Buddhist Beginnings. . .
One of the most common questions I receive via email is some form of the question How do I start practicing Buddhism? It can be a tough question to answer, as the Buddhist path has many entry points. With the volume of teachings, we may find ourselves overwhelmed without some guidance. So, today I offer this little guide on how to practice Buddhism to get you started.
First, let’s take a brief look at what Buddhism actually is. Buddhism began with Siddhartha Gautama, a man born in modern-day Nepal about 2500 years ago. Now known as the Buddha, this man investigated awakening and discovered the ultimate truth, nirvana.
Buddhism is seen as a way of life by some, a philosophy by others, and a religion by many. The point is this: Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition. That is, there is no emphasis on a creator or specific deity. However, traditional Buddhist scriptures are full of mentions of deities and gods.
Although meditation is often seen as the main practice of Buddhists in popular culture, it is but one piece of the Buddha’s teachings. Though regarded as a beneficial practice with values beyond Buddhism it’s a little known fact that most Buddhist throughout history have not meditated. There are many more factors on the path and pieces to living a wholesome life than just meditating once or twice a day. Practicing Buddhism isn’t as simple as meditating every day. The Buddha’s teachings are contained in a vast collection of writings known as the suttas, or discourses. If you want to dive into the actual words of the Buddha yourself, you can visit Access to Insight, the web’s most extensive collection of the Pali Canon in English.
Like many religious practices the place to start with Buddhism is in your ethics. This is how many Buddhists across the world start with their path. There are many teachings on ethics in the Buddhadharma, but here are a few to consider:
The Five Precepts are a set of training guidelines that Buddhists across traditions undertake. These precepts are aimed to help us not cause harm to ourselves or our community with our behavior.
- I abstain from killing any living beings.
- I abstain from taking that which is not freely given.
- I abstain from sexual misconduct.
- I abstain from saying that which is not true.
- I abstain from intoxicating drinks which lead to heedlessness.
Obviously, these precepts carry more with them than simple rules. There are many different interpretations and ways to look at these precepts.
Another place to look for inspiration in ethics is in the Noble Eightfold Path. Within the eight factors, there is a section of three known as sila, or ethics. These factors include:
- Wise Speech
- Wise Action
- Wise Livelihood
Although this certainly is an oversimplification of the factors, the basic idea is to not cause harm with our speech, actions, or methods of earning a living. There are many pieces to investigate here, and this can be a lifelong process. However, starting with the practice is simple. We can begin investigating our speech, our actions, and our work habits to see how we may be causing harm to ourselves or others.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are often the first idea people learn about when discovering Buddhism. It is traditionally believe to be the first teaching the Buddha ever gave (although scholars have found this to be incorrect). The Four Truths are what the Buddha awoke to during his enlightenment. The Four Noble Truths are:
- The truth of dukkha (suffering, dissatisfaction).
- The truth of the cause of dukkha.
- The truth of the cessation of dukkha.
- The path to ending dukkha.
The Four Noble Truths point toward the reality of suffering in human experience, the causes of our suffering, that it is possible for suffering to cease, and how we do so.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Noble Truths. That is, it’s the path that the Buddha offered to relieve suffering. As the name suggests, it contains eight factors to cultivate in a non-linear fashion. The eight factors are:
- Wise Intention
- Wise Thought
- Wise Speech
- Wise Action
- Wise Livelihood
- Wise Effort
- Wise Mindfulness
- Wise Concentration
These factors are to be continually practiced and cultivated, and are undertaken by Buddhists of all traditions.
The Three Characteristics of Existence
The Buddha taught of three characteristics, or marks, of existence. These are often more heavily emphasized in Theravada traditions, but are present in many Buddhist sects. The Three Marks are three qualities which are present in all we experience (other than nirvana). They are:
- Dukkha (suffering)
The point of mindfulness meditation is believed to specifically be to bring awareness to these three characteristics.
Karma and Samsara
Karma and samsara are core Buddhist beliefs that are often left out in Western Buddhist traditions. However, it’s an important teaching to understand when you’re a beginner to Buddhism. The ideas of samsara and karma are core to the beliefs of Buddhism and development of the path. Karma is defined as (in Hinduism and Buddhism) the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. Samsara is the world as a suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end. Beings are driven from life to life in this system by karma, which is activated by their good or ill actions committed in this life as well as previous lives.
So, with all of this information how do you actually start practicing Buddhism? I have always taught and encouraged those starting their practice to see or frame their life and days as investigations. Once you have an understanding of some of the basics, begin incorporating them into your life. You can start with the Five Precepts perhaps, or maybe a factor on the Eightfold Path. See if you can follow the precepts, or what it means to investigate Wise Speech in your life. Jump in, and remember these are investigations!
In the end the teachings of the Buddha are guidelines for an attentive mind that no longer wishes to suffer or live blindly. Each step creates YOUR path and with practice each step each day on that path informs you more, allows you to see more clearly and understand more fully. So take those first steps and decide how to move forward each day. You only grow from going the distance with yourself, your efforts and your understanding.
Peace and Love, Jim
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