Practicing Buddhism
August 9, 2004 8:50 PM   Subscribe

I've always been attracted to Buddhism - and as I'm now 3 days without cigarettes, a philosophy that tells me that the problem is in the craving, not in the thing craved makes a lot of sense. I've just read this and found it a great help - now how do I make the step from an intellectual understanding of the ideas to starting to practice? I live in London, if it helps.
posted by calico to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sorry I can't help with the Buddhism question, but congratulations on stopping smoking! I'm going on one week tomorrow and let me tell you, I'm not a pleasant person to live with right now. I hope you can find something to make it easier on you.
posted by dual_action at 9:00 PM on August 9, 2004

Have a look at the Buddhist Society website. They have to be one of the oldest western Buddhist groups in existence, and they list many groups from different practice traditions.

Or you could hop on a train to Cambridge and go see Ato Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama I've met. He's straightforward and kindly, and speaks pretty good English after living in the UK for many years. (He's also married to an Englishwoman, because - unlike many Tibetan teachers - he isn't a monk.)

But your reading may already have suggested some other tradition, and the Buddhist Society should help you find something congenial.
posted by zadcat at 9:10 PM on August 9, 2004

Just do it.

No really, do it.

Ok, maybe you still need some more help & explanation. There are many types of Buddhism, and many traditions within each type. It may take some time to decide what's right for you. Read some more books, visit a few different temples and see what's going on. Try Compass of Zen, it explains in depth about the different traditions (from the point of view of a Zen Master).
posted by falconred at 9:16 PM on August 9, 2004

If you are looking for a religious community (sangha) you might check out your local buddhist temple. They will offer you guidlines on beginning a personal practice, and this will differ depending on what type of Buddhism the temple offers.

Theravadan Buddhist practice is seen by many as being more strict than Mahayana Buddhist lineages.

Or, do what the Buddha did and meditate on the meaning of life, and come up with your own answers - the last thing the historical buddha said was "be a lamp unto yourself". Many practitioners who chose not to be a member of a temple simply (or not so simply) follow the four noble truths and the eightfold path - the guidelines outlined by the buddha.

If you are practicing Zen Buddhism, seated meditation facing a wall is the main practice of the soto lineage, or if it is Rinzai you will want to meditate upon a koan (usually given to one by a master however you may chose one for yourself) like 'what is the sound of one hand clapping?' If you have a statue of Buddha you may want to meditate upon it.

I think one of the main points of Buddhism is that it is a way of living your life, practicing compassion- basically the first of the eightfold path "right living" encompasses all of the other seven.

Please email me if you have any questions.
posted by Quartermass at 9:28 PM on August 9, 2004

Sincere congratulations, non-smokers. Nic is one helluva habit to break, and I admire those who can fight through the addiction and come out the other side. Good on ya!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:30 PM on August 9, 2004

Some uncorrellated blog posts of mine on quitting smoking and the abuse of Buddhism.

Perhaps a paraphrase that might assist you: after you're done with cigarettes, what vice are you going to move on to next?

If you're addicted to having push-button control over your moods (because of nervous tension, latent trauma, or mere physiological depression) then indeed, nicotine itself is incidental. There are causes for destructive behavior. Perhaps Buddhism will offer you the means to address yours. But considering that Buddhism is more of a perceptual frame, a walk of life, and less of an interventionist toolbox, I think perhaps it's the wrong place to look for help on day 4 of quitting smoking. But hey, whatever works.

I'll take your congrats personally on my 3-year, FFF, which is coming up in a couple weeks. Thanks!
posted by scarabic at 10:12 PM on August 9, 2004

Response by poster: Oooh, I just knew I should never have said that...

You're quite right: a belief system shouldn't be used as a 'toolbox', and I can't imagine what everyone would think if I'd managed to link converting to Catholicism and giving up the tabs in the same way.

But I'm not asking how I should learn more about Buddhism because I want to give up smoking (and nor do I really think that Winnie the Pooh had a point of view on Taoism). I was being flippant. I want to learn more about Buddhism because I feel like I've been skirting round it for around eleven years now without making a commitment to myself about it.

And do you know what - day 4 of no cigarettes isn't even that difficult. Your blog post nails it exactly - it's about 3 weeks down the line that I'll really need a new religion. Many many sincere congratulations on your 3 years.
posted by calico at 10:28 PM on August 9, 2004

I think this was what I meant to send you. This is about 4 weeks in (not to mention only a month after the 9/11 bullshit).
posted by scarabic at 11:10 PM on August 9, 2004

Is it possible to follow Buddism without the religious aspect? Does it nesscetate faith, as a Christian following would?

I've always been interested in people who "switch" religions, or decide to go looking for one. How do they choose which faith they think is the real deal, or is that not even a factor any more? It seems like historically it's been a factor of culture, but these days it seems like people go shopping for spirituality and pick whichever they think fits them best rather than having it be a matter of true faith.

I speak, of course, being a formerly devout Christian myself. That probably explains my interest in how people deal with the issue of faith.
posted by Hackworth at 11:22 PM on August 9, 2004

Hackworth - You can follow Zen without being "religious", and it doesn't necessarily require "faith". But it can if you make it so.

The other Buddhist traditions are more religious-y (although with my limited exposure to them I hesitate to speak for them).

"How do they choose which faith they think is the real deal" - I picked one that didn't necessitate belief in a devine/supernatural being made flesh. There aren't very many.
posted by falconred at 11:45 PM on August 9, 2004

Buddhism is all about practice. It's really the only religion (spirituality if you prefer) in which the goods come after hard work, which is part of the reason it appeals to me. That's certainly not for everyone though. It means you can call yourself a Buddhist if you practice, you don't have to believe or swear to anything and there is no creed. You can practice at home or in a sangha, it really doesn't matter to anyone but you -- whatever works for your progress. I think that real beginners are probably better in sanghas, to get some structure and guidance, but there's no need to formally join or take vows or anything. Some of the Eastern traditions are very structured and formal, the western versions tend to be stripped of the historical "religiousity" down to the minimum, kindof like the Episcopalians (Anglicans) vs. the Quakers. At its core it's the same though. I'm most comfortable with western style Zen, but I do envy the Tibetan bells and chants :) My first Zen teacher was/is a Catholic redemtorist (sp?) monk - granted that's a liberal Catholic, but nowhere in Buddhism do you have to renounce beliefs or pledge to something else. All the vows I've heard of (different traditions have different lists for various levels of commitment) address behaviors, not beliefs.
By the way, scarabic, Buddhism is called "the middle way" because it advocates staying away from either extreme of dealing with suffering. You are making the same arguments that the Buddha did against the ascetics of the time :) According to the Dalai Lama, it's about training the mind to be happy in the face of pain, not to ignore the pain.
posted by dness2 at 12:31 AM on August 10, 2004 [1 favorite]

Mindfulness In Plain English. For the more advanced: The Jhanas (Meditative Absorptions) (All from the Therevada tradition.)

Just try not to feed the monkeys.
posted by homunculus at 12:48 AM on August 10, 2004

And remember the Kalama Sutra.
posted by homunculus at 12:53 AM on August 10, 2004

Is it possible to follow Buddism without the religious aspect? Does it nesscetate faith, as a Christian following would?

It is as possible to practice meditation without the buddhist religious aspect as it is to practice yoga without the Hindu religious aspect, at least IMO.

And remember, Buddhism is punk! Just watch out for samvega.
posted by homunculus at 1:05 AM on August 10, 2004

While not specifically related to Bhuddism, you may want to look up a local Art of Living center.
posted by pieoverdone at 3:45 AM on August 10, 2004

Just like Hinduism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and many others, Buddhism is a religion, with all the fetishist and supernatural elements, that has a philosophy at its core. You can study the philosophy and apply it in your life with or without the religion.
posted by fuzz at 3:56 AM on August 10, 2004

The "how do I start to practice?" question is kind of like "How do I start to write?" one -- really, the important thing is to just start, wherever you are, in whatever imperfect way is possible. A lot of beginning writers obssess about finding the right tools, the right set-up, the right time of day or technique or something, and read a lot of how-to books on writing, and whilte that's not harmful, it can take up all the time and energy you might have to actually, y'know, write.

Same with practice--there's a zillion people and books who want to tell you the right way to do it. The point is to do something, every day, that involves plunking yourself down, being aware, and paying attention.

Having said which, just like other people, I can't resist recommending books, and as a beginner I've found Charlotte Beck's Everyday Zen and Nothing Special to be very helpful with getting started on the stting down/being aware/paying attention every day.
posted by Kat Allison at 5:36 AM on August 10, 2004

From Faze to fuzz: You are right. Buddhism has been made into a bogus religion, with fully as much ceremony, superstition, empty gestures, ritual and nonsense as the most benighted corners of Roman Catholicism. The biggest joke is the Dalai Lama, who is treated as if he were some kind of liberal pope, when he is really a social conservative on the John Ashcroft model, whose claim to authority is a ridiculous as an alien abduction theory. If you're interested in a good religion, I'd suggest the mainstream protestant and catholic traditions, where you'll find the same spiritual discipline, meditation techniques, and resistance to desire and materialism as you'll find in Buddhism, but with the advantages of a coherent theology, devised and embellished by some of the greatest literary scientific figures of all tiime, a doxology that has inspired sublime and rousing music from everyone from Bach to Bernstein, an artistic tradition that includes Giotto, Michaelangelo and Milais, and a literary tradition that includes Samuel Johnson, C.S. Lewis, John Updike and Annie Dillard. For a nice look at how Buddhism shades into Roman Catholicism, read through the works of Jack Kerouac from beginning to end. Very illuminating. By constrast with the incredible richness of the Christian tradition, which contains everything from dashboard Jesuses to Pergolisi's "Stabat Mater," Buddhism is a gimcrack spirituality, that finds its highest philosophic expression in adolescent non sequitors and empty gardens of Zen, and lowest in the gaudy ugliness of popular Buddhist temples. Eastern philosophies and religions are interesting from a scholarly point of view, but the real action is in the west, and the awesome abundance of the Christian tradition.
posted by Faze at 7:20 AM on August 10, 2004

with all the fetishist and supernatural elements, that has a philosophy at its core.

No. It has a *practice* at its core. The rationalist and philosophical elements are, much like the religious ones, interesting and perhaps useful, but not essential.

As for book recommendations, Alan Watts was the author whose writings originally got me hooked. Clear and simple, he usually gets it right.

Long hours of meditation are hard until you get the hang of it, but as far as I know that's still the recommended way to get there. You can think about it in Buddhist terms or in Christian ones, either way it comes out to the same thing in the end. The various kinds of religious belief can provide motivation and guidance, but don't take them too literally. IMO you don't really need any special posture, breathing techniques, koans, mantras, prayers, deities, enlightened masters, or anything. To start, you just need time and effort, and a burning desire to see the world as it is. Your goal, once you have those things, is to get rid of them.

But then, I don't even call myself a "Buddhist", I just happen to think they mostly have the right idea.
posted by sfenders at 7:46 AM on August 10, 2004

"In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you? Homeless inside yourself."

- The Dalai Lama

Not only do I find that there's nothing wrong with the toolbox / smorgasborg / salad bar approach to spirituality, I find it quite helpful and full of goodness. The blindly-repeated "religion is a sacred, serious and profane business!" is unhelpful, and tends to lead towards fanaticism, extemism and disaster.

And I've never heard or seen a decent argument for such things that wasn't from a position of maintaining or consolidating power or the status quo.

Not only does it free one to gather the useful and meaningful without dogma, but it frees one to discover or invent their own teleologies. (And/or ontologies.)

It's all the same elephant. Feel free to seek and see the whole elephant.
posted by loquacious at 9:08 AM on August 10, 2004

If you're interested in a good religion, I'd suggest the mainstream protestant and catholic traditions

Barf. [rest deleted]
posted by rushmc at 11:09 AM on August 10, 2004 the idea that the Dalai Lama is reincarnated is as "ridiculous as an alien abduction theory," but the catholic idea that a guy got pieced with nails, left on a cross, died, and came back to life is plausible? Faze, you really have no idea what you're talking about.
posted by dnash at 11:57 AM on August 10, 2004

Faze provides a good example of what followers of the christian tradition are like. Give me that empty Zen garden anyday.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 12:13 PM on August 10, 2004

Response by poster: Blimey. Well, thanks to everyone so far - especially those given me further reading. Please keep it coming - it's all been very useful so far. Love the monkeys, homunculus.

Just to clarify: I'm not on the lookout for a religion, or a theology. I was confirmed as an Anglican some time ago and have found that I lack faith in a revealed god. Sad, but there it is. The smorgasbord point's good here: I found that while I was willing to go along with almost everything that Christ is reported to have said, I had problems with the key tenets of the faith. Frankly, I'm willing to pick up tips on how to live a more satisfying life from absolutely anyone in the world, and if I were looking for a religion, I think I'd go for something colourful, with lots of gods and dancing and stuff, like candomble. But wisdom from around the world isn't really what I'm after here - I think I need a practice, an approach to living in a better way. So a religion, but without all the god stuff, then.

From what I've read, the philosophy of Buddhism, as taught by Buddha seems to me to be a useful way of looking at the world. None of the rest of it - Zen gardens, how many symphonies Buddhists have composed, temples vs cathedrals as aesthetic works - really matters. Christian mysticism might be just as useful to me, if I could get past the whole 'believing in the divinity of Jesus and the existence of the Trinity' thing.
posted by calico at 12:52 PM on August 10, 2004

the catholic idea that a guy got pieced with nails, left on a cross, died, and came back to life is plausible?
From a strictly pragmatic point of view, "the catholic idea" and its Protestant permutations have given the world not only the glories of western art, the listing of which would strain the capacity of this server, but took all the vague altruistic yearnngs of pagan philosophy, codified them, fitted them into a comprehensive world view, and fomented a revolution in civilization, which rendered kindness sensible, charity essential, and made love and self-sacrifice among the necessary occupations of humanity. The invention of even such a simple thing as the hospital, where sick and dying people in all their unpleasantness can be cared for or nursed through their final days, is owing entirely to Christianity -- nothing like a hospital existing in the ancient world -- a world whose cruelties, I don't have to tell you, overwhelmed the reason of its best philosophers.
Buddhism, on the other hand, has been sterile. It is interesting that its most eloquent spokespeople are ex-christians like Alan Watt, who have been well-marinated in the rich juices of western culture, and absorbed its traditions of textual criticism, critical thinking, and the appreciation of other cultures.
posted by Faze at 1:08 PM on August 10, 2004

Faze, you are testing my conviction that I am a better person if I think magnanimous thoughts about everyone. It's easy to pick on Buddhists, isn't it. Blow up statues, claim it's a culture and history devoid of art -- in the response that we're supposed to have (I'm struggling a little bit though) we become better Buddhists. So, ironically, thanks.

rendered kindness sensible, charity essential, and made love and self-sacrifice among the necessary occupations of humanity

Um, nothing like the precepts of Buddhism at all, as stated 2600 years ago, no nothing.

Calico, I read an article once that really rang true for me, about how Buddhism and Christianity converge especially in the West where tradition and most of our experiences are centered around God. It said that Christianity is about looking to God outside of oneself (usually up), and Buddhism is about looking within. I can't imagine that, if there is a God, he really cares where you find him. I try to look inside my soul for the seed of goodness, kindness and mercy -- others go to church and find it in the clouds, or in a son -- whatever works.
posted by dness2 at 2:14 PM on August 10, 2004

"the catholic idea" and its Protestant permutations have given the world the glories of western art

um, yeah. 'cause we all know Pergolesi would've been a shoe salesman or something if God hadn't been around to dedicate his music to. A bit off-topic though. And no, it isn't interesting that the people who write about Buddhism in English have historically tended to come from places where English is spoken.

Anyway, calico, I didn't realize you were looking for more reading recommendations. After 11 years I figured you'd probably done enough reading. Eventually, you have to give up on reading about it and just start doing it. It will probably take a while. But if you want see how Buddhism relates to Christian beliefs, you might check out Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh.
posted by sfenders at 2:26 PM on August 10, 2004

Response by poster: Erm - no I wasn't looking for more reading recommendations, but I'm grateful for the ones I've been given.

I've found a Zen group that meet in South London. I think I'll just start doing it, and see how we go from there. I have The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh - in fact, I think I've had it those full eleven years - and love it a great deal.

dness2: yes - but I'd rather think of it as looking for divinity than looking for god.
posted by calico at 3:43 PM on August 10, 2004

calico: yeah, as a random liberal agnostic I use the term "God" very loosely and more as a convenient and habitual metaphor for whatever it is that is, well, god-ish. Still, it's a handy explanation when trying to explain one's religiousity to devout inquiring friends who really can't comprehend nurturing one's soul without God. Actual God - Metaphor God, I sortof leave that out. I give them enough reason to pray for me as it is :)
posted by dness2 at 10:49 PM on August 10, 2004

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