Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online.
Ironically, your question about beginning resources is one of the most challenging to address. This seemed to be true for other long-time practitioners I asked from a variety of traditions—all of us felt a bit stumped. It’s been such a long, winding trail with lots of fascinating side trips that no one quite remembers the entry point! But I guess that fact speaks well for the Dharma—the teachings of the Buddha—that it is truly, as we say, forward leading. You’ll eventually find your way according to your interest and preferences.
There are so many resources these days for Buddhists from entry level to scholar, that indeed, more than one life would be helpful to do them justice. So much is accessible by book, website, audio, classes, and retreats, but don’t let the abundance overwhelm you. Explore it slowly, in small bites, and chew them well. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There’s so much to do, and so little time to do it, we must move very, very slowly.”
These days, most Westerners encounter Buddhism first by reading about it, but there are no shortcuts around the experience of contemplating the teachings in daily life and in meditation. Each person, said the Buddha, must test the veracity of his teachings for him or herself. The adventure will be to feel out which teachers and material fit your temperament for learning and spiritual practice. Many of us base ourselves in a particular school, but read widely from other traditions and experiment with their practice methods.
So where to start? Resources could be categorized into orthopraxy (methods like meditation) and orthodoxy (the literature, including those sayings you were curious about). More often than not, there is great overlap—a presentation of the beliefs along with methods to guide your greater understanding of them. Within the discussion we’ll further make a distinction between three major denominations of Buddhism most popular in the West—Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan. Each has a unique flavor so to speak—character, history and tradition—but don’t panic: they each spring from noble lineages dating back to the Buddha’s time. Finally, I’ll suggest a website for those interested in Buddhism, but more as a philosophy than a religion.
Although vast amounts of materials exist for all three schools, my selections will be prejudiced in the Theravada tradition, as I know it best. I’ve asked serious Zen practitioners and Tibetan practitioners for their recommendations.
Vipassana, the word for insight in the ancient Pali language, stems from the “School of the Elders,” the oldest school of Buddhism, still practiced in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. One of the loveliest (and slim) texts is, in fact, a book of sayings entitled, The Dhammapada. If there’s a bible from early Buddhism, this is it. There are many translations, and still new translations coming out, but the one I’ve linked to is a free and very reliable publication by the Buddhist Publication Society, one of the first publishers of Buddhist materials in the West. One needn’t start with the in-depth introduction, but could skip it for now and return to it when you feel your understanding and enthusiasm can mediate the density. Go straight to Chapter One of the sayings entitled, “The Pairs.” That being said, the monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, one of the most recognized names in Theravada scholarship, shares this little gem in the intro, and the advice he gives to readers applies to every piece of Dharma you’ll encounter no matter the tradition:
As a great religious classic and the chief spiritual testament of early Buddhism, the Dhammapada cannot be gauged in its true value by a single reading, even if that reading is done carefully and reverentially. It yields its riches only through repeated study, sustained reflection, and most importantly, through the application of its principles to daily life. Thence it might be suggested to the reader in search of spiritual guidance that the Dhammapada be used as a manual for contemplation.
Other Theravada readings, all free, are available on accesstoinsight.org. They even have a special section for beginners that gives an introduction to this school of Buddhism, a survey of the Buddha’s teachings, and accessible approaches for newbies: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/begin.html. The teachings of Theravada school have become popularized in large part under the subheading of Vipassana (Insight Meditation) through teachers such as Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and many others. All have authored national best sellers that are readily available, but their talks (and many, many other teachers like Gil Fronsdale) are available for free to stream or download on audiodharma.org and dharmaseed.org. An added benefit to this big net of teachers at the click of your mouse, is that you’ll start honing in on the teachers that resonate best for you, and then it’s an easy step to look them up and see if they offer retreats on line and in person.
The data base on all the sites listed above—text and audio—are so large that I would suggest putting in a topic you are most interested in such as mindfulness meditation, or loving-kindness, or beginning meditation instructions, or the essence of the Buddha’s teachings—the Four Noble Truths. Not only will you find the Buddha’s words on the topic, but also guided meditations on the audio sites.
Speaking of guided meditations, when you’re just starting out it helps to have some guidance and a timer. I use an app on my smartphone daily called Insight Timer. If you pay the whooping $2.99, you not only get choices of lovely meditation bells and the ability to set your meditation period of time, you’ll be able to stream lots of guided Vipassana meditations of varying lengths. Be sure to search these through “most popular,” not “newest” for the most reliable and loved guides.
Lastly, in this camp, I’d like to mention the always-free 10-day Vipassana meditation courses of the legendary teacher of Burmese Buddhism, S.N. Goenka. You can find his international meditation centers in numerous places throughout the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and Australasia. That his schools have always offered meditation courses for free, has allowed him to fulfill the Buddha’s belief that neither money nor station in society should ever limit a person’s aspiration for liberation.
From my Zen friends, I was sent the following suggestions below. Firstly, a website with teachers, study guides, books and poetry, guided meditations, programs and classes called Everyday Zen. You’ll find talks from Norman Fisher, the founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation—a major network of Zen communities in the US, Canada and Mexico—and many, many other teachers as well.
Another grandfather of American Zen is Robert Aitken, the author of numerous books about the Dharma both in poetry and prose. His book, “Taking the Path of Zen“ is a tenderhearted and thoughtful introduction to Zen for the beginning student—and aren’t we all? “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind“ by Shunryu Suzuki and Trudy Dixon offers the crisp flavor of Zen practice and the simplicity and perplexity of this ancient clear stream of Buddhism. Suzuki was a monk and teacher who founded the first Zen Buddhist monastery in the US, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in California.
In terms of grandmothers of American Zen, be sure to check out Charlotte Joko Beck’s most popular books: “Everyday Zen: Love and Work“, and “Nothing Special: Living Zen.” Teacher at the San Diego Zen Center, she offers a warm, engaging, uniquely American approach to using Zen to deal with the problems of daily living—love, relationships, work, fear, ambition, and suffering. Everyday Zen shows us how to live each moment to the fullest.
Last, but most certainly not least, is a collection entitled, “The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women” by Florence Caplow (Editor), Reigetsu Susan Moon (Editor), Norman Fischer (Foreword). Caplow is a Soto Zen priest and a Dharma teacher, field botanist, seminarian, essayist, and editor. The book pairs ancient stories from Buddhist texts with responses by contemporary women practitioners of the Dharma from a range of traditions and countries. Because Caplow is from the Zen tradition, there are ample stories that reflect the paradoxical and compassion heart of Zen.
Still with me? Just two more categories to go.
Not until compiling this list did I realize that perhaps some of the best resources in the West of Tibetan teachings are the work of two pioneering female monastics: “our own” Thubten Chodron at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, and the best-selling author, Pema Chodron. The thubtenchodron.org website is a one-stop shop of everything from basic meditation instructions to in depth teachings on wisdom and emptiness and an introduction to Tantra. Venerable Thubten has authored ten books, including co-authoring the recent, “Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions“ with the Dalai Lama. Pema Chodron, another prolific author and teacher, has authored seventeen books, including: “Start Where you are: a Guide to Compassionate Living,” and the best-seller, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.” One other website worth checking out—tons of content but much, unfortunately, is not free—http://www.jewelheart.org.
And last in line, the newbies on the ancient Buddhist block are some wonderful resources for those who have an interest in Buddhism, but perhaps an allergy to religion, some resources in the secular Buddhism category. A totally captivating speaker pushing against the old-school Buddhists is Stephen Batchelor. (Martine Batchelor, his wife, is a Zen teacher with many publications to her credit). I’m an old-school Buddhist who is a big fan of the many, many questions he raises in his books such as “Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist,” and “Buddhism without Beliefs: a Contemporary Guide to Awakening.” Stephen is opening the modernism versus traditionalism dialogue on issues such as of patriarchy, ritual, and even what the Buddha’s teachings might mean without their being shaped by his historical audience. Big, important stuff. I’m also a regular listener to the Secular Buddhist podcast, (the official podcast of the Secular Buddhist Association) as the discussions range wide and deep, from scientists to teachers to philosophers.
So, I’m out of steam, and I bet you are, too. This list should give you and other readers a good ten or twenty years of exploration! I would add that it’s the mission of all Buddhist monasteries and abbeys to not only give out their publications for free (just write and ask and perhaps send in a donation), but also to welcome visitors interested in learning the Dharma. Call them first though to make arrangements. It’s possible to stay in many monasteries for free as long as you practice sincerely and do your share of chores.
And very lastly, no matter what, search out classes and teachers wherever you live as part of your exploration. Direct instruction and feedback from an experienced practitioner is essential. A good teacher can be judged, as the Dalai Lama says, by the quality of the students around her or him. You will need the support of those other students over time, remembering that no matter where you land, the Three Jewels of Buddhism are the Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and the Sangha (a community of spiritual friends and practitioners).