Getting Started: Where Do I Begin?

In my last post, I “resolved” to start bringing Buddhism into my life on a more personal level—it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, so I don’t want to keep putting it off. But, I don’t really know where to start.

My first instinct when I don’t know how to do something, or when I want to learn about something, is to find a book to read. I’ve read lots of books on Buddhism already—in fact, when I downsized my book collection (I was tired of moving 4 bookshelves full of books every time I found myself in a new place) the books on Buddhism were the largest collection that stayed. When I first read these books though—and I’ll admit I have not read them all—I was in college, and was reading for a distinctly different purpose.

The last time I read these books, I was focused more on learning terms and memorizing things for tests, only to forget them as soon as the test was over. That’s how I rolled in college. I’m not saying that was the best approach, but… well, I was in college, what can I say?

So this weekend, I grabbed a couple of my books on Buddhism out of their box, dusted them off, and started reading. This time though, my purpose is different: I want to gain some insight into Buddhist practice, particularly as it might apply to my life right now. It’s much easier to ignore the heavy academic parts, and far more interesting, to read the books this way!

The Foundations of Buddhism Book CoverThe three books I grabbed, to start with, were: The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin, Theravāda Buddhism by Richard F. Gombrich, and Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice edited by Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright.

I started reading The Foundations of Buddhism first. I’m not done—in fact, I’ve barely begun really, and haven’t even gotten to anything substantially helpful. What I have learned already, though, is I can’t really learn about Buddhist practice by reading books. I need to find a teacher, or at least a community of other Buddhists who can give me some direction on my path.

According to Indian thought Dharma is that which is the basis of things, the underlying nature of things, the way things are; in short, it is the truth about things, the truth about the world. More than this, Dharma is the way we should act, for if we are to avoid bringing harm to both ourselves and others we should strive to act in a way that is true to the way things are, that accords with the underlying truth of things. Ultimately the only true way to act is in conformity with Dharma.

…knowledge of Dharma comes about as a result of the interplay between three kinds of understanding: that which arises from listening, that which arises from reflection, and that which arises from spiritual practice.

Practical training is difficult to impart and acquire simply on the basis of theoretical manuals; one needs a teacher who can demonstrate the training and also comment on and encourage one in one’s own attempts to put the instructions into practice.1

The other thing I need to do, or at least, that I want to do, is figure out what type of Buddhism I like best, or what type would be best for me to start practicing. I don’t know the answer to that question yet. I might have to try a few different things. I’ll likely do quite a bit of reading on it.

The important thing for me to remember, though, is this will be a journey. It will take time, I have a ton to learn, and it probably won’t come easy. But part of the reason I’ve been putting it off is because it seems so daunting. Is it really that important to me? Why do I want to do this?

I don’t really have an answer to those questions, either. I do believe it’s important to me. I do feel like something is missing, and the few times that I have taken a moment to consciously focus my mind on something, I felt some inkling of clarity. Even for just a moment. So yes, this is important to me. I don’t know what to expect. I don’t even quite know what I’m looking for. But, I imagine I’ll figure that out as I go.

1. Rupert Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 35-17.

About Jamie Schwoerer

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