Understanding Buddhism, learning how to meditate…You might have contemplated the idea for a while, maybe even for years. Yet nobody told you what to begin with and you’d rather avoid falling into a weird cult or a New Age group.
If you’re sick of misattributed Facebook quotes from the Buddha or “10 ways to be insanely happy right now” kind of literature this post might help you dig right at the core of this 2500 year old spirituality. I wrote it as a roadmap, geared towards those who wish a direct experience of Buddhism as a path of transformation.
Whatever your background or country may be, here’s is a sequence of actions to take your first steps with Buddhism philosophy and practice, in a safe and gradual way.
It’s the easiest part, and the most immediately rewarding.
In the ocean of books about Buddhism, you’re sure to find documented and entertaining reads. My first Dharma texts delighted me so much that I felt I had finally found somebody who understood me, someone who not only knew where I was coming from but who could tell about where I should go. The bits of understanding I had gathered in my life could finally sit in a coherent picture, thanks to the explanations Buddhism had to offer. I hope you encounter this feeling too
Here are a few editions to get you started and get an overview of the Dharma in general (thanks to Colin for the recommendations):
The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology – Jack Kornfield
For a solid general introduction to meditation and Buddhist principles. This is full of helpful anecdotes, quotations, and suggested meditations.
Buddhism For Dummies – Landaw
For a more detailed introduction to many elements of Buddhist philosophy and practice, an excellent book (despite the title). Has examples, cross-links. Useful, especially for those with questions about Buddhist terms, covers a lot of material in an accessible way. Will be particularly helpful if you’ve already read about Buddhism and are looking for explanations of topics and terms you’re encountering.
Buddhism Plain & Simple – Steve Hagen
A shorter, rather spare introduction to Buddhist practice from a Zen point of view. Very little Buddhist philosophy or detail, but explains clearly the point and practice of looking at the mind.
2-Exploring all Buddhisms
While reading will help you get a sense of the Buddha Dharma, you need a direct contact with it if you want it to change you. There’s a plethora of Buddhist traditions from which you can chose, I recommend you do yourself the favor to learn what characterizes each of them, understand their common features and differences. Let me give you a bit of background and tell you why it’s so important to investigate on Buddhisms:
Since the Buddha explained his vision and the path leading to it, his message has spread in nearly all continents and countries without losing its strength.
Keeping the fire alive has been possible thanks to the tireless job of an uninterrupted lineage of masters and disciples, passing the Buddha’s message from one generation to the next without adding or subtracting bullshit on the way. It’s a process called spiritual transmission, that’s how modern humans like us still get a chance to listen, meditate and hopefully realize what the Buddha was talking about ages ago.
There’s an impressive number of Buddhist lineages that are still alive to this day. They’re spread everywhere in the world: Zen (Japan), Chan (China), Vajrayana (aka Tibetan Buddhism), Theravada(South East Asia). Each of them is an adaptation of the Buddhist path to meet the mindsets of people coming from different cultures across the globe: Zen Buddhism has a minimalist flavor to it that matched Japanese approach to life while Tibetan Buddhism recycled Himalayans Shamanic rituals to make an advanced tool chest of Tantric meditations.
No Western version of the Buddhist path is available yet (it’ll probably take a few generation before that happens). But the message has now been pretty well translated to make it accessible for any student around the world.
It’s crucial to have at least a general overview of all Buddhist traditions, to broadens your understanding of Buddhism and facilitate a documented choice when you finally pick a specific approach (which you’ll have to do if you want to get anywhere).
And if you worry about the authenticity of the sometimes very exotic Buddhist forms, keep in mind that these paths have been beaten down by generations of truth seekers who successfully reached the goal of Buddhism: enlightenment.
At this early stage of the process, I invite you to read about the various Buddhist lineages, watch documentaries and check online resources, wikipedia buddhist portal should be very helpful.
As you browse through each Buddhist approach, be honest about your impressions: how do their their message and style make you feel (traditions, rituals, music, philosophical views)? Do you draw any inspiration from their liturgy? Does your mind click with the books and youtube conferences given by their teachers? If not, explore other options, there’s nothing wrong with having preferences, in fact you don’t have to love all these cultural packages, they were intended for very different categories of people and they won’t necessarily fit your style.
Also, make sure you can identify the origins of the traditions you’re interested in: some claim Buddhist affiliations but are not genuine, an authentic lineage traces back to the Buddha, which means that a master could transmit his knowledge to a disciple who then reached a full understanding, etc…This background information can be found on encyclopedias or online, just make sure you take data with a grain of salt when it’s a tradition talking about itself…
3-Discovering places and teachers
Assuming you’ve identified traditions that resonate with you, it’s time to get a first hand experience. That step is important to stop idealizing Buddhism and start enjoying what it really has to offer. Reality might not always meet your expectations, though: you might be delighted by reading Zen Koans in your apartment, but sitting for hours in a row in front of a blank wall is not for everyone, yet that’s also what Zen is about.
Likewise, the Dalai Lama has a talent for fitting complex ideas in a nutshell, he makes everything sound simple, but he’s the head of a lineage (the Gelugpas) that requires years of intensive studies of Buddhist canons.
In short: it’s time to trade your idea of Buddhism for the reality of it. Go to some Buddhist places, listen to talks, attend meditation seminars and rituals and meet those who belong to the branches that inspire you, the best way to do that is to go to your closest Buddhist Center or Monastery (if you’re lucky enough to have one close to you).
Here’s a comprehensive resource to locate those places: http://www.buddhanet.info/wbd/
Note: Travelling to distant countries where Buddhism is a dominant religion is a way to make a first contact, but it’s generally not going to help you start practicing it: if you want Buddhism to change your life, you need it in your daily environment, not over there in Nepal.
I bet you there’s something going on around your area. At worst, you’ll have to travel a short distance to make a first direct encounter with Buddhism and its student.
Now, here’s a few criteria you should check to so you don’t waste time in an environment that doesn’t suit you:
– The crew:
What I mean by the crew is the Buddhist followers you’re going to practice with.
They matter, you’ll like them or not, it totally depends on your personality, but bear in mind that Buddhism is not meant to be always practiced on your own: you need the support of a “Sangha” (spiritual community) to progress on that path. Ideally they’ll inspire and advise you, they’ll be there as friends who share a common interest for Buddhism.
After meeting with the beginners and the seniors ask yourself: would you gladly spend a few hours every months with them? See what answer you come up with, that’s already a clue whether you belong to this group or not.
You need a guide to develop an understanding of the path, it is not possible to teach yourself Buddhism. While the first steps on the way are pretty straightforward, every student meets obstacles at some point. These blockages have to do with the student’s understanding and therefore can’t be solved by the student himself (you can’t understand what you don’t understand, otherwise you would).
You’ll find teachers in all flavours and styles in Buddhist places, the question is not who is a superstar, but who feels right for you?
Take the time to attend their courses, some will bore you to tears while others will open your mind and enlighten you. Once again, wonder if you would trust a teacher to give you direct advice and sometimes challenge your convictions. Would you be OK to share with him very personal information? The relationship with a master is essential on the path, but it’s only going to be effective if mutual trust is there. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.
Don’t leave your guts feelings at the door, you’ll need it more than ever when you gauge a master.
Meditation has gained so much popularity that we often assume the word covers one single practice: it’s far more complex than that. In Buddhism, meditation means “training the mind” and it includes dozens of different mind trainings.
In this plethora of tools, you’ll need to see what meditative transmission feels right for you. Attend practice events, sit on a cushion and experience for yourself the many forms of meditation traditions have to offer.
Same thing for the liturgy: it is meant to inspire you for the better, so if it turns you off, try some other place…
I’m always amazed how candid most of us are when it comes to Buddhism, we often think of it as a unstained spirituality that magically travelled through the ages without ever making compromises with governments and power.
In reality, Buddhism has also survived thanks to the organizations supporting it, and they’re often as corrupt as any other. Where there’s a system, you’ll find money and power nibbling every bit of spiritual authenticity present in a tradition.
In order to avoid heart breaks in the long run, check out the records of the institution representing the lineages you’re interested in. They can be found online. The quick and dirty tip: google “scandal [name of the center]”.
The purpose of this background check is not to scare you away from each Buddhist organization but to avoid falling in a scam.
And if you find rotten eggs, remember that they have nothing to do with Buddhism and everything to do with human flaws. Buddhism remains a genuine path, but it’s your responsibility to pick its best representants and leave false gurus and unscrupulous organizations on the side.
I promise you a roller coaster of enthusiasm and disappointments during that phase, but eventually your heart and mind should give you a hunch on what tradition you feel most comfortable with.
You’ve done the hardest part, anyway.
4-Choosing your path and getting serious at it
If you made it thus far in your research, you won’t be an absolute beginner anymore, now, to get tangible results from meditation, you’ll need to chose a tradition and stick to it.
I’m aware that this recommendation goes against the Status Quo, a good part of spiritual seekers hold the belief that we should go with our inspiration and pick chunks of wisdom from various tradition to make up our own customized spirituality. That vision appeals to our generation of online shoppers, and I’d personally opt for a free style Buddhism if I hadn’t been taught by actual teachers that this strategy doesn’t get you anywhere.
If spirituality was a supermarket, Buddhism and affiliate goodies would cover a good third of the alleys, you could conveniently skip itchy topics like ethical conduct and impermanence. But the Dharma is not a product, and if you want it to change you, you need to pick one of its tradition, study it comprehensively and stick to it until the end.
5-Sticking it out
Whatever your path choice might be: Theravada, Zen or Vajrayana, no matter how inspired you feel in the first months or so, in the long run there’s gonna be blood, your certainties will be shaken, your self-image, your idea of happiness and pain, in fact everything will be turned upside down. Buddhism brings you to a peaceful place, but the path that gets you there is rocky, and nobody can walk it for you.
You’re going to want to back off, sometimes you will (I had my moments). But I hope you don’t give up, ever: being challenged doesn’t mean being wrong, in fact, when you feel like quitting it often means that you’ve touched the bone. That will happen often if you practice Buddhism, and you’ll grow as strong as the obstacle you meet on the way.
You’ll also touch some form of relief that nothing else seems to provide, something unconditional. It’s worth it, I promise. It wouldn’t hurt to start now.
May you have the temerity to engage into the path taught by the Buddha, may you listen, meditate and put his words into practice, leaving aside the commercial bullshit that promises you enlightnment against your email address.
May you reap the fruit of meditation, may you reap it so freaking much that you have to share with those around you!
A few more Reads:
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
When Things Fall Apart – Pema Chodron
The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: Life-Story and Teachings of Milarepa – Garma C.C. Chang