The word `Buddha’ means `awakened’. Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha (awakened) by opening his mind to the reality of the present, the here-and-now, and he advised others to do the same. Buddhism therefore is about awakening, waking up for oneself from daydreams, fantasies and the sleep of delusion.
Buddhism is an investigation of oneself, this life, this very moment. To seriously practise Buddhism, therefore, is to become mindful and aware throughout the day, which means becoming conscious of what is going on in one’s mind and what is going on around you. It isn’t a question of trying to become anything, but of impartially watching one’s own intentions and actions and then seeing the results of those actions, seeing how one operates in the world with others and within the situation one finds oneself in. It is a process of learning about our own hidden wishes and ambitions, our own passions and traits, and facing up to fears and anxieties that lurk behind much of what we do. So it is a way of observing, not just ourselves, but the whole of life.
Living mindfully throughout the day, then, is a very important part of Buddhist practice.
Another important part of the Buddhist’s life is to meditate, that is to say to sit quite still, in silence, to concentrate the mind and become aware of this very moment. This is where one practises how to keep the mind on the present, instead of, we soon discover, indulging in our favourite occupation of thinking about the past or the future. Meditation is something that matures over periods of time. It isn’t something we learn how to do and then give up because we’ve done it. It becomes a part of one’s daily life, and insights arise as a result, insights which we can never predict.
Buddhists will often sit in meditation once a day, maybe first thing in the morning before the normal activities of the day begin, or perhaps at night when they can get a quiet moment for themselves.
Some meditators might also sit in front of a small shrine. Maybe there is a Buddha-image on it, and perhaps candles are lit and incense burned. This provides a focal point for the practice and can be an inspiration to keep the mind centred. The Buddha-image is not therefore an object of worship, but of inspiration.
Buddhists will sometimes go on retreat, maybe to a monastery or a retreat centre. For a few days, weeks or even months (years sometimes in the case of monks or nuns or those who have the time), they will be in total silence, sit in formal meditation for many hours a day and mindfully perform every activity they engage in. It is quite common for Buddhists to go on at least one retreat a year.
Buddhism also has a strong moral code. Basic to this are five precepts which every Buddhist is expected to follow. They are intentions: to refrain from harming any living being, to refrain from taking that which is not freely given, to refrain from sexual misconduct, to refrain from false speech or foolish chatter, and to refrain from taking alcohol or drugs (apart from medicines) which cloud the mind. Without at least intending to follow this basic moral code and of regularly reminding oneself of it, one cannot truly say one is a Buddhist. The basis of these precepts is harmlessness towards others and towards oneself. If there is not this backdrop in one’s life, one will find that meditation will not develop because the mind is at odds with itself.
Buddhism, therefore, really is a complete way of life.