What Makes You Not A Buddhist - the core of Buddhism by Dzongsar Jamyang KhyentseI’ve read many books on Buddhism, but this, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, stands out as very special.

In just a few pages, he cuts through the faff – writing in a very down-to-earth manner.

Starting with a conversation he had on a plane, he tries to answer the question asked of him by the passenger in the seat next to him (reacting to his monk’s robes): what is a Buddhist?

The four seals of Buddhism

He then takes as his core the four “seals” of Buddhism, as outlined by the Buddha in his sermons – essentially:

All compounded things are impermanent

All emotions are pain

All things have no inherent existence

Nirvana is beyond concepts.

Written out like this, they might look rather dry and obscure but he approaches them with examples from daily life, even politics. In this way, he uses each in turn as a way to shed light on the true nature of being (and not being) a Buddhist.


There’s hardly any technical jargon and much humour (the airline passenger is rapidly sent to sleep by his initial discussion). In this way, he exemplifies his views through his very style.

However, the approach is not without its dangers and some reviewers have accused him of hitting them over the head with his own political views. I actually think they’ve misunderstood.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse isn’t trying to change the way readers vote, but to shock us into realising that the world – and our own personalities and egos – are very different from how we conventionally think they are.

Emotions and pain

While I say above that there’s no jargon, he does make his own – sometimes idiosyncratic – translations of key terms, which might make readers think more than twice. Most notably, the second seal “all emotions are pain”.

This might raise a few eyebrows, even among Buddhists. However, what he really means becomes clear and he has the good grace to discuss his use of words in a short and pithy appendix.

Of course, making readers think is not such a bad thing, either. If you’re interested in Buddhism, or even in what it is to be a human being, you’ll certainly be given considerable food for thought, more than you might expect in such a slim paperback.

By the end, you may well be questioning what it is to be a Buddhist – and whether you in fact surprisingly are – or surprisingly aren’t – in a way that you didn’t quite think you would.

What Makes You Not A Buddhist at Amazon UK or Amazon.com