Basic Practices

Rev. Abbot Monshin (right) and Rev. Shumon (left)


Buddhist teachings and the practices go hand in hand. The purpose of Buddhist study is to inform one’s practice, and the purpose of practice is to experience the truth firsthand, to transform our Greed, Anger, and Ignorance into Generosity, Love, and Wisdom so that you may guide others in the discovery of the truth, and ultimately achieve Nirvana. Below are some basic practices popular with Buddhists throughout the world. Mahayana practices is explored here.

Going for Refuge in the “Three Jewels”

One of the most basic and universal Buddhist practices is taking refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha). This usually takes the form of a statement made in public or private, said three times:

In English:

I go to the Buddha as my refuge

I go to the Dharma as my refuge

I go to the Sangha as my refuge

In Pali (the holy language of the Theravada Buddhist traditions of Southeast Asia):

Buddham saranam gacchami

Dhammam saranam gacchami

Sangham saranam gacchami

In Sino-Japanese (the language used by Tendai Buddhists and other Japanese lineages like Zen or Pure Land):

Ki-e Butsu

Ki-e Ho

Ki-e So

With this declaration, one is a Buddhist. But what does it mean?

To take refuge in the Buddha means that one not only looks to the Buddha as a guide to how to live an exemplary life, but also that one recognizes the truth of the Buddha’s claim that he discovered a path beyond cyclical suffering. Moreover, one recognizes that within ourselves we possess the capacity to achieve the lofty goal of Nirvana, or freedom. For Mahayana Buddhists, taking refuge in the Buddha is also a recognition of one’s innate Buddha nature.

To take refuge in the Dharma means that one has decided to study the teachings of the Buddha and pursue Buddhist practices. Traditionally, the Dharma was divided into three “baskets,” or Tripitaka: Sutra, Vinaya, and Abhidharma. The Sutras are the discourses of the Buddha, the Buddhist scriptures. The Vinaya are the rules for monastic and lay Buddhists, and the Abhidharma is a genre of early Buddhist philosophical writing. For Mahayana Buddhists, taking refuge in the Dharma also includes the many Mahayana sutras and the discourses of the enlightened masters of the Mahayana tradition.

To take refuge in the Sangha, traditionally meant that one trusted, relied upon, and supported the community of monks and nuns who work full time to achieve awakening and teach the Buddha-dharma to all beings. This has often taken the form of financially supporting one’s Buddhist teachers, volunteering one’s time in cleaning the temple or helping out with administrative tasks, and so on. In contemporary usage, taking refuge in the Sangha has come to mean something like taking comfort in the community of Buddhist practitioners, monks and laity alike, who together strive for awakening. Refuge ceremonies are often carried out for new members of the Tendai Buddhist Institute community as a way of celebrating one’s entry into the sangha. 


Receiving the Precepts

Another important and common Buddhist practice is the receiving of the precepts. Making a formal vow to live a moral and ethical life is said to have a powerful effect. Traditionally, there have been five basic precepts that a lay Buddhist may take.

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not steal
  3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct
  4. Do not lie
  5. Do not abuse intoxicants

For monks, there are many more vows.

For Mahayana Buddhists, there are also the 10 Bodhisattva Precepts:

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not steal
  3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct
  4. Do not lie
  5. Do not make, sell, or abuse intoxicants
  6. Do not speak ill of fellow Buddhists
  7. Do not speak ill of others in order to praise yourself
  8. Do not be stingy
  9. Do not harbor ill will or anger
  10. Do not slander the Buddha, Dharma, or Sangha

The Bodhisattva Precepts are central to Tendai Buddhism, for both priests and laity, and are given in conjunction with the refuge ceremony. 

Precept Hall, Mt. Hiei, photo by Aaron Proffitt


Studying the Dharma

BDK Lotus Sutra, BDK Lotus Sutra

Intellectual activity and scholarship provide a firm foundation for Buddhist practice. Through study and investigation of the past, we discover the many ways the dharma has been practiced, understood, and manifested in different times and places. Using this information provides insight into one’s own practice. While awakening may not be achieved through scholarship alone, it does provide information on the discoveries of those who have traveled the path previously. Reading the Buddhist scriptures or the discourses of the great masters, learning about the history of Buddhism, studying the languages necessary to read Buddhist texts in the original, participating in study groups at one’s temple or Dharma Center or online, listening to Dharma talks, and so on, are all excellent ways to deepen one’s practice through study. The Tendai Buddhist Institute regularly holds classes for studying Buddhism. Please contact us and check the Shingi newsletter for more information. 

Suggested readings for further study:

The Foundations of Buddhism, by Rupert Gethin

The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History & Teachings, by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, by Robert E. Buswell et al.

The Norton Anthology of World Religions: Buddhism, by Donald S. Lopez Jr., ed.  

In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Access to Insight:  Free online authoritative translations and introductions to the Pali Canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition

Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai – America: Free online, authoritative, translations of many major East Asian Mahayana Buddhist texts, including many texts essential for the study of Tendai Buddhism

Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism, by Brook A. Ziporyn

Foundations of Tʻien-Tʻai Philosophy: The Flowering of the Two Truths Theory in Chinese Buddhism, by Paul L. Swanson

Clear Serenity, Quiet Insight: T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Mo-ho chih-kuan, 3-volume set, by Paul L. Swanson

Saicho: The Establishment of the Japanese Tendai School, by Paul Groner

Genshin’s Ojōyōshū and the Construction of Pure Land Discourse in Heian Japan, by Robert F. Rhodes

Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, by Jacqueline I. Stone

Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts, by Scott A. Mitchell


Devotional Practice

Amitabha Buddha, Harvard Museum

Practicing acts of devotion to the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, or gods is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist practice. By directing one’s attention beyond the self, and toward a manifestation of Buddha Reality, one comes to see that Buddha Reality is within and all around you.

Devotional practice is commonly carried out before an altar of some kind. In the center, place an image of a Buddhist object of devotion. Before meditating or chanting the scriptures, or reciting the name of the Buddha, one may make an offering of water, rice, candles, incense, flowers, sweets, and so on. It is common in traditionally Buddhist cultures to perform devotional practices as a family.

Altars serve as both a focal point for our attention during practice, and a kind of “center of gravity” within the home. The statues, flowers, candles, and incense are all symbolic offerings and reminders of positive behavioral characteristics we strive to develop. Flowers remind us of the joy, preciousness and impermanence of life, candles are reminders of wisdom dispelling the darkness of ignorance, and incense, as it perfumes all corners of the room, reminds us of the teaching’s ability to convert all anger, greed, and ignorance into enlightened living. The image of the Buddha reminds us of our own inner potential.

Devotional practices such as prostrations or chanting develop faith, gratitude, and positive emotions. They allow one to set aside the ego-self and express appreciation for one’s present condition.


Work Practice

Cleaning bathrooms, sweeping floors, cleaning the home, meditation hall, or altar, grounds-work, or any other daily task may be seen as work practice if carried out in a mindful way. Accomplishing the task itself is a secondary benefit. A practitioner must be present in the work task, noticing when the mind travels elsewhere, and returning awareness to the activity at hand. Paying attention to what is actually being done trains the mind to be present in the “here and now.”


Meditation Practice

Many people mistakenly assume that to be Buddhist is to meditate, or that all Buddhists must meditate. Historically, only monks meditated, and even today most Buddhists around the world do not engage in formal meditation practice. Instead, laypeople generally participate in devotional practices, dharma study, or support the community of monks and nuns. Today, however, with the general democratization of the American Buddhist tradition, lay meditation has become more common. It should be kept in mind, though, that meditation is most effective when practiced as part of a community, paired with the study of Buddha’s teachings on ethics and morality, and under the instruction of a qualified, authentic, and authorized teacher.

Broadly defined, meditation forms the heart of our practice. It is through the varieties of meditation, concentration, and contemplation, that the practitioner develops insight into “things as they really are,” grinds away any perceived karmic impurities, and gains the ability to speak and act skillfully, unhindered by obscuration. A practitioner meditates to deepen awareness and insight and also to directly experience in a personal way the integration of all the other practices.

Shamatha and Vipashyana (Shikan in Japanese) are the two wings of meditation. Shamatha, or calm abiding, removes the mental noise that often prevents mental clarity. Vipashyana is the direct investigation of phenomena (both internal and external). Without first calming the mind, allowing the silt that clouds the water of our mind stream to settle, one cannot clearly see the pebbles, rocks, and other obstacles.

During Shamatha meditation one is instructed to let thoughts arise and fall away without grasping onto or being swept away by them. This practice calms the mind and develops peace and equanimity. Dhyana (“Zen”), or silent meditative absorption, is commonly associated with, and sometimes synonymous with Shamatha meditation. Shamatha is also sometimes described as “calm abiding.”

Vipashyana meditation is practiced after the student has gained some mastery of the powers of concentration associated with the Shamatha level of practice. Vipashyana is and investigative and analytical mode of meditation.

Sati, or Mindfulness (Nen in Japanese), is another form of meditation that has a broad application. Traditionally, there are ten objects of mindfulness meditation: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha Virtue, Generosity, the gods, death, the body, the breath, and peace.

Vocal Meditative Practices like chanting unify the body and the mind, and serve as one potent for of Mindfulness practice. While not often thought of as “meditation,” chanting sutras or mantras can help bypass the intellect and allow the effect of practice to sink deeply into the meditator’s being.

As mentioned above, Mindfulness of Buddha (Sanskrit, Buddhanusmriti; Japanese, Nenbutsu), is one of the traditional object of mindfulness practice. Chanting the name of the Buddha (or a Buddha or Bodhisattva, for Mahayana Buddhists) is a common form that this practice takes.

Soo, founder of Tendai Kaihogyo tradition. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Walking Meditation

Walking meditation (Kinhin in Japanese), whether carried out in a slow, deliberate fashion, or at a rapid pace brings meditative awareness “off the cushion” and into the world, and serves as a bridge between formal practice in the shikando and the practice of everyday life.


Other Forms of Meditation

Sanskrit letter A

Contemplation: This broad category of practice may include focusing your attention on particular passages of a sutra, images of a Buddha, teachings, mantras, or doctrinal issues.

Guided Visualizations: In this type of meditation the teacher guides the practitioner through the use of visual imagery.

Loving-Kindness: The practice of loving-kindness may involve contemplation and visualization to bring to mind love, good will, kindness and compassion for all sentient beings, and to overcome division and hatred.

Art Practice: Engaging in art practice means that the art is of service to others. It might involve creating iconographic images that will be used in meditation or interpreting the manifestations in fresh and culturally appropriate ways. To create such images requires a profound meditation practice wherein one engages directly with the manifestations. This practice will require familiarity with Buddhist iconography to link the present with the past. Art practice may also serve to communicate an essence of the dharma and the heart-mind that is not amenable to words. For this to occur, the practitioner, again, must have a developed personal practice and encounter reality in a direct manner. The art she produces is communicated through her and not by her.