How to Practice Buddhism – The Beginner’s Guide
One of the most common questions we 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, we’ve created this little guide on how to practice Buddhism to get you started.
What is Buddhism?
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. We covered this issue in our post Is Buddhism a Religion?, but the point is this: Buddhism is a nontheistic 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. In Tricycle’s great piece 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism, they discuss the 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.
“Converting” to Buddhism
Over the last 2,500 years, many Buddhist traditions have had virtually the same process for converting. When a layperson wanted to join the Buddha’s community of monks and nuns, they had to simply take formal refuge in the Three Jewels. They also had to undertake the training rules of monks or nuns, known as the vinaya.
In modern times, conversion really depends on tradition. In many Theravada traditions, especially for laypeople, the practice remains the same. To begin practicing Buddhism, all you need to do is start investigating the path, undertake the precepts, and take refuge. Many Mahayana schools and traditions have more formal procedures involving chanting, taking Bodhisattva vows, and the witnessing by a community.
For those who wish to live the monastic life, a more involved process is likely. Depending on the tradition, you may be encouraged to shave your head, undertake the eight precepts as a novice, renounce money and electronics, and commit to a period of practice at the monastery.
The Foundations of the Buddhist Path
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.
One place to start with Buddhism is in your ethics. This is how many Buddhists across the world start with the path, especially in Southeast Asia. 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.
You can read more about the precepts at https://oneminddharma.com/the-five-precepts/. 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.
Buddhist Meditation Practices
Of course, meditation is an important part of the Buddha’s teachings. For many, the image of practicing Buddhism is of somebody sitting in silent meditation. There are many different types of meditation practice, depending on the tradition. Here are a few of the foundational techniques and types of meditation.
First, we have concentration meditation. Many Buddhist scholars agree that this is the type of meditation the Buddha was doing when he became fully awakened under the Bodhi Tree. Concentration is the practice of cultivating a mind that can collect and focus on one object fully, most often the breath.
The most well-known meditation practice is certainly mindfulness meditation. There are many ways to practice mindfulness, with many of the techniques coming from the Buddha’s discourse on establishing mindfulness known as the Satipatthana Sutta. Here are a few different mindfulness meditations.
Finally, there are a group of practices known as the brahma-viharas or heart practices. These are a group of four qualities we cultivate in meditation, often through the repetition of phrases. The Buddhist brahma-viharas are loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity.
Meditation is a practice that takes time, effort, and consistency. If you’re interested in getting started with meditation, we have quite a few resources in our meditation guide for beginners athttps://oneminddharma.com/meditation-guide-for-beginners/.
Basic Buddhist Teachings
The Buddha’s teachings were vast. He taught specifically to laypeople, and specifically to the monastic community. With thousands of suttas, there are a few core teachings that form the foundation of Buddhist understanding. We recommend reading our post Basic Buddhist Teachings and Practices for more information.
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. To learn more, read our post on the Four Truths of Buddhism.
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. You can read more in-depth and find resources on our page at https://oneminddharma.com/noble-eightfold-path/.
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. You can read more about the Three Characteristics at https://oneminddharma.com/three-marks-of-existence/.
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. We have a great post called What is Karma? that we recommend checking out, or you can take our Intro to Buddhism Course for my favorite way to investigate these teachings.
Schools and Traditions
When you’re new to practicing Buddhism, you may quickly realize how many different traditions and schools there are. There are two main schools, Mahayana and Theravada, while some consider Vajrayana to be its own school. Either way, there are quite a few different Buddhist traditions. It can be useful to investigate different traditions to find the one that works for you and fits your needs.
Tips for Getting Started with Buddhism
So, with all of this information how do you actually start practicing Buddhism? Here are a few tips and ways we have found uuseful.
Read Buddhist Books
If you’re open to reading, books are one of the best ways to go. We have a list of Our Favorite Buddhist Books that you can check out. Our favorite book to recommend on that list is the Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, as it offers a wonderful introduction to the teachings of the Buddha. This is a great way to learn, familiarize yourself with the path, and begin incorporating what you learn into your everyday life.
Listen to Dharma Talks
Dharma talks are given by teachers and monks around the world, and you can find tons of free ones online. You can type “dharma talk” into your favorite search engine or YouTube to find some. You can even type in a specific subject like compassion, mindfulness, etc. We also have our podcast Dharma Talk as a great free option!
Meditate with Guided Meditations
To get started with meditation, we recommend listening to some guided meditations. We included some above, but there are many places to find guided meditations. One of our favorites is the app Insight Timer. It has tons of meditations from different teachers, and offers a great way to dive into meditation practice. You can also check out our free Weekly Meditation Podcast.
Undertake Basic Practices
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!
Find a Teacher and Community
Finally, the best way to really learn to “practice Buddhism” is to find a teacher and/or community. We recommend both, but do what you can. There may be a meditation community near you. If not, we have donation-based online groups every Wednesday at Class.OneMindDharma.com that you can check out! Also, both of us offer individual sessions with students at https://oneminddharma.com/mindfulness-coach/.
If you have any questions about your practice or the path, please don’t ever hesitate to reach out. We are reachable at Info@OneMindDharma.com and answer every single email that comes in! There’s no silly questions, and we’re here to support your practice in the dharma.