Buddhism Curious

A seeker wants to delve into this ancient religion and is wondering how to get started

I’d like to explore Buddhism, but I’m not sure where to start. I like what I know, but it seems to be a diverse, complicated, and even contradictory religion. Where do I even begin? Is visiting a temple a good idea at this early stage?

Kathryn Drury Wagner: Buddhism started 2,500 years ago in India and has spread throughout the world; it’s now the fourth-largest religion on the globe. I asked Gabriel Cohen, a fellow contributor to Spirituality & Health and the author of Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky: A Buddhist Path Through Divorce, for his insights.

“My personal experience, and that of a lot of people, is they don’t come to Buddhism out of an academic or intellectual interest,” he says. “They come to it because they are suffering.” Cohen first connected with Buddhism when he was going through a difficult divorce. “I was coming out of a store and saw a sign that said, ‘How to Deal with Anger,’ and I was intrigued. It was acknowledging we feel that emotion sometimes, so I went to the event, a Dharma talk at a Buddhist Center.” Attending a Dharma talk—a public discussion given by a Buddhism teacher—is a nonthreatening way to explore. Cohen, in fact, walked into a low-key, friendly event given in a yoga studio. Still, he found the Dharma talk deeply appropriate to his circumstances, “like it was throwing me a lifeline,” remembers Cohen.

Some of the principal teachings in Buddhism revolve around suffering and how to alleviate it. “It’s important to have a distinction between pain and suffering,” says Cohen. Pain can’t be helped—sometimes you hit your thumb with a hammer or break a leg. On the otherhand, “We tend to think that suffering is coming from forces external to us, and we can’t do anything about it. But some of Buddhism’s essential messages, found in the Four Noble Truths, are that a lot of the suffering is coming from ways we are thinking about things. We add thoughts that make our suffering worse.”

Buddhism is, in many ways, about experiencing what life is, instead of pining away for what we wish it could be. In addition to a Dharma talk, Cohen suggests you read a book relating to Buddhist beliefs. One of his favorites is When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.

Buddhism is, for some, a religion with cultural and religious practices surrounding it. For others, it offers practical philosophy and psychology. “I don’t think it’s desecrating Buddhism to take away what is useful,” says Cohen. “I’ve had difficult times in my life, like watching my parents die in long and difficult ways. Going through those life trials, I find that Buddhism continues to help me.”

Suddhayu, who is the center manager at the Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire, also provided some advice. “Start by attending a few events locally,” he says, “or you could look further afield and try an introductory retreat at one of the many Buddhist retreat centers in North America. There are also options online for contact, including meditation instruction and study groups.” Buddhist traditions can be quite varied in their approaches—there is Chinese Buddhism, Therāvāda Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and so on. “It may be best to start with a tradition that you have a resonance with or attraction to,” says Suddhayu. “You might find a home in that tradition, or you might realize you need to keep looking. At some point, you’ll want to stick with an approach and take it to some depth, otherwise you’ll risk being lost in the supermarket with a grumbling belly, so to speak.”

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