Identity, Diversity and Belonging


Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;


Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.


Individuals and Communities

Belonging can mean different things in different Buddhist communities. However, a set of basic values reflecting the Noble Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts are unifying. Similarly faith in the Buddha and the Four Noble Truths gives Buddhist communities an identity. Generally, the action holding people together is taking the Three Refuges: going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma / Dharma, and the Sangha. This can be done collectively in a ceremony, as part of the daily life of a family or individually. Another action which demonstrates belonging to the Buddhist community is chanting. For Theravadins, parts of the Pali Canon are often chanted collectively, or followers will go and listen to members of the Sangha chant. For devotees of the Mahayana, Mahayana Sutras or Mantras are often chanted. In both cases this can act as a communal act bringing followers closer and instilling a sense of belonging as well as clearing the mind in a form of meditation.

While it is easy to spot members of the Sangha by their clothes and shaved heads, it can be hard to distinguish lay Buddhists from non-lay Buddhists in the community. However, Buddhists try to avoid attachment to material possessions, so will shun wearing excessive amounts of jewellery or expensive clothes.

On Uposatha days or other Buddhist festivals, Wesak for example, Buddhist communities come together. On each Uposatha day devout members of the lay Buddhist community will take three extra precepts and will usually congregate at a local temple or monastery to make offerings, listen to Dhamma / Dharma talks and participate in meditation sessions. This is where there is a real sense of belonging in the community.

It is important to note that the means by which these actions and beliefs can be expressed usually involve the Sangha, particularly for Theravadan communities. For example on special days, the lay community will make an effort to provide alms food for the monks and nuns, as well as listening to Dhamma / Dharma talks given by, or participating in meditation sessions led by, the monks and nuns. For followers of the Mahayana expressions of belonging to a community can be more devotion based (particularly for groups such as Pure Land Buddhists). Therefore, members of the Sangha are not so important for the expression of these beliefs. Theravadans, too, have many devotional practices, but will often go to monasteries where there are a number of beautiful Buddha statues and images on special days.

Religious / Spiritual Identity

As with any religion, belonging can make an important psychological difference to people’s lives. It provides informal support networks, as well as social opportunities. However, it is important to remember that Buddhism teaches that all things are characterised by the Three Marks – impermanence, suffering and not-Self. This means that while a sense of community and belonging has its benefits one shouldn’t become attached to it. The same is taught of the Buddhist religion as a whole. The Buddha compares the Dhamma / Dharma to a raft that one uses to cross a river. It may be an excellent raft, but when the river has been crossed, the heavy raft should not be carried with one on dry land. Similarly, one should not stay attached to the Dhamma / Dharma once its benefits have been taken. Thus, for Buddhists, belonging has its benefits, but ultimately it must be set aside if one is to progress on the path – initially one might belong to the lay community, then one should renounce this and belong to the community of renunciants, finally one must abandon all belonging to the conditioned world as belonging can act like attachment.

The most basic expectation of a Buddhist is taking the Three Refuges. This involves going for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma / Dharma and the Sangha. Refuge ceremonies may take place in a monastery or temple by a member of the Sangha, but they are more often undertaken in private by aspiring Buddhists. Taking refuge should not be viewed as hiding away from something; rather it is commitment to pay attention to the Buddha’s teachings. This commitment may be expressed in daily life by listening to a Dhamma / Dharma talk, visiting a Buddhist centre, temple or monastery, following the Noble Eightfold Path, or simply attempting to be mindful and compassionate in one’s every day actions. Experienced Buddhists will practice meditation at both meditation centres and at home. A few devoted Buddhists will ordain as monks or nuns.

Ordained and Lay Buddhists

The easiest way to identify ordained is by their appearance. Monks and nuns usually wear specific kinds of clothes – the saffron robes of the Theravadin sangha are easily identifiable, for example. Monks and nuns will usually shave their heads as well – this helps remove vanity and sets them apart from the laity. Lay commitment can be recognised in a number of ways, for example, by a calm disposition, visiting meditation centres, listening to Dhamma / Dharma talks, supporting the sangha and giving to charity.

Lay Buddhists also take the Five Precepts: to abstain from killing, taking what is not given, misuse of sensual pleasures, false speech, abuse of drugs and alcohol. Pious Buddhists may take an additional Three Precepts, especially on holy days: abstention from a luxurious bed, food after midday and amusements and adornments. Individuals also try to foster positive virtues such as contentment with a simple life, detachment from material concerns, self-discipline, tolerance, love and compassion for all beings. Monks and nuns follow a stricter code outlined in the vinaya. They take ten precepts: in addition to the five above, they abstain from food after midday, luxurious beds, frivolous amusements, personal adornments, and touching money. There are also many rules in the vinaya (227 for Theravadins). Breaking the first four rules lead to expulsion from the order, and are no sexual intercourse, refraining from theft, no murder or subtle forms of murder such as encouraging suicide, and not intentionally making false claims to supernatural powers.

In general, as Buddhism has developed and spread to different countries, the importance of the lay community has risen. Originally the Buddhist monastic community was most important, but as Buddhism’s popularity grew, the number of people who believed in the dhamma / dharma but did not feel they were at a stage where they could renounce their families grew. Thus the lay community grew. Its importance is best illustrated by the actions of one man – Anagarika Dharmapala. Dharmapala (1864-1933) was not a full member of the Sangha, but he was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West and pioneering a revival of Buddhism in India by reclaiming Bodh Gaya as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Importantly he printed a handbook on meditation, thus bringing meditation firmly into the realm of both the laity and family life.

The simplest form of expressing belonging to the Buddhist faith tradition is through taking the Three Refuges: going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma / Dharma, and the Sangha. This act connects all Buddhists together. In the Suttas / Sutras any new disciple of the Buddha always takes the Three Refuges when he or she becomes a follower of the Buddha. Still, belonging to the Buddhist faith tradition can mean many different things in many different cultures.

Family and Community

The interrelationships of individuals to family and community are very important in Buddhism. Buddhists believe in an infinite number of rebirths. Therefore, as the Buddha pointed out, everyone you meet has at some stage been your mother or father and at some stage you have been their parents. Thus everyone should be treated as if they are members of your family. The Buddha advised a man called Sigala (Digha Nikaya 3.185-191) on his responsibilities as a householder, including advice on relationships: you should take care of your family, respecting your parents and looking after your children; treat your partner well and fairly; choose the right sort of friends as friends can have a good or a bad influence on you; have a good relationship with your teachers and pupils, respecting the teacher and trying to give the pupils the best possible education; treat your employees fairly and your employer with respect by not wasting time and doing your best; and finally, you should make your living in a good way, one which doesn’t harm your fellows.

To a certain extent family life in Buddhism is seen as the polar opposite of the holy life. Monks and nuns, Buddhists’ spiritual leaders, are in this position because they have renounced family life. In the early Suttas / Sutras there is a lot of negative material concerning family life – children and partners are seen as distractions, for example. However, Buddhism still recognises the importance of the laity – they, after all, make the life of the renunciant possible by supporting his or her lifestyle. Equally, it is from families that the next generation of monks and nuns come. Therefore family life and the life of those who reject it (i.e. the Sangha) should be seen as mutually dependent on each other. Furthermore, in Mahayana, there is an increased emphasis on the importance of the laity. In the Mahayana Sutras, for example, many bodhisattvas appear as laymen or laywomen. Thus, being a Buddhist while having a family or being part of a family is not seen necessarily as a problem. In fact in Japan Buddhist priests are married and do not renounce family life. In Tantrayana as well, there are many lay teachers.

Foundations of Identity

The question of ‘who I am’ is of vital importance in Buddhism. The Buddha said that the world and everything in it is characterised by Three Marks. These are dukkha / duhkha (suffering), anicca / anitya (impermanence) and anatta / anatman (not-Self). Clearly the third of these is very important when discussing what is meant by ‘I’. Buddhists believe that there is no permanent unchanging Self (as is often postulated by other religions – Hinduism’s Brahman, for example, or Christianity’s soul). The reason for this belief is that empirically and experientially no permanent self can be found. If one investigates what people identify a permanent self with – the mind for example – one discovers that this is subject to change and fluctuation and as such subject to suffering. The Buddha analyses each of the five khandhas / Skandhas that make up a being and argues that no permanent self can be found in any of them. They are not-Self. Thus in Buddhist thought, what is thought of as self is simply an accumulation of constantly changing and interacting physical and mental phenomena. However, Buddhists have two forms of truth: conventional and ultimate. This means that in terms of conventional truth it is appropriate to use the word ‘I’, in other words there is a conventional self. However, at the ultimate level it must be remembered that the self is not permanent, unchanging or free from dukkha / duhkha.

The teaching on anatta / anitya is of great soteriological importance. It stands in the middle between eternalism (people who assume an eternal unchanging Self) and annihilationism or nihilism (people who claim that there is no self at all, nothing remains after death). In Buddhism the conventional, empirical self constantly changes (as opposed to the Self of the eternalists which is not subject to change). It is this fact that allows people to develop by doing good deeds, studying and meditating; they can become better beings, and eventually achieve nibbana / nirvana. If the self could not change, then there would be no self-development, no self-improvement and one could not reach nibbana / nirvana. Equally, if the self completely ended at death (as argued by annihilationists) there would be no point in developing the self, acting morally or helping people. In fact it is the ‘I am conceit’ that leads to suffering. For example, if one does not see a permanent self as the owner of pain then it is a lot easier to bear. Thus it is the Middle Way and the perception of self as a continuum of interacting phenomena that allows people to improve themselves and eventually escape from samsara.

To talk about a person therefore is to talk about them on a conventional level, but at the ultimate level we should be thought of in terms of interacting changing phenomena. Buddhists however, do believe in individuality. The stream of phenomena does make up an individual – we are not simply one big stream or one big self; a person’s actions are his or her own. Thus, while the self should not be thought of as eternal and unchanging, it should be thought of as individual.

Identity & Belonging in Practice

Buddhist families with religious commitment practice their faith in a number of ways. The most basic way of expressing faith is through showing respect to an image of the Buddha. Most households will have such an image usually in a communal room. The image will normally be stored on a high shelf, showing the relative importance of the Buddha and acting as a sign of respect. Other family practices may include regular chanting of Buddhist Scriptures, taking the Three Refuges together, taking the Five Precepts together, visiting temples together and prostrating oneself before the Buddha. For Mahayana families, people may renew their bodhisattva vows together; this is the promise to strive to become a bodhisattva and eventually a Buddha. Mahayana families may also chant mantras, particularly those who follow the Trantrayana. On Uposatha days Buddhist families may additionally take the Eight Precepts, meditate, listen to Dharma talks and study scriptures together.

In many ways the most important way the Buddhist community as a whole expresses its faith is through supporting the Sangha. This includes giving alms food to monks and financing temples. The Sangha as a community expresses faith through the monks and nuns renunciation of lay life, meditation and study of the Dhamma / Dharma. It also reciprocates the lay community’s support by providing them not only with the means of doing good deeds, but also by acting as a source of teaching and through the provision of spiritual guidance.

The most important impact of Buddhist faith on the wider non-Buddhist community is through their belief in pacifism. Most Buddhists are strongly opposed to war as it involves taking life (breaking the First Precept). This means they often play an important role in peace keeping talks and in organisations such as the UN. Buddhists are also involved in ‘grass roots’ politics and political protests. Buddhist protests can range from the recent non-violent protests of the Sangha in Burma to the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in 1963 in Vietnam, to the more recent demonstrations led by Buddhist monks in Tibet.


There is great diversity within Buddhism. For ease scholars usually differentiate Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. There are many differences between these strands of Buddhism. Theravada can mainly be found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia, while Mahayana can be seen in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia along with parts of Southeast Asia. The main difference between these two strands of Buddhism is the goal that believers aim for. Theravada Buddhists aspire to become Arahats (enlightened ones), while Mahayana Buddhists strive to become bodhisattvas and eventually Buddhas themselves (someone who rediscovers the dharma and teaches). Western ideas of schism, based on the history of Christianity, have often led to the idea that there is hostility between these two groups. This is not normally the case. Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists exist happily side by side, and in the past, both those aiming to become Buddhas and those aiming to become Arahats, shared monasteries with each other.

Given the huge number of countries that Buddhism has spread to, there is obviously a great deal of cultural diversity within the faith tradition. This can be seen mainly in terms of ritual practices. In Tibet for example, there are some shamanistic elements to rituals, while in certain Chinese schools there are more devotional aspects. With increased emigration different cultures join the ‘melting pot’ of the West, resulting in these new communities incorporating many Western cultural aspects of Buddhism.

Buddhism has successfully extended into countries outside its traditional regions, and has co-existed with religions already present. Buddhists acknowledge the existence of gods, devils, supernatural beings etc and so can quite happily incorporate new ones into its belief system. For example, when Buddhism spread to Tibet a number of deities and demons became Buddhist. The important point that Buddhism teaches is that while these gods may exist and intervene to aid with worldly requests (for example, helping one pass an exam), they cannot help on the Buddhist path – escaping the round of samsara – because all the gods are also subject to it, as they will eventually die themselves. Thus many Buddhists will nominally have two or more religions – in India, for example, a Buddhist may call himself a Hindu when it comes to worshipping Hindu gods for this worldly results, but a Buddhist when it comes to escaping from suffering.

Buddhists usually welcome interfaith dialogue. In fact, the Buddha emphasised the importance of investigating any truth claim and assessing its veracity. When Christian missionaries began working in Sri Lanka in the 18th century, they were initially frustrated by Buddhists acceptance of them and willingness to participate in interfaith dialogue. These same Christian missionaries were further perturbed by their hosts’ willingness to please them and worship their God while still following the Buddhist path to escape from samsara.