In Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, conversion means to give up one’s former religion and to adopt a new faith. The incentive is conviction that the new religion is truer than the former. Although converts are often allowed to blend in nondoctrinal elements from their native cultures, they need, in fact, to recognize the new religion as the only true one. This follows from conviction in the “One Truth, One God” ethos of these Biblical religions. Optimally, one gains this conviction by studying its doctrines or by an epiphany. Some people, however, change religions for less profound reasons, such as economic or social gain, or for marrying someone of another faith.
Sometimes, zealots have converted others by force to their religions – an extreme action officially allowed only in certain cases. Forcefully converting enemies, for example, is a means for neutralizing and ending their destruction. It is also purportedly a method for saving “sinners” from falling to hell and for leading them to heaven. Rehabilitation programs for prisoners, whether to become productive members of Western societies or cadres in communist states, have the same objective. One could also describe the actions of some governments for spreading communism, capitalism, or even democracy, as examples of forced conversion to stop exploitation.
Many people, especially idealistic newcomers to Buddhism, would like to believe that Buddhism has been immune to the phenomenon of conversion, especially forced conversion. Dividing the world into good versus evil, and with images of inquisitions, malevolent missionaries, and conversion by the sword, they see forced conversion as something that only the bad side has done. Before self-righteously condemning other religions or governments for this phenomenon during the dark chapters of their histories, however, one needs to examine objectively whether Buddhism too has fallen prey to the practice of forced conversion. Otherwise, desperate yearning for a flawless religion and romantic projection of a Shangrila paradise onto Tibet, for instance, may turn to disillusioned despair and dismay, like that when learning of the misdeeds of a teacher one had thought was a Buddha.
Evidence from Tibetan History
It is true that, in principle, Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion. It is also true that neither Tibetan nor Mongolian history has seen forced mass conversions of conquered populations to Buddhism or to one of its sects. Even when rulers of these lands have declared Buddhism as the state religion, they may have levied taxes on their people to support the monasteries, as in the case of the Tibetan King Ralpachen (Ral-pa-can) in the early 9th century CE. Yet, neither the rulers nor their religious councils forced the population to accept and practice the Buddhist beliefs. Buddhism spread among common people slowly and organically.
Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of the forced conversion of Tibetan monasteries from one Buddhist sect to another or the recognition of a tulku (reincarnate spiritual master) as being of a different school than was his predecessor. The unstated motive has usually been to neutralize political or military opposition, as was undoubtedly the case in the 17th century CE with the recognition of a Mongol prince as the Gelugpa reincarnation of the Jonangpa master Taranatha. Taranatha was the royal advisor for the opposing side during a civil war.
Further, Padmasambhava and several later Tibetan masters have used their superior extraphysical powers to overwhelm and “tame” harmful spirits, such as Nechung. Forcing the spirits to accept Buddhism, they have made them vow to protect the Dharma. In effect, they have converted and rehabilitated the spirits to become Dharma protectors.
Evidence from Kalachakra
Although it would be difficult, based on Buddhist scripture, to justify gross, obvious forms of forced conversion such as these; are there textual references regarding subtler forms of conversion in Buddhism? The Kalachakra literature provides a revealing source for investigation. It emerged in Kashmir and northern India in the late tenth and early 11th centuries CE, when invading Muslim armies were conquering lands to the west with primarily Buddhist and Hindu populations. Its discussion of history undoubtedly drew also on the experiences of the region between eastern Afghanistan and Kashmir during the previous two centuries and described interfaith relations among the three religions there.
According to the traditional account, King Suchandra of Shambhala received the Kalachakra tantra teachings from Buddha himself in South India and brought them back to his northern land. Seven generations later, his successor Manjushri Yashas gathered the brahman wise men of Shambhala in the three-dimensional Kalachakra mandala palace his ancestors had built in the royal park. He wished to warn the brahmans about a future non-Indic religion that would arise in the land of Mecca. Many scholars identify this religion with Islam, since the predicted year of its founding is only two years past the start of the Islamic calendar. For ease of discussion, let us provisionally accept their conclusion, although one needs to qualify this identification in terms of the forms of messianic Islam the formulators of the Kalachakra teachings most likely encountered. They would have been the form of eastern Ismaili Shia prevalent in Multan (northern Sindh, Pakistan) during the late 10th century CE, with perhaps an admixture of the so-called Manichaean Shia “heresy.”
Manjushri Yashas described that the followers of the non-Indic religion will slit the throats of cattle, while reciting the name of their God Bismillah (Arabic for “in the name of Allah”), and then eat the meat. He told the brahmans to examine how people around them were observing their Vedic religion. They needed to correct misunderstandings and corrupt practices, particularly the sacrifice of bulls to their gods and the subsequent eating of their flesh. Otherwise, their descendants would see no difference between the religion of their ancestors and that of the foreigners, and would embrace the latter, facilitating foreign takeover of their land. Moreover, the brahmans needed to end their custom of refusing to intermarry or even to eat or drink with members of other castes. If religious beliefs cause internal divisions and people cannot cooperate in the face of danger, society cannot survive an external threat.
Based on the logic of his arguments, Manjushri Yashas invited the brahmans to join with the rest of the people of Shambhala in the Kalachakra mandala, receive empowerment, and form one “ vajra-caste.” At first, the brahmans refused and fled toward India. The King saw that if their spiritual leaders departed, the people of Shambhala would take it as a sign that forming one caste was wrong, and so they would continue their self-destructive customs. Therefore, Manjushri Yashas used his psychic powers to draw the brahmans back to the mandala. Examining more deeply the wisdom of the King and seeing its truth, the brahman leaders now accepted his advice and so Manjushri Yashas conferred upon the population the Kalachakra empowerment. In uniting the people into a single vajra-caste, the King became the First Kalki of Shambhala – the First “Holder of the Caste.”
The Issue of Conversion
Was this first mass empowerment an example of forced conversion of the brahmans or of the entire population of Shambhala to Buddhism? Are the mass Kalachakra empowerments that have followed, and which continue to today, also examples of covert conversions? Were the First Kalki’s actions consistent with scriptural authority and historical precedent? Let us critically analyze the textual account of the event, trying to avoid the extremes of either whitewashing the evidence to make Buddhism look innocent and nice, or inflating it to make Buddhism look evangelistic and bigoted.
Conversion by Logic
Buddha taught people not to accept his teachings merely out of faith or respect for him, but to examine them critically as when buying gold. Thus, at the great Indian monastic institutions of the first millennium CE, Buddhist monks supporting various philosophical tenet systems debated with each other and with scholars from non-Buddhist centers of learning. The losers were required to accept the tenets of the victors and thus, in effect, to “convert” to the more logically consistent systems. After all, they had “examined the teachings critically as when buying gold.”
Whether their conversions were voluntary or forced is a moot point. The assumption is that those who accept logic will adopt the most logically consistent view, and not act irrationally by insisting on a defeated position because of attachment to it. One must not be naïve, however. Not every highly educated person is consistently rational in his or her behavior. Moreover, local kings often officiated at such debates and awarded royal patronage to the winning parties and their institutions. Thus, considerations of financial support may also have influenced a change of religion or philosophy.
In Tibetan history as well, King Tri Songdetsen (Khri Srong-lde-btsan), in the late 8th century CE, chose Indian Buddhism over the Chinese form after the former defeated the latter at the famous Samye (bSam-yas) debate. Surely, political considerations also influenced the King’s decision. A xenophobic faction had assassinated his father because of his close ties with China due to his Chinese queen, and a pro-China faction was again growing powerful in the court. The King and his Religious Council wished to avoid a repetition of the violent events of the past.
Conversion through Contests of Psychic Powers
Contests of psychic and extraphysical powers, both in India and Tibet, likewise ended in conversion. Just as cutting or burning equally attests to the authenticity of gold, defeating an opponent with logic or psychic powers equally demonstrates the superior truth of a teaching. Thus, the most plausible reason for the 13th-century CE Mongol ruler Khubilai (Kublai) Khan’s adopting the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is not because of the superior logic of its philosophical views. His grandfather, Chinggis Khan, had summoned Chinese Buddhist, Daoist, (Taoist) and Nestorian Christian clerics to his military camps to perform rituals for his long life and victory. Nevertheless, Chinggis was killed in battle fighting the Tanguts, a people who lived in the region between Mongolia and Tibet and who undoubtedly received their superior power from their reliance on the Tibetan Buddhist protector Mahakala. The Biblical equivalent would be to explain military success in terms of the victors’ having had God on their side. The Sakyapas were the most politically convenient Tibetan sect able to confer upon Khubilai Khan the secret weapon of Mahakala’s might.
One needs to understand the picture of religious conversion portrayed in the Kalachakra literature within the context of these traditional contests of logic and psychic powers. In countries influenced by Indian civilization, a religion needed to prove that it had the highest truth by winning contests in one or both of these fields. It could not simply assert its supremacy as dogma and force others to accept it by the stretching rack or sword.
Conversion "For Others' Own Good"
Although the brahmans of Shambhala became convinced to receive the empowerment based on the Kalki’s extraphysical powers and lines of reasoning – although, in fact, no contest was held – it is still a moot point whether they voluntarily agreed or were forced. After all, they did not gather to receive the empowerment on their own initiatives, but were summoned by the King and forced to listen to his arguments, “for their own good.” All forced conversions, however, are ostensibly for a candidate’s own good. And such explanations as that by the Second Kalki in his commentary to his father’s work, “the Kalki saw that the brahmans were ripe for forming one caste,” can be used by leaders of any religion or politico-economic system to justify conversion by force.
The 15th-century CE Tibetan Gelug scholar Kedrub Je (mKhas-grub rje), however, explains in his Kalachakra commentary that Manjushri Yashas was not forcing the Hindu castes to give up their religious and social customs and to convert to Buddhism. No one has the right to do that to any group. The First Kalki’s intention was for the people to examine their behavior to see if it accorded with the pure teachings of the Vedas. If it did not, they needed to correct it. To face any threat to society, followers of all religions need to combine in spirit and adhere to the good intentions of each of their creeds.
Kedrub Je’s comment, then, implies that being ripe for forming one caste is not equivalent to being ripe for converting to Buddhism. Forming one caste would be for the people of Shambhala’s own good in a sociopolitical sense, not specifically in a spiritual sense. The First Kalki was pressing for religious harmony and unity of purpose, not religious uniformity, as the means to ward off threats to society.
Nevertheless, the brahmans who received the empowerment did constitute the majority of the audience to whom Manjushri Yashas gave the Kalachakra teachings. Thus, although it is unnecessary and even inappropriate for everyone to convert to Buddhism, nevertheless some followers of other religions may be “ripe” for that as well. Is that still conversion, but just in a cleverly rationalized form? After all, Manjushri Yashas assumed the title Kalki, the name of the tenth and final avatar (incarnation) of the Hindu god Vishnu. One could easily construe this as a clever tactic for winning the allegiance of Hindus.
Teaching "Those Who Are Ripe"
Despite the general Buddhist principle that a spiritual teacher may not teach others unless explicitly requested, Buddha allowed exceptions in the case of potential disciples who were especially ripe. A spiritual teacher, however, needs advanced extrasensory abilities to recognize correctly when someone is ripe. Those lacking such abilities may easily abuse the dispensation and fall to the extreme of becoming proselytizing missionaries. Even if one is not in the position of being a teacher, one might patronize other religions, or Buddhist traditions other than one’s own, and think that they are perfectly suitable for feebler, less spiritually developed minds. When holders of inferior views become maturer and “ripen,” they will be ready for the more profound Buddhist teachings of one’s own tradition.
The lesson here is that one needs great care nowadays when making the Buddhist teachings available in order to “provide the circumstances for other’s good karma to ripen to become Buddhists.” One needs non-attachment to Buddhism and a truly nonpartisan attitude of respect for all religions; otherwise, one’s naïve good intentions may mask a chauvinistic missionary mentality to spread the true word.
Conversion by Showing Deeper Meanings of Others' Scriptures
Nevertheless, Buddhists have traditionally engaged proponents of other belief systems in philosophical debates, whether or not with the motive of conversion. What is the Buddhist method for convincing others of the superior logic of the Buddhist path? As the 8th-century CE Indian master Shantideva explains, two parties can successfully debate only when based on using examples that both sides accept. Without a common basis for discussion, they have no meeting point. Thus, as the commentaries explain, the First Kalki’s intention was to wean the brahmans from attachment to their literal reading of the Vedas, by showing them alternative, deeper ways of understanding some of the topics discussed in them.
An example accepted in common by the Vedas and Tantric Buddhism is the injunction to take life and to eat flesh. In Buddhist tantra, the two have hidden meanings. Taking life refers to taking the life of the disturbing emotions, which means to take the life of the energy-winds on which they course through the subtle body. Cattle represent the disturbing emotion of naivety, a form of unawareness (ignorance). Eating their flesh means to bring the energy-winds of naivety into the central channel and to dissolve them there. The Vedic injunction to sacrifice bulls and to enjoy their flesh can also be read with the same hidden meaning in reference to an inner yoga dealing with the subtle energies. Manjushri Yashas used Vedic terms and concepts in this way to lead the brahmans to the Kalachakra path to liberation and enlightenment.
In Buddhism, then, a skillful method for “converting” followers of other religions avoids refuting the doctrines of their creeds, but shows instead alternative ways of interpreting them. In examining, as when buying gold, the deeper meanings of their own texts as revealed by Buddhism, they will become convinced of the validity of the Buddhist path. People’s religions of origin thus become valid stepping-stones on the Buddhist path, if they should choose to pursue it.
A clever mind, however, can fabricate elaborate and beautiful intellectual schemes to show that the concepts of any system actually have the deeper meaning of the concepts of another. Motivation is essential; although, again, is it easy to rationalize by saying that one compassionately wishes to lead others to liberation and enlightenment. After all, with compassion, one could equally wish to lead others to heavenly salvation or to an economic and political paradise. To avoid the pitfalls of arrogance and doctrinal chauvinism, one needs sincere respect for other systems of belief and for those who follow them.
Conversion without Totally Rejecting One's Previous Views
The acceptance of Buddhism, then, does not entail total rejection of all one’s previous views. It is not a formal renunciation of one’s former religion, as when converting to a Biblical faith. One may still take provisional refuge in the god or gods of another religion, just not ultimate safe direction. What one needs to reject completely is only one’s previous “distorted views.” These are defined not simply as views that differ from Buddha’s deepest intentions, but as views that are also antagonistic toward them. If one overcomes aggressive antagonism toward Buddhism – and, it is reasonable to add, aggressive antagonism toward all other religions and systems in general – some of one’s previous views may act as stepping stones. Tibetan Buddhism uses the same stepping-stone method to lead its followers along a path of progressively more sophisticated Buddhist systems of philosophical tenets, from Vaibhashika to Madhyamaka.
Manjushri Yashas’s method of teaching the brahmans reveals the methodology. Although many assertions of the brahmans’ religion may serve as stepping-stones to Buddhism, not all the assertions that do so have an equal status. As with the Buddhist tenet systems, some of the brahmans’ assertions can be accepted on a literal level as valid on the Buddhist path, such as certain features of astrology. Others need to be rejected as false on a literal level, despite having deeper valid levels of meaning. Moreover, within the latter category, Manjushri Yashas distinguished between those that have deeper meanings also within the Vedic context, and others that lack such meanings and are simply false.
For example, the 19th-century CE Nyingma Kalachakra commentator Mipam (‘Ju Mi-pham) explains that the hidden profound meaning of the bull sacrifice taught in the Yajur Veda was clear to the Vedic yogis in previous times. Yet, due to the degeneration of the times, knowledge of the inner yoga it symbolizes was lost. Therefore, Manjushri Yashas taught it to the confused brahmans to help them realize the wisdom that was lost within their own tradition. Those who interpret the bull sacrifice literally and actually take the lives of creatures cannot possibly attain the bliss of liberation from their acts. They will only fall to worse rebirth states.
Manjushri Yashas was not implying here that Vedic yogis of the past understood the inner yoga practices of Buddhist tantra as the hidden meaning of the bull sacrifice taught in the Yajur Veda. They understood the inner yoga practices of Hindu tantra. After all, Hindu and Buddhist tantras share many features, such as the assertion of subtle energy-systems with chakras, channels, and energy-winds. The main point here is that even brahmans who are not ripe for the Buddhist teachings must stop sacrificing bulls. The Vedic injunction concerning this practice was never meant to be taken literally, even within the context of the Vedic tradition.
On the other hand, Manjushri Yashas pointed out other features of the brahmans’ assertions that were completely false on a literal level, such as the measurements of the size of the continents. He detailed the size according to the Kalachakra system to help the brahmans overcome their proud attachment to their own assertions. The 13th-century CE Sakya Kalachakra commentator Buton (Bu-ston) explains that Manjushri Yashas’s intention, however, was not to refute all systems of measurement other than the Kalachakra one, for example that which Buddha taught in the abhidharma literature. He had a specific motivation, namely to benefit the brahmans.
Kedrub Je adds that neither the measurements the First Kalki taught nor those found in the Vedas correspond to reality. Nevertheless, a big difference exists between them. The Kalachakra measurements are congruent with those of the human body and those of the Kalachakra mandala. Thus, the intention of Manjushri Yashas’s teaching them, despite their falsehood, was to lead the brahmans to the Kalachakra path to enlightenment. The Vedic system has nothing similar regarding the measurements of the size of the continents. Nevertheless, the First Kalki used a description of the world that shared many features with the Vedic one, such as rings of continents, mountain ranges, and oceans around a circular Mount Meru. This was a skillful means that allowed the brahmans to relate to his description and to go deeper.
The Issue of Unconscious Assimilation in Kalachakra
It is noteworthy that Manjushri Yashas did not warn Buddhists against unconscious assimilation into Islam, as he did the Hindus. In fact, the Kalachakra literature contains no mention of the followers of Islam explicitly trying to convert others to their religion, either forcefully or peacefully. Even when Manjushri Yashas predicted that, in 2424 CE, a non-Indic ruler of India will threaten an invasion of Shambhala and the 25th Kalki would defeat his forces in India, he speaks of a threatened military takeover, not specifically a religious takeover. The First Kalki addressed his warning only to the brahmans in terms of their assimilation into Islam now.
Perhaps the Kalki felt no need to warn the Buddhists, because he was confident in the strength of Buddhism and did not foresee its assimilation. This would mean, however, that the Kalki was naïve and his extrasensory perception of the future contained a flaw, which is an uncomfortable conclusion for Buddhists to draw. Perhaps, assimilation of Buddhism into Islam had not yet occurred to a significant degree at the time when the Kalachakra teachings emerged in India. Historical evidence, however, indicates that by the late 10th century CE, not only Hindu, but also many Buddhist landowners, merchants, and urban educated persons – particularly in Central Asia, northern Afghanistan and southern Pakistan – were already converting for various reasons, including economic advantage. Islamic rulers were not forcing them to convert upon penalty of death if they refused. They could keep their religions if they paid a poll tax.
Alternatively, Manjushri Yashas might have believed that if people of all religions united in the Kalachakra mandala and those who were “ripe” converted to Buddhism, this would be the best solution to the problems of the difficult times. A population threatened by invasion and military takeover can only surmount the danger if it presents a united front. The Buddhists would naturally come to the Kalachakra empowerment. Therefore, the First Kalki needed to address only the non-Buddhists of Shambhala. This seems to have been the main motive for conversion to Buddhism “for those who were ripe.”
It is curious, however, that one of the tactics the First Kalki used to unite the Hindus and Buddhists was a tactic that the Ismaili Shiite Muslims later used to assimilate Hindus as a stepping-stone for their eventual conversion. In the 13th-century CE text Dasavatara, Pir Shams-al-Din identified the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, with the first imam, Ali. The Ismaili imams were the successors to Ali and, in accepting Ali as Kalki, the Hindus would also be accepting the legitimacy of his Ismaili successors. Similarly, Manjushri Yashas termed himself Kalki, also to gain the acceptance of the Hindus.
Accommodation of Islam into Buddhism
Manjushri Yashas even explained how the stepping-stone method could also lead followers of the non-Indic religion to Buddhism. Apparently insensitive to the strong Islamic prohibition of renouncing Islam and converting to a different faith, his priority seems to have been uniting people of all faiths, not just Hindu and Buddhist. After all, there must have also been Muslims in Shambhala, and they faced the same threat of invasion and military takeover as did everyone else. This certainly was the case in eastern Afghanistan and Oddiyana (northwestern Pakistan) at the time, the most likely location where knowledge of Islam derived.
The First Kalki described the non-Indic religion as asserting external matter as consisting of atoms, a permanent soul that temporarily takes rebirth, and the achievement of the happiness of a heavenly rebirth as the highest goal. Knowing the disposition of people with such beliefs, he explained that Buddha taught in accordance with what they could accept. In certain sutras, Buddha taught that the body of a bodhisattva about to achieve Buddhahood is made of atoms. Elsewhere, he explained that a continuity of “self” exists, which carries responsibility for experiencing the results of its behavior (karma), but without speaking of the “self” as either permanent or impermanent. Buddha also taught the provisional goal of achieving better rebirth in a heavenly god realm. The assertions of the non-Indic religion can function as stepping-stones toward accepting these sutras and onward to increasingly more sophisticated Buddhist explanations.
Accommodation of Buddhism into Islam
As Manjushri Yashas did with Islam, Muslim authors of the period also explained Buddhism in terms that followers of their religion could understand. For example, at the beginning of the 8th century CE, al-Kermani wrote a detailed account of Nava Vihara Monastery at Balkh in northern Afghanistan. In it, he described that Buddhists circumambulate and prostrate to a stone cube draped with cloth, as Muslims do at the Kaaba in Mecca. The cube referred to the platform in the center of the main temple on which a stupa stood. The Muslims, however, did not draw these similarities for the sake of using them as a device to lead Buddhists to the path of Islam. They gave Buddhists a simple choice: either keep their religion and pay an extra poll tax, or accept the truth of Islam and be exempt from the levy. Even when Muslim conquerors destroyed Buddhist monasteries as part of their invasion tactic to dispirit a population into surrender, they usually allowed their reconstruction so that they could exact a pilgrimage fee.
Several important questions remain. Is the Kalachakra portrait of conversion to Buddhism in the mythical land of Shambhala merely a description of what might have been beneficial and necessary in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent from the ninth to the 11th centuries CE, or is it timeless advice? Granted the universal wisdom in members of all religions reaffirming the spiritual values of their creeds in order to ward off threats to their societies, is the optimal defense convincing as many people as possible to practice Buddhism? It would be difficult to defend this position, either in reference to only the above-mentioned historical period or as general advice, without being chauvinistic. The unbiased conclusion, then, is to admit that the tone of the Shambhala legend is indeed chauvinistic, although understandable, given the circumstances of the times. It does not follow, however, that Buddhist teachers nowadays need to be chauvinistic when presenting Buddhism to non-Buddhist audiences.
When presenting Buddhism to non-Buddhist audiences, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama always stresses that he is not trying to win converts. He is not challenging others to a debate contest, with the loser required to adopt the assertions of the victor. He explains that he is merely trying to educate others about Buddhism. Peace among different societies comes from understanding each other’s systems of beliefs. Educating others differs greatly from trying to convert them. If others find something of value in Buddhism, they are free to adopt it, without any need to become Buddhists. For those who are strongly interested, they are welcome to pursue their studies further and even to become Buddhist, but only after a long period of deep reflection. For most, however, His Holiness strongly cautions against changing religions.
Buddhism is no different from other religions or philosophical systems in that it claims to have the deepest truth. Nevertheless, the Buddhist assertion is not an exclusivist claim to the “One Truth.” Buddhism also accepts relative truths – things that are true relative to certain groups or to certain circumstances. So long as one’s views are not aggressively antagonistic, one’s relatively true beliefs may serve as provisional stepping stones on the way to the deepest truth as Buddhism defines it. They may also serve as stepping-stones to the deepest truth that other religions teach. So long as the Buddhist assertion of deepest truth is not chauvinistic and does not belie a missionary policy, it may benefit those for whom it suits.