How Should We Practice Buddhism?
Humanistic Buddhism emphasizes our treatment of other people above all else. No one can ever expect to come into full awareness of the bodhi mind if they do not know how to treat other people with compassion, respect and unfailing kindness. These basic traits are nothing less than aspects of the bodhi mind.
Since the BLIA is an active, worldwide organization, I have spoken at length in this letter about the importance of human virtues, intelligent activity, and the outgoing practice of compassion. These are the central themes of Humanistic Buddhism. In this chapter, I will speak briefly about how to practice Buddhism. Since the BLIA is an open organi- zation, tolerant and accepting of all, we do not advocate only one kind of practice of Buddhism. There are many ways to discover the bodhi mind. Different people follow different paths. In one life, many people undertake more than one form of practice. Whether we practice Chan, Pure Land, esoteric Buddhism, or some other form of Buddhism, there are several fundamental aspects of good practice that all of us should bear in mind. I will discuss them briefly in the following sections.
In the sutras there is a story about a man who had been condemned to death. The king who had condemned the man gave him one last chance to live. The king told the man that if he could carry a jar of oil on his head around town without spilling a single drop, he would let him go free. The man agreed to the proposal. With utmost concentration he slowly carried the jar of oil around the town. As he walked along his route, the king had people ring bells and make noise to distract him. When this did not work, the king had beautiful dancing girls beside the man as he proceeded. Nothing made him lose his concentration. Since his life depended on it, the man’s mind was perfectly fixed on the jar of oil on his head. Eventually he succeeded in completing his route without spilling a drop of oil, and the king let him go free.
This story graphically illustrates the importance of concentra- tion. Just as the man’s life depended on the jar of oil on his head, our lives depend on the Dharma. If we can realize this truth with the same immediacy as the man in the story, we will make great strides in our practice.
The Teachings bequeathed by the Buddha Sutra says, “If you can concentrate on one thing, there is nothing you cannot do.”
Concentration is not a gift. It is something each one of us must work to achieve. Once it has been achieved, concentration becomes our single most important tool in the practice of Buddhism. Every aspect of Buddhism requires concentration. To be mindful, we must concentrate. To be compassionate, we must concentrate. To mediate, we must concentrate. To get along with others, we must concentrate.
Concentration can, and should, be developed in working situations and whenever we interact with other people. The most basic way of developing concentration, however, is through meditation. There are many kinds of meditation, but all of them depend on concentration. In its most basic form, successful meditation requires that we sit still for fairly long periods of time. This sitting is a basic form of physical concentra- tion that has profoundly beneficial effects on the body and the mind.
Discipline is closely related to concentration. One could even say that discipline is nothing but concentration over a long period of time. If you concentrate today, but forget to do so tomorrow, we might say you are lacking in discipline.
All of us must cultivate discipline in our practice. We activate very deep levels of the bodhi mind through discipline. Compassion and loving-kindness can be thought of as emotions, but for Buddhists it is important to think of them as disciplines as well.
Meditation increases our powers of concentration, but if it is not pursued regularly and with discipline, whatever gains we make are in danger of being lost.
Regularity is the tempo or rhythm of discipline. If you are not regular in your practice, then you probably are lacking in discipline. If you are lacking in discipline, then you probably also are lacking in concentra- tion. These three rugged character traits are important for the success- ful practice of Buddhism. You may get somewhere without them, but you will go much farther in your practice if you learn, once and for all, how to concentrate, how to be disciplined, and how to be regular in your practice.
Samadhi is a profound state of concentration of mindfulness or absorp- tion. We use the world Samadhi because Samadhi is all of these, and it is something beyond all of these. Samadhi can be achieved in many ways. In the following sections, I will give a few general suggestions concerning Samadhi that are appropriate for all members of the BLIA.
Every day, it is a good idea to bow before your altar to Buddha, and every day it is a good idea to repeat the twelve vows. The best way to do this is bow once, then make the first vow. Then bow again and make the second vow, and so on until you have done this with all twelve vows.
See the Appendix of this letter for the twelve vows.
When you have finished making the twelve vows, it is good to sit or kneel before your altar for as long as you have time. During this period, you may want to meditate or visualize the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
The rhythms, sounds and meanings of chants have very powerful and beneficial influences on the mind. Whenever you are chanting, it is important to do so with all of your heart. As you chant, try to blend your being with that of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas. As we chant, we should monitor ourselves until we find within ourselves the boundless resources of joy, compassion, emptiness and truth.
During meditation, we want to be sure to sit still. Stillness is very important. In our stillness, we will find unlimited resources of compas- sion and wisdom.
The practices mentioned above will not mean much if you do not bring their fruits back into the world of your family and friends. Medita- tion and chanting are not means to escape this earth. They are means to fulfill everything on this earth. The concentration, wisdom, peace and joy that we find in meditation are, properly, skills that should be applied in this world. We should use them whenever we deal with others.
All Buddhas are living representatives of Sakyamuni Buddha, his teachings, and his compassion. Once we have decided to undertake serious practice of Buddhism, it is important that we always remain mindful of this fact.
The BLIA uses a lotus above a circle to symbolize our organiza- tion. This symbol was chosen with care, and it has several meanings that are not immediately obvious to a casual observer. The meaning of the BLIA symbol says much about the BLIA. At the same time, it should also be a focal point for members of the BLIA, all of whom represent the BLIA.
The meaning of the BLIA symbol is as follows:
The question of how to practice Buddhism has many answers, and it has just a few. The BLIA advocates Humanistic Buddhism. Humanistic Buddhism is a term that comes from two words: human and Buddha. Both of these terms are important for complete spiritual practice. You should not emphasize one above the other. Both are necessary, just as both of the wings of a bird are necessary for it to achieve flight. If all of us pursue humanistic Buddhism with concen- tration, discipline and dedication, the highest heights of the bodhi mind will be ours.
The BLIA established the holiday “Buddha’s Light Day” on May 16, 1992, in California. This day is now officially recognized as the main BLIA holiday. It commemorates the establishment of the BLIA and our desire to spread the Dharma to all corners of the world. BLIA chapters should honor this day with special activities, performances, essay contests, seminars, and events for young people. This is a day for all of us to come together and enjoy ourselves with song and laughter as we reaffirm our commitment to each other and to Buddhism.