When I was first getting interested in Buddhism, I read a couple of books.
That left me with some questions. All this ‘karma’ and whatnot. Seriously?
There was no internet in those days so if you wanted to get the answer to a question, you had to physically hunt out someone who had the answer.
Sooner or later, you end up in a temple or at a Buddhist group. And that’s what I did.
I attended a group in London for a few months, but it wasn’t long before I started to wonder…
Is this real Buddhism?
I mean, how could I possibly know whether this was the teachings of the Buddha I was getting, or just some middle-class white-boy version?
From what I could see, these people were living cushy lives in the middle of a city of 10 million people. It was a long way away from a mango grove in Northern India, with nothing but a robe and a begging bowl to call your own.
It wasn’t too long before I was on a plane to India, determined to get the real deal.
My Indian adventure
After spending some time at an ashram (I wasn’t specifically Buddhist at the time and was exploring eastern philosophy in general) I headed up to Dharmsala where the Dalai Lama and his crew spend their time. They run the Tibetan Government-in-exile from there.
Consequently, there’s a huge Tibetan Buddhist population gathered in the area. There’s a temple, a library and more monks and nuns than you could shake a stick at.
Teaching English to a monk
I taught one monk English for a while.
He would turn up everyday, I’d teach him English (his English was already pretty good) and ask him questions about his life.
“Do you do rituals in the morning when you get up?” I asked.
“No, in the morning I have breakfast.”
“Do the monks shave each other’s heads at full moon?”
“No, we go to barber in town. Very cheap.”
Again and again, my illusions were shattered. He was pretty much just like me.
He was learning English because his dream was to go to America. So much for renunciation, I thought.
It was common to see the monks smoking, playing ping pong or eating ice cream.
Does that mean they weren’t really practising?
Or is it more that we have an idea from films and Buddhist texts about what ‘real’ Buddhists are like that has little to do with what real Buddhists are like?
The streets of Dharmsala
The streets are filled with the humming of ‘Om Mani Peme Hum’ and everyone it seems is clicking off mantras on their mala (a Buddhist version of a rosary) or spinning prayer wheels.
It’s the real deal.
I watched one monk climb onto the monastery roof every day (it was down the hill from where I was staying).
He had a giant mala. He did 108 full prostrations facing the direction where the Dalai Lama lived, clicking off each one on the mala.
That was the real deal too.
Then he probably went down, smoked a cigarette and played some ping pong.
The best place to practice
After a while, I realised that people are people everywhere in this world.
People living lives in the middle of a western metropolis can do this just as effectively as people in the foothills of the Himalayas.
There are just as many distractions and barriers to learning Buddhism in India (or Sri Lanka or Japan or wherever) as there are in the UK, the USA or Canada.
Since my time in India, I’ve travelled to different places, hung out with different groups, been to different temples, and generally toured my way through different ethnic Buddhist set ups. And while I’ve not been to many Buddhist countries, I’ve spent time with their immigrant populations in different places.
My conclusion after all this is that the best place to learn and practice Buddhism is wherever you happen to be right now.
Even if you live miles from the nearest Buddhist, you have the web – you have found this website.
I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to have a resource like this site when I was starting out. That’s one of the main reasons I decided to do it.
There may come a time when you feel it would be best for you to immerse yourself in a vibrant Buddhist community. At that point, go do it.
But don’t think you can’t start until that happens. As the saying goes: Which will come next? Tomorrow? Or the next life?
You’re ready to start your practice. You have everything you need. The time has come.