Introducing Buddhism course, tutor: Mike Horne
One general feature of 'western' Buddhism is meditation, for both monks and lay people. It may not be such an important practice for 'ethnic' lay Buddhists.
Other Buddhists practices may include the recitation or chanting of scriptures, bowing or prostration, special ceremonies.
In Soto Zen Buddhism for instance Dogen's "Rules for meditation" are chanted before a meditation session. Another popular scripture is the Heart Sutra. Sometimes these are chanted to music; in other traditions scriptures are recited in a monotone.
Western people taking up Buddhism may find bowing or prostration mentally challenging. The Chinese word for it is 'Kow Tow', which has entered the English language with certain connotations! Buddhists are not bowing to a god; they bow out of gratitude to the Buddhas and the Patriarchs who have passed on the teachings, out of respect for the Buddha Nature or potential for enlightenment that is in all living beings and out of humility - the appreciation that the world does not revolve around their egos.
Buddhists may have a shrine or altar in their homes. This may have a statue (or Rupa) of a Buddha, a picture of their teacher, some flowers (as a symbol of impermanence), a candle (representing the Sangha - those who keep the teachings alive by their Buddhist practice), a scripture or book of Buddhist teachings (to represent the Dharma), a bowl for offerings (such as water) and an incense holder. The burning of incense is traditionally used to time the period of meditation and the smell permeates the room just as the Buddha's teachings can permeate to all parts of the world. The offering of water or food is out of gratitude to our teachers and the Buddhas and indicates our willingness to share the practise and any benefits with others.
Many will adopt a life style that causes little harm to others. Vegetarianism, charity work, employment in the public sector or an interest in 'green' issues are examples.
Traditionally one becomes a Buddhist by taking refuge and the precepts. It will vary from tradition to tradition. For most people they become a "proper" Buddhist when they take the precepts in front of their teachers. Some traditions will insist that the precepts be received at a special annual ceremony.
In Theravada Buddhism the three refuges are chanted three times in Pali:
Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami
Sangham Saranam Gacchami
Dutiampi Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Dutiampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchami
Dutiampi Sangham Saranam Gacchami
Tatiyampi Buddham Saranam Gacchami
Tatiyampi Dhammam Saranam Gacchami
Tatiyampi Sangham Saranam Gacchami
["To the Buddha/Dhamma/Sanhga I go for refuge. For the second time.... For the third time..."]