Buddhism has no formal conversion process. This simplifies the welcoming of new followers, yet often creates a complicated or confusing situation for those without solid guidance from a Buddhist community, temple, or other place of worship.
In the US, Buddhism accounts for less than 1 percent of active religions, with varying decimals presented by different studies, surveys, and research. An estimated 40 percent of Buddhists in the US resides in California and the types of Buddhism followed also vary between locations. Considering that even 0.5 percent of the US population is well over a million people, this community is often larger than new followers realize; yet many struggle to find a consistent approach for bringing Buddhism into everyday life comparable to the way mainstream religions are organized.
All Buddhist sects honor the Teachings of the Buddha, and that Buddha is Siddhartha Gautama. Different Buddhist sects, however, will often also honor another figure that is usually a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva, in the simplest form, is one who followed the Teachings and reached Enlightenment but chose to offer assistance to others in hopes of guiding them to Enlightenment also. Meaning, instead of ending their cycle of samsara (death and rebirth), delaying nirvana, they continue guiding followers of the Buddha. This is seen as a type of self-sacrifice and thus very special.
The basic Teachings of the Buddha are those Buddhists adhere to throughout everyday life in an effort to move closer to Enlightenment. The closer a Buddhist is to Enlightenment the less suffering s/he will experience, so this is a goal-driven conscious effort. These Teachings include the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and a set of Precepts, which are basically things to be avoided.
Meditation is perceived differently between the unique Buddhist sects. In Zen Buddhism, for example, meditation is the work a Buddhist engages in to improve the mind and move closer to Enlightenment and Enlightenment is seen as impossible without meditation in some form or another. The video shared in this article provides an excellent beginner approach to conscious breathing meditation, with helpful tips that expand upon the tips and concepts of Buddhist meditation in National Buddhism Examiner articles.
There are many types of meditation, but ultimately the goal is not to clear the mind, as many believe. Instead, meditation is a tool that guides our minds to clearer thought processes for better decision-making, focus, attitude, and behavior or control. In this way, the Buddha’s Teachings are kept at the front of the mind and the Buddhist follower seeks to apply the Teachings to his or her everyday life including thoughts, actions, emotions, relationships, work, and self-perception.
Become a Stronger Buddhist
Everyone possesses an innate Buddha Nature that is essentially the capacity for compassionate life and Enlightenment. Measuring the degree of Buddhism in a follower is considerably subjective and can undermine actual efforts of the individual. For example, a member of the sangha (i.e. Buddhist monks, nuns, priests) might be considered the “strongest” of Buddhists while lay followers the “weakest.” A lay follower might lead a completely compassionate and vegan lifestyle, adhering to all of the Teachings, yet that same lay follower is seen as a “weak Buddhist” simply by not being a member of the sangha.
Avoiding extremes is an important lesson presented in the story of how Siddhartha became the Buddha. Extreme restriction and extreme indulgence are both harmful to efforts aimed at Enlightenment, and can also be harmful for everyday life or health. To become a “stronger” Buddhist, ultimately the Path is already set for everyone. Accept the Four Noble Truths. Do not, however, blindly accept the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha taught that we should question everything, regardless of the source. The goal is not to question simply for the act of questioning, but to ask questions and ensure that something seen as “true” is in fact true for us.
Once the Four Noble Truths are fully accepted, the next step is to gain a full appreciation of the Eightfold Path. These are essentially the guidelines by which all Buddhists live. If a Buddhist does nothing more than understand and accept the Four Noble Truths and adhere to the Eightfold Path, this is generally accepted as excellent for the average Buddhist.
The key, however, is to truly accept the Truths and the Path and work to apply the Teachings to every thought, not just visible behaviors. Simply saying “I don’t engage in gossip” or avoiding a person that you don’t like are not the same as truly seeing gossip for what it is or acting compassionately toward that person because their behavior comes from their own perceptions and experiences.
The Five Precepts are only a fraction of longer lists of Precepts that vary between community, sect, and need. Typically, the average Buddhist can live a compassionate, focused life with only these five, but more rigid Precepts are meant to guide the type of life experienced within the sangha or other smaller community.