How to be a Good Convert Buddhist

My thanks to Adam (of Home Brew Dharma) for pointing me to NellaLou at Smiling Buddhist Cabaret who has a great article (or should I say novella) today that begins by noting:

Nathan at Dangerous Harvests wrote a post “Is Convert Buddhism too Clubby and Exclusive?”  based on a post titled what gets in the way? by Peter at living and dying with eyes wide open.

The string of thought, as she mentions, flows around convert Buddhists trying to figure out what’s going on in their chosen places of meditation. 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:
  1. Participate. Can’t knock it ’till ya try it (this doesn’t apply to all things!). But 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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” (cf. #8 below), keep in mind that every tradition (that I know of) 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).
  4. Ritual is Okay. This overlaps with the next one a bit, but just take a deep breath before you go 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 want 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. 
  5. Buddhism is a Religion. See #6. Definitions like this are contentious. Okay. But at least by many people’s standards, Buddhism fits in the category of religion.
  6. Beware Universalizing.
  7. Buddhism is not a Religion. Right. 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, Buddhism does just this. For others, not so much. For them Buddhism might be a psychology, a set of tools, an ethical system, a philosophy, etc etc.
  8. Learn a language or two. Okay, so this really isn’t essential, but I think 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Be Accepting. You’ll screw up. Others will too. Many people come to Buddhism expecting all the practitioners to be warmsy-hugsy all the time and wise and compassionate and then one little crack in the projection occurs and disappointment sets in. 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/trainings) causing harm and aren’t laptops made in China where…” Gadzooks. I got over it. You kind of 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 (cf. #4 above).
  11. 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 2,3,9, and 10).
  12. Support others. In your Sangha, in your community, in your family, and so on.
  13. Remember the importance of appearance. Black is Zen. Red is Tibetan. Orange (Saffron) is Theravadin. If you mix those up, only Buddha knows what bad karma you will accumulate (cf. #s 4, 11). Not to mention footwear - very important at Vipassana retreats – Birkenstocks are out, Tevas and Smartwool socks are in.  Hell, forget the other 12, if you can just get this down, you’ll win enlightenment over everyone else any day.
Okay. So I drifted from somewhat reverent information to total nonsense. Good. Now I can get back to academic work. Oh, and did I miss anything? Perhaps, be Respectful? Know when to argue and when to Accept? Oh yea. Work.
* ‘convert’ generally refers to those coming into the religion (cf #5) 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). (cf. #s 6,7).

100 Arrested in India in pro-Tibet Rally
Dharmapunx teacher Josh Korda on Buddhism, psychology, mindfulness, and his upcoming retreat
The Karmapa is coming to America
Responding to Pat Robertson’s comment that a Christian could ‘get infected by’ Buddhism [Video]
  • Mumon

    Socks are in in Vipassana retreats?Gadzooks, we go barefoot in my temple as that's what Soen Roshi learned from his travels in Theravada-land…Seriously, good advice…especially visit other temples…I try to do that often; and I've found they're universally friendly as long as you're respectful…even the Tibetan ones (both Chinese Tibetan and Tibetan Tibetan).

  • NellaLou

    Good post Justin. Your suggestions are very helpful. They could also be applied to those who travel abroad for study/retreats. Many people come to India for that and start complaining right off. I'd make another suggestion for that. Let the jet lag wear off before you try to decide or judge anything.It has been my experience that the majority of people are generally good and welcoming anywhere (country or temple). But before going in with a "big personality" and trying to fill the place up with that give others a chance. (The novella may be a serial…)I read a good quote the other day… "the right to speak is a call to the duty of listening" – Pierre lacout, a modern Quaker dude via @amandapalmer on TwitterThanks for the mention.

  • d.sullivan

    Great post! It was especially meaningful for me to read right now, because I just joined a Lam-Rim study group. I figured it was about time I shut up, stop judging other peoples practices, and give them a fair chance. Also, taking a fair look at the lam-rim teachings, I'm pretty sure I'm going to benefit from actually taking it seriously and trying it!I'll write again in a little while to tell you how my experiments with a "high-ritual" tradition have gone.

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Mumon – ah-ha! But Vipassana is *not* Theravada :) Or at least, not exactly. And yes, the Theravada-land people live in generally hot climates – socks no good – while I live in freezing-cold Montana – the better yours socks, the faster the awakening :)"even the Tibetan ones"? – hehe. NellaLou, Thanks. Yea, I even had the thought that the advice could be applied to pretty much anything in life – one of those "everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten" things :)Thanks for bringing up jet lag. As I accompany a group of students to India for fall semester this year I'll definitely keep that in mind.For sure, 'Humility' could be added to the list. Most (I hope) Americans who travel to India are pretty open minded and thoughtful to begin with, but surely there are those exceptions that create the 'ugly American (/Westerner)' stereotypes.Ahhh, I had thought the days of the serial novella were gone :) Looking forward to future installments.Dasan, thanks to you too for the comment and kind words. Lam Rim was one of my first experiences with 'Buddhist Philosophy' and it was love at first Lam, so to speak. I can still recite most of the refuges in Tibetan if I hear it. From my experience, Lam Rim groups will actually be on the low-ritual side, whereas if they invite you a Tsok or Sadhana you'll experience full-on ritual.

  • Samuel

    Justin – any advice for the nervousness associated with being new?For example, the nearest meditation place is a Zen Hall. I know Zen is all about being strict and orderly and such – and so it freaks me out that I am going to make a mistake and the abbess is going to go Shao-lin on me!Another part…. they cater to an immigrant community for the religious services – what if I'm the only gringo and it's all in Chinese? I'm okay with that – but I just have the fear of doing something wrong.And last – being a student, parent, spouse, add X number of duties – they have a set in stone class schedule divided between beginner, intermediate, and advanced – and every semester they change as I change, and I'm never completing one class or another…. and I'm afraid to just randomly show up – but worried if I never just go when I can that I will never go!I hope I'm making sense.I should have e-mailed but I figure new converts might have a similar experience/feeling.As for now I'm just going to stop by once a week during their open hours to start making a meditation habit to replace the nicotine one I just dropped.Amituofo! (or is it Amitabha! Or Amida! Yipes!)

  • [ j i m m y ]

    for a very early beginner like me, this introduction sounds amazing. can't wait to experience it all. cheers

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Heya Sam. Thanks for posting here as I think you're right about others having similar questions/experiences. I hope others will provide some advice based on their knowledge, but the first thing that jumped out at me was "I know Zen is all about…" Drop you're 'knowing' what zen is all about (and you'll be surprised by what you learn). One of the least strict, least orderly groups (in a good, fun-spirited way) that I've practiced with was a Zen group.If you're the only non-Chinese person there, take a deep breath and have fun with it. More soon.

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    … On the nervousness aspect? I've got nothing here. As a sufferer of massive amounts of anxiety myself, when new, old, and most places in between, all I can advice is MORE meditation :) So having stress around meditation itself seems like quite a conundrum. That said, you might find that they don't meditate much, or at least not in the 'sit and be quiet' way that we often expect.Perhaps go in with the 'participant observation' mode of thought. Bring a notebook. Try to learn some words. Ask for literature (most temples have some free chanting guides that they are more than happy to give you). If you look lost, no doubt someone will (hopefully) come up with a smile and offer to help.In a way you are wonderfully lucky to have a group nearby that you are completely unfamiliar with to explore because you will learn soooo much more than if you met up with a couple fellow college-aged people to discuss the latest Jack Kornfield book. Ahh! Me Tofu :)

  • Samuel

    I'm just going to start showing up whenever the opportunity avails…. I know nuns don't shake hands, but the abbess shook some visitors hands once…. and I think both parties involved were okay afterwards.I think it's a lot like running. Starting and getting in a routine is easy. Getting out of routine is easy too. Getting back into routine once you've been out is hard – and all the hardness is in the mind!

  • G

    Pointer Number 14: Be mindful.

  • Kyle

    Excellent post Justin, a lot of good advice. If you wouldn't mind I would like to link this post to the sitting group I started. These tips are something I think every beginner would benefit from.

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Samuel, I always dig a good running analogy.Good one, G. Should be #1.Kyle, I'd be honored to have you send this around. I gotta say I thought of you a bit on my last retreat any time I got a kick out of the silly little quirks of various Vipassana practitioners. I thought a sequel to "Couple's Retreat" (haven't seen it) could be based around a couple going to a Meditation retreat… anywho, major tangent.

  • Chong Go Sunim

    Great advice! Like Mumon says, you will screw up! But if you're sincere, everyone will understand.My first visit to a Korean temple, for a talk by a major teacher, I was wearing my zen center-style dark shorts and t-shirt, with sandals and no socks. Meanwhile, all of the Koreans were dressed to the nines in suits and dresses! I still cringe a bit when I see video from that talk!

  • peter

    Justin, I enjoyed your list and the comments that followed. the thing that tripped me up was the word (1) "convert" … and (2) "good" for that matter. My understanding and experience tells me that — in Soto Zen, at least — (1) is not expected, even discouraged and (2) does not apply as there is neither good nor bad/poor.