In truth, finding your spiritual path is simple. Just look down and see where your feet are. There’s your path.
The cartoon cliché about finding a guru on the top of a mountain and asking for the meaning of life is just that — a cartoon cliché. The genuine spiritual path has no geographical boundaries. There is no wisdom hidden in some far corner of the earth that isn’t already within you. The answers you seek can’t be put into words.
So, what do you do? If the path is everywhere, how do you direct yourself? If wisdom is within you, how do you access it? If answers can’t be expressed in words, how will you understand them?
The Buddhist answer is: Practice. Through practice, we expand our capacity to perceive and understand.
What Do We Mean by “Practice”?
Among Buddhists, “practice” usually refers to a particular discipline, usually engaged in daily, that engages body and mind. The purpose of this is not to stuff new facts in our heads, or re-arrange our mental furniture to accommodate a new belief system.
The purpose is to engage our natural but under-used capacities to understand and perceive in different ways.
Daily meditation is a common practice, but there are also focused chanting practices and ritual practices. The forms these take vary from school to school.
Read More: What Does It Mean to Practice Buddhism?
So there you are, interested in Buddhism and maybe wanting to give it a try. How do you get started?
This seems to happen all kinds of ways. Some of us are drawn into Buddhism because we want to learn to meditate. Some of us are introduced to a chanting practice by a friend. Thanks to modern technology, instructions for both can be found on the Web.
Getting Started in Meditation
Each of the meditating schools of Buddhism has a somewhat different approach to meditation, but Lesson One is nearly always focusing on the breath. If you can breathe, you can meditate.
Sit comfortably erect in a quiet place; the ideal is to be upright and keep your muscles relaxed at the same time. If you aren’t sure what to do with your legs on a meditation pillow, it’s all right to sit in a chair. In most schools you will be told to not close your eyes, but to simply rest your gaze on the floor.
Now, breath normally and focus all of your attention on the sensation of breathing. Feel air going into your nose and down to your lungs, and out again. As thoughts come up to hijack your attention, acknowledge the thought and let it go. Then go back to breath focus.
Some people find it helpful to count breaths from one to ten, then going back to one. If you try this, what often happens is that you’ll realize you’ve gotten to 47 and were lost in thoughts about the utility bill. Acknowledge the thought, let it go, and then go back to one.
Do this for five to ten minutes a day to start. Set a timer so you don’t have to keep checking your watch.
If you do this faithfully every day, you will find that your ability to stay focused becomes stronger. At some point, however, to deepen the practice you’ll need to choose a particular form of Buddhist meditation. Usually there is a kind of progression of practice, in which you leave breath counting behind and go on to more challenging or expanding exercises.
Read More: Bhavana: Introduction to Buddhist Meditation
Getting Started in Chanting
There are a lot of different chanting practices. Nichiren Buddhism and the various Pure Land schools, such as Jodo Shinshu, are examples of chanting schools. There’s no generic Buddhist chant, however. Each school has its own specific chanting practice.
Taking Nichiren Buddhism as an example — practitioners in this school chant a Japanese phrase, the daimoku, for a least a few minutes morning and evening. The phrase is nam-myoho-renge-kyo, which is an homage to the Lotus Sutra. Chanters keep their focus on the chant itself; no going on autopilot while the mind wanders.
The chant then becomes a form of meditation. If sitting in silent meditation doesn’t appeal to you, a focused chanting practice may be a good alternative. As with meditation, to begin, try to schedule a regular practice time, and start with five to ten minutes a day.
Read More: Chanting: A Basic Buddhist Practice
What About Yoga?
What most of us in the West call “yoga,” or more correctly “hatha yoga,” is more Hindu than Buddhist. Lots of Buddhists do yoga, of course, and consider it part of their practice. But I believe most Buddhist teachers would say that by itself yoga wouldn’t take the place of regular meditation or chanting.
If you have specific questions, you can probably find an article that addresses them on this website.
See also Which School of Buddhism Is Right for You? and Brief Guide to Major Schools of Buddhism. Buddhism really is not a do-it-yourself project. If you stick with it, eventually you’ll want to find others to practice with.
[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]