Western Buddhist practice: 6 key practices

Posted by on Aug 15, 2012 in Buddhism, Uncategorized | No Comments

Unfortunately, in the UK, USA, Canada and many other places I’ve spent time, spiritual seekers don’t get fed just for being spiritual seekers. In the west, you need a day job.

I know, awful isn’t it.

Actually, it’s not so awful. Lots of people really value their career and get meaning and purpose from it. It also causes them to interact with others on a daily basis, including people they would not otherwise choose to be around. All this is great raw material for spiritual practice.

The other good thing about work is people fall in love there. They get together with people, decide to settle down, get through the honeymoon period and start to really meet each other and connect as human beings. If you want to learn to love all beings, starting with one isn’t a bad plan.

And then many people have kids. This is not a standard Buddhist monk thing to do. In fact, if you’re a monk and you have kids, you won’t stay a monk very long. Is that because this stuff isn’t spiritual? I don’t think so.

The Buddha said he would not die before there were enlightened monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. This means you can have a job and a family and still become a Buddha. Actually, although this is not a traditional view, I think you’re just as likely to make progress in a lay life as you are in a monastic one.

Think about the similarities between the lay and monastic lifestyles:

  1. There is a routine.
  2. You build friendships with people you’re around. You’re also around people you find difficult.
  3. You have to maintain a certain public persona so as to appear decent and worthy of getting paid/fed by the lay folk.
  4. You can’t do what you want – you have responsibilities and are part of a hierarchy.
  5. You have to be of benefit to the community

Every job is a sales job. That includes monks and nuns. Significant portions of the vinaya (monastic code) seems to me to be clearly about public relations. That’s not meant to be disrespectful, it’s just the way it is. There is nothing beyond the world while we’re in the human realm. Whatever lifestyle choice you make, their are upsides and downsides. And whatever we choose, we all have opportunities to practice.

But what is Western Buddhist practice?

I’ve met loads of Buddhists in my time. We all do things a little (and sometimes a lot) differently. But if you’re looking to set up a practice, these are some of the things you might want to think about:

1. Meditation
An obvious one perhaps, though you’d be amazed how many Buddhists around the world don’t see meditation as a key part of them being Buddhist.

2. Study
If you want to learn about Buddhism, get as close to the source as possible. Some Buddhist stuff is pretty complicated, but lots of it isn’t. And the Pali canon is remarkably readable – a lot easier, in fact, than many commentaries on the Pali canon!

3. Puja/ritual
This is a weird one for lots of Westerners to get their heads around. I’ll probably write more about this in another post, but essentially, you’re best just to give it a go and see how you find it. We are not simply (or even mostly) rational beings, so hooking into words and forms that have been refined over hundreds of years to impact the sides of us that aren’t impacted by books and psychological theory is not such a far out idea.

4. Chanting
A ‘mantra’ is a ‘protector of the mind’. There are times in our lives when we are so troubled that a mantra can be a life saver. It gives us a thread to hold onto. And when we are fairly well, the mantra can strengthen us. And see above for all the argument in support of non-rational activity.

5. Ethics
Many Buddhists decide to avoid drink and drugs, to be vegetarian or vegan, and to work in an ethical (or at least not unethical) job. Giving/making a contribution is a great foundation for other aspects of the path. It makes you feel good, gives you energy and can help with things like feeling like you deserve to be well and happy. If we accept that we are inter-connected, that there is no discreet ‘self’, ethical practice is the only logical choice, and a clear way to give expression to that connection with other beings, and with the Earth itself.

6. Discussing the Dharma
(‘Dharma’ is what Buddhists call Buddhism – it means ‘path’, ‘teaching’, ‘truth’ and also ‘reality’). This can be a good way to clarify your own thinking and to gain new perspectives. Like enthusiasts of anything, Buddhists love to get together and geek out. This can be a distraction or it can be transformative. One of the 10 fetters binding us to unenlightened existence is observance of rites and rituals as ends in themselves. Getting together to discuss the Dharma can make you feel like you are practising, but it’s good to keep an eye on whether you actually are or not. Of course, even idle chat is fun, and if that’s your bag, enjoy! There’s plenty of time to practice. Life is short, but it is also long.

Looking for a bit more detail? Sign up for my free Buddhist teachings mailout. Over time it builds into a free course.


Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!

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