People turn to Buddhism for a variety of reasons ranging from emotional or psychological issues, family conflicts, health problems, and a feeling of emptiness in their lives to dissatisfaction with the religion they grew up with. But with the overwhelming variety of Buddhist schools, teachers, and centers, it is difficult to know where to start.
Some newcomers end up at a center associated with a teacher whose work caught their attention. Others may follow the recommendation of a friend or family member to go to their first local Buddhist center. Before they know it, they find themselves engaging in the practices of a particular lineage often without questioning the underlying meaning. Then, many people end up abandoning the practice because they aren’t able to relate to the traditional setup or hierarchy at a particular Buddhist center.
While this variety of schools and styles can be disorienting, it’s also one of Buddhism’s greatest strengths. The Buddha adapted his teachings to meet the needs of people with different personalities. He recognized the importance of difference in individuals’ temperament and emotional and intellectual makeup.
If newcomers had a way to find the school that was best suited to them, perhaps they could find refuge instead of confusion and alienation. No tradition is the “best” one, but you can find the practice most suited to your needs. Doing so requires familiarizing yourself with the various traditions, researching teachers and centers, and allowing yourself to experiment with different communities until you find one where you feel comfortable and supported.
First, be honest with yourself about what your personality style is. If you feel like you can’t accurately judge yourself, the online DISC personality test is an excellent free self-assessment. Unlike most personality tests that are based on assessing psychopathology, DISC is determined by a person’s day-to-day behavior pattern.
To match your personality style with the appropriate Buddhist tradition and school, you need to familiarize yourself with the main ones, each of which has its own underlying philosophical and conceptual framework and practice modalities. (Vajrayana, for instance, is more nonconventional and commitment-based than, say, Theravada Buddhism.) And each has its own religious and cultural underpinnings. Often a teacher may overemphasize these components, overshadowing the core philosophies and practices. They may overlook introducing the four noble truths and eightfold noble path as the core teachings of the Buddha. Instead they might introduce you to the teachings of the founder of their particular school. Reading a book not just by a well known teacher but also by reputable scholars can help you get a good idea of not just the differences among the traditions and the schools within them but also about the core underlying teachings.
After getting an idea of the tradition and school you prefer, it’s important to find a good teacher. Though an emotional connection with a teacher is a critical factor, also consider if the teacher or their qualified assistant teachers have enough availability. An amazing teacher won’t do you much good if you can’t consult with them regularly.
Given the demands of Buddhist practice, a cohesive and supportive modern sangha is critical. Remember that while the teacher is the central figure, the sangha is no less important. We know from research on group process, or group dynamics, that a community can function parasitically—discord eats away at the sangha—when the members fail to recognize their role and relevance in the success of the group’s activity.
As far as the practice center is concerned, you should have a good idea of the setup and the hierarchy. If a center is secretive about the authority of the teacher and the administration, and questions are discouraged, this might not bode well for optimal learning and growth. It is also critical that there are ethical guidelines that govern student-teacher relationships and that there is an independent committee to address these issues of conflict and potential abuse.
It might also be worthwhile to revisit the priority of your Buddhist practice in relationships to other priorities such as family, work, finances, and health. Knowing how much time and emotion you can commit to the practice can help to draw up a plan of your practice for the next year. Based on the time you can commit, you should determine the type of practice, and how deep you should get into the practice.
At the same time you should assess your level of motivation, which plays a major role in the success of your practice. Research show that people who take on a practice with intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation are more likely to develop a deep interest and commitment, while people with extrinsic motivation tend to look for instant rewards and gratification. People who are intrinsically motivated to turn to Buddhism are likely to fully commit themselves emotionally as well as in terms of time. People who turn to Buddhism to avoid negative consequences or instantly obtain external rewards may restrict their commitment to a part of the teachings that meets their fancy.
Finally, newcomers should familiarize themselves with the three stages of in-depth study, critical analysis, and contemplative meditation. Studies show that students who simply listen, memorize, chant, and meditate may be engaging in what is known as surface learning. They tend to take what is taught at face value without really grasping the underlying meaning of the teaching because they don’t question and analyze the teachings for themselves. Deep learners rely on understanding the meaning behind the teaching by making arguments and finding evidence from their life experiences to confirm or disconfirm their assumptions.
Keep these things in mind when exploring the various schools of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that there are 84,000 paths to enlightenment. Make sure to find the one that’s right for you, where you are getting the education and support that you need.
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