Miraculous birth and childhood dramatize the story of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, but its climax is his conversion and enlightenment. Consequently, conversion is close to the heart of Buddhism.
Siddhartha was the son of Shuddhodana, a minor king near present-day Nepal around 450 BCE. Because it was prophesied that Siddhartha would be either the ruler or the savior of the world, his father shielded his son from suffering, which would turn him from statecraft to religion. The oldest biography of the Buddha, Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacarita, suggests that nothing more than curiosity caused Siddhartha to leave the palace. Although Shuddhodana removed suffering people from Siddhartha’s route, the gods placed a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a monk before him. This encounter with pain moved Siddhartha to abandon his family, including his newborn son, to become a homeless ascetic, seeking to conquer suffering. Siddhartha’s departure from his family, called the “Great Renunciation” was a conversion.
A like story is about Ashoka, the ruler of north India from 268 to 232 BCE. In the conquest of present-day Orissa, he killed hundreds of thousands of people. Legend tells that he walked on his last battlefield, revolted by the rotting corpses. Across this hell also walked a monk, unshaken by it. This meeting converted Ashoka to Buddhism. He carved on rock pillars, which still exist, that he would no longer conquer by violence but by “dharma.” Did Ashoka mean “dharma” in the general Indian sense of “right” or in the specific Buddhist sense of “the Buddha’s teaching?” According to Buddhist tradition Ashoka became a pious Buddhist.
A 3rd story is of Nagarjuna, the greatest Buddhist philosopher, who lived around the 2nd century CE. Nagarjuna was a magician. Using his powers of invisibility, he snuck into the royal harem with his friends. They were detected. Nagarjuna escaped, but his friends were executed. He became a Buddhist monk. These legends testify that it is recognition of suffering and death which motivates the Buddhist path.
Buddhism is a missionary religion, which purposely sent teachers to convert other societies. Buddhism also has in common with Western religions the experience of a profound change of mind which leads to the adoption of the religious path. But there is a major difference, which is the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” Western religions tend toward exclusive membership. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam one generally chooses only one religion. In East Asia by contrast, people in China and Korea combine Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The Japanese do the same with Shinto, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
Buddhism generally assimilated local religions. The early Ekottarogama Sutra says that when the Hindu gods were not persuaded, a bodhisattva (being capable of liberation but choosing to be reborn to save others) killed the great god Shiva and reanimated him as a Buddha in another world. In 763 CE in Japan a kami, local god, asked through an oracle to be liberated from its deluded condition. (Gods in Buddhism are subject to birth and death.) A monastery was established for the kami’s liberation. Elsewhere in Japan, a tree inhabited by a kami was carried away by a river. Wherever it landed, plague broke out. A Buddhist monk carved the tree into bodhisattva images, which ended the pestilence. In late 8th century CE Tibet, Padmasambhava conquered the local gods and recruited them for the dharma. This myth reflects that Padmasambhava was believed to stop a smallpox epidemic and that Buddhism assimilated the local religion.
Buddhist missionaries targeted rulers who would bring their subjects into the sangha (Buddhist community), as in Sri Lanka in the 3rd century BCE and in Tibet and Japan in the 7th century CE. Legend tells that the emperor Mingdi (57-76 CE) brought Buddhism to China.
A parallel to Western conversion is becoming a lay brother (upasaka) or sister (upasika). Without taking monastic vows, pious Buddhists say “I go to the Buddha as refuge, I go to the Dharma as refuge, I go to the Sangha as refuge,” and promise to obey the five precepts, not to kill, steal, lie, misbehave sexually, or use intoxicants. But most Buddhists do not become upasaka/upasika.
Buddhism in the West differs from Buddhism in Asia. Western Buddhists are oriented more to texts, meditation, and philosophy than to ritual and worship. Some Western Buddhists such as Stephen Batchelor discard most of Buddhist mythology. Many Americans adopt a Buddhist world view, practice Buddhist meditation, but do not join Buddhist organizations. This complicates the issue of conversion. Scholars disagree about who in the West is a Buddhist, making it difficult to define conversion.
Buddhism has embraced other faiths, and Western Buddhist practice is different from Asian Buddhist practice. Nevertheless, if an American reads Buddhist writings, practices meditation, and agrees with Buddhist philosophy, it is safe to call them a Buddhist. “Conversion” here usually involves chance exposure to Buddhism, often in college, then study of Buddhist writings, then meditation and even vegetarianism, without organizational affiliation.
Thanks to Grant R. Shafer
Photo By parhessiastes (Buddhist Altar Uploaded by Caspian blue) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons