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Reasons to Convert to Buddhism?

Why I Can't Give You Any


Bananas offered to Buddha
Gus Cantavero/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

After reading a heartfelt essay listing reasons to convert to Christianity, I began to play with the idea of listing reasons to convert to Buddhism. And I decided against it. Writing the list, I mean.

The truth is, I don't necessarily think everyone should convert to Buddhism. As a religion -- and, yes, Buddhism is a religion -- Buddhism can be aggravating. It takes discipline and dedication, many of the doctrines are bleeping near impossible to wrap your head around, and non-Buddhists often will size you up as some kind of post-Flower Child flake.

What is it to "convert," anyway? I suppose I should know this, since I was raised in one religion and now practice another one. But I had left my religion-of-origin and was used to being "Not a Christian" long before I stumbled into Buddhism and realized I was home.

If "converting" means abandoning one religious path to take up another, I didn't covert. Although my path led from Christianity to Buddhism, it was all one path. Jesus still teaches me, just as Dogen and Nagarjuna and the Buddha do.

True Religion

People who are eager to convert others to their religion usually believe their religion is the "right" one -- the One True Religion. They think their doctrines are the true doctrines and their God the real God, and all others are wrong. Such a view makes two assumptions that I reject.

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 this perfect understanding can be expressed in words to form doctrines that transmit this perfect understanding to others with unfailing accuracy.

And I say that's nonsense. I say no doctrines of any religion, including mine, are the complete truth. All fall short of perfect understanding. All are frequently misunderstood. The truest doctrines are just pointers, shadows on a wall, or a hand pointing to the moon.

At the same time, it may be that most of the doctrines of most of the world's religions reflect some small part of a great and absolute truth, so they aren't necessarily false, either. As Joseph Campbell may have said, 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. I'm with historian Karen Armstrong when she says that religion is not primarily about beliefs. Rather, "Religion is a search for transcendence."

Of course, transcendence can be conceptualized many different ways, also. We might think of transcendence as union with God or as entry into Nirvana. But I don't think the conceptualizations are all that important, since all are 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. In Exodus, God refused to be limited by a name or represented by a graven image. It may be hard for humans to accept, but there are places our almighty imaginations and intellects cannot go.

Lights in the Darkness

I'm not saying 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. A skillful doctrine opens the heart to compassion and the mind to wisdom.

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.

The One True Religion

I believe the world's great religions have all accumulated their share of both skillful and unskillful doctrines and practices. I also have observed 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 that engagement that enables transcendence.

I left Christianity because it no longer engaged my heart and mind. Well, the heart maybe, but the mind said "Nope." But just because I walked away from Christianity doesn't mean I think Christianity or any other religion is wrong for everyone else.

Just yesterday I had a lovely conversation with the cantor of a nearby synagogue. As he spoke of being a cantor is was clear that Judaism illuminates his life and is his One True Religion. I'd have been the world's most boorish ass to even think of "converting" him.

Engaged Buddhism

It's been twenty years since I found Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism . The first one is:

"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."

I knew then that Buddhism was a religion I could enter into with my entire heart and mind without leaving my critical thinking skills at the door. And it's also why I feel no deep compulsion to convert anyone.

If you are looking for a spiritual home, I'm happy to help you learn about Buddhism. But I can't give you reasons to convert. You'll have to find those within yourself.

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