There are two kinds of Buddhists in the world: people who grew up in the religion and people who converted (kaishū 改宗 in Japanese if you’re curious 😉 ). Converting to another religion, any religion, is always a challenge. You have to learn new ways of understanding the world, you have to start doing things different, and so on. It’s kind of exciting in a way too since you’re becoming a new person also.
I converted to Buddhism in 2005 after my first trip to Japan. I had been interested in Buddhism as early as 16, but I was only dabbling. I dabbled in other religions briefly too. Being in Japan, seeing a Buddhist culture, really helped me appreciate the Buddhist lifestyle a lot more, and that’s what finally made me convert for good. But since then, my approach to Buddhism has changed over the years.
At first, I was very worried about doing things “right”, so I spent months, years reading lots of Buddhist books and doing Buddhist practices (shugyō 修行 in Japanese). I still read books now, but much less often. I visited the temple every Sunday for years1 and even thought about being a priest for a while. I also had a complex, daily ritual that I did at home, and sometimes at work using an empty office space. And finally, I spent a lot of time on Internet “forums” asking questions and answering other questions.
But after a few years, this didn’t really work anymore. Our daughter, “Princess”, was getting older, and I wanted to spend more time with her. Plus, we moved to Ireland for more than a year, and there weren’t enough Buddhist temples, so I had to learn to just be by myself.
More importantly though, I stopped “acting” like a Buddhist, and just started “being” one. I started to realize that a religion is not a project, and it’s not a like excercise, or learning to play the piano. People can learn to play piano, but still be terrible people. People can lose 10kg through excercise, but once they stop, they get fat again. Religion is different: it’s something you follow your whole life, and gradually, gradually it changes you.
It reminds me of an old sutra in Buddhism called the Sona Sutta (AN 6.55 in the Pali Canon. In this sutra, a monk named Sona is practicing so hard that his feet are bleeding, and he still hasn’t succeeded. Sona feels discouraged is about to give up. So, the Buddha goes to visit him, and says:
“Now what do you think, Sona. Before, when you were a house-dweller, were you skilled at playing the vina?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too taut, was your vina in tune and playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were too loose, was your vina in tune and playable?”
“And what do you think: when the strings of your vina were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your vina in tune and playable?”
“In the same way, Sona, over-aroused persistence leads to restlessness, overly slack persistence leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your persistence, attune the pitch of the [five] faculties [to that], and there pick up your theme.”
–Translation by Thannisaro Bhikkhu
In other words, the Buddha is saying don’t try too hard, and don’t be too lazy. Find the right level for you, so you can keep it up long-term. By “long-term”, I mean the next 40 years of your life. If you are doing some kind of Buddhist practice now, and you don’t think you can regularly keep it up for the next 40 years of your life, you’re probably trying too hard.
Thus, I disagree somewhat with Buddhist teachers who encourage people to meditate or practice every day. It’s a good thing to do if you can do it, but it also sets expectations, and this might intimidate or discourage some people who otherwise be progressing just fine. What I want to say to fellow Buddhists, or just people who are curious about it, is that you don’t have to practice daily. I don’t.
I like to do recollection of the Buddha (念仏) as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, but I don’t do it daily. Sometimes, I’m so busy, I don’t do it for 1-2 weeks. But when life slows down, I will do it 10 minutes a day, for a few days. Then I get too busy again, and I leave it for a while.
This seems like not very good progress, but stretch that out over 40-50 years, and you begin to see the progress, right?
As the Zen master Suzuki Shunryu taught, don’t expect quick results anyway. If you start thinking like “I’ll make more progress if I meditate daily”, you’re already defeating yourself. You’re thinking of religion like a project.
Also, one very important aspect of Buddhism often neglected is personal conduct. Even if you practice once a month or less, it’s really helpful to follow the Buddha’s advice on conduct on a daily basis. Practice gets emphasized too much sometimes, and people forget that the Buddha encouraged followers to take conduct seriously. It’s something you can do all the time, and has a positive benefit to you and others. As Professor Buswell, a former monk in both Thailand and Korea, wrote, most traditional Buddhist communities place more emphasis on conduct than practice anyway:
The testimony of the Korean monastic community, however, suggests instead that a disciplined life, not the transformative experience of enlightenment [through meditation], is actually the most crucial to the religion. This need not necessarily be even an examined, or an informed life, though those would be highly prized, but one that is so closely and carefully structured as to provide little opportunity for ethical failings or mental defilements to manifest themselves. The Koreans (and the Chinese and Indian Buddhists before them) created such structured regimens for their monasteries because they recognized that few meditators would have much chance of progressing in their practice without them. In this endorsement of discipline over transformation, the Sŏn monks of Korea would find much in common with their Buddhist counterparts in Southeast Asia—or even with the Benedictines of France. (pg 218-219)
Practice (修行) is like icing on a cake, but you need a good cake first!
Not everyone will agree with me, but I think it’s important to set realistic expectations. Traditional Buddhist communities have already figured this out, but I feel that some converts, especially new converts, lack confidence and feel if they’re not trying hard enough, they’re bad Buddhists. There really are no “bad Buddhists”, just Buddhists who need more “polishing”. 🙂
1 Western Buddhist temples tend to have weekly services, just like other religions. However, in Buddhist cultures, this is not necessary. Instead, temples tend to be open to visitors, and have special services only on holidays and such. I prefer the latter approach, to be honest. The Buddhist temple is more like a “clinic” than a “requirement”, so you can go when you need inspiration or advice.