Many of those who become interested in Buddhism nowadays, through books, or through the Internet, will spend some time studying the subject at home. They might spend some time on retreats, or become associated with a teacher if they are fortunate enough to find one in their vicinity with whom they form a rapport.
Zen, in particular, does benefit from instruction by a teacher, and association with a group. It is easy to go off on a tangent, or think you understand something when you actually don't. A teacher and a sangha group are invaluable for this reason and it is always recommended to seek one out.
However, all that said, one may find periods of time when you need to study and practice by yourself. So this thread is aimed at providing resources for exploration of the Buddhist path. It will be complemented by further posts on other aspects of Buddhist practice and discipline.
To practice Buddhist teachings, it is important to have a sense of connection to them. Again, nowadays with the Internet, there are many information sources available. But it's possible to read or browse all kinds of information about a topic, without really connecting with it. The key thing is, find some fundamental Buddhist teaching, saying or principle - something that really speaks to you - and really internalise it. (In my case, that was The Dhammapada and Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.)
If the opportunity arises, discuss or ask questions about the Buddhist text or principle that interests you with a teacher and your sangha. Again you don't necessarily need to know huge numbers of verses - the Buddhist sacred literature is vast in extent. But don't be put off by the number of texts and the long Buddhist titles - generally speaking, one's practice is centred around one or two of the key scriptures.
Of course, many urban Westerners are mainly interested in Buddhism because of the teachings of mindfulness meditation. Actually in many traditional Buddhist cultures, meditation is not so strongly emphasized. But Buddhism in the West has been focussed on meditation as a means of self-transformation and insight.
The key with meditation is, like the Nike advertisement: Just Do It. Start small, like one or two sessions daily. Try and make it at the same time. Set up a place for it. Tell loved ones and housemates that you're going offline for a little while, 'just sitting now'. Then commit to sit. You will find that you learn something great from it. It takes commitment and dedication but the result is greater insight and peace of mind.
When beginning to learn meditation, is recommended to seek instruction from an experienced teacher if possible, to discuss posture, attitude, and to help frame your intentions. It is also good to check in regularly with a teacher and/or sangha group.
As for online instructions, see How to Sit Zazen, or How to Practice Zen Meditation.
Principles and Precepts
The guiding behavioural principles of Buddhism are expressed as precepts. Precepts are not the same as commandments - there is not so much of a sense of 'do it, or else!' Buddhism puts more emphasis on individual understanding of the precepts and learning to practice and abide in them. Of course they are not simply there to be flouted or ignored, but 'taming the monkey mind' is something that requires patience, dedication and also a realistic understanding of yourself. Think of them as guidelines.
The Five Precepts are:
- *Not harming living things.
* Not taking what is not given.
* Not to engage in sexual misconduct.
* Avoid lying, gossip or harsh speech
* Abstain from intoxicants e.g. drugs and drink.
Sila, Prajñā, Samadhi
Overall, the precepts concern the aspect of the Buddhist path called sila, meaning ethical behaviour.
The other components are wisdom (Prajñā) and meditation (samadhi). These principles together form the ‘tripod’ which supports the practice of meditation. The simile is that, without the three legs of the tripod, the structure won’t stand up! So together the principles of sila-prajna-samadhi - morality, wisdom and meditation - are the basis of Buddhist meditation practice.
So, to sum up, for those interested in learning Buddhist meditation:
Form a connection with the teaching by becoming familiar with some Buddhist texts and principles.
Seek out a teacher and/or sangha group
Understand the precepts and principles behind the practice
And 'commit to sit'
Further posts on resources and reading will be posted from time to time.