How to Become a Buddhist in Western Countries

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How do you become a Buddhist?   If you live in “Western” countries, where Buddhism is not a major religion, this can be a confusing and frustrating process.

This article is your handy “quick start guide” to becoming an ‘official’ Buddhist and give you my advice on how to start, what to do, and what becoming a “Buddhist” means.

It is important to note that this is article is not a short “checklist”, nor should it be.  If you are intending to enter a brand-new religion (Buddhism), spending a couple of minutes reading this article should be one of the many things you should do.

This article is part of a series on the basics of Buddhism:  Click here to view more.
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Some Quick Terminology

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Buddhism has a language all its own.  I want to introduce you to just a few terms quickly, so they make sense as you read this article. 

If you are already familiar with these terms or have read my intro article, please skip to the next section.

  • Buddha:  The historical teacher and founder of what we now call Buddhism.  He was a human who achieved enlightenment through his own efforts.
  • Dharma:  Also called the “Buddhadharma”, and “Dhamma” in the Pali language.  This is the teachings of the Buddha or his enlightened disciples.  It can be even more broad reaching to include Buddhist texts, commentaries, and other teachings.
  • Monastics:  Also called Monks and Nuns, Venerables, or Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis.  These are the ordained men and women who have devoted their lives to the Buddha’s teachings, renouncing all worldly possessions and comforts.  They are the teachers and guides for laypersons.  The “Sangha” is the community of Monastics.
  • Laypersons:  Also called laity or even “practitioners”.  These are non-monastics who are Buddhists and follow the teachings and lay precepts (rules).

What is a “Westerner”, and Why This Article?

CC0 Photo by Suc on Pixabay

You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.  ~ Shakyamuni Buddha

Living in the ‘West’ (meaning Western countries where Buddhism is not the main religion, such as the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, Australia, etc.) is more of a challenge for someone who wants to become a Buddhist.

  • Since many temples and Buddhist groups found in Western countries often focus on their cultural connections and existing membership, it can be a difficult transition for someone to become a “Western” Buddhist.
  • This guide gives you some guidance specifically for those of us living in the West so we can start, and thrive, as Buddhists! 
  • As I am a Buddhist living in the “West”, this will include many of my own opinions on how to start based on experience.  Your experience may vary, and this guide can only be offered only in a general sense due to the wide variety of Buddhist schools/sects/teachers and personalities/beliefs of people!

Step 1:  Why Do You Want to be a Buddhist?

Monastic and Laypersons. CC0 Photo by reginaphotos on Pixabay

Before you “become” a Buddhist, you should sit down and think (or better yet write out) why you want to be a Buddhist. 

The following quote by the Dalai Lama is a fitting example of the dedication and determination we should have as a Buddhist.  As Buddhists, we are in this for the long haul!

If you consider yourself a Buddhist and want to really practice Buddha Dharma, then right from the start you must make up your mind to do so until the end, regardless of whether it takes millions or billions of aeons.  After all, what is the meaning of our life? 

In itself, there is no intrinsic meaning.  However, if we use life in a positive way, then even the days and months and the aeons can become meaningful. 

On the other hand, if you just fritter your life away aimlessly then even one day feels too long.  You will find that once you have a firm determination and a clear objective, then time is not important.  ~ The Dalai Lama in The Four Noble Truths

Why you want to be a Buddhist will be like your personal manifesto or foundation of your practice. 

If you don’t have a firm foundation of why you are starting this journey, you could easily become distracted, disenchanted, and give up for all the wrong reasons.  

Let’s start off with the first reason you may have thought to become a Buddhist:  Meditation and/or Mindfulness.

  • Is Buddhism Just Meditation/Mindfulness?  While many in the West consider ‘Buddhism’ to be ‘meditation’ and/or ‘mindfulness’ (or vice versa), that is not Buddhism (it is like ordering a hamburger, but only getting the buns).  However, having an interest in meditation/mindfulness could have been a vehicle where your interest in Buddhism began, and that’s great!   The important part to remember is that Buddhism is a religion with its own beliefs, practices, and values.
  • Simply meditating, while probably great for your health, without practicing Buddhism is devoid of the goal of Buddhism: achieving Nirvana, which allows you to end creating Karma, and thus ends (helps you escape) the endless cycle of Rebirth (more about all this in a minute).

So why do you want to be a Buddhist? 

Let’s start off with this checklist. 

It is important to note that it is “OK” to be “learning” about and “discovering” Buddhism at this stage.  The Buddha, in fact, encouraged everyone to make up their own mind through firsthand experience. 

However, you should also have enough to know that this is the ‘path’ you wish to take and agree with it.  This list can help you determine if that is the case.

Reason #1:  You Know Something is “Off” in Life

Statue in Kyoto Japan (Photo by Jordy Meow on Pixabay – CC0 License)

You want to become a Buddhist because you understand or feel that something is ‘not quite right’ in our life (called “Dukkha“).  This is caused by attachments and desires (i.e., the “Three Fires/Poisons”). 

These are all topics that may seem confusing, but when understood, it creates an “ah-ha!” moment. 

  • We are often wearing ‘rose-colored glasses’ in our lives that we don’t really (or not always) see that this is not the life we were meant (or have to) live. 
  • It’s like a wheel on your car that is not round but instead is unbalanced and bumpy (which is what Dukkha translates to). 
  • Wouldn’t you want a perfectly round wheel that makes life…right?  Could you imagine driving hundreds of miles with a car that is rattling all over the place?  I didn’t think so!  That’s what the Noble Eightfold Path (often depicted as a wheel) does to help us make that wheel ‘balanced’ and ’round’.

Reason #2:  The Buddha’s Path Appeals to You

Photo by Peter Thoeny on Flickr

You understand that the Buddha has a way (Eightfold Path) for us to eliminate Dukkha (sometimes loosely translated as ‘suffering’ or ‘dissatisfaction’) so we can stop being attached to things. 

  • Through the Buddha’s way, you are able to be truly happy by discovering your natural state (Nirvana).
  • This allows you to stop creating unwholesome and/or negative actions (Karma) that are leading to rebirth (which is NOT the same as the western interpretation of reincarnation), which creates suffering.

Reason #3:  This May Take A While

Monastic meditating (CC0 via Pixbay)

The Buddha spent countless eons before conditions were right for him to finally achieve enlightenment and realize Nirvana, becoming the (at that time) next Buddha in our world. 

  • Through his prior existences where he was Bodhisattvas, his constant determination was there to eventually become enlightened and become a Buddha.  The lesson for Buddhists (like you and me) is that we are unlikely to become enlightened and achieve Nirvana in this lifetime.  And that’s OK! 
  • When we break free from the concept of self, time itself becomes irrelevant.  Imagine it like going to school, a new profession, or boot camp in the military.  You are not going to be perfect right off the bat…it takes time and effort!  But the payoff is, well, life changing. 
  • During these ‘lifetimes’, we build merit through wholesome karmic actions to include practicing Buddhism, meditation/insight, and determination to escape Samsara.

Note:  While both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism recognize Arhats, which are enlightened persons (typically monastics) who have achieved Nirvana (there are different levels, including if they are to return again, etc.) and are said to be free of Samsara/rebirth, Mahayana believes that everyone (yes, even Arhats) must eventually become a Buddha in the end and have not truly escaped the cycle of birth and death.  This is a major difference between the two branches.  Mahayana promotes the Bodhisattva path not just for monastics, but everyone including you and me (laypersons).  While enlightenment is certainly possible, and Arhats are absolutely recognized, the escape from the prison of Ignorance / Samsara (cycle of birth and death – our ‘world’) may be a little more complex and take longer (learn more about Nirvana and the Branches of Buddhism).

Reason #4:  Yes, It *IS* a Religion (and *not* a “Philosophy”)

Photo by Ailiajameel [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Not only does Buddhism “interest” you but is something you want to explore and follow faithfully and religiously.

This is beyond wanting an ‘intellectual’ understanding, but something that you are committed to with your heart and mind (if you are just looking for an intellectual understanding of Buddhism, taking a course like this one, or reading books, will likely satisfy your curiosity but does not mean you want to be a ‘Buddhist’).

  • You Gotta Have Faith:  Some concepts, such as rebirth, can only be explained scientifically to a limited degree.  Without seeing the historical Buddha (he has since died 2,600 years ago), it is hard to see the living example.  Therefore, there is the faith we put into the Buddha’s teachings and that of the monastic community which helps us understand them.
  • No Cherry Picking:  Pulling out the parts we don’t agree with, or want definite answers to, start stripping away what Buddhism is, and what its end result is all about:  ending the cycle of birth and death (rebirth).  This is the salvation part of Buddhism (salvific teachings) that separates it from mere philosophy, where we act upon faith from the Buddha’s experiences/insight (Buddha means “awakened one”), and it is a central part of Buddhism (as taught by the Buddha).  Buddhism without Rebirth is not what the Buddha taught.  
  • What About Secular Buddhism?  “Secular” Buddhism is a hot/debated topic because it tries to make Buddhism not a religion and pull out things they don’t agree with.  Namely, this includes rebirth/samsara.  Buddhism without rebirth/samsara is not the Buddhism that the Buddha taught.  If you just want to practice meditation/mindfulness or perhaps other Buddhist concepts without believing in all the Buddha’s teachings, your ultimate ‘goal’ is different than the Buddha’s salvific teachings.  In that case, you can surely use anything you learn from Buddhism in a secular and personal manner, but that does not make you a Buddhist.

Step 2:  Learn the Fundamentals

The teachings of the Buddha are not a philosophy.  They are a path, a raft to help us get across the river of suffering.  ~  Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh

Being a Buddhist also means you know something about the religion! 

Wanting to become a Buddhist is great, and you should know what the religion is all about.  Even the Buddha encouraged those interested in following him to do a thorough investigation to see if it is what they want to do. 

While your best bet is to have a monastic community (Sangha) and teacher(s) guide you, I have some articles and explanations here that can get you started:

What is Buddhism and Who was the Buddha?

Photo by Ben Ashmole on Flickr

I have a whole article about this (click here) which I recommend you read to give you a good explanation.

In short, Buddhism is following the example, and path (teachings), set forth by the Buddha of our age (Shakyamuni/Gautama). The teachings are often called the “Buddha Dharma” in Asian countries.

  • Through his own effort, he was able to become ‘awakened’ (enlightened) to the true nature of our world/life (Samsara – the cycle of birth and death), how it is not perfect through our own actions, and how to realize our nature state (Nirvana). 
  • Therefore, the Buddha is often referred to as a teacher because he was!
  • He spent decades helping others realize Nirvana as well, and end rebirth.  And so can you through his teachings and monastic community which live on.
  • The Buddha said that all sentient beings (such as you and me) all have this ability inside of us…none of us are lacking!

More Information:  To learn more about the Buddha and what Buddhism is about, read my article here.

What are the core teachings?  

The Buddha’s first sermon was the Four Noble Truths (which essentially and elegantly explained almost as if the Buddha was a doctor by describing the symptoms, the diagnosis, the prognosis, and the cure).

  • The ‘cure’ is the Noble Eightfold Path which eliminates Dukkha (caused by attachment/believing in an independent self), allows us to achieve enlightenment/awakening which lets us realize Nirvana, that helps us to end Karma, which ends the cycle of Rebirth (Samsara) we have been trapped in.
  • We and everything else that is “conditioned” and “temporary” are created by causes and conditions (“Dependent Origination” in Buddhism).
  • Specifically, for us, Buddhism teaches “Dependent Origination” meaning everything is conditioned, and temporary (“impermanence”).
  • For example, we are made up of the Five Aggregates, and are a temporary grouping of ‘things’ that make us, “us”.  When one of those go, so do we (with the exception of “Store Consciousness” which continues after death…this is different from a soul or reincarnation, though).

My favorite book about the core teachings of Buddhism is Ven. Thich Nhat Hahn’s “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings“.

Is There a Buddhist Bible?

While there is no ‘bible’ in Buddhism (as in a document that is written by a god or heavenly being), we do have scripture which are primarily the disclosures/teachings of the Buddha, precepts, and insight into those teachings.

  • Theravada Buddhists call them “Suttas” and Mahayana Buddhists call them “Sutras”.
  • The main scripture that most laypersons (like you and me) and all Buddhist branches may be familiar with is called the Dhammapada/Dharmapada.  This is because these are the ‘bite-sized’ sayings of the Buddha most of us have seen online.  However, the actual sermons of the Buddha are often much longer.  In Mahayana Buddhism, certain Mahayana sutras may be recited/chanted/written as part of the practice.
  • There are also a lot of other scripture and teachings (especially on the Mahayana side of the house), which provides the Buddha’s sermons/teachings, analysis/commentary, and rules for the monastics (and laypersons).

Step 3:  Start Practicing

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Now that you know why you want to be a Buddhist, and know what Buddhism is about, you are ready to start practicing.

This is a lifelong commitment, which you will be happy about despite the effort involved.  Why?  It is like you are in a slow-burning building…you want to get outside no matter what.  The alternative is to just sit there, and let the flames consume you (again, and again).

Practice is a central part of Buddhism, and includes faith in the teachings the Buddha taught:

Mahayana or Theravada? 

There are two main branches of Buddhism which are Theravada and Mahayana.

In Asian countries

Typically, which branch of Buddhism you follow, and practice depends on which country you were born in. 

For example, you are a Theravada Buddhist in Thailand, but a Mahayana Buddhist in Japan or China.  It is typically as clear cut as that, and often due to cultural reasons. 

For Western Buddhists, it gets more confusing.

In Western countries

With possibly every single type of Buddhist tradition being available in Western countries (to various degrees and locations), it can be hard to pick one. 

  • Traditionalists will often promote Theravada as the only true Buddhism to follow (due to the Pali Canon, which was the first to put the Buddha’s teachings into writing in Sri Lanka, is the oldest). 
  • Whereas Mahayana is promoted as being more accessible to laypersons (like you and me) and offering more variety (and while it varies between schools in Mahayana, they generally follow the Chinese Canon, which is the backbone of Mahayana). 
  • This is a purely personal choice, and while it is great to choose (compared to just following whatever is in your country), it can be overwhelming.

Which to Choose?

My advice is to start with whatever temple, group, or practice is around you that you feel comfortable with. 

  • The Buddha’s teachings are, for the most part, the same in Mahayana and Theravada. 
  • However, most westerners believe they must follow Theravada as the most “true” or “original” form of Buddhism. 
  • While Theravada is a fine school to practice in, Mahayana centered primarily around laypersons (non-monastics) and their daily lives (which is why it is the largest branch of Buddhism).   Several traditions, such as Pure Land, are very popular with laypersons.

Regardless, if you are just starting off just pick a place where you feel comfortable (and it’s fine to ‘shop’ around for a temple, teacher, etc., in the beginning…just make sure it is a reputable temple/school) and start learning about Buddhism. 

Threefold Training

Young monk reading. Image purchased for this website by artist vectorx2263 / shutterstock.com

Buddhist practice centers around three main ‘parts’:  Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation.  You have to practice all three of these (and for beginners, at least striving towards all three, of course) to be a Buddhist.

For example, just ‘meditating’, while neglecting morality and gaining wisdom, is not Buddhism at all.  My favorite book on the threefold training is “For All Living Beings – A Guide to Buddhist Practice” by Ven. Master Hsing Yun [Mahayana].

  • The Sangha (monastic community/teachers) are the ones that will help you with this threefold training (you don’t want to do this alone!).
  • The Threefold Training is important because it is what we follow on the Noble Eightfold Path that allows us to cut through delusions, desires, hatred, and attachments. 
  • Through it, we gain insight and wisdom, which allows us to become enlightened/awakened.  That in turn allows us to realize Nirvana, which allows us to stop creating Karma which has kept us in the cycle of rebirth (Samsara).  In short, it’s important for practicing Buddhists!

Supporting the Monastic Community (Sangha) and Others

Monastic and Laypersons. CC0 Photo by reginaphotos on Pixabay

A central part of Buddhism (explained in the last part of this guide) is taking ‘refuge’ in the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (monastic community). 

  • The Sangha are those who are on taking that ultimate next step by committing their life to realizing Nirvana through enlightenment.  And in the process, they help the lay community (you and me) in our path (especially with the Threefold Training as explained above). 
  • Supporting the monastics (and other people in our world!) also helps us generate wholesome Karma (and merits) as we are likely not going to achieve Nirvana in this lifetime, and we want these wholesome ‘seeds’ to be planted through our Karmic actions.
  • Your ‘harvest’ of crops (wholesome Karma [actions]) you are planting right now may not bloom during this lifetime, but with the right watering, fertilizer (yes our world is ‘smelly’, but with no mud/stink, we can’t grow!), and care…we can follow the Eightfold Path ‘easier’ in the future. 
  • If we don’t do this, we are going to keep getting stuck in the same old runt. 
  • Yes, we may have had it tough (or now are), but kindness and morality are something you have power of…you control that!  Now imagine if everyone was like that.  In many ways, there are countless people who do that and have made an impact in your life (and others) that are often subtle but profound.  The same is for our monastic community, as they can help guide you in generating this wholesome Karma that can help you long-term.

Note:  I mention you/we, but that is just ‘grease on the wheels’ with explaining this.  Now “Karma” is great when ‘wholesome’, because it helps us on this Eightfold Path towards Nirvana.  But when we get to realize Nirvana, it is so we generate NO Karma!  Karma, even wholesome Karma, keeps us trapped in the wheel of Rebirth and in the muddy waters of Dukkha.  But that’s not where we need to stay!  Wholesome Karma allows us to eventually ‘bloom’ when the conditions are right (much like the Lotus flower, which is used often in Buddhism, which spends its life in muddy waters, only to break the surface into a beautiful flower (perhaps becoming a monastic, etc.).  That’s what we are striving for, and not spending our lives in the muddiness of the muddy water (Dukkha/Samsara/Rebirth) because that is not where we are supposed to be. 

Step 4:  Deepen Your Understanding

Buddha in a Tree (cc0 photo via Pixabay)
 

Now that you are committed to becoming a Buddhist, you will undoubtedly want to read up on it.  Depending on what school/branch of Buddhism you wish to follow, there are plenty of books to get you started. 

Yes, you can go straight into reading ‘scripture’, but that can get you lost…fast.  Part of being a Buddhist is a Sangha (community of Monastics) to guide you, especially with scripture.  Trying to figure this all out for yourself is like getting on a boat and wanting to sail around the world without knowing how to operate a boat.  Having a monastic community, and teacher, is important.  Without further delay, here are the books that will be perfect for a new Buddhist to get you started:

Top Five Books (Mahayana and Theravada)

The following are my top five recommendations for new Buddhists, and includes a mixture of Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhism.

  1. Ven. Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught [Theravada]
  2. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings” (This is my top pick if you can only get one book initially) [Mahayana]
  3. Thubten Chodron’s “Buddhism for Beginners[Tibetan/Mahayana]
  4. Gary Gach’s “Idiot’s Guides:  Buddhism[All Schools]
  5. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Old Path, White Clouds:  Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha[Mahayana]

More Information:  To view all my book recommendations, including FREE resources, read my article here.

Theravada Specific Books

I am a practicing Mahayana Buddhist, so I enlisted the help of Venerable Sanathavihari Los Angeles with his recommendations of books for those who have decided to become Theravada Buddhists:

  1. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “The Noble Eightfold Path
  2. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s “In the Buddha’s Words
  3. Analayo Bhikkhu’s “Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhism

There are lots of concepts in Buddhism, and you are sure to run across them in these books and in scripture.  Check out my article about the “Numbers in Buddhism” which can be a handy reference for you.

Step 5:  Taking Refuge (Become an “Official” Buddhist)

 

The final step in becoming an ‘official’ Buddhist is to take refuge

This means refuge in the “Triple Gem” (“gem” is used to signify its importance, value, and worth in our practice and beliefs) which is the Buddha (teacher), the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (monastics/community).  Each one is interconnected with the other, so if you do not support or believe in one or more of these, then it will not make you a Buddhist (sorry).

Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is something you don’t just do once at some ceremony, but every day of your life.  Our commitment to staying on the path, and progressing, is in thanks to the Triple Gem.

More Information:  To learn more about the Triple Gem Refuge ceremony and becoming a Buddhist, read my article here.

The Ceremony

Alan’s (the author) Triple Gem Refuge and Five Precepts ceremony group picture at Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles, CA. (This was his second time taking the Triple Gem Refuge). Can you find Waldo (Alan)? 😉

Taking refuge is commonly called a “Triple Gem Ceremony“.  Many temples offer these once a year, or more. 

Often, they will have classes that you will need to attend so you understand what becoming a Buddhist means, and what the Triple Gem is all about.  This is a good thing, so you fully understand what becoming a Buddhist means.  But first, you need to find a temple and a Sangha (monastic community) for this!

  • First off, the ceremony is not the point…it is the taking of refuge in the Triple Gem which is important.  The ceremony has become a fixture in many schools/sects, but it wasn’t always that way (specifically with laypersons). 
  • Depending on your location, you might not even have a temple near you.  In cases such as that, yes you can take refuge without attending a ceremony, although you should participate in the future when possible. 
  • If you do live hear a temple, explore participating in a ceremony there.  While it varies between temples/groups/teachers, you are likely given information about what taking the Triple Gem means, some basic information on Buddhism, etc.
  • An important part of this ceremony is that it is done in public.  Sure, you can take refuge all alone in your home, but that is not the point nowadays.  Making a public (even if it’s a small temple/gathering) admission/display that you want to take refuge does a few things:  shows you are committed to the path, receive support from the monastics and the lay community, and strengthens your resolve through a public commitment.

Don’t worry about it being ‘public’…it is highly unlikely you will be broadcast on TV or anything like that on the evening news!  The ceremony itself will vary between schools/sects/temples, but often is very standardized, you will likely chant/read scripture, hear a Dharma talk, receive instructions/guidance, and more.  It’s not long, but gives you not only an ‘official’ start to your Buddhist life, but also shows you are not alone!  Take the time to talk with others and make some Dharma friends 🙂

Find a Temple

You should first find a Buddhist temple/group that matches your interest and where you feel comfortable.  This is a deeply personal choice, and thankfully you have many choices.

  • Buddhanet has a long-running list of temples and groups worldwide!  Check out the list here:http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/  (this may not be 100% complete or updated, depending on the information they get, but it can help.
  • The main Buddhist schools/branches are Theravada (practiced mainly in the southern Asian countries), and Mahayana (practiced mainly in the northern/eastern Asian countries).  There is also Tibetan Buddhism (the Dalai Lama is perhaps the person you think about when you hear the word ‘Buddhism’, and he is head of Tibetan Buddhism) and makes up the smallest percentage of Buddhists.
  • Talk to the monastic(s) there and express your interest in learning about their practice of Buddhism.  Often they will be more than willing to explain and show you around.  Mainly large Buddhist temples, such as Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles, feature English classes on Buddhism.

You are very likely entering ‘cultural’ Buddhism, so be aware of what that means.  With rare exceptions, you are going to experience monastics and temples that are not ‘American’ or ‘Western’.  Many will not even speak English or are limited.  This means they are based on Buddhism from another country, along with those cultural practices. 

  • For example, my refuge temple is Hsi Lai which practices Chinese Buddhism (Ch’an or Zen Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism).  As the largest temple in North America, they get their fair share of visitors and English-speaking Americans coming there, but their largest membership is Chinese speaking (especially from Taiwan) and the cultural events are specific to them. 
  • Most of these ceremonies mean nothing to me, even though they are interconnected with Buddhism (as practiced in Chinese Buddhism).  This can make you feel “apart” and uneasy at times.  Especially if chanting in a foreign language (some larger temples may have English speaking Dharma services, which is recommended), which can be too difficult for some. 
  • While some are ‘attracted’ to Buddhism because of the cultural differences (some may find Asian culture connects with them or is interesting), this is not required for Buddhism.  Because the majority of Buddhists, and Buddhism acceptance, is in Asian countries, that is where our temples and monastics come from (and we should be thankful they exist)!
  • My recommendation is to learn and enjoy these cultural differences, and you may even learn something!  However, do not feel you need to practice all those cultural traditions and/or fully embrace them.  While that can leave you ‘out’ as cultural traditions are often a ‘glue’ many countries have with their embrace of Buddhism, it is not central to the Buddha’s teachings.  The Buddha’s teachings are cultural/country-agnostic.

Congratulations!

Dhammakaya Pagoda, Thailand (CC0 via Pixbay)

This was a very high-level guide to becoming a Buddhist in a Western country. 

There are challenges with no ‘home-grown’ Buddhism in our countries, but there can also be tremendous opportunities for learning not only about Buddhism but of other countries and cultures. 

Because Buddhism talks about how we are all interconnected (dependent-origination), this is a side-benefit from not having a truly ‘Western’ form of Buddhism we can embrace.

Welcome to Buddhism, and congratulations on becoming a Buddhist! 🙏

Questions and Answers

I’m sure you still have some questions about becoming a Buddhist and practicing, so this next section is for you.  If there is a question or topic I didn’t cover in this article, please send me a message, or use the comments below.  I will update this article to flesh it out as your questions come in!

Is the Buddha a god? 

No.  The Buddha was a human just like any of us, who through his own effort and insight was able to become the Buddha (the enlightened one).  He never proclaimed otherwise, and in-fact said everyone had the same capacity that he had! 

While Buddhist lore tells about his mothers pregnancy, and his birth (which border on the supernatural and even heavenly), he was just a human. 

Further, Buddhist lore talks about his past lives (Jataka tales) where he was often an unenlightened Bodhisattva.  His efforts through those past lives, and the conditions of the life chosen where he was to become the Buddha, allowed him the perfect opportunity to become the Buddha of our era. 

A quick note when I say hist ‘past lives’ doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in Hinduism.  There is no ‘self’ in Buddhism, meaning only a stream of consciousness (essentially karmic actions) are what continue on.  What we think of as a ‘self’ right now is actually a combination of different things (known as the Five Aggregates) and how we lived (even our beliefs, tastes, views, body, hair, etc., are all conditioned).

Can I Also Practice Another/My Original Religion? 

Wait a minute (you might be saying), can I still practice my original/another religion?  The answer is generally ‘yes’, but with [big] caveats.

Without getting too deep (that would encompass an entire article which is coming!), you can be a Buddhist and also be practicing another religion (such as being a Catholic/Christian). There are plenty of Christians who are Buddhists, and Jews who are Buddhists (who have their own pretty neat name:  JuBu‘s). 

Because Buddhism does not have a central figure that is worshipped (the Buddha is a human being, not a god), there is not conflict with the Ten Commandments.  However, practicing two religions can be difficult, to say the least. 

First, are you willing to devote your time to practicing two religions? Attending Catholic/Christian mass/services and then also attending Buddhist services/meditation/chanting? Trying to read and understand scriptures from two religions? Yes, that is way more than what most people want to do, and then one religion becomes de-emphasized.

I personally found that I find a lot of similar teachings/paths/foundations between the two religions that has deepened my understanding and practice in life. Finally, Buddhism has some big “yeah, but” things in scripture. The Buddha worked hard to stay clear of a lot of metaphysical things because it was not focused on his teachings. Similar in a way where you would not get a history lesson in a math class, the Buddha just didn’t want to detract from his teachings. So the Buddha really didn’t answer questions like how the universe was made, and even to an extent about ‘gods’ (also factor in the Buddha lived in a region that is now India, so the Abrahamic God was not something he knew about).

Yet the Buddhist teaching of interdependence, dependent origination, and others, can cast doubts and raise confusion. Again, this is a topic of a longer article I am working on; however, I would say to anyone who is conflicted to simply remain in their current religion and make efforts for greater progress there.

Buddhism isn’t in a hurry (we’ve been at this for eons) and realizes that everyone is at different stages of the journey. Do good, do no harm, be a good person. Regardless of your religion, you can find that path there. Any future being that benefits from your (wholesome) karmic actions may feel Buddhism is right for them at that point! Remember, we are in no rush 🙂

Do I Have to Meditate?  Chant?  Practice?   

Meditation, among laypersons, is actually a fairly recent experience.  In the entire history of Buddhism, laypersons (you and me) did not meditate.  That was something the monastics did.  Laypersons often didn’t have time for such activities, and instead participated in ceremonies, chanting, and rituals that helped keep and develop their faith and practice, but only to a certain extent. 

Remember, most laypersons (even now in most Buddhist countries) aren’t hyper-focused on “Nirvana” like Westerners seem to be.  They are simply working on gaining ‘merit’/good ‘karmic’ actions, so their ‘next life’ allows them to progress.  And usually progressing means you may be in a better mental state/conditions/etc. to become a monastic where you can fully devote yourself to that. 

However, in Mahayana Buddhism, which is heavily layperson focused, the Bodhisattva path can be practiced by all.  It is recognized that we will be in this world of birth and death (Samsara) for a really long time. 

Our end goal is to (eventually) become a Buddha (not like the historical Buddha, of which there is only one per era in which we follow their teachings).  But our mission is to help liberate all sentient beings (such as, and primarily, humans) from suffering as Bodhisattvas.  You can do this right here and now even being unenlightened. 

There is even the Pure Land sect which follows chanting to Amida Buddha for rebirth in his Pure Land.  There is many “Buddha” [Pure] lands, and Amida is the most popular where you have assured conditions for realizing enlightenment.  While this does sound ‘heavenly’, it needs a little context.  It is true many(!) Buddhists do believe it is a place you go to, and while we can neither support nor refute that, many Buddhist teachers help focus their followers on making a sort of ‘pure land’ right in our present world for the benefit of all (make the world a better place, so to speak). 

Additionally, teachers like Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh has helped to illustrate that the Pure Land is actually a mental state, so it is no different than what the meditation schools offer.  In short, there are many ways to practice as a Buddhist layperson which are primarily influenced by the school/sect of Buddhism you decide to follow.  None are wrong, and all provide a “Dharma gate” to eventual enlightenment/wholesome karma/conditions for your progress on the path.

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This article is Copyright © by Alan Peto.
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