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Q: What do I do to become a Buddhist, is there a holy text I should read and if I pray, who do I pray to?
There are many paths to becoming a Buddhist and many reasons for doing so. It is also fine to use Buddhist ideas and practices without formally becoming a Buddhist.
“Becoming a Buddhist” is a process of discovery that begins with learning about the core teachings and finding a form that fits for you. I recommend allowing this process to be unhurried and in-depth. Don’t rush into joining a particular group: enjoy learning about different types of Buddhism and take your time to investigate how each one may or may not be the best match for you.
As recently as 40 years ago, there were very few books on Buddhism in English. Now libraries, bookstores, online bookstores and the internet offer endless numbers of texts, commentaries and teachings in all the Buddhist traditions; the choices are endless. Which brings the question, “Where do I start?”
It is beneficial to take in teachings from different teachers in the various Buddhist traditions. Ask your friends and acquaintances who either practice Buddhism or have done some exploring about their teacher and how they practice. Go and hear these people teach, ask questions and find out if the group offers instruction in how to meditate.
Sravasti Abbey abbess, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, encourages people not to limit their exploration to studying at home alone. Go to the different groups, meet people and engage in the practice. Here is a talk by Venerable Thubten Chodron on the purpose of studying Buddhism.
If you live in the Spokane area, there are several groups of varying sizes from different Buddhist traditions: Japanese Shin, Zen, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Thai and so on. Or you can come up to Sravasti Abbey for a retreat or one-day program. All these events are on our website, SravastiAbbey.org, along with our schedule of classes in Spokane.
You may want to draft a list of questions before you go to a teaching so that when the opportunity arises you are ready to express what you have been thinking and wondering about.
If you are not able to travel to hear a live teaching, go online and view teachings given by Buddhist teachers in the different traditions. Listening to teachings, in combination with your own study, will be most helpful in determining which tradition and teacher you may eventually feel a heart connection to.
The following books are wonderful resources and will be of great help in developing an understanding of the Buddhist worldview:
- By His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “The Art of Happiness: a Handbook for Living” (co-authored by Dr. Howard Cutler), “Ethics for the New Millennium” and “Becoming Enlightened.”
- By Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron: “Buddhism for Beginners,” “Open Heart, Clear Mind: an Introduction to the Buddha’s Teachings” and “An Open-Hearted Life: Transformative Methods for Compassionate Living from a Clinical Psychologist and a Buddhist Nun” (co-authored by Russell Kolts).
- By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana:”Mindfulness in Plain English.”
- By Thich Nhat Hanh: “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation.”
When you have a found a tradition and a teacher or a study group, they can guide you to formally “take refuge” in the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is the traditional ceremony, offered in all Buddhist traditions, that defines you as a Buddhist.
To address the last two parts of your question: Buddhist practitioners do use the word prayer, although Buddhist prayers are often understood as making aspirations. In “Buddhism for Beginners,” Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron notes, “There are many kinds of prayers. Some are designed to direct our minds toward a certain spiritual quality or aim, inspiring our mind to work to develop it and thus creating the cause for us to attain this. An example is praying to be more tolerant and compassionate toward others.”
For example, if we are making prayers for someone to regain her/his health, we are making the aspirations: may this person receive the best medical care available, may they be surrounded with people who are capable of extending love and affection and may they act in the best interests of the ill person so that decisions can be made in a wise and timely manner about treatment and next steps. The aspiration can include the thought: may the person who is unwell have a calm and peaceful mind as she/he undergoes treatment. We are not praying to Buddha to come and save us or others.
Ven. Chodron continues, “For any prayer to be fulfilled, praying alone isn’t sufficient. The appropriate causes must also be created. We can’t simply think, ‘Please, Buddha, make this and that happen. I’ll relax and have tea while you do the work!’ For example, if we pray to be more loving and compassionate and yet make no effort to control our anger, we aren’t creating the cause for that prayer to be fulfilled.”
In “Pearl of Wisdom Book One,” compiled by Ven. Chodron, she writes,
Many people question, ‘What are the meaning and purpose of reciting spiritual verses and following guided meditations?’ Recitation, guided meditations, and chanting are not merely moving the mouth; they are moving the mind. They are ways of guiding our thoughts and energy in a certain direction; they are a technique to help us transform our mind. By contemplating the meaning of what we are saying or reading, we make the prayers and practices effective in enriching the quality of our life.
Building up good habits of the mind is a gradual process that takes time. We do the same practices and recitations each day in order to train and familiarize ourselves with a new way of regarding and relating to ourselves and others.
May your explorations be fruitful and may you enjoy the journey of searching for a spiritual practice and a teacher to inspire your heart and mind.
Ven. Thubten Samten met her teacher, Ven. Thubten Chodron, in 1996 when the future Ven. Chonyi, took the future Ven. Samten to a Dharma talk at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle. The talk on the kindness of others and the way it was presented is deeply etched in her mind. Four retreats with Ven. Chodron, eight months in India and Nepal studying the Dharma, one month of offering service at Sravasti Abbey, and a two month retreat at the Abbey in 1998 fueled the fire to ordain on Aug. 26, 2010.
Ven. Samten’s full ordination took place in Taiwan in March 2012, when she became the Abbey’s sixth bhikshuni.
Right after finishing a Bachelor of Music degree, Ven. Samten moved to Edmonton, Canada to pursue training as a corporeal mime artist. Five years later, a return to university to obtain a Bachelor of Education degree opened the door to becoming a music teacher for the Edmonton Public School board. Concurrently, Ven. Samten became a founding member and performer with Kita No Taiko, Alberta’s first Japanese drum group.