How to become a Buddhist

There are as many ways of becoming Buddhist as there are Buddhisms. Which is to say, nearly infinite. Every Buddhist sect and regional division may have its own private wrinkles on the process of formally becoming a follower of the teachings of the Buddha. To clear up the issue a bit, let us, for convenience, define a few general catagories:
  • Ordained clergy: A follower who has taken the full vows of a monk or a nun, and is considered by both the local established Sangha and by the civil laws of his or her area to be a member of the clergy.
  • Unordained clergy: A follower who has taken on vows, responsibilities, and authority in excess of those imposed upon the laity. This may include the Ten Precepts of ordained life, but generally does not include the full monastic code. Under civil law, this person may or may not be considered part of the clergy.
  • Lay follower: A non-ordained person who has satisfied the general qualifications for admittance as a lay follower- accepting the Three Refuges (tiratana), and following the Five Precepts. They may or may not have formally converted through a particular ceremony, and may or may not be involved in any public form of religious observance. They consider themselves Buddhist, though they may not regard this designation as exclusive (they may continue to engage in observances and practices of other faith traditions, and may consider themselves part of those communities).
  • Supporter: An unordained person having never formally or informally taken the Three Refuges. May follow elements of the Buddhist teaching, but may not follow all of the Five precepts. Most interested but uncommited persons would fall into this category.

There are, of course, complications of these relationships. Lay meditation teachers, for instance, may fulfil the role of unordained clergy, while living a lifestyle closer to that of a lay follower. Nonetheless, these divisions do in some way reflect the differing levels of commitment and formality available in the Buddhist tradition. They also reflect certain traditional distinctions that originate as far back as the Pali Canon.

All of these roles have a few things in common. Among them are an interest in the teachings of the Buddha, a willingness to learn from others, and a desire to live a moral life. Buddhist traditions from every side of the globe have taught for years that morality is the true foundation of all other Buddhist practices and teachings. While the strictness of the observation of the Five Precepts may vary, the ultimate responsability to live a moral life does not. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha voiced the opinion that moral failings 'dug up' ones 'roots', making greater spiritual growth impossible. Different schools and sects over the years have held various opinions about the place of book learning, experience, meditaiton, ritual, asceticism, ordination, and even the ability to write poetry, but every tradition today agrees on the importance of moral conduct for those who seek to learn.

I'll address movement into each category in the reverse of the order I presented them.


There are little or no requirements for being a lay supporter of the Buddhist teachings. All that is required is that one have an interest and enthusiasm for the Dharma. No particular vows, learning, or level of participation in ceremonial aspects of life are required. Some would question whether this constitutes any sort of adoption of Buddhism at all; and while it may be no more than an idle interest, it can encompass more profound categories of belief and support. In the time of the Buddha, for instance, an incident is recorded where a brahmin heard the Buddha speak and was quite compelled by his teachings. However, because of his position in society and the views of his kin, he was unable to formally undertake the role of a lay follower, and was forced to disguise the degree of his regard. Similarly, this category may encompass devotees of other religious traditions who feel that undertaking the teachings of the Buddha in any more than an advisory capacity would undermine or conflict with their exisiting religious obligations and faith- practitioners of Buddhist meditation techniques who are members of Christian or other monotheistic religious orders, for example.

Lay Follower

This is a category of Buddhist believer that has existed since the earliest days of institutional Buddhism; along with male and female ordained followers, groups of male and female lay followers constitue what has traditionally been called the Sangha, though this term has a number of other meanings as well. The qualifications for being called a lay follower are generally seen as two-fold; adoption of the Five Precepts as a moral guideline, and seeking the Three Refuges (tiratana).

The Five Precepts are the basic guidelines of Buddhist morality; they include abstaining from the taking of life, stealing, telling lies and gossiping, taking intoxicants, and commiting adultery, or other sexual misconducts defined variously in the canonical texts and local traditions. They correspond to the elements of the Eightfold Path of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, which are collectively called the sila or morality division. These five precepts are incumbent upon all Buddhists, but some lay followers make a point of formally undertaking them from a monk at some point in their lives. And of course, adoption of these teachings formally or informally does not mean that the lay follower perfectly observes these teachings at all times. Interpretation of the precepts may vary from location to location - particularly as regards local standards of sexual conduct and attitudes towards alcohol and other intoxicants.

The Three Refuges, or tiratana, are the basis of Buddhist life around the world; they are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. These three are the traditional refuges of a Buddhist, lay or ordained. Indeed, the simplest definition of membership in the Buddhist faith extends it to all those who have even once gone for refuge to the so-called Triple Gem or Three Treasures.

What does it mean to have gone for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha? The simplest explanation is that it means that one has publicly or privately recited three times the refuge formula:

I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge
Pali, Sanskrit, and vernacular versions are also commonly employed.

The meaning of this 'seeking refuge' is complex, and is discussed at some length in commentaries and popular works on Buddhism. In general, it means that one acknowledges the place of the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha in providing direction in their life - the Buddha as the originator of the teaching, the Dhamma as the teaching itself, and the Sangha as the repository of the teaching and as (ideally) a source of visible inspiration that recalls the Buddha himself. Furthermore, going for refuge indicates a willingness to look to these three facets of the Buddhist teaching for ordering principles for ones life. The compassion and wisdom of the Buddha are the ultimate goal; the Dhamma, the path to the achievement of that goal, and the Sangha a source of support, and a place to find teaching and further direction. The Sangha also serve the laity by preserving the Dhamma and providing lay follower with the opportunity to make merit to earn better birth in a future life- even the chance to be born into the presence of a Buddha.

There are no conditions put on a lay follower's participation in ritual life, nor on their learning and achievement in the area of Buddhist philosophy, scripture, or meditation. Individual Buddhists decide for themselves what their role will be, or what their life circumstances demand of them. Some lay Buddhists limit themselves to activities aimed at making merit; others become quite advanced in techniques of meditation, or take the time and effort necesary to arrive at an understanding of the more complex teachings of Buddhism that were once the sole preserve of the ordained clergy. In the modern era, with the expansion of leisure time for members of the growing middle, the trend among educated and devout lay Buddhists has been towards a more active and involved lay community; however, an intense interest in the area of making merit persists in most traditional Buddhist communities, particularly among those too overworked or uneducated to attempt more complex studies or activities.

Furthermore, as with the lay supporter category, Buddhist lay membership need not be exclusive. Most traditional Buddhist countries have embraced a number of imported and local belief systems- from complex foreign philosophies to folk medicine- at the same time as various Buddhist transmissions. This trend has continued with Buddhisms spread to the West, where lay Buddhists with an eye towards preserving their own cultural heritage have freely combined Buddhism with the teachings and traditions of both Christianity and Judaism.

Though becoming a lay Buddhist follower can be no more than a quiet resolve made within ones own heart, there are more public rituals that are observed by some. The most common is the public taking of the three Refuges, through recitation of the formula above, in the presence of a group of previously recognized lay or ordained Buddhists. These ceremonies take place at many temples, and even some more non-traditional Buddhist centers. They may be geared towards adults, or may be undertaken by young people upon reaching an age of majority- similar to the Jewish bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah tradition. Likewise, a lay Buddhist may formally ask to receive the Five Precepts from a monk, a ceremony more likely to be found at a Theravada temple than in a less traditional surrounding. Some teachers place great emphasis on the actual undertaking of the precepts in the presence of a monk; others feel that as one is bound by their teachings whether or not one formally undertakes them only a symbolic role is played.

Non-ordained Clergy

This category is typically felt to have arisen after the time of the Buddha, and encompasses a wide variety of special practitioners. What all non-ordained clergy have in common is a dedication and learning that is in advance of that held by the typical lay follower. They may also have other trappings of a life closer to that of an ordained monk. This category may include lay followers who have elected to spend a period of their life in service to a temple or monastery as a helper (but who cannot fully ordain because this would make them a less useful assistant- lay assistants can handle money and finances for a temple for instance, but in the Theravada tradition, monks cannot). It may include lay followers who have undertaken the full Ten Precepts of a monk or a nun in an effort to live a more religious life. It includes female Theravada nuns (bhikkhuni) who can not fully ordain because of the failing of the Theravada female lineage in 15th Century Burma. It may include lay meditation teachers, or lay teachers of other monastic skills, such as the Pali language. Whether it should include those ordained clergy who do not follow the full set of traditional monastic rules (such as Japanese clergy who have married since World War II, and Pure Land clerics) is a debate of limited utility, since these categories are meant only to demonstrate differing levels of devotive and religious activity. Likewise, married Tibetan ascetics like Marpa may or may not fall into this category.

Needless to say, this is perhaps the most confusing and complex category of Buddhist life, and is generally not intended for those with little or no experience in Buddhist teachings. How one of these roles is adopted varies from country to country and institution to institution. In some areas, and for some roles, one may be required to go through a complete ordination ceremony similar to that of an ordained clergy. It may require apprenticeship of some sort to an ordained or un-ordained teacher. Or it may arise through less official channels, as a result of expanding interest and devotion to Buddhist teachings and lifestyle.

In all cases, such roles generally involve expanded responsibilities, similar to those of an ordained clergy member. They may include teaching, public service, upholding of special training rules or precepts, obedience to a guru or senior teacher. Generally, these roles are only entered into after a sincere and earnest practice has been established- be it meditational, devotional, or otherwise. The best way to enter one of these orders is to speak with and study with an existing teacher in one of these lines.

Ordained Clergy

The ordained clergy have traditionally been the heart of the Buddhist institution in every land through which it has passed. The presence of ordained teachers is traditionally seen as a necesity for Buddhism to grow and thrive. Though Buddhism in the West has attempted to change this equation in many ways, with a greater reliance on unordained clergy, the ordained clergy remains a highly respected embodiment of Buddhist faith.

While regulations and standards vary from nation to nation, and from school to school, most ordained monastics have a great deal in common. They are subject to monastic discipline that may include requirements of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as well as other requirements. They generally live among other ordained monastics (again, I'll not split hairs about the position of Pure Land priests and similar categories), and live a disciplined life ordered around study, meditation, ritual duties, and possibly some public or civil duties (conducting funerals, teaching to the laity or in a school, etc.).

Ordination is generally a long term commitment. While not all Buddhist traditions ordain for life, some do. In other traditions, it may be acceptable to ordain for a fixed period (such as a single vassa), or for an open-ended period- Thailand is particularly well known for temporary ordination). Ordained life may involve a period of unordained or semi-ordained training as a novice. This period may be a year or more, depending on the local tradition and the applicants level of knowledge.

As with the non-ordained clergy, this lifestyle carries with it a significant commitment. The ordained clergy are supported by the laity so that they might study and preserve the Dharma and provide the laity with teaching, moral exemplars, and opportunities to make merit through their support. It sounds like a pretty weighty responsibility, and if taken seriously, it is. Entering the ordained Sangha involves entering into a lineage that stretches back to the Buddha himself. It also involves entering into a sacred trust between the ordained and their lay supporters. The ordained cleric is expected to conduct him or herself in a way that justifies the considerable effort and expense that the lay community exerts in order to feed, clothe, and shelter them. Monks who show themselves to be more interested in a free lunch than in taking advantage of their opportunity to learn and progress may be kicked out by their superiors, or may simply not be fed by their lay supporters, in areas where such direct interactions are still the norm.

Also as with the non-ordained clergy, the best way to become an ordained clergy member is to talk and learn from an existing one in the tradition to which you aspire. You may be able to undertake an extended retreat, where you will get a taste of the monastic life without the long term expectations and obligations of full ordination. See how to become a Buddhist monk for information on the particular ordination ceremonies of the Theravada tradition, for an example of the final product of the intent to embark on such a life.

The Bottom Line

The core of all Buddhist teachings is pretty simple. As the Dhammapada reads:

The avoidance of evil;
the performance of what is right;
the purifying of the mind;
this is the teaching of the awakened.
All Buddhist paths share an interest in the living of a moral life, and the guidance of the human mind. It may come through study, meditation, or ritual but the shaping of the mind in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha is always aimed at turning it towards compassion, wisdom, and peace. The three refuges- Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha- along with the human conscience are the instruments and guides of this development, all, ultimately with the aim of liberation.