I am one of at least 8 people that I know who have become Orthodox Christians after having been Tibetan (usually Nyingmapa) or Zen Buddhists. There is a good possibility that there will soon be a book with the stories of such people, and how their conversion took place. I can offer you a few sample perceptions that I have developed on the way as to why Orthodox Christianity makes sense to Buddhists:
• Buddhism has always been primarily monastic and ascetic in nature, with an emphasis on spiritual practice and development more than just mental assent to a list of truths. There is an organic unity between understanding of precepts and the quality of practice in Buddhism that serves well when learning about Orthodoxy.
• Buddhism has always had some form of ‘iconography’.
• Buddhists venerate the lives of ascetics, relics and ‘saints’.
• Buddhists (at least the Tibetans) have highly complex and developed forms of liturgical practice, including chanting, incense, etc. (e.g. they aren't intimidated by the typicon :-))
• Buddhists understand that it is wise not to live for the present life, but to struggle for the future one.
• Buddhists understand the value of dispassion and mental stillness.
• Americans who become Buddhists usually are fervent spiritual seekers, who get used to struggling with foreign languages and cultures, and pushing themselves outside of their ‘comfort zone’ in order to imbibe a deeper spiritual life.
• Buddhists are already used to the idea that fervently seeking spiritual growth will cause pain in the legs. :-)
Now as to why someone moves from Buddhism to Orthodoxy - everyone's story is different - some are miraculous - some are frightening - some are fairly ordinary. But a common denominator seems to be that; if a person has even the smallest history of knowledge of Christ before becoming a Buddhist, then even the smallest of such impressions, even from early childhood, will cause a Buddhist to reach a point beyond which they cannot grow as a Buddhist. There are Buddhist practices that serve to ‘open the heart’. Such a practice will often not work for one whose heart has been visited even briefly by Christ - their heart will open only for Him. More than one Buddhist has caught himself chanting a mantra that he or she had previously chanted over 100,000 times, that somehow, one day turns into ‘Lord have mercy’. And He does have mercy!
Fr Seraphim (Rose), also a convert from Buddhism to Orthodox Christianity, said of Buddhism, ‘It’s fine as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough’.
I am in charge of the convert/chrismation-preparation/information class for our parish. I have noticed that it seems easier to dialogue with people from Buddhist backgrounds about the meaning of Orthodoxy than it is to talk with Americans who are from Catholic or Protestant backgrounds. I wonder if others have had experiences like mine, or contrary experiences, and would care to comment on those experiences. Thank you.
Why Orthodox Christianity makes sense to Buddhists...
Three important comparisons for me were:
• The Buddhist notion of attachment, i.e., that desire is the obstacle to enlightenment, is basically identical to the Orthodox interpretation of original sin: we’re born to be fascinated by the world’s temptations, but this fascination turns our faces away from God;
• Buddhists, like the Orthodox, emphasize the dangers of spiritual pride;
• Buddhists, like the Orthodox, emphasize ‘loving kindness’ as the moral righteousness that’s necessary for sound spiritual practice.
FWIW, it might interest you that Kuan-yin’s (Avalokisvara’s) femininity was syncretistically borrowed from Christianity in the 6th century AD or so (IIRC). Apparently, Avalokitesvara was originally the male god of mercy, but after Buddhists were exposed to Christian statues of the blessed virgin mother, Buddhist sculptors started producing the now-familiar images of female goddess of mercy, standing with a baby in her arms.
It was a good while after my conversion and baptism, before I realized just how big a difference it is that Buddhism lacks anything analogous to the Christian Passion and Eucharist. The lotus sutra’s treatment of the Buddha’s death was very moving to me, but it doesn’t carry the same point at all, and indeed, the Buddha’s death is not the central event in the Buddhist faith.
My spiritual father insisted that ‘Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion’. I didn’t understand what he meant, until he pointed out that in Buddhism, salvation is available only to a spiritual elite, because only Buddhist monks have a serious prospect of enlightenment in this lifetime. He said that Christianity is ‘more democratic’, in that every Christian can realistically hope for salvation.
I was a Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhist for ten years. My childhood was devoid of any religious training, but I could never rid myself of the notion of a Creator God, or of an eternal soul. Ultimately those issues took me away from Buddhism. A couple of other similarities between Orthodoxy and Buddhism are:
• The importance of finding a spiritual father in Orthodoxy and the concept of Guru Yoga in Buddhism.
• Use of the prayer rope in Orthodoxy and mala (prayer) beads in Buddhism.
There are more areas of convergence between the writings of the Desert Fathers and those of Tibetan Buddhist saints than I could possibly enumerate. Both faiths contain powerful anti-caste/class messages that divert significantly from their spiritual forerunners (Hinduism and Judaism).