Sometimes I really do wish I had a more retentive memory. I know that William James, in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" has a fairly long and closely reasoned description of "conversion" experiences. And when I read the book, I can remember thinking he was a good and unflinching thinker. But I can't remember his outlines of "conversions."
What made me wish I could remember was reading a post on a Buddhist bulletin board in which there was a reference to "converting to Buddhism." Without disparaging anyone, I really could not imagine what that might mean. How would anyone go about it? Do you get a certificate or a tattoo? Does it imply that you're a Buddhist now, so you're expected to defend the one true faith against all comers? What the hell does it mean?
The only reasonable answer I could come up with was that anyone imagining they could "convert" to Buddhism must likewise imagine that Buddhism is just another belief-and-ritual-laden exercise ... another "religion" that could be diced and sliced in some world religions course or clung to with the power of Miracle Glue. Perhaps a "conversion" to Buddhism says more about what anyone might be converting from than it does about what they are converting to.
Honest to goodness, I have a hard time imagining what it might mean even if I can understand the need or desire to assert the fact that some change has taken place. How the hell does anyone "convert" to Buddhism?
If you take up Buddhist practices, then, after a while, you may admit somewhat shyly that you are a "Buddhist." But since the whole matter centers on what you do, it hardly seems fair to limit your doings to something called Buddhism. It's just what you do, isn't it -- meditation practice, retreats, perhaps, going to the movies, ballroom dancing, replacing the spark plugs, hiking, loving, cheering for the home team. How do you convert from living your life to living your life?
Of course Buddhism is as good as any other persuasion for handing out encouraging names -- things that will move the practices and skillfulness along. But it's just tentative stuff, isn't it ... a little nudge in this direction or that? Once upon a time you were a Boy Scout or a Girl Scout. And now, although you no longer wear the appropriate scout garb, you remember the skills and employ them as the need arises ... building a camp fire, filling a backpack, making sure you have enough water. Yesterday, you were at a one-day Buddhist retreat. Today the dishes need washing or the baby needs new diapers. Did you "convert" between yesterday and today? Did you make some conscious effort to change yesterday into today? Did it work? Is it possible to be a Buddhist one day and a not-Buddhist the next? Or vice-versa?
It's all pretty weird stuff in my mind -- "converting." I've tried it a number of times and my experience is ... it doesn't work. Every time I tried to "convert," life came up, tapped me on the shoulder and offered me a smile that said, "Don't be ridiculous!"
I'm sure William James had a wiser take than mine. But I can't remember it, so I'm stuck with this farm.