The Practice of Buddhism

Statue of Buddha in a garden
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There are two parts to being a practicing Buddhist: First, it means that you agree with certain basic ideas or tenets that are at the core of what the historical Buddha taught. Secondly, it means that you regularly and systematically engage in one or more activities in a way that is familiar to Buddhist followers. This can range from living a devoted life in a Buddhist monastery to practicing a simple 20-minute meditation session once a day. In truth, there are many, many ways to practice Buddhism—it is a welcoming religious practice that allows for a great diversity of thought and belief among its followers. 

Basic Buddhist Beliefs

There are many branches of Buddhism that focus on different aspects of the Buddha's teachings, but all are united in the acceptance of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

The Four Noble Truths

  1. Ordinary human existence is filled with suffering. For Buddhists, "suffering" doesn't necessarily refer to physical or mental agony, but rather to pervasive feeling of being dissatisfied with the world and one's place in it, and a never-ending wish for something different than what one currently has. 
  2. The cause of this suffering is longing or craving. The Buddha saw that the core of all dissatisfaction was the hope and desire for more than we have. Craving for something else is what prevents us from experiencing the joy that is inherent in each moment. 
  3. It is possible to end this suffering and dissatisfaction. Most people have experienced moments when this dissatisfaction ceases, and this experience tells us that the pervasive dissatisfaction and longing for more can be overcome. Buddhism is therefore a very hopeful and optimistic practice. 
  4. There is a path to end the dissatisfaction. Much of Buddhist practice involves the study and repetition of tangible activities that one can follow to end the dissatisfaction and suffering that comprises human life. Much of the Buddha's life was devoted to explaining the various methods for awaking from dissatisfaction and craving.

The path toward the end of dissatisfaction forms the heart of Buddhist practice, and the techniques of that prescription is contained in the Eight-Fold Path.

The Eight-fold Path

  1. Right View, Right Understanding. Buddhist believe in cultivating a view of the world as it really is, not as we imagine it to be or want it to be. Buddhists believe that the normal way we see and interpret the world is not the correct way, and that liberation comes when we see things clearly. 
  2. Right Intent. Buddhists believe that one should have the goal of seeing the truth, and acting in ways that are non-harmful to all living things. Mistakes are expected, but having the right intent will eventually set us free. 
  3. Right Speech. Buddhists resolve to speak carefully, in a non-harmful way, expressing ideas that are clear, truthful, and uplifting, and avoiding those that are damaging to self and others. 
  4. Right Action. Buddhists attempt to live from an ethical foundation based on principles of non-exploitation of others. Right action includes five precepts: not to kill, steal, lie, to avoid sexual misconduct, and to abstain from drugs and intoxicants.​
  5. Right Livelihood.  Buddhists believe that the work we choose for ourselves should be based on ethical principles of non-exploitation of others. The work we do should be based on respect for all living things, and should be work we can feel proud to perform. ​
  6. Right Effort or Diligence. Buddhist strive to cultivate enthusiasm and a positive attitude toward life and toward others. Proper effort for Buddhists means a balanced "middle way," in which correct effort is balanced against relaxed acceptance. ​
  7. Right Mindfulness. In Buddhist practice, right mindfulness is best described as being honestly aware of the moment. It asks us to be focused, but not to exclude anything that is within our experience, including difficult thoughts and emotions. ​
  8. Right Concentration. This part of the eight-fold path forms the basis of meditation, which many people identify with Buddhism. The Sanksrit term, samadhi, is often translated as concentration, meditation, absorption, or one-pointedness of mind. For Buddhists, the focus of the mind, when prepared by proper understanding and action, is the key to liberation from dissatisfaction and suffering. 

How to "Practice" Buddhism

"Practice" most often refers to a specific activity, such as meditating or chanting, that one does every day. For example, a person practicing Japanese Jodo Shu (Pure Land) Buddhism recites the Nembutsu every day. Zen and Theravada Buddhists practice bhavana (meditation) every day. Tibetan Buddhists may practice a specialized formless meditation several times a day. 

Many lay Buddhists maintain a home altar. Exactly what goes on the altar varies from sect to sect, but most include an image of the Buddha, candles, flowers, incense, and a small bowl for a water offering. Taking care of the altar is a reminder to take care of practice.

Buddhist practice also includes practicing the Buddha's teachings, in particular, the Eightfold Path. The eight elements of the path (see above) are organized into three sections—wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental discipline. A meditation practice would be part of mental discipline.

Ethical conduct is very much part of daily practice for Buddhists. We are challenged to take care in our speech, our actions, and our daily lives to do no harm to others and to cultivate wholesomeness in ourselves. For example, if we find ourselves getting angry, we take steps to let go of our anger before we harm anyone.

Buddhists are challenged to practice mindfulness at all times. Mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation of our moment-to-moment lives. By remaining mindful we remain clear to present reality, not getting lost in a tangle of worries, daydreams, and passions.

Buddhists strive to practice Buddhism at every moment. Of course, we all fall short at times. But making that effort is Buddhism. Becoming a Buddhist is not a matter of accepting a belief system or memorizing doctrines. To be a Buddhist is to practice Buddhism.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "The Practice of Buddhism." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). The Practice of Buddhism. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Practice of Buddhism." Learn Religions. (accessed May 30, 2023).