Disclaimer: My goal is not to convince you of anything you do not already know deep inside your soul. My “Buddhism for Dummies” series is meant to shed light on Buddhist beliefs in an easy-to-understand way. You can decide for yourself if it rings true to you.
Do you believe in Buddhism? Have been taught about it from a Buddhist monk and/or nun? Or has your version of Buddhism been through a bastardized Western lens? What I like to call, “viewing Buddha with rose-colored glasses.” This isn’t meant to be insulting, it’s just so happens that Buddha’s teachings were historically greatly misunderstood when they were first introduced to the Western world. It’s been an uphill battle ever since.
GOOD NEWS: There’s no reason to continue being misinformed. Buddhism, like all organized religions, has specific beliefs and steps to become an actual practicing Buddhist. You can believe in parts of Buddhism or even call yourself a Buddhist if you’d like, but to experience the full benefits and actually be a “practicing Buddhist,” you must follow the specific teachings.
Check out a combination of my steps and the ones my Buddhist teachers have taught me about pondering if Buddhism is your truth. . .
Introduction to Buddhism
It may be helpful to know that there are different branches of Buddhism. Some formed naturally by new ways of understanding the universal truths. Some formed by greedy monks who lost their way after Buddha left this existence.
Personally, I follow the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (“the Buddha”) and ignore any attempts to change his words years later by imperfect monks. I also follow teachings from enlightened monks. How do you know if a monk is enlightened or an imposter? Well Buddha specifically listed a few enlightened people later in his life, like his own aunt (the first female monk aka nun!) and son. To find your correct branch of Buddhism, you can track down the “enlightened” monks through lineages and see which speaks most to you.
The only truths Buddha revealed are the eternal truths, but not nearly the whole picture. Buddha was quoted many times discussing why he did not reveal what enlightenment truly was to those who have not yet reached it. In one of his lessons, Buddha uses a metaphor of all the forests in the world as his enlightened knowledge. But this leaf in his hand? That’s all followers need to initiate the journey to enlightenment.
Buddha cannot reveal all the truths to those not yet ready to hear it. Some significant truths are for you to discover during your unique life cycle until rebirth. Buddha believed in self-discovery and if a person found another way of truly escaping dukkha that was different than his, he was happy to see it!
IMPORTANT: BUDDHA IS NOT CHRIST. BUDDHA IS NOT GOD. BUDDHA IS LIKE ANY OTHER SOUL. Many people reached enlightenment before Buddha and many people reached it after his departure from this life. To sum up a lot of history, Buddha is the fundamental teacher who decided instead of keeping the enlightenment from others to protect their own journey, he would attempt to assist them without giving away too much information.
Much of Buddhism you must discover for yourself. One of the most powerful parts of this religion is the focus on your own specific soul and what it needs to escape dukkha. Often not a “one-size-fits-all” situation!
Step 1: Why Do You Want to be Buddhist?
Seems like a simple question, but do you know the answer immediately? If not, give it some thought right now. As you read these words, truly look into your mind and soul. Think about what you were taught as a child and what felt right to you as a living creature. Think about what you want from this life and what you believe connects all human beings together.
A few examples to get you thinking:
- Is your quest to form a relationship with a loving God? Do you believe mistakes you make need to be forgiven by an all-powerful being? If so, you are not Buddhist. No hard feelings, you can continue to read this blog (if you’re still interested of course)! Perhaps examine why you feel a connection to a God and go from there. I am not an expert on religions with Gods — unless they are now considered historic mythologies — so I may not be of much help in your spiritual journey.
- Is your quest to fulfill some sort of spiritual ego so you can feel superior to Western/Christian peers? If so, you are not Buddhist. Perhaps examine why you wish to use spirituality to feel important over another human being. Please do not refer to yourself as Buddhist to other people, it causes confusion.
- Is your quest derived from an internal inkling that all living things are connected through a universal power, which never begins nor ends? Is it that we all learn different lessons across many lifetimes for our own spiritual growth? Is it that we can strengthen our souls as we become who we need to be to finally end each of our specific rebirth cycles? Is it that enlightenment is total peace and understanding, escaping all forms of dukkha (suffering)? Is it that all people, no matter any external factors, can and should feel love/supported in their quest for enlightenment?
If all (or most) of the above questions ring true to you, you might be Buddhist.
Step 2: Thanks But I Already Knew That, What’s Next?
If you’re like me, all of the essential beliefs in Buddhism align with the natural spiritual beliefs I noticed as a child. For example, the reason I cared so much about Star Wars and Avatar: The Last Airbender is because both fictional cultures had a core religion that came directly from Buddhism (with a sprinkling of other spiritual beliefs to spice it up).
Since I already aligned with the basic Buddhist beliefs, I needed to go much deeper into what the organized religion truly was to see if I believed in all of it.
Gather your official education materials and if at all possible, meet with a well-established monk/nun to discuss any of your questions or concerns. Read up on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path — can you imagine yourself following it? Look up common terms like “Dharma,” “Karma,” “Nirvana,” “Sangha,” etc. Learn the difference between rebirth and reincarnation! Learn what dukkha truly means — the English word “suffering” is not a great translation! Learn about the different schools of Buddhism and why they differ!
[Author’s Note: If you’d like me explain the Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path in a blog post, please let me know. Since these beliefs are core to all schools of Buddhism, you can learn about them from a quick internet search. Just make sure the author is a practicing Buddhist, not someone on the outside giving their point of view.]
Step 3: Meditate on Your Formal Buddhist Education
Great job, you’ve processed a lot of (hopefully) inspirational information. I’m sure in Step 2 you read the famous Dhammapada, a pivotal educational material straight from the Buddha.
Now it’s important you don’t rush this next step of the process. You must give your brain the time (that you, personally need) to sort through all of these new ways of viewing the universe and our purpose as human beings. You may use guided meditations or any other style you prefer.
You must be able to clear your mind and be fully present in the moment to have any universal truths be personally revealed to you. Mental health illnesses makes this process extra difficult, but stay vigilant!
Step 4: Officially Become a Practicing Buddhist!
Once Steps #1-3 are complete and you have a full understanding of yourself and what your life will be as a Buddhist person, the next step is to “formally” join the religion. This should only be done if you believe it will benefit your relationship to your new religious beliefs, not because anyone/thing is persuading you do so.
There are a few different ‘initiation rituals’ into Buddhism, but they are all simply that, just manmade rituals. If you truly believe in all Buddhist teachings, that may be enough for you to identify with Buddhism. Regardless of how you personally feel about traditional rituals, it’s practiced in most schools that to officially become a Buddhist, you must “take refuge in the three jewels.”
Rituals can be a loving and inclusive process. My official “taking refuge,” rituals were very impactful to me and I look back on it fondly. [Side note: Borderline is very receptive to anything metaphorical or ritualistic since it mimics our complex thought processes.]
- “Take refuge in the Buddha,” by seeing him as the ultimate example of what kind of life you wish to live.
2. “Take refuge in the Dharma,” the teaching of the Buddha, by following it and using it as your guide, and to search for further truth and wisdom through your life.
3. “Take refuge in the Sangha,” by viewing our community of Buddhist practitioners as your companions in life, sources of feedback, support, and most importantly, friendship.
If formal rituals aren’t your thing, you can look up alternative ways to “take refuge.” Don’t let any single “Buddhist” tell you how to be a Buddhist — myself included! Read the teachings of truly enlightened people and meditate on your own understandings.