards all material things
  • should be in a state of celibacy
  • must avoid being distracted by malls and stuff
  • brings happiness into their life
  • should not commit adultery
  • questions everything
  • kills their ego
  • never flames on the Internet [my note: but writes passive-aggressive slam articles instead]
  • follows a middle way of not too much and not too little in everything
  • avoid professions that create desire (like sex work or advertising)
  • Being a good Buddhist does not guarantee Nirvana, but good behaviour in life is believed to ensure that in the next life the individual will be born higher up. In this hierarchy of rebirth, animals are at the bottom and men are higher up than women. Monks are at the top.
  • has no aversion
  • smiles
  • When we live according to the principles of the Dharma, we are in fact living as `good Buddhists practicing Buddhism
  • take full responsibility for all actions
  • Shares the dhamma with all
  • is quiet and peaceful
  • won’t accept money for their work
  • does not want to have sex
  • gets along with everyone
  • are environmentally friendly
  • helps themselves and others to get better
  • will tell the truth no matter what
  • Buddhists are generally forced to live their lives one day at a time
  • needs to learn to obey their teacher
  • wants to remove all individuals from earthly wants
  • always be open, patient and humble
  • behaves properly
  • practice compassion
  • knows everyone’s opinion is equally true
  • has good manners
  • be grateful and give thanks
  • never says words like idiot
  • good Buddhists will burn to death if they need to make a point

Clearly much of this is made up. And many of these are contradictory. A lot of these statements rely on interpretation of popular culture. Many are idealized notions of what a Buddhist and especially a “good” Buddhist is. While some have basis in Buddhist thought, quite a few have nothing to do with Buddhism at all.

Most are about social control. And translating the current mechanisms of social control into a Buddhist context.

We can first consider the term Buddhist. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse wrote a book not long ago called What Makes You Not a Buddhist.  In that book he states very plainly the following:

One is a Buddhist if he or she accepts the following four truths:

  • All compounded things are impermanent
  • All emotions are pain
  • All things have no inherent existence
  • Nirvana is beyond concepts  (p.3)

These are called the Four Seals of Buddhism. He continues to write:

The message of the four seals is meant to be understood literally, not metaphorically or mystically–and meant to be taken seriously. But the seals are not edicts or commandments. With a little contemplation one sees that there is nothing moralistic or ritualistic about them. Thee is no mention of good or bad behavior. They are secular truths based on wisdom, and wisdom is the primary concern of a Buddhist. Morals and ethics are secondary.  (p.4)

He does not say morals and ethics are to be ignored. In fact on the same page he writes:

Broadly speaking, wisdom comes from a mind that has what Buddhists call “right view”…Ultimately it is this view that determines our motivation and action. It is the view that guides us on the path of Buddhism. If we can adopt wholesome behaviors in addition to the four seals, it makes us even better Buddhists.

The book then goes on to give an explanation of these four seals.

What is evident is that without understanding the four seals, which is the core of Buddhist philosophy, we can behave as “properly” as anyone wishes to delineate but we are merely play acting at being Buddhists. We would be putting on a Buddhist show for everyone else and trying to fool ourselves as well.

The “good” part of the Buddhist script is being written all over the place as the examples above indicate and in a few links below.

In the West

From the OneCity blog Londro Rinzler has a post What would Sid do: 7 steps that make for a “good Buddhist” 

In the East

These perceptions are not limited to “Western” convert contexts. teikbin from Malaysia has a document at scribd labeled What is a Good Buddhist? where he categorizes numerous varieties of “Eastern” Buddhists in many of the same ways that “Western” Buddhists have been categorized.

By Governments

From the Buddhist Channel Be a good Buddhist and put that out Bhutan is the first country in the world to make tobacco illegal. One cannot legally import, stock or sell tobacco products. Public smoking is forbidden. But people still do all of this in spite of the ban.

Even on Facebook

There is a Facebook page called How to Live as a Good Buddhist. But there’s nothing on it. Maybe that’s appropriate.


11 comments on “The [Approximately] 32 Marks of a "Good" Buddhist

  1. that list is a headache.

    it’s all efforts to pin down what to do with one’s life, and how to act sincere – so I can feel some compassion for that.

    but wow, over half of the things on list seem as random as saying something like one must love John Travolta in order to get into heaven.

  2. Interesting.

    By Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse’s criteria, I would qualify as a Buddhist.

    But then so would my wife and both of my parents and probably at least one of my sisters, even though my wife identifies as Catholic, my sister as Lutheran, and my parents as nonreligious rationalists.

    In other words, I think a better phrasing for the four Dharma seals would be as a negation: “One is not a Buddhist unless he or she accepts the following four truths….:”

    Second, what about leaving room for not understanding the Dharma seals? For example, the third seal—”all things have no inherent existence”—is a counterintuitive concept, and it takes a fair bit of work to understand what it means. Would someone who doesn’t understand what it means but is sincerely attempting to do so qualify as a Buddhist? Intuitively, I would think that they should.

    Furthermore, how deeply do you have to understand them to qualify?

    For example, I think I understand what the Seals mean, but only at a superficial and intellectual level.

    All compounded things are impermanent: yes, this is basically a restating of the second law of thermodynamics. Everything falls apart, eventually, until the universe is completely uniform, or collapses back on itself and starts over (which would be more satisfying, not to mention more in tune with the Abhidharma, but we don’t know if that’s actually what will happen).

    All emotions are pain: yes, because even the most pleasurable emotion is transient and carries the anticipation of ending, which is painful, and should it be sustained for a time, it becomes the new baseline, which just makes the rest of your existence even more painful.

    All things have no inherent existence: yes, because the universe is an interconnected continuum that’s in a continuous state of flux, and “things” are just concepts that exist in our mind in order to impose an order on it and allow our rational mind to make sense of it and manipulate it.

    Nirvana is beyond concepts: yes, that is its definition. It is the “whereof you cannot speak” of Wittgenstein 7.

    Thing is, this is all very superficial, and I have only internalized these meanings to various degrees. I’m very comfortable with #3, and have been since I read Karl Popper’s essays on nominalism about fifteen years ago at least; #1 just seems like a statement of a pretty obvious fact, #2 is something I intellectually accept and that’s sort of growing in me but I certainly can’t consistently act as if I truly accepted it, and I only have a very tenuous hold on #4.

    So do I still qualify as a Buddhist? I don’t usually think of myself as a Buddhist, I haven’t gone through any initiation ceremony or learned any secret Buddhist handshakes, although I sit, chant, bow, and study, for a bit anyway. My Facebook profile lists “religious views” as “Zen curious,” which is as good a description as any, I think.

    My sister and here soon-to-be-husband treat me as a Buddhist, which I found rather weird. (His father is the parish priest of a small, very conservative parish in Lapland, which means he has a tendency to take religious matters seriously.) We were having a beer the other day, and he said something like “Well, we only live once, you know,” and then sort of started and looked at me guiltily and added “…or, uh, what do you Buddhists say?” So I put on my best Zen expression and solemnly pronounced “There is rebirth, but it is not what you think.” Odd experience.

    Finally, how much does it ultimately matter? Is “I am a Buddhist” just another way of reinforcing the ego? I mean, I can see how it matters for a teacher—someone who “brands” himself (usually it’s himself) as Buddhist but teaches something that doesn’t conform to the Seals isn’t helpful, but what about us ordinary folks just trying to come to grips with dukkha?

    (Hm. I think I’ll actually work this up into a complete blog post. Makes a bit of a break from Vasubandhu…)

  3. …oh, and they all have their humour glands surgically removed at the same clinic on the US/Mexican border.

    More Regards,


  4. Once, years ago when I was married and a relatively new Buddhist, I was talking with my brother-in-law about an acquaintance who had a business making soy products (tofu, sausages, ice-cream, etc). BIL opined that my acquaintance was just exploiting people with dairy allergies. I replied that I thought that unlikely as he was a “good Buddhist”. BIL, a conservative Christian, replied “I didn’t know there was such a thing as a ‘good Buddhist’.” I think he meant to include me in this :-)

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  9. Good buddhists dont question things. Good buddhists question everything. Both of these are points on that list. There may be a problem, or their may be a point that was trying to be made. Never the less, Interesting article

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