The term ‘religious conversion’ refers to adopting a new religious identity or changing from one religious identity to another.
There is no specific word for conversion in Buddhism. However, in the Majjhima Nikāya a new convert described himself as having ‘gone over to the discipleship’ (sāvakattaṃ upagato) of the Buddha (M.I,380).
From the very beginning the Buddha saw his Dhamma as an alterative to the existing religious beliefs.
He instructed his very first disciples to teach the Dhamma far and wide (Vin.I,120). The early Buddhists’ enthusiasm for doing this is well illustrated by Āḷavaka’s avowal: ‘I shall go from village to village, from town to town, praising the Buddha and the Dhamma so excellently taught by him.’ (Sn.192).
From the time of the Buddha himself right up to today people both express their intention to become Buddhists and mark their entry into the Buddhist community by taking the three Refuges (Tisaraṇa) – ‘I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dhamma. I take refuge in the Sangha.’
This statement is repeated for a second and then a third time as a reaffirmation of the person’s sincerity and commitment. But what are or should be the things that lead someone to convert to Buddhism?
In the scriptures almost all those depicted as being converted by the Buddha did so as a result of listening to what he had to say. In some cases the Buddha would start by asking the inquirer about his or her beliefs and then present his own Dhamma.
In other cases a person would request the Buddha to explain what he taught, ask a few questions for clarification, accept what had been said and then express the desire to become one of his disciples. In all these cases, the main reason for converting seems to have been a combination of intellectual satisfaction with the Dhamma and being impressed by the Buddha’s personality and behaviour.
King Pasenadi specifically cited his reasons for approving of Buddhism as the exemplary behaviour of the Buddha and his monks and nuns, their disciplined lifestyle, their moral integrity and the fact that the Dhamma seemed to make them happy (M.II,120-4).
There are no examples in the scriptures of anyone converting to Buddhism as a result of having been witness to a miracle. In fact, the Buddha clearly disapproved of miracle-induced conversions.
Someone once asked him to perform a miracle or a psychic feat so that ‘even more people will have faith in you’ (D.I,211). He refused this request, saying that intelligent people might well suspect that such ‘miracles’were actually due to trickery or magic.
There are also no examples of people converting for the reasons commonly done in the major theistic religions – fear that the world is about to end, anxiety about the prospects of going to hell or because of guilt and remorse. Cathartic conversions at the end of a long period of inner struggle or emotional turmoil do not occur either.
In some cases mentioned in the Tipiṭaka, people converted to Buddhism after only a brief encounter with it or only a basic knowledge of it.
While the Buddha accepted such people as disciples it is clear that he thought it better to know the Dhamma well and explore it carefully before deciding to convert.
The conversion from Jainism to Buddhism of Upāli Gahapati, a general and leading citizen of Nāḷandā, illustrates the Buddha’s attitude on this matter.
After a long discussion in which the Buddha highlighted some of the weaknesses in Jainism, Upāli asked to be accepted as a disciple. In reply to this request the Buddha said: ‘Make a careful investigation Upāli.
It is appropriate for well-known people like yourself to make a careful investigation first.’ (M.I,379). Upāli insisted that he knew what he was doing and repeated his request. The Buddha then made a request to Upāli. ‘For a long time your family has given alms to the Jains. Continue giving them alms when they come.’
Upāli was impressed by the Buddha’s magnanimity. ‘I have heard it said you teach that alms should only be given to you and your disciples, not to others; that only donations made to you and your disciples are meritorious, not those made to others. But you encourage me to continue giving to the Jains.’
Upāli promised that he would continue supporting his former religion, again asked to become a disciple and was finally accepted as such by the Buddha.
The Buddha’s request to Upāli about the Jains in part answers the question of what the new Buddhist’s attitude to their former faith should be. Conversion to the main theistic religions usually requires a complete break with, even a strong repudiation of, one’s former faith.
The Buddha was open enough to acknowledge that other religions may well have elements of truth in them and teach sound ethical values.
This being so, he was not wholly critical of all other religions and did not require religious exclusivity from his followers.
This accommodating rather than exclusive attitude to other beliefs has meant that Buddhists have sometimes allowed superstitions and false notions to creep into their religion. On the good side, it has also meant that intolerance, sharp divisions between different religious communities, the unseemly scramble to ‘win’ converts and all the ill-will and jealousy which accompany such things, have not generally been features of Buddhist societies.