As you join an estimated 500 million other Buddhists around the world in the quest for spiritual enlightenment, you'll be answering a number of deep spiritual and philosophical questions. Buddhists are a lighthearted, peace loving group who are committed to living a highly spiritual lifestyle. Buddhism doesn't have a fixed, unquestionable ideology like major religions of faith, but there are definite elements of mysticism and spirituality.
Know What Makes Buddhism Different From Other Religions
In Buddhism, there is no God, nor any gods or goddesses, seraphim, cherubim, archangels, demons, mythological beasts, familiars, pan-dimensional cyborgs or talkative shrubbery. That's one thing that distinguishes it from other major religions, and that's also what makes it so appealing to the ultrarational, scientifically trained Western mind. The only steadfast rule about Buddhism is that you accept the teachings of the Buddha. There's a story told in Buddhist lore about a follower of another religion who went to the Buddha to try to convert him. The man was so impressed by the words of the Buddha that he decided to become a follower of the Buddha. Buddha said to him, "Make a proper investigation first." Notice that the Buddha did not proselytise aggressively, but he suggested that people should take it or leave it according to their own personal assessment without relying on hearsay or mere tradition. So study as broadly as you need to, and make up your own mind. Keep this story in mind as you read about Buddhism; it strongly exemplifies its core values of achieving your own internal happiness instead of blindly following the words of others. Common practices and teachings are taken from two main branches: The School of Elders (Theravada) and The Greater Vehicle (Mahayana), one subdivision of which is the well-known Zen Buddhism.
Understand the Synonyms for the Buddha
The Buddha is addressed in a number of ways and referenced in different ancient texts and books. The following are all synonyms for the Buddha: Siddharta Gautama, The Awakened One, The Blessed One, Shakyamuni, Tathagata, Great Seer, Shower of the Way and Worthy One.
Learn the Four Noble Truths
The Buddha gave his first talk as The Awakened One. The lecture explained the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These noble truths are the core of the Buddhist belief system; the only way to reach enlightenment (which is good) is to accept these Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth: Life is characterised by suffering, pain and dissatisfaction. The Second Noble Truth: The origin of suffering is the craving for pleasure, existence and non-existence. The Third Noble Truth: There is a way to rid yourself of this suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth: To rid yourself of suffering, you must follow the Eightfold Path.
Follow the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts
The whole reason for becoming Buddhist is to achieve happiness and become "enlightened." In order to do this, you must follow the Eightfold Path. Once you have accomplished all eight steps, you are officially enlightened.
Right Knowledge: Strive to comprehend the first three Noble Truths. This might seem a bit circular, but language is a tricky thing, and the Great Seer wanted to make sure you had all your bases covered. The Noble Truths, perhaps, aren't as straightforward as they may seem at first. So you must strive to fully comprehend them.
Right Thinking: Consciously dedicate yourself to a life in harmony with the Noble Truths elucidated by the Buddha.
Right Speech: No gossiping, lying, backbiting and harsh language. If you don't have anything valuable to say, keep quiet.
Right Conduct: For lay Buddhists (meaning Buddhists who aren't monks), Right Conduct means following the Five Precepts. If you're a monk, there are some more rules for conduct, but don't worry about them until you're ready to become a monk.
Right Livelihood: Go peacefully into the world and do no harm. So choose a profession that's harmless to living things, and refrain from killing people.
Right Effort: Conquer the flow of negative thoughts, replacing them with good thoughts.
Right Mindfulness: Achieve an intense awareness of your body, emotions and mental states. Quiet the noises in your head and dwell in the present.
Right Concentration: Learn about (and practice) various kinds of meditation, an important booster rocket on the launch pad to enlightenment.
The Five Precepts are the basic rules of conduct for lay Buddhists. The Five Precepts aren't commandments given to you by an angry God who threatens you if you disobey; rather, they are guidelines meant to improve your karma and help you along the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. These few rules keep you out of the worst kinds of trouble, ultimately making you happier: Don't kill--man nor beast. Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't cheat on your loved one. Don't take drugs or drink alcohol.
Take Refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha
Buddhism is basically made of three things: The Buddha: the Awakened One; The Dhamma: the teaching, including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and a large canon of sacred texts; and The Sangha: the community of Buddhist monks and enlightened beings. You become a Buddhist partly by taking "refuge" in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. This means that you agree to learn from the Buddha's example, from the sacred texts and participate in some way in the organisation of Buddhist monks and lay persons. It is a good idea to contact a Buddhist priest. Look for temples and associations in the Yellow Pages or go to the Global Resources Guide at the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. The priest (which can be a man or a woman) will guide you through initiation into his/her branch of Buddhism and perhaps set up some kind of commitment ritual, which isn't absolutely necessary. If you don't want to get in touch with a priest (or you can't) but would still like to do something to mark the occasion of your setting out on a new path, you can perform a do-it-yourself initiation online. Otherwise, just try to follow the Five Precepts and learn about the Four Noble Truths.
Decide How You Want to Make Buddhism a Part of Your Life
Sometimes Buddhism, especially as it's been adopted in the West, can appear so liberal and watered down that it's difficult to distinguish between an actual Buddhist and a plain old "open-minded seeker of wisdom." There's no sacred law telling you, for example, that you ought to attend service at the temple every Wednesday and donate 10 per cent of your income to the Dalai Lama. Lay Buddhism is about as flexible as religion can get. Nonetheless, one of your refuges as a Buddhist is the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns). They spend each and every day trying to become wiser, better people (with varying degrees of success), and some of them are available to you at certain times for guidance and counselling. Your spiritual journey might benefit from their wisdom, as well as from the companionship of fellow Buddhists.
Buddhism can be frustrating for someone seeking spiritual guidance precisely because the Awakened One perceived the highest wisdom as a kind of absence. Every time you find a star in the Buddhist firmament to guide yourself by, it fades into darkness. That's sort of the point. The truth of the Middle Way is supposed to be beyond the reach of those who are chasing it. Mellow out. Enjoy life. Rejoice in the absence of a great burden of rules and doctrines. Discovering Buddhism isn't the beginning of your search for wisdom, and taking refuge in the Buddha won't be the end. Follow the guidance of your priest (if you have one), keep on reading and build a spiritual routine that feels right for you. This might include going to the local temple, performing acts of charity, going on retreat, meditation, contemplating the sacred texts and perhaps even becoming a novice monk.
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