“If one desires to become a Buddhist, there is no initiation ceremony (or baptism) which one has to undergo.” – Walpola Raula 1
“After you become Buddhist, you must not show disrespect to others’ tradition, particularly your own previous tradition.” – His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama 2
This one comes up a lot on social media and generally initiates all kinds of responses. What is important for newcomers to first understand is that just as with religious orders they may be familiar with, many of the various Buddhist tradition have formal procedures for accepting both lay and ordained (monastic) practitioners. There are also Secular Buddhists who have who do not engage in traditional ceremonies or rituals and thus no formal process. And for lay practitioners, particularly Westerners like myself, whether we follow any particular tradition or not, we “become” Buddhist simply by self-identification.
The self-identification path aside, traditionally one becomes a lay Buddhist by “going for refuge to the triple gem” and taking the “lay precepts”. Going for refuge consists of accepting the Buddha as your teacher, the Dhamma (or Dharma) as the teachings that you will follow, and the Sangha (the collective body of monks, nuns and lay practitioners, both male and female, known as the “fourfold sangha”) as your spiritual community.
To go for refuge, whether formally in a temple or informally in one’s own home, going for refuge consists of reciting the following, with this intention to living your life in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching:
Buddham saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to the Buddha)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to the Dhamma)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I go for refuge to the Sangha)
Intention here is as important as the act itself. In a recent Lion’s Roard article, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpcohe said,
In the Buddhist tradition, the purpose of taking refuge is to awaken from confusion and associate oneself with wakefulness. Taking refuge is a matter of commitment and acceptance and, at the same time, of openness and freedom. By taking the refuge vow we commit ourselves to freedom.3
The Dalai Lama takes the this even further, stating that when you go for refuge, you should “cultivate the appropriate state of mind and intention” and envision your own future buddhahood”.4
The same principle applies to taking the five lay precepts, whether you take these formally or simply by reciting them to yourself, it is the intention that is critical. The five precepts are:
- To refrain from taking life or causing others to take life
- Refraining from stealing (literally taking that which is not freely given)
- Refraining from sexual misconduct
- Refraining from lying
- Refraining from taking intoxicants
These precepts are not externally imposed commandments handed down by the Buddha. Instead they are voluntary commitments that you make, with some faith in the believe that your actions have consequences (i.e. the doctrine of karma), along with an attitude toward harmlessness and the renunciation of the pursuit of self-destructive sensual pleasures. For more on going for refuge and taking the precepts in the Theravada, see Bhikkhu Bodhi’s detailed explanation at Access to Insight.
While formal ceremony may serve a valuable role in reinforcing and publicly displaying one’s acceptance of Buddhism, ultimately it is the commitment and sustained effort to follow the Buddhist path that leads to favorable results.
As Dr. Walpola Rahula notes in What the Buddha Taught,
1Walpula Raula. “What the Buddha Taught”; A Handful of Leaves, http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/What%20the%20Buddha%20Taught_Rahula.pdf.
2“Atisha’s Lamp – Part 1”; LamRim.com, http://www.lamrim.com/archive/hhdl/mp3/16k/02.05.20-HHDL-16k-HH_Dalai_Lama-Lamp_for_the_Path-01.mp3.
3“The Decision to Become a Buddhist”; Lions Roar, https://www.lionsroar.com/the-decision-to-become-a-buddhist/.
4“Atisha’s Lamp – Part 1”; LamRim.com, http://www.lamrim.com/archive/hhdl/mp3/16k/02.05.20-HHDL-16k-HH_Dalai_Lama-Lamp_for_the_Path-01.mp3.
5Walpula Raula. “What the Buddha Taught”, pp. 80-81; A Handful of Leaves, http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/What%20the%20Buddha%20Taught_Rahula.pdf.
Hopefully this has been helpful in answering the question, “How do I become a Buddhist?” If you’re interested in formally taking the precepts or are just looking for a local Buddhist organization to support your practice, BuddhaNet has a robust World Buddhist Directory you may find helpful.
If you’re interested in learning more about what it means to be a Buddhist, and particularly a lay Buddhist, I recommend taking a look at Chapter VIII of What the Buddha Taught, beginning on page 78, where he discusses the Buddha’s advice to a young lay practitioner. For a deeper look at core Buddhist values and practices, turn to Chapter V, beginning on page 45, which provides an excellent explication of the Eightfold Noble Path that the Buddha taught as the way to liberation from suffering and the beginingless cycle of rebirth (samsara).