10 Steps to being a “Good” Convert Buddhist

by Justin Whitaker, Patheos.com, December 14, 2014

San Francisco, CA (USA) -- Many people who have ‘shopped around’ to various Buddhist groups have encountered some uncomfortable moments, “obstacles”, what feels like weird rituals or stuffy dogmas, odd teacher-student relationships (subservience, etc), and so on.

And then those folks go online, or if you meet them in person will tell face to face, that “Zen people are weird because….” or “I just could never do Tibetan Buddhism because…” or “Theravadins are so…” And out comes a litany of narrow-minded prejudices against a whole tradition or culture based on one or two experiences. Or a wiser and more tempered person will note that it is only based on a limited experience, “but still…” And then claims about the finer points of Buddhism follow and too often a completely cerebral and too often useless conversation ensues.


Just (mostly) for fun.

Here are some pointers on how to be a good convert Buddhist:

  • Participate. Can’t knock it ’till ya try it (this doesn’t apply to all things!). Actually spend some time with the group of choice. Get to know people. Ask questions. Follow instructions. Investigate. Test the tools they are handing you.
  • Listen. This can go under participate, but it deserves being restated. Most of us talk too much and listen too little. Listening requires you to be silent – this is good. This includes listening to those who have had bad experiences with Buddhism.
  • Take time. Don’t expect a particular night’s teachings to make perfect sense immediately. Don’t expect butterflies and rainbows after a few sits. If you find yourself saying “I don’t have time for this”, keep in mind that every tradition has a version of the advice “practice like you’re head’s on fire [because it is].” That’s not to say drop everything for your practice, but rather that the goal is to have your practice and your life become one. It’s okay to start with a mentality of “I practice X minutes a day/week” but soon enough you will (happily) notice that your practice is occurring spontaneously more and more throughout your day and life (happily, happily).
  • Accept ritual. Take a deep breath and tell yourself ‘ritual is okay.’ A lot of us have previous conditioning that makes us run at the first sight of anything ritualistic, so it’s also okay that certain activities give you the heeby-jeebies, just work with it. You might need to seek out a ‘low-ritual’ Buddhist group (Vipassana, in my experience), or you might really like ‘high-ritual’ groups (Tibetans). Sometimes what you need changes.
  • Learn a language or two. Okay, so this really isn’t essential, but it helps tremendously. There is a sense in which words really aren’t translatable.  So to be able to read texts in Japanese or Sanskrit will ‘transport’ you, so to speak, into the mindset of authors much better than even really good attempted translations. At least try to learn various meanings for key terms.
  • Be Open. What’s the old saying from elementary school teachers’ doors: “the mind is like a parachute…”? And the other one, “don’t be so open minded that your brain falls out.” Fair enough. Do your best to lie somewhere between utterly closed-minded and utterly naive. It’s a big area.
  • Be Accepting. You’ll screw up. Others will too. Many people come to Buddhism expecting all the practitioners to be warm, wise, and compassionate all of the time. Just a little experience will shatter this illusion, often leading to deep disappointment. I remember being gravely disturbed when I realized my first meditation teacher had a laptop. “Oh my god! How could he? Doesn’t the 1st precept ‘forbid’ (my mistaken understanding of the precepts) causing harm and aren’t laptops made in China where…” Oh my. I got over it. You have to accept that you’ll be judgmental too (paradoxical as it might seem). Our minds are conditioned to judge. When they go too far they move from discerning (good) to judgment (bad), but that’s a bigger topic. Just know that you’ll be judgmental and there will be a million and one things to ‘just let go’ of and/or accept (like Buddhists doing strange rituals).
  • Have fun. I almost left that out – woops. I suppose it’s fitting after 10 ‘thou shalts’ to have Have Fun (it’s on Moses’ third tablet, the one he dropped). Life is too short to be serious about everything! Life is too short to be serious about most things. Even if you live in/around the poverty line in the United States, as I technically do as a grad-student, you probably eat imported foods, enjoy hot baths/showers, sturdy walls over your head, bandit-free roadways, clean air and water, etc. Life for most all of you – if you have access to a computer to read this – is remarkably, fantastically good compared to the conditions in which the vast majority of human beings in history lived through. That’s not to say that life doesn’t suck sometimes, sometimes in very big ways, and sometimes we need to fight for change. But think of others first. Volunteer. Play. Be yourself (cf. #s 2,3,6, and 7).
  • Support others. In your Sangha, in your community, in your family, and so on. Be an advocate, an ally, an activist. There is much good in the world to be done. Do it.
  • Remember the importance of appearance. Black is Zen. Maroon is Tibetan or Burmese. Orange (Saffron) is Sri Lankan. If you mix those up, only Buddha knows what bad karma you will accumulate (cf. #s 4 and 8). Not to mention footwear - I have found this to be very important at Vipassana retreats: Birkenstocks are out, Tevas and Smartwool socks are in.  At the Zen hall, just wear what they tell you to wear – they have sticks and aren’t afraid to use them! At the Tibetan group, all rules go out: you can dress up in full Tibetan gear to show how enlightened you are, or your regular hippy clothes, or a suit and tie, it’s all the play of illusion anyhow. Heck, forget the other 9, if you can just get this down, you’ll win enlightenment over everyone else any day.

And here are three bonus steps for the intermediate level good convert Buddhist:

  • See that Buddhism is a Religion. Definitions like this are contentious. Okay. But at least by many people’s standards, Buddhism fits in the category of religion.
  • Beware Universalizing.
  • See that Buddhism is not a Religion. Again, it depends on your definitions, but I just had a chat with a very well-educated, highly-practiced Buddhist who said, “Buddhism is not a religion. Buddhism is psychology.” Okay. Religion literally means ‘that which binds [people together]‘. For some people, Buddhism does this. For others, not so much. For them Buddhism might be a psychology, a set of tools, an ethical system, a philosophy, etc, etc.

* ‘convert’ generally refers to those coming into the religion from a previously non-religious background or having held a faith other than Buddhism. It includes Asians, Africans, Europeans, Native Americans, etc who self-identify as having ‘converted’ to Buddhism (or to a particular branch of Buddhism if they were raised in another).

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