I. What is Buddhist Practice?
As we live, we must strive for a life of value. Buddhism is different from philosophy, for it does not only deal with knowledge and theory. Rather, Buddhism calls for devout faith, developed morality, and most importantly: spiritual practice.
There are many people who want to learn about Buddhism, but are preoccupied with other people, money, relationships, fame, fortune, and power. How can one expect to have any time to engage in spiritual practice with so much focus on honor or disgrace, right or wrong, praise or blame, and gain or loss?
All we need is the right intention to begin any form of spiritual practice, whether it is bowing to the Buddha, chanting sutras, repentance, meditation, or other such practices. Any of these can form the basis of a daily practice. One can also visit a Buddhist temple or monastery to participate in pilgrimages, precept retreats, seminars, summer camps, short-term monastic retreats, or other such activities.
The main purpose of spiritual practice is to develop one’s power of will. Just as porcelain plates and ceramic jars must be fired in a kiln or baked in the sun to become strong, we grow closer to recovering our true self through daily practices like offering incense, bowing to the Buddha, reading or chanting sutras, or meditation. By maintaining these practices regardless of how busy or idle we are, we will improve our temperament, purify our spirit, elevate our character, and enhance our vitality.
There are many different Buddhist practices, and you should choose those that work best for you. What is important is to not become attached to one’s practice and to not denigrate the practice of others. Some people may like to meditate, while others will benefit from reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. Chanting different sutras will resonate with different people. We should be flexible in our practice and always respectful of others.
II. Chan Practice
Chan practice involves many different methods for developing meditative concentration, but sitting meditation in particular is a very important practice for beginners. Sitting meditation allows us to experience the joys of meditative concentration and to begin to contemplate and investigate one’s intrinsic nature. Sitting meditation can be practiced anywhere: under trees, beside rivers, or on the tops of mountains. To begin the practice of sitting meditation, it is important to have some basic meditation knowledge and be familiar with the fundamentals.
Proper Meditation Posture
One of the fundamentals of sitting meditation is what to do with the body. Proper meditation posture can be described in the following seven points:
Sit straight with your legs crossed. If possible, put the right foot on the left thigh and the left foot on the right thigh. If this is not possible, one can just put one foot on top of the opposite thigh. These positions are ideal for balance and circulation, but if this is still too difficult, one can also sit “Indian style” with the legs crossed at the shins. Sit on a cushion that is not too hard and not too soft, not too high and not too low.
Form the hands into the mudra and place them in your lap. Lay one hand on top of the other with both palms facing up and the thumbs slightly touching.
Keep the back straight and do not lean against a wall.
Keep the head and neck straight.
Relax your shoulders so they are balanced and natural, and the chest is flat. No part of your body should be tense. Although you should maintain good posture, you should also maintain a sense of ease.
Lightly join the lips together and place the top of the tongue on the upper palate.
Close your eyes at least halfway and look downward. Do not be distracted by the sights around you.
Cultivating the Mind
After achieving a proper meditation posture, what should one do with the mind? One technique is to follow the “six sublime methods,” formulated by Master Zhiyi of Buddhism’s Tiantai School.
Counting the Breath
Focus the mind by counting the breaths (from one to ten). Every time one loses count, begin again at one.
Following the Breath
Follow the breath as one inhales and exhales without counting. This is an easy and natural way to develop meditative concentration.
Make the mind still and tranquil by putting an end to the mind’s delusions and abiding in a state of non-thought. Once one has put a stop to these delusions, the mind will naturally become concentrated and wisdom will arise.
Often paired with the previous method, “seeing truth” means to see deeply into all phenomena and develop wisdom. This is often done by contemplating the five aggregates. The five aggregates are the five different things that make up a living being: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. When practicing this method each of the five aggregates are seen to be false so that one is able to break through their delusions and develop skillful, undefiled wisdom.
When reflecting on the mind, one understands the idea that the mind is “knower” is untrue, and thus the attachment to the self will disappear on its own. Then the skillful wisdom without outflows will make all things clear.
When the mind is free of all attachments, everything becomes clear and pure. One develops wisdom that is truly clear, without outflows. This naturally ends confusion and allows one to realize the truth.
Of each of the six sublime methods, following the breath is the most important, for one sees the breath move from activity to tranquility. One should see the breath move in and out, just like the cycle of birth and death, or the arising and ceasing of phenomena. It is by seeing the breath that we can come to realize the Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent, suffering, and empty. Once this is understood, the attachment to the self is severed, and the higher states of self-reflection and purification are possible.
III. Pure Land Practice
Pure Land practice is grounded in what are called the “three supports”: faith, vow, and practice. Faith is established first, for it is through faith that one begins to cultivate positive karma. Even with its great breadth, Buddhism cannot liberate those who lack faith. Faith is what allows one to make vows, and from these vows comes spiritual practice.
Before Amitabha Buddha was awakened, when he was still practicing as a bodhisattva, he made forty-eight vows to liberate sentient beings based on his faith in the Buddhas. One of these vows was that, if he became a Buddha, all beings who recite his name will be able to be reborn in his Pure Land. In the same way, faith in the vows of Amitabha Buddha is what can allow us to be reborn in the Pure Land.
In Pure Land practice, one vows to dedicate this life to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s Western Pure Land. Furthermore, one vows to later return to the Saha world to liberate all sentient beings.
There are many forms of Pure Land practice, but in general they can be divided into three categories: first, reciting the name; second, visualizing the Pure Land; and third, contemplating true reality. Practicing any of these methods will lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.
It is worthwhile to describe each of these practices a bit, for the three are quite different. Contemplating true reality means to come to realize the Buddha’s “Dharmakaya,” the absolute aspect of the Buddha that pervades the universe. To do so is to attain samadhi, a deep state of meditative concentration. This practice is also found in the Chan School, for the mind that manifests through such practice is the Pure Land itself. This form of realization is very difficult, and requires great spiritual capacity. For this reason it is rarely the primary form of Pure Land practice.
The next form of practice is visualizing the Pure Land. This refers specifically to sixteen elements of the Pure Land as described in the Contemplation Sutra. When these contemplations are practiced skillfully, then the Pure Land will appear before us, whether our eyes are open or closed. Those who cultivate this practice are said to attain the “presence of the Buddha’s samadhi,” in which they are able to perceive all Buddhas.
Visualizing the Pure Land is a practice both subtle and profound, and as such is not for everyone. Those with poor spiritual capacity, a lack of skillful means, insufficient energy, and a dull, shallow mind will find the practice very difficult. One must be sharp, possess a subtle mind, deep insight, skillful intelligence, and unflagging zeal. It is not easy, and as such is not a very accessible form of practice.
Next is the practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. This practice is much easier than the two previously mentioned, and can be cultivated by people of varying spiritual capacities. Reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name with single-minded focus can lead to samadhi. As such, it is a very popular form of practice for average, busy people.
Reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha can be done in many different ways, depending on one’s mental state and physical surroundings. One can recite loudly to counteract drowsiness and generate energy, or one can even recite silently in public places or mass transit. One can also recite somewhere in-between, such that each syllable is spoken clearly, heard clearly, and thought of clearly.
One can recite quickly, one word following right after the next, to help dispel distracting thoughts. Another technique is to recite quickly following each breath: reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name ten times following an exhale, and only then breathing in.
One can also use each recitation to reflect back on one’s intrinsic nature, or use each recitation to visualize Amitabha Buddha and his Pure Land. One can even practice bowing while reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name. Reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name can also be done with Buddhist prayer beads, moving one’s fingers along one bead for each recitation, or even one bead for every ten recitations.
How to practice reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name is entirely up to you. What is important is that we reach a state of selflessness. As the ancient sages said, “Reciting, yet not reciting; not reciting, yet reciting.” Master Ouyi (1599-1655 ce) has said:
Whether or not one attains rebirth in the Pure Land will depend completely on whether or not there is faith and vow; to what level one is reborn in the Pure Land depends on how deeply one practices reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name.
There are many different methods of Pure Land practice, but at their core, all of these practices reach the mouth, the ear, and the mind: the mouth speaks the name of Amitabha Buddha clearly, the ear hears the name clearly, and each recitation appears clearly in the mind.
There is a story that, in the Western Pure Land, there is a storehouse full of eyes, ears, mouths, hands, feet, and so on. Why? Because there are some people who only see Amitabha Buddha with their eyes, but do not recite his name with their mouths, so only their eyes are reborn in the Pure Land. In the same way, there are some people who only use their ears to hear and their feet to circumambulate the shrine. The meaning of this story is that our practice must be sincere and complete for us to be reborn in the Western Pure Land. To do so we can develop the following attitudes while we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha:
We practice in order to be reborn in the Pure Land. We should think of how we will be reborn on a lotus flower in a land without the suffering of birth, old age, sickness, or death. The Pure Land is full of pagodas, terraces, and pavilions sheathed in gold and encrusted will jewels, and we will be surrounded by good Dharma friends from whom we can learn from and share our understanding. Moreover, Amitabha Buddha will be there to personally deliver teachings. Is there anything more joyful than this?
When we have this attitude, we will feel joy with each recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name. We should practice until our arms sway, our feet dance, and each of us has a smile on our faces. In this way the mind will become pure and we will overflow with enthusiasm.
We should recite Amitabha Buddha’s name with a sense of compassion for the suffering of others. There is no greater suffering that the separation of death—and if we consider carefully, we ourselves have been traveling through the cycle of birth and death since beginningless time. Sometimes we are reborn as animals, and other times we are reborn in hell or as hungry ghosts. When will we ever be free? How can such suffering not bring us to tears? Only by relying on the compassion of Amitabha Buddha can we be pulled out from the deep ocean of pain and suffering and ascend to the Pure Land. If we recite the name of Amitabha Buddha with compassion, we can better develop a mind-to-mind connection with him and his great compassion.
Recite with Emptiness
The world we live in is an illusion, and our bodies are but a combination of the four great elements of earth, water, fire, and wind and the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. But reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name is something we can rely on. We should free the mind of impediments so that we can single-mindedly recite the name of Amitabha Buddha. We should recite until the self disappears, heaven and earth crumble, and the world no longer exists—all that is left is our recitation.
This may sound impossible, but it is not so difficult. I myself have had such an experience. In 1954, I conducted an Amitabha Buddha recitation retreat in Ilan which lasted for seven days. During those seven days, I felt as light as if I were walking on clouds. When I woke up and brushed my teeth, it was as if my teeth recited, “Amituofo, Amituofo….” When I ate breakfast, my porridge seemed to say, “Amituofo, Amituofo….” Even at night when I slept, my dreams were crystal clear. Those seven days seemed to go by in a moment, for everything else had become empty, except my recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name. The practice allowed me to forget time and space, and feel the happiness of letting go of the mind and body.
When I think of Amitabha Buddha’s compassionate vow and his care for all living beings, I cannot help but feel a great sense of reverence. As I bow and recite Amitabha Buddha’s name I wish that all living beings will be liberated by his limitless light as soon as possible. We should recite Amitabha Buddha’s name and bow before his image with such reverence and sincerity. Doing so will remove our karmic obstacles and increase our merit and wisdom.
When we seek the Dharma with such sincerity and reverence, every flower contains the Buddha’s Dharmakaya. One need not use prayer beads, for every person, tree, field, house, telephone pole, and all things become like beads upon which we count our recitations.
IV. Starting a Daily Practice
You can start your Buddhist practice right at home. Many Buddhists dedicate a room or a small space in their home specifically for their Buddhist practice. This place becomes the focus of one’s meditation and recitation. Such a place can also be the center of one’s devotional practices. It can be where one places a Buddha image, pays homage and bows to the Buddha, and makes offerings.
A Buddha statue should be located in a place of respect. A Buddha statue can be placed in the living room of a house at an elevated place. It is also possible to place a Buddha statue in a bedroom by placing it in a cabinet—opening the doors when one is engaging in spiritual practice and keeping them closed when one is not. It is also possible to mount an image of the Buddha in a picture frame, bring it out while in use, and keep it in a high place or out of sight otherwise.
Bowing before a Buddha statue is a common sign of devotion, humility, and respect. Buddhists will often make three bows to the “Triple Gem”: one to the Buddha, the teacher, one to the Dharma, the teaching, and one to the Sangha, the monastic community. Another common practice is to make offerings before a Buddha statue. Offerings need not be elaborate, some incense, flowers, water, or fruit is just fine.
It is important to be practical with regards to Buddhist practice. For example, when doing daily recitations one should not practice too loudly out of respect for one’s neighbors. If someone knocks on the door or the phone rings during sutra chanting, simply mark one’s place with a piece of paper or a bookmark and resume again once the matter has been dealt with. One’s practice should take shape around how much time one has in the day. Some suggestions:
1 Minute Practice
Bow or join one’s palms before a Buddha statue at a home shrine or when passing a Buddhist temple.
Offer incense, flowers, or a cup of water before a Buddha statue.
Recite Amitabha Buddha’s name three times.
Chant the four-line verse from the Diamond Sutra.
2 Minute Practice
Chant the Heart Sutra during one’s household chores, like sweeping the floor, cooking dinner, or washing the car.
Chant the ten great vows of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.
Bow to the Buddha three times.
5 Minute Practice
Before going to bed or right after waking up, sit calmly and observe the mind for five minutes.
Recite the name of Amitabha Buddha by exhaling, reciting ten times quickly, and only then breathing in.
Chant the Eight Realizations of a Bodhisattva Sutra.
10 Minute Practice
Chant the Universal Gate Sutra, the Amitabha Sutra, or the Great Compassion Mantra and Ten Short Mantras.
15 Minute Practice
Chant the Diamond Sutra.
Bow to the Buddha with twelve slow, mindful bows.
Sit in meditation and contemplate the mind.
30 Minute Practice
Sit in meditation and contemplate the mind.
Recite Amitabha Buddha’s name continuously.
Bow to the Buddha with twenty-four slow, mindful bows.
Chant a chapter from the Lotus Sutra or the Flower Adornment Sutra.
60 Minute Practice
Chant the Amitabha Sutra or Universal Gate Sutra, recite Amitabha Buddha’s name, circumambulate a Buddha statue, and dedicate the merit.
Chant the Diamond Sutra three to five times.
Chant the Great Compassion Mantra 12, 24, 32, or up to 108 times.
V. Participating in Group Practice
If one would like to participate in a group practice environment, many temples offer weekly services, such as Amitabha Chanting Services. An Amitabha Chanting Service is a group gathering to recite the name of Amitabha Buddha that will typically take place at the same time each week in a Chinese Buddhist temple. This type of group practice can collectively encourage each participant to advance spiritually as well as fostering a sense of fellowship among the participants. The power of group practice is much greater than practicing alone, for the fervor of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name with such expressiveness allows the chanting to flow into one’s heart. A typical Amitabha chanting service is organized in this way:
Sing the “Incense Praise.”
Chant “Homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattva of the Great Lotus Pond Assembly” three times.
Chant the entire Amitabha Sutra, followed by three recitations of the Rebirth in the Pure Land Dharani.
Sing the “Praise to Amitabha.”
Chanting Amitabha Buddha’s name: namo amituofo
Circumambulating the Buddha statue.
Three bows each to Amitabha Buddha, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva, and the bodhisattvas of the great lotus pond assembly.
Ten minutes of sitting meditation (optional)
Taking the three refuges.
Dedication of merit.
Listening to a Dharma talk.
When visiting a Buddhist temple and participating in group practice for the first time, it is important to behave with courtesy and consideration as one learns the rules of that particular temple. However, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind when visiting any temple. First, one should not smoke or drink alcohol at a temple, nor should one bring non-vegetarian food or pets. One should dress in a manner that is plain and simple. Many temples do not allow one to wear shoes in the shrine room; shoes are to be placed neatly to the side in a shoe cabinet. During services, men and women are often separated to the east and west sides of the shrine. Also, while in the shrine, one should speak softly.
Some lay Buddhists have black robes that signify they have taken refuge in the Triple Gem. If you have brought such a robe, it is best to put the robe on first before entering the shrine. If you do not have such a robe, it is best to stand near the back of the shrine to maintain the dignified atmosphere of the hall.
During a service, one shouldn’t fidget so as not to disturb others. If you are not sure how to chant correctly, simply chant softly and follow along with the group. When circumambulating the shrine, focus the body and mind by concentrating on the sound of the chanting, so as not to have distracting thoughts.