How to Practise Buddhism

Yat-Biu Ching

Whenever we perform a task, we must do it completely and successfully. To believe in a religion, one must first understand the principles of a religion to determine if it can satisfy the needs of mankind and himself.

Does it explain the question about the universe and life thoroughly? Does it answer all the other questions one has? Does it do it convincingly? To be a Buddhist, one must first study and understand Buddhism. The Buddha said: "Believe and follow the principles of a religion, not the person preaching the religion." This way, what one develops will be rational belief, not blind faith.

After reading the previous chapters of this book, you may have developed favourable impressions about Buddhism, and you plan to learn more about it. Now, you may have some questions in your mind: "How do I become a Buddhist?" and, "How do I practise Buddhism.' These questions will be answered in the following sections.

I. Take Refuge in the Three Treasures
If one desires to become a Buddhist, there is no initiation ceremony, which one must undergo. if one understands the Buddha's teachings, and one is convinced that His teachings is the right path and if one follows it, then one is a Buddhist.

However, according to the unbroken age-old tradition among Buddhists, one is considered a Buddhist if one goes through the formal ceremony of 'Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures'. The 'Three Treasures' refer to the Buddha, The Dharma (Teachings), and the Sangha (Homeless Orders of Monks and Nuns). The ceremony means 'committing to the belief of the Three Treasures' or 'leading our lives by following the guidelines of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.'

The Buddha refers to the one who attained perfect enlightenment and used His attainment to help and save mankind. He is man's greatest teacher. We therefore must honour, respect and learn from Him.

The Dharma is the teachings of the Buddha, which explains the principles of Buddhism and ways of practising Buddhism to attain enlightenment. It contains all the answers the Buddha had realized. It is the guiding light, which will lead us to liberation from sufferings. That is why we must study them thoroughly.

The Sangha refers to the Homeless Orders of Buddhist monks and nuns who have given up the material pleasures of life to lead an ascetic life of low desires, and have devoted their lives to preach Buddhism, to teach people to practise Buddhism, and to save man from sufferings. They are our teachers that we can see, so we must respect them and learn from them.

The Sangha are the teachers, the Dharma are the teaching materials, and the Buddha is the discoverer and creator of the materials. Buddhism is only complete when all Three Treasures are together.

If one only believes in the Buddha, it is no different from a superstitious worship of idols. If one only believes in the Dharma, it is simply like a scholar studying a subject of knowledge. If one only believes in the Sangha, it is like finding a foster-father, foster-mother or ordinary teacher. A person is not practising Buddhism if in his beliefs, any one of the Three Treasures is missing.

It is true that a person can practise Buddhism even if he does not undergo the formal ceremony. However, someone who has not 'taken refuge' will have some feeling of hesitation, and make excuses at the critical moments, he may say: "I am not a Buddhist yet, I do not need to follow the rules." He will easily forgive himself for doing bad deeds, he also will not be on guard at all times to keep from doing bad deeds.

The ceremony of 'Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures' has the meaning of resolution and self-encouragement, to remind ourselves that "I am now a Buddhist, I have to correct all my bad habits and behaviour from the past, I will study and follow the teachings of the Buddha, to lead a good life, to achieve the ultimate goal of Enlightenment." After taking the ceremony to become a Buddhist, one will make greater efforts to control one's behaviour and conduct, and will caution oneself not to violate the rules of being a Buddhist.

The ceremony will also serve to unite and organize all Buddhists, under a common belief. Buddhists will provide each other with encouragement, persuasion, advise, guidance, direction, and assistance to be on the right path in their road of practising Buddhism and attaining enlightenment.

One should not overlook the importance of the ceremony. One should not have the misconception that because he does not know any. of the Buddha's teaching and the ways to practise Buddhism, or he is not mentally ready, he should not 'take refuge.' Actually, as long as one feels that he wishes to learn and believe in Buddhism, he should 'take refuge, especially when one does not know the Buddha's teachings and how to practise Buddhism. One who feels that he does not have the equirements to become a Buddhist has a greater need to. 'Take Refuge in the Three Treasures.'

After the ceremony, in one's mental state, living habits, behaviour and conducts, one will be encouraged, supported, guided and helped by the Buddhist monks, nuns and other Buddhists. For those whose will power and confidence are weak, 'Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures' will strengthen their will power and self-confidence.

II. Observe the Five Precepts
To be a Buddhist, one must have a kind and compassionate heart, and one must maintain good conduct and behaviour. All the conduct and deeds of a person are expressed in three ways: by the body, speech and mind. One must therefore constantly keep one's body, speech and mind pure This can be accomplished the following way:

1. Body: To keep the body pure, one must not destroy any lives, steal or commit adultery.

2. Speech: To keep the speech pure, one must not engage in improper talks.

3. Mind: To keep the mind pure, one must remove all greed, anger and false judgement.

If the mind becomes impure, for sure, one's deeds will be impure; if the deeds are impure, there will be sufferings. So, it is of the greatest importance that the mind, speech and the body be kept pure.

To help to guard against bad conducts and deed, Buddhists are required to observe the Five Precepts of Buddhism. They comprise of a basic moral discipline applicable to any person in a civilized society. These are the basic rules that Buddhists must follow:

1. No killing: not to destroy or harm human or animal lives.
2. No stealing: not to steal, or rob other people's money or property.
3. No adultery: not to carry on improper or immoral relationship or sexual activities.
4. No lies: to speak only the truth, not to lie, deceive, use abusive languages, or engage in idle talk.
5. No intoxicants: Not to drink alcoholic beverages or take drugs as they will cause man to lose control of their minds, and harm their bodies.

Observing the Five Precepts is the basis of leading a good life. Violating the five precepts will not be accepted by the society and very often will be against the laws of the land.

If all men observe the Five Precepts, there will be no murder; no theft and robbery; no adultery and broken marriages; no fraud, cheat and swindling; the body and mind free of alcohol and drugs will be clear and strong, and they will not commit wrong deeds due to stupidity and bad behaviour. If all men observe the Five Precepts our society will be peaceful and happy, and free of sufferings.

III. Four Stages in Practising Buddhism
Every Buddhist who practises Buddhism must go through four stages. They are believing, understanding, doing and proving.

1. Believing: Once a person decides to become a Buddhist, he must have already acquired some knowledge of Buddhism and has developed a certain amount of belief and faith in the religion. He will now be able to thoroughly study, investigate, analyze and understand the principles of Buddhism to gain the benefits because the principles are so complex and voluminous. That is why believing is the first step in the study of Buddhism. With belief, he will study Buddhism with a sincere attitude. Without any belief and if he had great doubts, he would not have bothered to study Buddhism at all. And if he does, the learning process will be hindered by scepticism and negative attitude and he will never succeed in acquiring the correct understanding of Buddhism.

Buddhism does encourage its disciples to question and doubt. But, this should be done in a positive manner. A Buddhist doubts and questions specific principles or theories of Buddhism with an open mind, with the objective of gaining a better understanding of his beliefs.

2. Understanding: After one believes, he must understand the principles of Buddhism - How can Buddhism remove sufferings? What are the answers to the universe and life? How can man achieve enlightenment? It is only after one has accurately and thoroughly understood the teachings of the Buddha that one can solidify his belief and confidence in Buddhism.

3. Doing: This is actually doing what one has learned and experienced. Some people recognize the superior knowledge contained in the Buddhist principles, however they only recognize but do not accept or believe in the religion. Others study Buddhism as an academic subject, they understand the principles but do not follow these principles.

To properly practise Buddhism, after understanding the principles, one must follow up with actual experience, to practise Buddhism according to what he has learned. One must maintain good conduct and behaviour, and purify the mind. This is the only way to change delusion to wisdom, and reap the full benefits of practising Buddhism.

4. Proving: The last stage in practising Buddhism is proving. Whenever one deals with a matter, one must have confidence, good understanding, and carry out the task with endurance and dedication. At the end, one will be successful in realizing the benefits.

The same goes for the study of Buddhism. If one has great confidence, understand the Dharma well, and practise according to the Dharma with endurance and endeavour, one will remove sufferings, find true happiness and peace of mind, and eventually attain enlightenment. This will be the proof of what one has learned from the Dharma to be true.

IV. The Advantages of Practising Buddhism
The reason religion is important to life is obvious. It is a most important component of mankind's spiritual life. It has incomparable power to stimulate and excite life. At the same time, religion can bring peace to a society, purify people's minds, giving people hope and confidence for the future. It helps people to live more reasonable and high quality lives.
In general terms, religion has a comforting effect for the pessimists, it has a cautioning effect for the criminals, and an encouraging effect for the kind people.

The advantages of practising Buddhism are very real and practical. Although it is a religion, Buddhism is also a way of life in that it teaches the employment of basic ethics in one's daily life, such as controlling oneself, serving others without discrimination, and endeavouring towards one's perfection. if practised with devotion and firmness, it can lead one to liberating wisdom - the so called enlightenment. For those of us who live in the modern world and are subject to stress and strain, confusion and material distractions, the teachings of Buddhism can help us improve our livelihood, make better use of our personal resources.

Some people who do not know the teachings of the Buddha criticize Buddhism to be impractical and 'escape from reality' because it deals with supramundane (beyond this world) matters. They have actually quite mistaken the teachings of Buddhism. One of the greatest masters of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism, Ven. Hu`i Ne'ng (7th century) said:

The Buddhist doctrine for this world
Is not to be separated from worldly knowledge.
To search for enlightenment apart from this world
Is equivalent to seeking horns on a rabbit!

This idea is in harmony with the thought of the late great master Ven. T'ai Hsu (20th century), who advocated:

When manhood is perfected
Buddhahood is attained.

These comments are based on the fact that Buddhism deals with human life and its liberation; it is necessary to thoroughly understand human nature through experience. Practising Buddhism is very much mundane (within this world) dealing with our worldly matters, and such practice brings about many advantages.

1. Buddhism helps people to obtain the correct perspective on life
Buddhism thoroughly analyzes the question of the universe and life, with the objective that man will obtain the correct understanding of life.

There are two common views of life, pessimistic and optimistic. An extreme pessimist views life to be short and empty, and living is waiting for death. Consequently, a pessimist remains sad and depressed all the time. An extreme optimist carries the attitude of "enjoy while you can". He uses ecstasy and passion to fill the desires of his senses and heart, he does not really care about the meaning of life and the objective of living. He does not know and he does not care.

Buddhism's perspective on life, from the strict sense, is not pessimistic nor optimistic. It is termed the "Middle way". What is the "Middle way"? It means not to constantly whine and complain about life, nor to waste away life by living in a constant state of daze. The "Middle way" recommends the use of the vision of wisdom to remove life's fears, anguishes and misunderstanding, to recognize the truth about life and to control one's destiny.

Fame and fortune are temporary. We didn't bring them with us when we came to this world, and we cannot take them with us when we leave. Buddhism cautions man not to be too obsessed with desires and greed. It advises us to be compassionate, charitable and kind. We must not be handcuffed by the desire for fame and fortune. Wealth cannot provide us with spiritual fulfilment. Only by having good conduct and pure minds, can we achieve peace, contentment and true happiness in life.

2. Buddhism encourages man to lead life with endeavour
Buddhism is totally against the belief that life is controlled by destiny or by a supreme being. It teaches that every person is responsible for his own deeds and future. Every man must work hard with determination. To have a good tomorrow, we must sacrifice our excessive pleasures today, by great endeavour and efforts. Only hard work and good deeds now will bring about a good future.

3. Buddhism can purify the society
We are always saddened to learn about the abundance of crimes in our society which occur on a daily basis - murder, theft, robbery, rape etc. It makes us lose faith and hope in mankind. A Buddhist must observe the following five precepts:
(i) not to kill;
(ii) not to steal;
(iii) not to commit adultery;
(iv) not to engage in improper talks;
(v) not to take intoxicants.

Observing the above five precepts is the foundation of leading a good life. Committing any of the precepts is against morals and the law of society.

If all of mankind were to observe the five precepts, there would be no crime in society, no broken marriages and families, and no mistakes made when one is drunk or on drugs; Wouldn't this be a peaceful and happy society. That is why Buddhism contributes towards purifying the human mind and behaviour in society.

4. Buddhism can help develop self-respect, self-confidence and independent character
Buddhism believes that every person is his own master. We are not anyone's slave, we do not have to rely on Buddha or God. Buddha was a man before he became enlightened. With good behaviour and endeavour, and following the teachings of the Buddha, we may one day become Buddhas. This belief can certainly boost our self-confidence and self-respect.

In other religions, man is created by God, and no matter how hard a man tries, he cannot save himself. He still must have God's help to achieve eternal life. In addition, man is always subordinate to God. God is the lord, and man is his servant. Such thinking can be quite discouraging.

Buddhism teaches that every man has the basic ingredient to become Buddha. Our success and failure is up to ourselves. Any man who practices Buddhism can become Buddha one day. This is because of his own endeavour, not because of the grace or help from Buddha.

Other religions attribute man's success to God, because man's wisdom was given by God. Therefore God is praised for man's success. Buddhism does not agree with this. It believes that man's success is the result of his own endeavour. The glory belongs to man himself. If man fails, he has to work harder to achieve his goals.

Such thinking of Buddhism frees man from God's bondage. It gives man the freedom from God's all mighty power. It reminds him that he is responsible for his own deeds, and is responsible for his own future with no one else responsible. Since man is not created by God and is not his servant, he has the right to decide his own fate and future. Since man is not controlled by God, he can have his independent character, and self-respect, and self-confidence.

5. Buddhism can help man to achieve true happiness
When a Buddhist studies and understands the principles of Buddhism, and practises according to the principles, therefore leading a life free of sufferings, he can achieve true happiness.

First, what is happiness? The following five points will explain when a person has found true happiness and how Buddhism can help man to achieve true happiness.

(i) He is always at peace, and does not have worries. Buddhism advises man to be content, practise meditation, and to avoid extremes. Subsequently, he will have a peaceful mind, and have no worries.

(ii) For the difficulties and problems he is facing, he accepts and copes with them with a positive attitude, not blaming anyone or anything. Buddhism teaches that whatever misfortune a person is facing is caused by his own deeds in this life or in past lives. He must therefore face the problems bravely and patiently. Man must be prepared to face the consequences of his own deeds. he must not blame other people or things.

(iii) He is able to obtain satisfactory answers for his questions about the universe and life. All the teachings of Buddhism do not praise or glorify the power of the Buddha. They explain the basic questions of the universe and life thoroughly, to allow man to obtain satisfactory answers. and, the teachings are compatible with science.

(iv) He has found a satisfactory answer about the future, specifically, life after leaving this world. Buddhist teachings explain that all things occur because of "Cause" and "Conditions". Mortal human being can practice Buddhism to achieve enlightenment therefore breaking away from life sufferings to enjoy eternal happiness.

(v) His future, destiny, and success are not controlled by someone else. Buddhism teaches that all beings are equal. There are no beings above us to control our life and death, our successes and failures, our blessings or misfortunes, we are our own masters, our own lords. As long as we make our best endeavour, we will have a bright tomorrow, and will achieve true happiness.

The teachings of Sakyamuni are as applicable today as they were in the past. Buddhism is not exclusively for the benefits of one race, nor for any particular historical period, nor for any geographic location. Nor is it a fantastic or strange thing to talk about. It is for all, at any time in any place, for any person.

As a matter of fact, the Buddha's teachings are most rational, real, pertaining to our daily life, and are as new as tomorrow! Although the Buddha talked in a simple way, yet what he taught is essential, fundamental and applicable to our present materialistic world.

[Originally published in Yat-Biu Ching, Buddhism You Too Can Understand, (Canada: True Faith Buddhism Association of Canada, 1992), pp. 52-67.]

Source:  www.quangduc.com Jun 7, 2006

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