The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Conversion: Colonisation through faith

(Full text of the fifth Chamanlal Memorial Lecture delivered by Bhikkhuni Dhammananda in New Delhi on March 25 on the topic of ‘Conversion: Colonisation Through Faith’)

When we talk about conversion, we talk about change from one way of thinking and behaving to another. Conversion in religion is to give up one religion and take on another for better or worse.

In my young age, the first conversion story I heard was that of my own mother. As a student, she attended Assumption Catholic School. She must have been an outstanding student, Sister Rose, a French Catholic sister offered to take her to France for higher education and eventually a better opportunity in life, of course she had to be converted. My mother admitted that it was quite tempting proposal. Going to France meant travelling to foreign country, a dream of many third world children. More than that sister promised that she would get best chance for education. Being an orphan, she did not have anyone to turn to, that was a serious decision for her to make. As the story went, the next day when she had to give an answer to the Sister, she intentionally put a big Buddha amulet around her neck and wore it outside her uniform.

The sister never asked her any more about going to France.

In February (2009) I attended a conference on Buddhist and Hindu Religious leaders Summit in Phnom Penh. My host travelled by boat from Siamreap to Phnom Penh reported ‘excitedly’ that it was striking to see sudden emergence of many mosques lining the horizon along the bank of the river, this happened only in the last decade. Islamic conversion in Cambodia is taking place very quietly but for real.

Among the Cambodians we cannot blame them, those who survived 1975-79 killing fields literally had nothing left. If they accept assistance in any form from other religious denominations under whatever condition, this was expected and understandable. We need to work here too together.

Tsunami is yet another incident which some of the missionaries thought that it is God sent opportunity to reach out to offer help to the needed. Their mission is to help the needy, with a string attached, that is, to gain new converts.

This kind of conversion is unethical, its colonisation through faith. This conversion is prevalent and it is something that we must resist and condemn in strongest words.

In my role as a female Buddhist monastic, I went with a group of monks to visit the victims of Tsunami in Phang-nga, a province in the south heavily effected by Tsunami. The victims were very happy to see us. One woman in particular lost all her family members; she came up to me and sobbed in my arms. She said in southern tongue “I have nothing left.” I assured her that the most precious thing in life, is life, and she is alive. But the Buddhist clergy was so feeble in reaching out to the needy in time of need. Social welfare is not first in our agenda (Theravada Buddhists), so it is explained in a traditional way.

But isn’t compassion our practice? Welfare service is nothing but compassion in action. To be compassion is not to sit and give a beautiful smile only; compassion must be translated into action.

This we need to change.

In the Philippines there is an institute for Christian missionary to study Buddhist teachings. I am afraid to admit that they know of Buddhist teaching better than ordinary average Thai Buddhists. That is a dangerous trend, and as a Buddhist I am ashamed. Hathaway brought out a book giving details of information on Thailand with geographical locations and details of ethnic differences, etc. for missionaries to work particularly with the hill tribes, the minority. And work for what? We all know it very well. Conversion is for real. Christians are working very hard to crack the weak area where Buddhism has not covered. In Thailand they have failed for the last century but more money has been spent now focusing on the various hill tribes who have been neglected by mainstream Buddhists, Buddhist authority and Buddhist Government. This is also a time for us to ponder. Those who are neglected by both the Government and the Buddhist Sangha are an easy prey to such ‘design’ in the name of relief and welfare.

In the US we know that they have Joshua project providing also information for Christian missionaries how to convert effectively. We can go on in great length in the extent of conversion that is going on and planned.

Theoretically there in no need to fear conversion, neither Islam nor Christianity if Buddhists are firm in their own belief and practices. Though it is a big If.

When the Buddha established Buddhism, he envisioned fourfold Buddhists namely, the bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunis (fully ordained nuns), laymen and laywomen. By establishing Buddhism he expected these fourfold Buddhists to:

Study his teaching (dhamma)
Practice the teaching (patipatti)

Be able to defend the dhamma


Take a look at Thailand, a country with some 63 million out of which 94 per cent of population claim to be Buddhists. I intentionally use the word “claim’ as many of them might turn out to be just Buddhists by birth certificates, sometimes I call them Buddhists by chance as oppose Buddhists by choice, this I mean the new Buddhists who have come to Buddhism with much critical study before being accepted. When Buddhism is a religion of majority, there is a tendency of laxity. In fact Thailand boasts of having highest Buddhist population in the world. Myanmar comes second with 87 per cent of her total population claiming to Be Buddhists.

Thailand has been a unified country since 13th Century A.D. and has been the only country in South East Asia, which has not been officially colonised. Thai people had never experienced any hardship of foreign occupation. Buddhism as practiced for more than 700 years had never been put to test and had never been challenged. As a result we witness that Buddhists in Thailand tend to become complacent and negligent both in their study and practice.

This negligence is doing more harm for the stability and progress of Buddhism than any attempt of conversion from and by outside agent.

As we have not taken responsibility given by the Buddha as earlier mentioned, Buddhists in general cannot even explain their highest spiritual goal, not to mention practicing it. Basic practice as a foundation to good life, the commitment to the basic five precepts as ethical foundation is taken only ritualistically. Even taking refuge….Buddham saranam gacchami ….which is a pronouncement of commitment to become Buddhists is also often taken as lip service.

This needs to be addressed. I cannot pretend to speak to you about Indian context but while I am giving you a Thai context, you can compare with what is happening here in India among Hindus and Muslims, and I am sure it will ring the bell for you as well.

Only with a proper understanding of the true spirit and essential message of Buddhism will provide us proper tools to face the complicated nature of the present world. With strong base of Buddhist understanding we can handle the shift of value and once again return to show respect to our religion, our culture, our tradition. With strong base in Buddhist way of life, we can become modernise happily. With Buddhism as our central core, we can handle material growth wisely.

With a solid foundation in Buddhism we will not be converted to Christianity or Islam.

Looking at the unethical conversion that the Christian missionaries have been working very hard, they can offer only material support. We should not trade material comfort with our spiritual liberation. The message is direct and strong. We will not be shaken by the unethical and evil approach trying to look down upon Buddhist belief and practices. Our Sri Lankan sisters told us how the Christian missionary is trying to do. They made the Buddha into a culprit by picking on the fact that he left his new born baby and responsibility to his family. Buddhists must realize that the Prince chose to leave his family only to return to deliver them spiritually. The spiritual deliverance is much more long lasting and he not only brought about spiritual freedom for himself, his family but also humankind. The Buddha’s message was the greatest achievement of the human era.

When a Buddhist has not studied Buddhist teaching properly, how can he or she put it into practice? How can he or she defend the teaching? How can he/she differentiate the false accusation bombarded against the Buddha and his teaching through unethical conversion?

The so-called Buddhists would choose material support as offered by the missionary readily as it is direct material gain. They do not have spiritual value which would enable them to have happy life. It will take them a long while to realise that life with material wealth as offered by Christian missionary can support them only temporarily. On the other hand, they are up-rooted from their own culture which comes with all the social values as the foundation of society, society of our forefathers.

While we are affirming that Buddhism can withstand the storm of conversion, Buddhism is definitely relevant to modern society; it is only the Buddhist to prove that such belief can become a reality in their own commitment, in their own lives.

The change must happen now. They cannot keep Buddhism alive and active for the future generation if Buddhism is not lived in this generation.

Dhammo have rakkhati
Dhamma cari?
Dhamma protects one who practices dhamma.

But we must also protect dhamma by making it real in our lives and not only on our lips.

Soft Religions

I would now like to share with you what we have been discussing at the Buddhist Hindu Religious Leaders Summit (Phnom Penh, Feb.2009). It was brought to light that at any so-called International Interfaith Dialogue on Religions, Buddhist and Hindu voices often are not heard. While Abrahamic religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam) always lead both the discussion and decision.

There is something here, in this gathering that we can discuss the common characteristics found in both Buddhism and Hinduism. It strikes at the core of conversion issue we are interested at hand. Both Buddhism and Hinduism do not have mission to convert. One Swami even said that the Christians have nothing to convince so they have to convert.
  • Both Buddhism and Hinduism are tolerant by nature.
  • Both Buddhism and Hinduism emphasise on Ahimsa, non-violence.
  • Both Buddhism and Hinduism are nature loving people.
  • Both Buddhist and Hindu see ourselves as part of nature, this makes us humble.
  • Both Buddhist and Hindu have respect for others, and tend to place other’s importance over ours.
These common features make Buddhism and Hinduism soft religions as compared to the more aggressive Abrahamic religions.

Focusing on Hinduism, we have outstanding character like Swami Vivekananda who stood out at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Allow me to remind you that Indian elites at that time were turning their heads towards the West, trying to copy western values, western style, etc. Among Indians, some of them even look down upon their own motherland; Indian values and Indian culture were seen as inferior.

Only with the success of Swami Vivekananda in the West that caused such a ripple and brought about an awakening among the Indians to look back and search for spiritual values which India is well known for.

It was Swami Vivekananda who brought out the spirit of peace and harmony among religious leaders of the world in the past century.

A nasty massacre of peacefully protesting Indians at Amritsar (Jalianwala Bagh) provoked the conscience of Mahatma Gandhi. It was then that he decided to head his mission, which eventually led to Indian Independence.

As soft religions, we Buddhists and Hindus should be serious to work together on the projects of common interest, not only so much about fighting against conversion from outside but also more on helping each other to strengthen our own common spiritual heritage.

If our spiritual heritage is rooted, the trunk is solid; branches will eventually spread out and provide proper protection with laden blossoms and fruits.

No, we are not going to compete so that we become strong and hard and at times destructive like the Abrahamic religions. We will retain this quality of soft religions.

We have to understand and utilise this quality of being soft religions to its best.

While hardness symbolizes death, softness is death.

It is the water that cuts through the mountain and not otherwise so we learn from our Eastern wisdom.

It is only loving kindness and compassion that will nurture the world, and not violence. We have to confirm this message again and again.

Philosophically and spiritually, Buddhism and Hinduism are very strong and no outside invasion or conversion can harm us in any way. In practicing religion, we must actualise our ideals. We cannot simply sit and be compassionate and remain peaceful.

We have to look at and understand peace in a new light. Peace is anchored from within, coming out of a peaceful mind to engage with the world outside. Peace is to resist violence. Peace is to end unjust activities. Peace is to end exploitation. Peace is to end patriarchy, etc.

Sitting peacefully among turmoil society is selfishness.

Peace is

Participatory at all levels
Easy for every one
Accessible for everyone
Compatible to deal with social problems
Equality for humankind.

Compassion is not lip-service, compassion must over flow from our trained mind and compassionate heart into action. Compassion is not only wishing others happiness and wishing them to be free from suffering, but it is sharing of wealth and sharing of happiness. Compassion is an ability to share both suffering and happiness. Compassion is an ability to take on suffering of others as our own.

These messages are strong in Buddhism and Hinduism. What we need is to work these beautiful concepts out and allow them to actualise in life.

If we go together hand in hand, the strength will be immense. This reshuffling of ourselves will be able to strengthen our identities, our communities.

We Buddhists and Hindus will bring about changes, and we will begin here, now. Right now here to kindle the memory and the way shown by personality like Chamanlalji.

When we are convinced we will commit.

Conversion will have no place to take root.

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