Converting to Buddhism is primarily a personal, mental action that is supported by a community.
We become a Buddhist when we acknowledge the Buddha as our fully enlightened teacher, his Dhamma teachings as our guide to happiness, and the Sangha as his fully enlightened disciples who followed that Dhamma to its final goal.
Officially, we do this by reciting the Three Refuge privately or publicly. If done publicly it can be recited by repeating after a monk, a nun, or a trusted lay teacher.
Usually we agree to follow the five lay precepts at the same time.
What we now call the international Buddhist flag was created in the late nineteenth century. It represents the six colours of the Buddha’s aura, the light that could radiate from his body when he chose. The sixth color is called pabbhassara. This is often considered to be a combination of the other five. Sometimes it is translated as pure radiance.
We find a mention of the colours in the Buddha’s aura in the story of the miracles he performed in the town of Uruvela, shortly after his enlightenment. (Although the list of colours is slightly different.) The following is the version of the story in verse (Angirasa is another name for the Buddha):
Near the Nerañjarā, the Lord
spoke thus to the matted hair ascetic Uruvelākassapa:
“If it is not inconvenient to you, Kassapa,
let me stay this day (only) in the fire-hall.”
“It is not inconvenient to me, great recluse,
(but) as I am anxious for your comfort I warn you
that there is a fierce serpent king there,
of psychic power, a terribly venomous snake.
Do not let him harm you.”
“It is not likely that he can harm me.
Please do you, Kassapa, allow (me the use of) the fire-room.”
“It is given”; having understood this,
the fearless one entered, fear overpassed.
Having seen that the holy man had entered,
the chief of snakes, afflicted, blew forth smoke.
The chief of men, joyful, unperturbed,
blew forth smoke there too.
But the chief of snakes, not conquering anger,
blazed up like a fire.
The chief of men, highly proficient in the condition of heat,
blazed up there too.
When both were in flames,
the matted hair ascetics, as they were looking at the fire-room, said:
“Beautiful indeed is the great recluse,
(but) he will be harmed by the serpent.”
Then at the end of that night
the serpent’s flames became extinguished,
but the multicoloured flames of him of psychic power remained,
and multicoloured flames, dark green,
then red, crimson, yellow and crystal-coloured
were on Angirasa’s body.
Having put the chief of snakes into his bowl,
he showed him to the brahmin, saying:
“This, Kassapa, is your serpent,
his heat was mastered by heat.”
Mahakhanda, Vinaya Pitaka
When you become a Buddhist, it doesn’t involve joining a group or becoming part of a “people”.
For example, when you convert to Judaism you become part of the Jewish people. When you become a Christian you are part of the body of Christ. Many Christians believe that God works specifically through the group.
In Buddhism, conversion is really a personal matter and there is no need to join a group. In traditional Buddhist countries people don’t think of themselves as members of the local temple. They have a relationship with the temple, but it is as a supporter and participant. In western countries, Buddhist temples or groups usually maintain a membership to meet legal requirements.
When a Buddhist becomes a fully ordained monastic then they become part of a group known as the Sangha. This involves an official procedure that requires members of the Sangha accepting you into the group.
Buddhist organizations in the west often use different words to describe themselves. Here are some common terms explained.
Temple is by far the most common word used for organizations that include monastics. It might mean that the focus of the place is on offering spiritual services to the lay community.
Monastety definitely indicates there are monastics. Often there is is a focus on seclusion and they may be located a bit farther away from population centers. Sometimes they offer guest accommodations.
Community is an ambiguous term that may be used in an effort to sound “normal” and may mean that monastics are either not involved or have only a guest role.
Meditation center may indicate that part or all of the focus is on meditation. There may be organized retreats and overnight accommodation. Often they are affiliated with or are a part of a monastery.
Many older Buddhist organizations included this in their name instead of “temple” to avoid social stigma. Some, however, actively promote things such as dance, music, or language allong side Buddhist teachings.
There’s many other terms you might see as well, sometimes in combination with the ones above.
Vihara is the Pali word for dwelling and is often part of the name of Sri Lankan temples.
Society serves a similar purpose as “community”
Wat is the Thai word for temple or monastery.
Hermitage is usually interchangeable with monastery, although it might be more secluded.
Abbey and priory are English terms for monasteries, an Abbey usually being larger.
Sangha is Pali word that refers to a group of monastics or fully enlightened disciples. However in a group name it often just refers to a group of lay people.
Yes, yes. A thousand times yes. Most places don’t even have the concept of member, let alone require you to be one to participate.
For the most part, people living in western countries who are from Buddhist cultures are really excited to meet converts. Monks and nuns especially love to see people who have made a conscious choice to become Buddhists, just as they have made a conscious choice to become monastics.
Every temple or monastery will have a certain “culture” that you will need to adapt to, even if most people there are themselves converts. Learning to fit in is part of being a good guest and will ensure you get as much benefit as possible. Do your homework and people will surely forgive any initial faux-pas.
Your turn… Did you have apprehensions about visiting a temple or monastery for the first time? How did it work out?
The majority of temples and monasteries in non-Buddhist countries are supported almost exclusively by ex-pats, usually all from the same country. If you are fortunate enough to live close to one it can be a great opportunity to humbly participate as a guest who wants to learn.
Do some research before you stop in. If they have a website it may have hours you can visit or programs you might want to check out. It may also have some notes on etiquette.
In general, though it is up to you as a guest to look for clues. For example, are there shoes outside or just inside the door? Then take yours off.
If you know it is a community of monks, then unless you are going for a scheduled event, it would be good for women to bring a man with them. Vice versa if it is a community of nuns.
Remember, they may not be used to having people from outside their community visiting. It’s possible that the person who greets you may not even speak your language. Don’t worry. In almost all cases you will be greeted warmly. And don’t be discouraged if your first visit doesn’t go quite as you expect. Give it another shot under different circumstances.
You might see if they have any public festivals coming up soon. Visiting then will guarantee there are people to talk to that can show you around.
Even if the only temple in town isn’t part of the tradition you prefer, it could still provide some community support.
Your turn… Have you visited your local temple? How’s it go? Give your suggestions in the comments below.