“You yourself must strive. The Buddhas only point the way.”
~ Shakyamuni Buddha
Congratulations! You want to become a Buddhist, and are now curious about where to start, what to do, and why. This article is your handy “quick start guide” to becoming an ‘official’ Buddhist.
Note: This guide (article) will be specifically speaking to those who do not live in a country that practices Buddhism on a large scale, but still would like to become a Buddhist. You will get my recommendations, opinions, and insight in how to become a Buddhist as a westerner. 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.
Article Summary (TL;DR)
I know you may not have a lot of time to read a long article (“too long; didn’t read”), so this summary can help. However it is best to read the entire article when you can!
- Westerners? Compared to Buddhism practices in Asian countries, where it is a known and accepted religion/teachings, it is still seen as a curiosity or ‘other’ religion in western countries. Western countries are defined broadly in this article as United States of America, Canada, Mexico, United Kingdom, Western Europe, etc., but can include any country where Buddhism is not a major religion. It is almost important that as a westerner, you do not get ‘caught’ (attached) to any possible preconcived notions of an ‘Asian’ religion. Buddhism is universal, but is now centered mostly in Southeast/Central/East Asian countries (although it started in the region where Nepal/India now reside). Because the temple(s)/teacher(s)/monastic(s) you will encounter come from these Asian countries (and also the other laypersons you will meet), be aware of cultural Buddhism. This means these temples often cater to the laypersons who come from, or are descended from, a particular country along with the nuances that Buddhism practices there. This can be jarring, confusing, and off-putting to a westerner. In-fact, you may not want to put up with all this ‘superstition‘. Hang on…while cultrual Buddhism plays a large role, and there is no home-grown “American” (or other) Buddhism, we can gain something great from this: understanding both another culture (which is always a good thing), and often the centuries of Buddhist influence that shaped these ceremonies and practices. Open your mind and heart to broaden your practice, but don’t feel you need to follow all the cultural practices or ceremonies (I don’t, but I at least give them a shot as you are part of that Buddhist community!).
- Why do you want to become a Buddhist? You need to have a good foundation and understanding of why you want to become a Buddhist. This includes understanding that Buddhism is not just “meditation”, “mindfulness”, and is not a “philosophy”, but is a religion that provides slavic (salvation) teachings to its followers. This includes knowing that something is ‘note quite right’ in your life (as defined by the Buddha in the Four Noble Truths), and that the Buddha’s teachings and practice (Buddha Dharma) that provide salvation from Dukkha appeal to you. Think of it this way, if you are in an elevator and someone asks you why you are a Buddhist…could you do so in that short amount of time?
- You have a general understanding of Buddhism. It is OK that you don’t have a deep understanding of Buddhism especially if you are just starting out. For any beginner, even in Asian countries, it is a learning experience. By gaining some fundamentals about the religion and teachings, understanding the scripture, and reading some beneficial books, are good ways to get started. Your teacher/temple will be the best place to build upon this foundation (click here to read an article about having a teacher, or not).
- Pick a school, but you can always transfer. If you lived in an Asian country, you likely would be following the ‘school’ of Buddhism that is most practiced, or one that is followed by your family. In many ways, it is no different than Christians and Muslims who practice the faith of their family and country. For westerners, it becomes very muddied on which to choose because of misconceptions and beliefs (the internet doesn’t help), and being told that one is better (or ‘truer’) than the other. Don’t worry about any of this at this stage. Pick a (reputable) temple/teacher and get started! A benefit of living in a western country is that you likely have various different schools/sects of Buddhism around you (or in the negative aspect, you likely don’t have any close by) to choose from and explore. All schools largely teach the same thing as the Buddha’s teachings are central between all of them. You can always ‘switch’ to another school/sect if needed.
- Take refuge, but don’t hide out in your house. When you are finally ready to become a Buddhist (no, just reading books doesn’t make you a Buddhist) you need to take ‘refuge‘ in the Triple Gem which is the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings/path), and the Sangha (the monastic community). If possible, attend at your temple who likely has a whole structure for this including teachings/introduction classes, a ceremony, and more. If you don’t have a temple where you can do this, taking refuge by yourself is fine, but don’t neglect taking this with a temple when you can. remember, the third jewel is the monastic community and as laypersons we support those who are taking that ultimate step on the path. In turn, they help us with understanding the Buddha Dharma and advancing on the path ourselves!
- You got questions, I have some answers. Read the last part of the article for some Q&A such as: Can you still practice your current religion as well? (sort of/it’s complicated), Was the Buddha a ‘god’? (nope, and he didn’t claim to be either), Is there a Buddhist Bible? (no, but there are ‘canons’ of Buddhist scripture…which is a whole other article, however most Buddhist laypersons typically perform chanting), Do I have to meditate/chant/etc? (meditation by laypersons is a fairly recent phenomena…most laypersons do not meditate, as it is a monastic practice, but instead chant/recite sutras).
What is a “Westerner”, and Why This Article?
Living in the ‘West’ (meaning Western countries where Buddhism is not a main religion, such as the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Germany, France, etc.) is more of a challenge for someone to be a Buddhist.
This is especially true for those who have no connection to the Asian countries where Buddhism flourishes. Since many temples and Buddhist groups focus largely on their cultural connections and membership, it can be a difficult transition to become a “Western” Buddhist.
This guide gives you some tips specifically for those of us living in the West so we can start, and thrive, as Buddhists! As a Buddhist living in the ‘West’, this will include many of my own opinions of 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!
Why Do You Want to be a Buddhist?
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
Before you “become” a Buddhist, you should sit down and think (or better yet write out) why you want to be a Buddhist. The quote by the Dalai Lama shown above is a great example. As Buddhists, we are in this for the long haul (especially Mahayana Buddhists)!
Think of finding out why you want to be a Buddhist to be almost 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. The Buddha could have been easily discouraged in the beginning, but his inner determination was resolved.
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’, 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. Note that it is OK to be “learning” about Buddhism at this stage (the Buddha, in-fact, encouraged everyone to make up their own mind through firsthand experience), but you should also have enough to know that this is the ‘path’ you wish to take and agree with it:
- You Know Something is “Off” in Life: 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 roughly 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’.
- The Buddha’s Path Appeals to You: 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, be truly happy by discovering our natural state (Nirvana), and stop creating unwholesome and/or negative actions (Karma) that is leading to rebirth (this is NOT the same as the western interpretation of reincarnation).
- This May Take a While: 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).
- Yes, It *IS* a Religion (and *not* a “Philosophy”): Not only does Buddhism “interest” you, but is something you want to explore and follow religiously.
- Determination: 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 some degree. Also, without actually seeing the Buddha (he has since passed away 2,600 years ago), it is hard to see the living example. Therefore, there is faith we put in to the Buddha’s teachings, and that of the monastic community which helps us understand them.
- 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. After learning what rebirth is really about, you should find it is not that foreign of a concept. Rebirth happens moment by moment, and also at the point we “cease” in this current form. Understanding the Five Aggregates, Dependent Origination, Impermanence, and Karma are foundational to helping remove doubt so you can move forward on the path.
- 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. While the reasons can vary, some may not want “another” religion to be part of and feel Buddhism is “scientific” and doesn’t need all that ‘religion’ stuff (and sometimes chalk it up to cultural). Rebirth plays a central role in this debate as something that cannot be easily proven, and is also often confused with the western interpretation of reincarnation. Again, Buddhism without rebirth/samsara is not the Buddhism that the Buddha taught. If you just want to practice meditation/mindfulness, your ultimate ‘goal’ is likely different than the Buddha’s salvific teachings.
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 guide you, I have some articles and explanations here that can get you started:
- What is Buddhism and Who was the Buddha? 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). 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). This is why he 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 on after death…this is not the same as 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).
More Information: To learn more about the Buddhist Scripture, read my article here.
Now that you know why you want to be a Buddhist, and know what Buddhism is all 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 in 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 the Western Buddhist, it gets more confusing.
- In Western countries: With virtually every single type of Buddhism being available in Western countries (to various degrees and locations), it can be hard to pick. 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 actually choose (compared to just following whatever is in your country), it can be overwhelming.
- Which to Choose? My advice is 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). 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. I have transitioned between the branches and schools to where I am today.
- The Difference: The biggest difference (apart from the Arhat and Bodhisattva paths) is that there are additional scripture (Sutras) in Mahayana, and Mahayana focuses more on laypersons. The benefit to having both Theravada and Mahayana is that both branches (schools) have been able to preserve different teachings better than the other. There were once many schools, and their various interpretation of the teachings, but eventually went away. We have the Theravada and Mahayana canons of scripture to give us a wonderful, and unique, ability to gain additional perspectives on the Buddha’s teachings. I have been in both branches of Buddhism, and routinely read and listen to teachers on both sides. There is absolutely no downside when it comes to the teachings/Dharma! However, the beginning Buddhist should primarily focus on one school with a good teacher and go from there.
- More Information: To learn more about the two branches of Buddhism, read my article here.
- Threefold Training: 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: 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. 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.
- Buddhism believes in something called non-self, which means you do not have an independent self and are made up of “five aggregates” which are a temporary grouping that makes you…”you”. You’re done after any one of those aggregates goes away. But the thing that continues on is those seeds…your actions (Karma)…which are planted in something we call a ‘store’ consciousness. That’s the only thing that continues on after death in this endless cycle of rebirth. Not only do you want to plant these ‘good seeds’ so the ‘next’ being that comes into existence can benefit from it, but also wouldn’t it be nice if you had support in this life…right now? That’s what we are doing for the monastics, and others. 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 to generating this wholesome Karma that can help you long-term.
Deepen Your Understanding
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.
- Ven. Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught“ [Theravada]
- 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]
- Thubten Chodron’s “Buddhism for Beginners” [Tibetan/Mahayana]
- Gary Gach’s “Idiot’s Guides: Buddhism” [All Schools]
- 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:
- 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.
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 it’s 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).
- The Ceremony: 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 are 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.
Taking refuge in the Triple Gem is something you don’t just do once at some ceremony, but everyday of your life. Our commitment to staying on the path, and progressing, is in thanks to the Triple Gem.
This was a very high-level guide of 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.
- 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 also 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, actually 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 hyperfocused 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 are many “Buddha” [Pure] lands, and Amida is the most popular where you are 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 or 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.
- Article’s Main Featured Photo: Photo copyright by vectorx2263 (shutterstock.com) and purchased for this website.
- Thank You: To Venerable Sanathavihari Los Angeles for his assistance with this article and book recommendations for Theravada.
- Further Reading: My collection of articles on the basics of Buddhism, and my article Buddhism a Quick Intro. Many of my articles are linked in the article above.