Converting to Buddhism
In conversations about religion, there is often discussion about converting from one religion to another. For some people, Buddhism may offer an option if you are not finding yourself a good fit for the religion you currently practice.
Factors to Consider
Buddhism is not a religion suitable for everyone to convert to. As a religion, Buddhism takes discipline and dedication, many of the doctrines are very difficult to wrap your head around, and its vast body of teachings can be intimidating. Additionally, there are subtleties of practice and dozens of different schools of thought that can be bewildering until you find the niche that's right for you.
The entire idea of conversion is not one all that suited to a discussion of how to become Buddhist. For many, a spiritual path that arrives at Buddhism does not feel like a conversion at all, but merely a logical step along a destined path. Being a Buddhist for many people does not involve an active abandonment of one path for another, but simply following a path that naturally leads where it was destined to go. A Buddhist may well still feel that they are being taught by Jesus, but also by Dogen, Nagaruna, Chogyam Trungpa, the Dalai Lama, and the Buddha.
People who are eager to convert others to their religion usually believe their religion is the "right" one—the One True Religion. They want to believe that their doctrines are the true doctrines, that their God the real God, and all others are wrong. There are at least two problematic assumptions with this view, and people who intuitively sense these contradictions are often the types of people that become Buddhists.
Can There Be a "True" Religion?
The first assumption is that an omnipotent and omnipresent entity such as God—or Brahma, or the Tao, or the Trikaya—can be completely understood by human intellect and that it can be expressed in doctrine form and transmitted to others with unfailing accuracy. But this is a disputable assumption, because many of us who are drawn to Buddhism are instintively aware that no doctrines of any religion, including your own, can own the complete truth.
All belief systems fall short of perfect understanding, and all are frequently misunderstood. Even the truest doctrines are just pointers, shadows on a wall, fingers pointing to the moon. We might do well to follow the advice of Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy, who argued persuasively that all religions are really just dialects of the same spiritual language—and equally truthful and equally flawed as tools for communication.
Most of the doctrines of most of the world's religions reflect some small part of a great and absolute truth—a truth that perhaps should be considered symbolic rather than literal. As Joseph Campbell would say, all religions are true. You just have to understand what they are true of.
The Search for Transcendence
The other false assumption is that thinking the correct thoughts and believing the correct beliefs are what define religion. For a great many people, there's an assumption that proper practice of ritual and behavior is what constitutes proper religion. But an attitude that is perhaps more accurate is that of historian Karen Armstrong when she says that religion is not primarily about beliefs. Rather, "Religion is a search for transcendence." There are few statements that more clearly reflect Buddhist attitude.
Of course, transcendence can be conceptualized in many different ways, also. We might think of transcendence as union with God or as entry into Nirvana. But the conceptualizations may not be that important since all are inherently imperfect. Maybe God is a metaphor for Nirvana. Maybe Nirvana is a metaphor for God.
The Buddha taught his monks that Nirvana cannot be conceptualized and that any attempt to do so is part of the problem. In Judaic/Christian teaching, the God of Exodus refused to be limited by a name or represented by a graven image. This is really a way of saying the same thing the Buddha taught. It may be hard for humans to accept, but there are places our almighty imaginations and intellects simply cannot go. The anonymous author of a great Christian work of mysticism said as much in The Cloud of Unknowing—finding God/transcendence requires first that you give up the illusion of knowledge.
Lights in the Darkness
This is not to say that beliefs and doctrines have no value because they do. Doctrines can be like a flickering candle that keeps you from walking in total darkness. They can be like markers on a path, showing you a way others have walked before.
Buddhists judge the value of a doctrine not by its factual accuracy but by its skillfulness. In this context, skillfulness means any practices that reduce suffering in a meaningful, genuine way. A skillful doctrine opens the heart to compassion and the mind to wisdom.
Realistic self-evaluation tells us that rigidly fixed beliefs are not skillful, however. Rigidly fixed beliefs seal us off from objective reality and from other people who don't share our beliefs. They render the mind hard and closed to whatever revelations or realizations Grace might send our way.
Finding Your True Religion
The world's great religions have all accumulated their share of both skillful and unskillful doctrines and practices. It is also quite clear that a religion that's good for one person can be all wrong for someone else. Ultimately, the One True Religion for you is the one that most completely engages your own heart and mind. It is the set of beliefs and practices that provide you with the possibility of transcendence and the tools for seeking it.
Buddhism may be a religion for you to investigate if Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Wicca no longer engages your heart and mind. Buddhism very often is of great appeal to anyone from whom common sense and intuition have caused dissatisfaction with current religious practice. There is a cool, dispassionate logic in Buddhism that appeals to many people who struggle with the heated fervency of other mainstream religions—especially those that demand faith and obedience rather than intelligent, logical exploration.
But there are many people who find illumination and a pathway toward transcendence from those other religions. No genuine Buddhist would consider coaxing him or her into abandoning that successful belief system for another. This is one of the things that perhaps makes Buddhism unique among world religions—it embraces any practice that is truly skillful—that legitimately reduces suffering.
In Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism, the esteemed Vietnamese monk perfectly summarizes the Buddhist approach toward religious belief systems:
"Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."
Buddhism is a religion that some people can enter into with their entire hearts and minds without leaving critical thinking skills at the door. And it is also a religion that has no deep compulsion to convert anyone. There are no concrete reasons to convert to Buddhism--only the reasons you find within yourself. If Buddhism is the proper place for you, your path is already leading you there.
By Barbara O'Brien