Convert Buddhists: What's in a Name?

Tonight I spent a long time making a worksheet for my undergraduate students about clichés in writing. This is my second year teaching and grading essays, and it's taken me a long time to articulate why clichés bother me. The reason is because they are phrases that have been repeated so many times as to obscure meaning. More than just being a kind of grammar snob, I like to think I'm in the business of getting people to think and understand more, not less.

For several years I have been reading the term "convert Buddhism" in print media, and hearing it used casually in conversation. I will spend this post discussing why I think the phrase should go away. I would like to urge people to stop using the phrase, or at least think about alternate ways of articulating what this phrase signifies. The reason I think the phrase "convert Buddhist" is problematic is twofold: 1) it is an unspecific term that obscures more than it illuminates and 2) it is arguable whether or not Buddhism can be converted to in the first place.

For me, the first point is the most important. I would like to mention first that there is an obvious utilitarian value to this word. When Americans use the term "convert Buddhist" we are usually implying, but not stating, two things. The first implication is that the people we are talking about are white people, especially those who encountered Buddhism as an adult. For example, I am involved in a Buddhist meditation group on campus. The participants are in their twenties and thirties, all white, and proclaim to be interested in Buddhist meditation and philosophy "generally." They do not have loyalty to a specific sect or tradition, and are especially interested in reading Buddhist books, meditating and discussing their practice. This behavior is quite different than, say, the temple members in rural Japan I chanted for. From a sociological perspective, white meditators in the U.S bring a particular set of values, preferences, and perhaps privileges, to their engagement with Buddhism, and at a certain point it becomes important to distinguish between the style of "Buddhism" practices by the members of my campus meditation club, and the Japanese housewives who hire memorial and funeral services from local Buddhist clergy. The second hidden implication of the phrase "convert" Buddhist is that it describes a certain kind of mentality about religion; it implies someone for whom religion or spirituality is a conscious choice, rather than inherited tradition.

However, I think the word is too unspecific to do a good job of what it is trying to achieve, and generalizes people on both sides of the racial spectrum in a way that doesn't allow for nuance or clarity. The implied meaning of "convert" Buddhist is "white Buddhist," but they are not synonymous. For example, my parents are both white Buddhists, and my husband is a white Buddhist. We intend to raise our child Buddhist. At what point does our family stop being a "convert" family? At what point do we just become white American Buddhists? And similarly, is an Asian American who engages with Buddhism for the first time as an adult a "convert" Buddhist? Or an Asian-American convert Buddhist?

It also seems strange to use the term "ethnic" or "immigrant" Buddhism. Buddhism is only "ethnic" when compared to a white majority.

For the latter example (Asian-American convert Buddhist) I wonder what exactly the term "convert" is trying to get at. In this case, the phrase contains the second implication I mentioned above. In other words, "convert" Buddhist describes someone who has "chosen" to "become Buddhist." Not to get into too much of a philosophical briar patch, but I'm not sure how much choice people these days have in choosing what we do in our spiritual lives. In her book on Yoga and Kabbalah, Veronique Atlgas argues that in our globalized society, religion has become a personal commodity-- therapized and marketed to individuals in a way it hasn't been throughout history. Because spirituality is offered up to us as a hot commodity, we only have as many choices as are on the menu, so to speak, and the "food" has been carefully designed with our tastes in mind. We're not cooking it ourselves.

Additionally, Buddhism in particular is a strange religion to speak of "converting" to. When people speak of "converting" to Buddhism, I assume they mean taking precepts. This is often seen as the demarkation in which one "becomes a Buddhist." And yet, this is not how precepts are seen universally. The label of being a Buddhist can be separate or connected to ones relationship to the precepts. At what point can one "convert" to a religion that may or may not be a religion, that may be a philosophy, etc.? Perhaps my issue with the term "convert" would apply to Christianity and Judaism as well. And yet in Judaism there is a very clear and explicit path of "conversion." Within Buddhist communities, nobody really speaks of "converting" to Buddhism in those terms.

The term "convert" points to juicy and important issues in contemporary American Buddhism. And yet I think we can and must do better than this term. Thomas Tweed has suggested the term "cradle Buddhist" to designate people who were born into Buddhist families, to be used in conjunction with "convert Buddhist" (ugh) and "Buddhist sympathizers"-- those who appreciate certain Buddhist practices and techniques without fully identifying with the religion. Personally, I think much more specificity is achieved with [race/ethnicity] + what exactly we're doing or believing or identifying as. What's wrong with terms like "white meditator," "white atheist meditator," or "white spiritual window shopper" (jk!)? Are people just afraid of being called "white?" Or are we fixated on pointing out the deliberateness and choice of "becoming Buddhist?"

 What do you think? What terms do you use to describe yourself?

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And I'll be helping to lead a one day sit with James Ford and the Blue Cliff Sangha this Saturday:
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Comments

  1. This is a problem I have struggled with a long time, and it's tied (for me) to the anxiety as to whether or not my Buddhism is "authentic." Also, over time, I have become less convinced that intellectual assent is sufficient to constitute something called "religious conversion." Bill Kwong Roshi practically laughed when I told him I had "converted" to Buddhism. "We are not interested in conversion here!" he said. What could such distinctions as convert or white or religious and so on do but bring something into our practice that we don't need? Am I a real Buddhist if I didn't meditate this week, or attend regular Buddhist ceremonies? We seem to have a difficult enough time actually practicing Buddhism in this country instead of merely enacting our local intellectual values, and I wonder what the term "convert Buddhism" could do to improve our understanding of our practice rather than merely adding another layer of insecurity about authenticity in our practice and our desire to practice. I might not be very authentic today, being as I am a confused and selfish person, but where else can I begin? And is there some more genuine practice that I should be engaged in than Buddhism as a white American male? I might not be able to avoid making Buddhism a part of my identity, but is that not the condition of living amongst identities in the first place?

    I'm sorry if these reflections aren't particularly insightful. I just find that I don't know how to solve the paradox of "being Buddhist" or "becoming Buddhist" or "identifying as Buddhist" outside of practicing Buddhism, or trying to. Everything else seems like a question I can't solve abstractly without invoking anxieties about myself and other people that I don't know how to approach meaningfully. At least not yet.

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  2. I'm game. For me "convert Buddhist" does indeed work as a category. It is a tad vague, but, as I find the term useful it stands for those people who were not born into Buddhism but for whom it has become their primary religious affiliation. I do notice your only alternative is "white buddhist." To reduce it to "white" people is to marginalize those who fit that definition but who are not specifically of European descent. Also, I've noticed that when that term is applied there appears to be some sort of insult implied. The insult, if it is there, and I do think it is, is worth picking through some time. I agree "ethnic Buddhist" is more problematic. I think it can usefully be applied in some cases when trying to describe immigrant communities and their particular Buddhisms. But, there is something vaguely marginalizing about it in general use. When referencing individuals who are raised Buddhist I tend to use the term "birthright Buddhist," although "cradle Buddhist" certainly does the job. As to that category Professor Tweed calls "Buddhist sympathizers," it works. It isn't pejorative, but simply descriptive. I use the term "nightstand Buddhists," which is probably a tad too obscure, and I guess does have that pejorative cast to it. Perhaps I will modify that term. Returning to "convert Buddhist," I think you raise some interesting objections, but without an alternative term that is not insulting, but is descriptive, I suspect this train has left the station.

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  3. I agree that the labeling of who is an authentic Buddhist and who is not is counterproductive. Everyone is going to approach their spiritual practice from a different starting point and overtime may converge on something meaningful to themselves, if they keep with it.

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