Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in the area around Northern India that is currently Southern Nepal, in 563 BCE. At the age of 29, Siddhartha realised that wealth and luxury did not guarantee happiness, so he explored the different teachings, religions and philosophies of the day, to find the key to lasting human happiness. After six years of study and meditation he finally discovered (not invented) ‘the middle path’ and gained enlightenment at the age of 35. The title Buddha means ‘the awakened one’. After enlightenment, the Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching until his passing at the age of 80. The Buddha taught a path to enlightenment (or lasting happiness) from his own experience. His teachings are called ‘the Dharma’, meaning Truth. These teachings later came to be known as Buddhism. His teachings are maintained by the ‘Sangha’, a term used to refer to community of monks and nuns.
The daily practices of Buddhists depend on personal choice as well as many other factors. Some Buddhists simply set aside a time each day to meditate, while others may include prayers, chanting, reciting the Buddha’s name, taking refuge and bowing to the altar (which normally holds a Buddha image). The language used for chanting can be any one of many languages such as English, Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, or Tibetan. Daily practice typically lasts from 15 minutes to one hour.
Another common practice among Buddhists is taking the vow to follow the five precepts. These precepts include refraining from killing, stealing, engaging in sexual misconduct, harmful speech and the taking of intoxicants. The act of keeping these vows serves as a moral code that allows Buddhist practitioners to refrain from engaging in harmful or unskilful acts.
Some practitioners may decide to renew these vows from time to time. This serves as a continual reminder to foster generosity, compassion and loving kindness (a wish for all beings to be well and happy). Those wishing to explore Buddhism may choose to go on a retreat. This offers a defined period of quiet reflection and meditation lasting from days to weeks, or even months. A Buddhist pilgrimage involves making a special trip to holy places such as in India, Nepal, Tibet, China or Sri Lanka. For most Buddhists, ordained monks and nuns play the central role in the Buddhist community as teachers and spiritual leaders, although some Buddhists prefer less ceremony and instead learn from lay teachers.
Buddhist teachings can be explored and tested by anyone. The Buddha’s teachings do not rely on blind faith. Rather, the Buddha encouraged his students to test his teachings by applying them to daily life. When one’s faith and confidence in the Buddhist path develops, a formal ceremony can be undertaken called ‘taking refuge’. This essentially involves recognising the importance of the Triple Gem or Three Jewels: namely the Buddha (who discovered the path), the Dharma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the community of ordained monks and nuns who devote their lives to spiritual practice).
All sentient beings have a shared goal – humans, animals and insects alike – have a desire to be happy and free from suffering. The Buddha recognised this, and taught a more skilful approach to life that leads to more lasting happiness. Instead of relying on external factors such as fame and wealth to give us happiness, the Buddha’s teaching asks us to look within and change our perception of the world. We normally see our problems as “out there”, but Buddhism teaches that it’s actually all about our perception of reality. Seeing clearly where our difficulties originate is the first step to overcoming them. The paradox is that most of us find ourselves unknowingly creating conditions that lead us back to the dissatisfaction we so desperately seek to eliminate.
Buddhism points to the underlying causes of our day-to-day problems and teaches a graduated path to liberate us from suffering. This is known as the Noble Eight-Fold Path. Buddhist teachings are therefore about reducing the causes of suffering and increasing the causes of happiness. The Buddha’s teachings cannot be absorbed through intellectual understanding alone; it needs to be realised through direct experience. This is where meditation fits in. The aim of Buddhist teachings is to develop the capacity to recognise that the ever changing, inter-connected universe follows the law of cause and effect. In order to realise this both intellectually and experientially, it is necessary to learn how to cultivate mindfulness. Meditation practice helps us to achieve this.
Your mind is normally active, generating a continuous flow of thoughts, sensations and emotions. Meditation practice recognises that this is how the mind functions. It does not try to stop your thoughts, but rather, offers techniques for letting them go.
So how does meditation work? We experience everything through our mind, so by training or cultivating this mind, we can change the quality of our experience. Gradually, meditation practice alters the structure of the brain and new neuronal pathways are created which improve whole brain functioning. Meditation increases left-prefrontal lobe activity, which is associated with happiness, compassion and curiosity. It also tends to reduce “neuronal gossip”, i.e. thoughts of anxiety, fear and worry. This is achieved by resting the mind in natural, non-judgmental awareness. Buddhist meditation helps us to be aware of the “mental poisons” of attachment, aversion and ignorance, which lead to harm for ourselves and other sentient beings.
Meditation can help increase our happiness and compassion, allowing us to be more aware of the needs of other beings. Over time, meditation can even make us more aware of the consequences of our own actions, or the actions of others. In this way, we may learn to uncover the illusion of “Self”. In this way, we become less selfish and absorbed in our own thoughts, fears and desires. Over time, we may start to realise that there is no difference between the mind that thinks and the thoughts that flow in and out of it.
The difference between ordinary meditation and Buddhist meditation is Mindfulness. What is this? It is the link between sitting meditation practice and everyday life. Mindfulness meditation improves our awareness throughout the day, so that we are not on “auto-pilot”, but instead living life fully aware. It’s important to integrate practice into day-to-day life. There is no point in being calm on the cushion but out of control throughout the day. Mindfulness can be applied in every situation: listening to others, cleaning the house, eating your meal, or walking along the street. These are all opportunities for mindfulness and being aware of the present moment.
How do you meditate? Firstly, let go of your expectations about meditation. The Buddha taught many meditation techniques, so there is no single best method. Each tradition has different methods of practice, but all have the common goal of cultivating mindfulness to lead a more peaceful and compassionate life. For a beginner wanting to practice Buddhist meditation, it is important to find a good teacher who can guide you through the early stages of practice. Meditation is a process that requires practice, persistence and patience. You cannot expect results overnight. During the early stages of practice, a beginner may face several constraints or mental setbacks that cause them to become distracted or disillusioned and give up. This is where a good meditation teacher is extremely beneficial. A genuine teacher is a trusted person with good intentions who can provide guidance, supporting the practitioner through their meditation practice. Below is a basic guide on how to start meditating without a teacher.
Do not hold onto thoughts as they arise, just let them go. Rest the mind in the present moment, allowing thoughts and sensations to pass, noting them without becoming attached to them. Meditation is not a competitive sport and it should not be forced; it is a process of letting go of the thoughts, feelings and emotions that flow through our minds. In the early stages, the quality and frequency of meditation is more important than the quantity. In other words, it’s better to have a few short but relaxed sessions of five or ten minutes than to force a 60-minute session each morning.
The object (or focus) of your meditation can be your breath, a natural garden scene, a sound, or a wish for others to be well and happy. You can even send compassionate thoughts towards someone you love. Since distractions are inevitable while meditating, even they can be used as objects of meditation, e.g. a particular thought, a sound or a physical sensation can be used to focus the mind with non-judgmental awareness.