Convert Misunderstandings: A monastic can only teach the Dhamma if invited.


One very common myth among Buddhist converts in the west is that monks and nuns may only teach the Dhamma if invited. There is absolutely nothing in the monastic rules to support this idea. It most likely came as a PR move to make Buddhism seem less threatening. Unfortunately it is now used as a criticism of good monks and nuns who confidently share the Dhamma out of compassion as the Buddha intended.

Now, there are, of course, proper situations for teaching and improper ones. Many guidelines for this can be found in the Vinaya rules. Most have to do with respect for the Dhamma. None of them have to do with being invited.

And of course we have to be skillful and make sure that our intentions are themselves in line with the Dhamma.

Sutta Study:

The Three Refuges

We can officially convert to Buddhism by reciting the Three refuges below. After that, we work to follow the Buddha and his teachings as carefully as we can.

Buddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.
Dhammaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.
Sanghaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.

Dutiyam’pi Buddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.
Dutiyam’pi Dhammaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.
Dutiyam’pi Sanghaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.

Tatiyam’pi Buddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.
Tatiyam’pi Dhammaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.
Tatiyam’pi Sanghaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi.

I go for refuge to the Buddha.
I go for refuge to the Dhamma.
I go for refuge to the Sangha.

For the second time I go for refuge to the Buddha.
For the second time I go for refuge to the Dhamma.
For the second time I go for refuge to the Sangha.

For the third time I go for refuge to the Buddha.
For the third time I go for refuge to the Dhamma.
For the third time I go for refuge to the Sangha

A note on pronunciation: The ṃ is pronounced link an ng. The ā is drawn out.

How do I convert to Buddhism?

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.

Sutta Study:

Learn this one weird pronunciation trick every Buddhist convert should know.

The biggest mistake people make when pronouncing Buddhist words is with the letters TH. In English those letters are either pronounced with a soft, hissing sound like in the word think, or a harder buzzing sound like the word that. But in all Indian languages such a Pali (the Buddha’s language), Sanskrit, Hindi, and Sinhala, the H is basically silent. It’s actually pronounced with a strong out breath, but you are better off just ignoring it.

This is also the case for kh, gh, ch, jh, ṭh, ḍh, th, dh, ph, and bh. The ph is always just pronounced like a p, never an f. And both c and ch are always pronounced a a hard ch sound, like church.

So this means that Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) is pronounced like “tear a piece of paper” not “therapy.” The other commonly mispronounced word is Tathāgata (a title of the Buddha). The H in both cases is completely silent.

The technical term for these letters is mahaprāna. Other examples of words that use them:

  • khanda–aggregate
  • Sangha–the order of monks and nuns
  • jhāna–deep state of meditation
  • Dhamma–the Buddha’s teaching
  • phala–fruit or result
  • bhikkhu–monk

What is the Buddhist flag?

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.

Flag_of_Buddhism.svg (1)

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

Do you join a group or become part of a “people” when you convert to Buddhism?

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.

Am I still a Buddhist if I break a precept?

Of course. If we aren’t enlightened, chances are we are going to break the precepts sometimes. If we are just beginning to follow the precepts, then for sure we are going to break them sometimes. That’s why it’s called training.

What we don’t want to break is our refuge in the Triple Gem. If that happens then we loose all the protection of the whole practice.

If we do realize we have broken a precept, then we immediately make the determination to keep it in the future. We can wisely reflect on how it happened and the mental state we were in. We don’t obsess over it. We just determine to try and do things differently in the future. This determination is a hugely powerful factor in developing our mind.

In fact, this is why many Buddhists take the precepts on their own once or twice a day.

Sutta study