Thursday, March 10, 2011

Debaptism in UK or Is it ok for a Buddhist to attend church service

by Venerable Chuan Guan.

When I was a teenager, I've heard of how Buddhist parents were afraid when their children get drawn to attend church services because if their child should get baptised, then it is a one way path, and their children in future, could not or would not pay respects to them, or remember and honour them with an ancestral tablet either in the temple or at home.

I myself went to, let me see, three or four services when I was a student in JC and in NTU. The first1 when I was in NTU was through the invitation of my then girlfriend who was a Catholic (I was a lay person back then!). Actually, she was not quite my girlfriend yet but we were more or less headed in that direction. I was not about to jeopardise my prospects with her. My mom had a very different idea.

When she saw me wake up early (7+8am or so) on a Sunday morning, her mommy-spidey senses alarms went off faster than you can finish reading this line! She grilled me on where I was going and basically charged me with LIM (Clan of the Forest) Family Penal Offence #348 Section 28A Clause 132, "… wherein a member of the family shall make an attempt to enter the premise of a church for the purpose of attending a service, either intentionally, unintentionally, wilfully, knowingly, or otherwise, with premeditation, in person or proxy, alone or with groups of two or more, such a member shall be … ", you get the idea.

I admitted to the offence, and she as Judge Dredd, policed, charged, judged and was about to subject me to the highest form of punishment. I stood there and listen to her read out the consequences "If you step out of the house and attend the church service, you don't have to come back". In other words, I would have been disowned by my parents, banished from the family and clan.

Shit right? I mean, not shit in the sense that the rule is shit, but shit as in, how did I get caught? :p

The invisible jury and panel of the public turn onto me, to see how I would defend and plea. This is what I told her.

"Mom, I have been a Buddhist since young (or did I say all my life?). I am now 20+ (almost 21!) years old, if one church service should convert me to Christianity (or Catholicism for that matter!), I don't deserve to be a Buddhist!"

She was flabbergastered, but at the same time, I could sense that bit of pride in her welling up and overwhelming her. Stopping me might imply that I am not worthy of being a Buddhist, and in turn, may indicate a weakness in the family's heritage as a Buddhist family or of Buddhism itself? Letting me go on could prove to the world (or more importantly to herself perhaps?), that my upbringing by her and my dad was good enough that I should be able to stand firm as a Buddhist, or I might come back home singing "Amazing Grace … … how sweet the sound … ".

Or she was probably just too confused (as usual) by her son's gift of the gab.

In any case, she let me leave, but not before she gave me the "Please don't do anything stupid. Your dad is so going to blow the top if you convert!" look.

I quickly put on my shoes, in my jeans and somewhat crumpled Giordano long-sleeve shirt that I tried to make do with. This dress code thing with churches, really make you feel like you are going to do something important!

I left and quickly made my way to meet my friend and went to the Emily3 church. She told me before hand that sometimes, there will be people who spoke in tongues and that I should not be surprised or shock when it happens. I just went "uh huh", though in my mind, I was like "Dang Gi (G as in 'G'o) speak in tongues as well, so no biggie … " or so I thought! As I drifted off in my thoughts, I found myself in the service, joined by a congregation of young, middle aged and elderly members.

The pastor greeted us and enjoined us to greet the person next to us. Then he asked whether there was any newcomer. I was like "Shit! Am I really supposed to stand up or raise my hand? Am I supposed to tap dance and tell everybody about my life story? I guess I can tell them how I started coding when I was 12+ 13 years old … " ok, my thoughts really stopped at the "raise my hand" part, 'cos my friend (potential girlfriend!) urged me to do so and I was like thinking "oh yeah, of course!".

After my five minutes of fame in my first service, I sat down, went through the service, witness my first account of others speaking in tongues, and basically cruised along without much fanfare.

As they say, the rest is history. While the church services may appeal to some, my visits to the services only helped me realise that Buddhism was the religion and way of life for me. For others who find it their cup of tea, they may eventually decide to get baptised. This is what most Buddhist parents feared, for many had the concept that it was a one way ticket and having different faiths, their children may as a result, abandon some of the Chinese culture and heritage. Apparently, this is not true. In most religions or groups, one can denounce one's acceptance of the faith just as one can pronounce one's acceptance of it.

I saw a few articles about how in the United Kingdoms (UK), one can officially denounce one's faith and choose to be taken off the national registry. Just do a search on "debaptism".

Spleeters last year wrote to the bishop overseeing the parish where his parents had him christened as a baby to announce he no longer wanted the church "to speak in his name" so was requesting to be struck off the baptism register.

"Whilst we deplore your decision," replied Abbot Jean-Pierre Lorette, "the Catholic Church respects each individual's freedom and will not hold back against their will those who wish to leave it."

I admire and respect the Catholic Church's attitude as exemplified by Abbot Jean-Pierre Lorette's statement that "the Catholic Church respects each individual's freedom and will not hold back against their will those who wish to leave it."

Be it Catholicism, Christianity (technically, not separate, but in general speak, seen as such), Buddhism or other religions, we should not and perhaps cannot keep people in the faith if they no longer subscribe to its tenets and principles.

And returning back to the fear of one's child going to attend church services, an NTU student asked me last night, whether it is ok for a Buddhist to attend church service. I readily shared with her that I myself as a lay person in the past, attended church services, and now as a speaker representing Buddhism at Inter-Religious dialogues or events, often sit through services by clergy members of various faiths! In my opinion, it is definitely not an issue to do so, as long as we know our own Buddhist teachings to begin with. If one do not, one could come out confused with both sets of teachings and misinterpret either one wrongly, leading to dire consequences.

I further shared how the Buddha often talked to adherents from other faiths and answered their questions. From the dialogues, the Buddha was either already well versed in their teachings or if not, the Buddha would enquire about them. Many of the Buddha's Chief disciples met the Buddha this way, and became convinced that the Buddha's teaching was the truth, requested to be ordained and admitted into the Sangha. Some are lay persons and became the Buddha's lay supporter.

So if you are a Buddhist, it would be befitting to learn the Dharma, for it is your inheritance from the Buddha. If you are a Buddhist, you might as well get some benefit from Buddhism. The best way is to learn the Dharma, apply it and live a life that leads towards less sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress and despair.

When a Buddhist have learnt sufficiently in this way, it is absolutely alright to attend services of any religion. When we do so, we can appreciate how different people have different spiritual needs, different world views and beliefs, and not become bigotic.


  1. The first time I attended a service was through an invite by a friend, Yiren, in junior college.
  2. Anything that is phrased like legal references just seem all so much more important, doesn't it?
  3. I cannot remember if it is Emly or Emily Church.

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