I am a beginner to Theravadan Buddhism. I have used Access to Insight for the majority of my studies– I live on the opposite side of Pennsylvania from you, and there are no teachers in my area.
I was wondering how to most efficiently incorporate studying the Buddha’s teachings with my daily life. Do you read a sutta a day? Do you write/take notes about it? What is most effective method for learning? I’ve found that I will read in medium-sized doses and, for a week or so afterward, notice the relevant topic (from the sutta) in my everyday life, and try to apply the Buddha’s teachings there. However, excluding certain perpetual teachings relevant at all times (like mindfulness), what I have read seems to fade away, or I become very busy and forget to read at all for months at a time.
Do you have any suggestions?
First, I would like to thank you for reading my blog. Your question is a big one for most dhamma followers (especially those who are following Theravada). I am afraid that there is no “one right answer” to your question, but I can give you some resources and suggestions that may help you in your development.
There are sooo many books to read. Too many in fact. Without a fundamental understanding of Buddhism, they can get confusing for most Western minds because we automatically assume that there is a systemized program of study and practice. This linear thinking can make us confused when we read books that can almost seem to contradict each other, disparage various traditions and practices and offer answer that are poorly explained (or explained in contradiction to each other).
I find that one of the best primer authors on Buddhism is Jack Kornfield. Sometimes his work isn’t about the direct teachings of the Buddha (although he does do that) but the essence of the message of the dhamma. It is a mindset changer, which is what is really important.
Gil Fonsdal is another great teacher, who along with Jack established the Insight Medication Centers.
I would also recommend anything by Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Chah, Ven. Robina Cortin, Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Succito, and Bhante Guaratana.
2. Podcasts and YouTube
Another fantastic resource, and very progessive for the digital age would be podcasting and YouTube. All of the people I have listed above have podcasts. The Abhayagiri monastary, Dhammaloka, IMC are great places to also find good audio teachings. Gil Fronsdal has podcasts you get get on iTunes from Zencast or AudioDharma, which are very classroom oriented into the technical aspects of Theravada (and Vipassana) Buddhism.
I find the YouTube videos of Ajahn Brahm to be an absolute delight.
I know that I am not the only blog around, but I know that I am very specifically taking a Theravadan approach to my teaching. If you are going to read blogs, you should know the traditions of the author. The risk here is that you will sometimes find those small disagreements in Buddhist philosophy creep in as absolutes instead of different approaches. This CAN get confusing for someone who is not well versed.
I help organize an annual multi-tradition Buddhist Vesak ceremony here in Pittsburgh. When you see all the various traditions come and demonstrate some of their practice you can hear other sanghas whisper “that is Buddhism?”
Well of course, it is all Buddhism. Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhism may be different in many ways but we all hold to the basics: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, etc. It is most the difference in practice and minor shifts in Buddhist philosophy that just create the illusion of difference.
Nothing can beat the Buddhist bible: the floor pillow. Start “pushin’ the cushion” and develop a good daily meditation practice. If possible, get a group of meditators to share the time with you. This is probably more important that anything else you do.
Without some education on meditation you might feel frustrated, because you don’t really know if you are “doing it right” or how to apply your meditation work to your development, but that can easily be fixed with a retreat or two.
5. Retreat, Retreat, Retreat
No matter how much you read, listen, or sit– at some point you will need to go on a retreat (even a short weekend retreat). It will allow you to find time with some real dhamma and meditation masters who will give you that one-on-one advise to take home and use in your development.
I always recommend short retreats for most people. Sitting ten days can be painful and insanity for those who are not ready for the long meditation sessions, day-long silence, and austere living. When you are up for it, a 10-day retreat is amazing to do. A 30-day retreat can be life altering.
Nevertheless, not everyone has a schedule for 30-day retreats, and for most lay practitioners it isn’t necessary. Most people practice Buddhism for the little transformations that gradually bring us to that blameless happiness of Nibanna.
6. Ask Questions of the Global Community
Finally, you must realize that you are NEVER alone. We live in the digital age. You can always ask me (or anyone) questions. I have nearly 1,600 friends on Facebook. Many of them are Buddhist monks, who I speak with every day. Many of them are other Buddhist who ask me questions. We are a global digital community. Use the resource. Just remember that we are all students, even monks. We all have our wisdom and strengths in different places.