Buddhism 101: Spiritual Practices

Buddhism embraces a variety of rituals and practices intended to help believers along the path to enlightenment. As an organized religion, Buddhism does not have a lot of rules or requirements. A friend says the rule in Buddhism is that there is no rule.

Buddhist express themselves and their spiritual beliefs in a variety of ways.

For instance, some Buddhists worship, pray, meditate and request blessings in temples… others do not. Some Buddhists attend temple ceremonies regularly. Other Buddhists have never stepped foot into a temple. Some value pilgrimages to Buddhist holy sites in India. Others don’t. Some set aside a special place in their home where an altar might focus their attention and intention of meditation. Other Buddhists prefer to meditate on quiet beaches or in silent prayer chapels. Some meditate alone… others meditate in groups. There are lots of ways to practice Buddhism.

We know that the Dalai Llama has told us: “Don’t try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist; use it to be a better whatever-you-already-are.”

It’s important to note that Buddha never suggested that he was above other people and did not want to become a deity to be worshiped. Buddha is NOT a god and never suggested he should be considered as such. History tells us that early art depicted Buddha only by representation, often by his footprints, or the symbolic dharma wheel to represent his teaching. In fact, it wasn’t until several hundred years after his death that statues of him even began to appear. The Mahayanist sect began to elevate Buddha to a higher level than ordinary man because he was enlightened.

The practice of meditation is fundamental to every sect of Buddhism. It comes to us directly from the Buddha’s life experiences and teachings. Meditation is a pathway to liberation, enlightenment, bliss and Nirvana. It’s a process of relaxation and mental concentration and mindfulness that is practiced to be mastered. Meditation trains the mind to become empty of all thoughts. It opens the self to enlightenment. Its effects are peaceful,calming and restful. Many report that their perspectives change as a direct result of meditation.

Meditation is not staring off into space, daydreaming or rehearsing/reviewing the day’s agenda. It’s an attempt to expand consciousness… to transform. On the one hand, meditation is stopping, calming, resting. On the other, its allowing for the possibility of new levels of awareness. Meditation does not have to be done sitting down. In fact, some meditate lying down or walking. A friend meditates while running. Not all people close their eyes while meditating.

It really doesn’t matter how long meditation is. Actually, at first meditation can be as short as five or ten minutes. The ideal length of the meditation is determined by you and the pace of life that you choose. Meditation should be a regular experience – daily is a great start.

Meditation rests the mind and body in a peaceful state. This allows us for a safe internal place to heal old wounds, forgive past hurts and release negative feelings around current challenges. Meditation helps release. It slows us down toward a receptive and reflective state while inviting to look deeper and deeper within ourselves. With consistent practice, many report that meditation can begin to occur naturally as people integrate the process and its benefits into everyday life.

Mantras are sacred sounds or words that help focus one’s attention. Many use mantras to help focus their meditations. Some pick their own mantras that work best for them… others are given a mantra by a spiritual teacher or monk.

Sutras are teachings. Buddha’s teachings were initially passed on by reciting word for word what he had spoken in his teaching. These oral traditions were called sutras and always begin with “thus have I heard”. They are a large collection of sermons and poems and often include stories to provide a parable or message.

These sutras were meant by him to lead us to understanding but at the same time, not for us to depend on any doctrine, even the words spoken by him. The Buddha teaches us to understand more how to live, than why we are here. The sutras are practical and provide methods to enable us to reach that understanding. After hundreds of years of oral traditions, these sutras were written down and began to form the basis of today’s understanding of Buddhism. Obviously, like other old and revered texts, there is continuous debate about the meaning, and the input from the many different transcribers of these verbal teachings.

One of the most popular sutra is the “Lotus Sutra,” which was one of the Buddhas teachings close to his death. The lotus is a recurring symbol in Buddhism and represents the enlightened person, starting like a lotus flower, with roots in the mud, growing through the water to finally see the daylight at the top of the water. The Lotus Sutra is particularly influential in Japan where some followers embrace this teaching often by chanting whole sections. The Lotus Sutra promises salvation for all beings, and gives the message that everyone is able to reach the Buddha mind.

Mudras are symbolic hand gestures.

Prayer Wheels are an aid in reciting mantras with the turn of a wheel.

Diet – The Buddhist teaching where minimal harm is made on the environment and compassion for all life is significant and usually is reflected in diet. Buddha was not strictly a vegetarian, and was, overall, a very pragmatic man. We know that he would accept, and would allow his monks to accept any food, with or without meat, which was offered as long as it had not been specifically prepared for them. Any meal which the monks prepared, or which was made for them, had to be vegetarian. That is, no animal was to be killed specifically for them. Many Buddhists today are primarily vegetarian. Increasingly, many Buddhists are also vegan (includes no dairy or eggs) due to ethical concerns regarding animal cruelty. Some Buddhists also avoid root vegetables (potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic) because pulling the roots from the earth kills the plant.

Buddhism is often as a “different” religious path that frequently resonates with persons who are convinced that the “answer” is to be found within. I believe it’s one way… but not the only way.


Buddhism 101: Spiritual Practices

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