How to Convert to Buddhism

by Douglas Matus

Buddhism emerged in India between 550 and 350 B.C., and centers on the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama, known as Buddha. Buddhism has had an immense impact on the cultural development of Asia, and spread to the West throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Unlike other faiths, Buddhism requires no ritual undertaking for conversion, which is typically a personal affair. Individuals who wish to convert can prepare themselves in three ways.

Study Buddhist Literature

The conversion to Buddhism represents a spiritual transformation, rather than a material enlistment or accomplishment of a set process. A dedicated study of Buddhist literature is the first step that interested individuals should take toward conversion. Buddhists do not proselytize, and instead encourage converts to investigate other religions and make sure they fully agree with Buddhism’s core tenets. Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions” presents the essential teachings of major world religions, including Buddhism, and has recommended reading lists. As for canonical texts, a potential convert could read an anthology of the Buddha’s discourses, such as “In the Buddha’s Words,” while those interested in Tibetan Buddhism could investigate “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.”

Practice Compassion and Meditation

Once engaged in the study of Buddhist doctrine, students should practice meditation and engage in compassionate thoughts and deeds. Both are lifelong pursuits for Buddhists, and potential converts should feel comfortable with both. For those interested in meditation as a solitary pursuit, a guide such as Kathleen McDonald’s “How to Meditate” provides a useful introduction. Potential converts can also seek out a Buddhist center to practice group meditation. Compassionate acts, known as Right Action, requires that the Buddhist practices mindfulness in his attitude toward others, and seeks always to help rather than harm.

Ponder the Four Noble Truths

Once potential converts have immersed themselves in Buddhist teachings, they should spent time pondering the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which represent the core beliefs of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths hold that suffering and discontentment characterize existence, and that the desire for pleasure underlies the pain of earthly life. The Eightfold Path presents the practical aspects of a Buddhist lifestyle, in which the practitioner strives to overcome personal desire. Once someone understands and agrees with the Four Noble Truths, and strives to follow the Eightfold Path, she becomes a Buddhist.

How to Become a Monk

Converts who wish to dedicate their lives to Buddhist study and contemplation can pursue ordination as a monk or nun. Joining the monastic tradition represents a lifelong commitment, and interested parties should not make the decision lightly. Prior to ordination, a student should have spent several years in active study and practice, ideally under the guidance of a teacher. Potential monks generally take lay vows, such as a commitment to celibacy, and engage in a trial residency -- traditionally five years -- in a monastic community. Potential monks should also investigate the resources of the community they wish to join, and learn whether the community partially or completely provides for the material needs of its members.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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