Can you convert to Buddhism?

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

The term "conversion" is probably not perfectly suited to Buddhism, which offers a path that the practitioner follows freely, by choice, and which does not seek to convince, by threat or by force if necessary, of the absolute superiority of his doctrine.

The fact remains that the life of the Buddha includes a considerable number of episodes of “conversion”. Some are unexpected and sometimes comical, others particularly edifying. Some are quite classic and echo the questions that launched the young Siddhartha in his quest.

Yaças, the first layman to take the decisive step by taking the monastic vestment, is the perfect example. Coming from a very wealthy family in Varanasi, Yaças is not satisfied with the easy life offered to him. His steps take him one day to the place where the Buddha resides, who teaches him the doctrine and receives him as a disciple. But his parents and his wife notice his absence. Traveling around the city in search of him, his father discovers his son's sandals, abandoned on the bank of a stream. Imagining the worst, he panics. But fate leads him to the Buddha. At first, the latter uses his powers to hide the new monk from the eyes of his relatives, until their minds calm down and become receptive. He can then teach them the doctrine.

This first conversion is of great importance for several reasons. First, because Yaças' parents and his wife very formally became the first lay members of the community. On the other hand, because by inviting the Buddha and his monks to come and have the next day's meal in their residence, they are laying together the foundations of a tradition that is now well established, which authorizes religious to accept the invitation of a layman to come and have a meal at home.

The Buddha and the three Kaçyapa

Another example. It is in the vicinity of Uruvilva, the very place of Awakening, that one of the most spectacular conversions reported by the texts takes place. Three renowned ascetics, all answering to the name of Kâçyapa and usually presented as followers of a cult of fire, then resided in the surroundings, with their disciples who numbered in the hundreds. Several sources report that the Buddha first multiplied wonders. Successively receiving the visit of several Hindu gods who came to listen to his teachings and whose brilliance disturbs the nights of our renouncers. Walking on the water to meet one of the three ascetics, who came to rescue him in a boat, believing him to be threatened by a flood. Spending an entire night in a hut haunted by a terrifying snake which he fights with fire and water before emerging in the morning, carrying the reptile obediently coiled in his alms bowl... A final interview finally convinces the elder of the Kâçyapa who asked the Buddha to accept him as a disciple, immediately imitated by some 500 renouncers who until then had considered him as their master. The news of this unexpected conversion spreads and the prestige which already haloed the Buddha increases considerably.

By inviting the Buddha and his monks to come and take the next day's meal in their residence, the parents of Yacas together laid the foundations of a tradition that is now well established, which authorizes religious to accept the invitation of a layman to come and have a meal at his house.

A little later, the Buddha returned, for a short stay, to the city of his princely childhood, Kapilavastu, and the now booming community was enriched by new members, and not the least: his father, King Shudhodhana, his own son the young Rahula who became the first novice in the history of Buddhism, as well as a number of his cousins. One of them, Ananda, jumps for joy when he is chosen to take the robe, by virtue of a royal decree obliging any family with more than two sons to give one of their younger children to the community. With unparalleled altruism, Ananda became the Buddha's closest disciple.

Nanda, ordained a monk in spite of himself

The conversion of the handsome Nanda is, for its part, infinitely more picturesque and shows that the Buddha can, on occasion, be particularly cunning. Nanda is married, very much in love with his wife, and nothing destined him for a monastic career. Having been invited to take his meal at his place, the Buddha leaves the place, opportunely “forgetting” his alms bowl. The young man rushes after him to return the object, but is reluctant to disturb him, noting that the Buddha seems to be deep in thought. He thus allows himself to be dragged out of the city and it is only near the garden in which the Buddha and his monks have taken up residence that his presence is noticed. Without giving him time to explain himself, the Buddha marvels at his supposed religious zeal and has him ordained on the spot. Here is Nanda who has become a monk in spite of himself. A very bad monk who longs for the charms of his beauty. The Buddha then drags her into the sky of the god Indra to reveal to him the divine beauty of the celestial nymphs, and Nanda is forced to recognize that his wife, however attractive she may be, cannot stand the comparison. He therefore shows an unexpected zeal in his practice, but one quickly realizes that his only goal is to obtain a rebirth among the nymphs. But Nanda finally becomes a monk worthy of his title.

This diversity prefigures in a certain way that of the new practitioners who, coming from non-Buddhist backgrounds, join the community today.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

Leave comments