Below is something I wrote, which I hope is informative and helpful to them. What do you fine people think?
Buddhist practitioners have many choices to make about what they practice and how. This is one of the marvels of Buddhism, but also a source of confusion for many at the beginning. Uncertainty over how to practice, and how to judge if we are making actual progress, can become a hurdle.
With that in mind consider this very brief outline.
Develop your virtue (sila), your mind (samadhi) and your wisdom (panna). Together these are called the “three higher trainings”.
First, begin with training in virtue, because it is provides the foundation for mind training. For lay practitioners there are only five rules, or “precepts”:
1. I abstain from taking life.
2. I abstain from taking what is not given.
3. I abstain from speaking falsely.
4. I abstain from sexual misconduct.
5. I abstain from the consumption of intoxicants.
Listed like that they don’t seem particularly difficult. And therein lies their beauty: they are simple in fact, but their observation leads to many benefits. First, they force you to be mindful of both your bodily actions and your intentions in speaking. This mindfulness of action and intention fulfills some factors of mind training, the so-called second training.
In addition to mindfulness, there is required a good deal of effort to sustain virtue (at least in the beginning). This effort also falls within the stage of mind training.
Building a strong practice should begin with strong emphasis on virtue. By doing so you lay down many factors necessary for the proper practice of mind training, or samadhi. But since training in virtue largely develops mindfulness and effort what does mind training consist of? “Samadhi” is the answer. Samadhi means concentration, or “steadiness of mind”, and is the last factor that falls within the training of the mind. It is the factor that gives this training its name, because it is very important. It is developed as part of meditation.
So after developing a core of virtue, one then can turn their mind toward the proper development of samadhi. Here there are many exercises. Within the Theravada tradition, and within the Pali canon, the most often prescribed themes for meditation are as follows:
1. Mindfulness of breathing, or “anapanasati”
2. Thoughts of loving-kindness, or called “metta”
3. Contemplation of foulness, the “asubha”.
Of course the first is the most popular, and the one most likely to be suggested to any practitioner new and old. This is because it allows the practitioner to be mindful of one’s body, feelings and mind without becoming distracted with a lot of mental verbalization or, in the case of the asubha, displeasure. It is a powerful meditation and very safe.
Now after you’ve developed virtue and pursued your theme for meditation, what is next? This is where your training in wisdom truly begins. Whatever knowledge of Buddhism you have gained by reading or listening, that will now be shown either correct or not correct. It is an exciting time.
It is in developing wisdom that we most properly employ those qualities developed in virtue training and in mind training. The fact that we are blameless in our actions lends us a guilt free conscience, and a great deal more mindfulness in our lives from day to day. If we reflect on this change for the better, it is very natural to be happy about it. The effort that we have exerted becomes a natural part of our character, and we are always ready to restrain our selves from unwholesome actions and thoughts. The factor of happiness, mindfulness and characteristic effort all come together in our minds to make them bright and relaxed.
We can then use this bright and relaxed mind in our practice to easily attain samadhi, or concentration. These good qualities learnt while training virtue are amplified in our practice of samadhi because, while bodily acts and verbal acts are slow, the mental activities that are present in samadhi are fast. It is this need for speed that acts to sharpen mindfulness and effort. It is the increased steadiness of mind in samadhi that makes happiness more intense here. And it is a mind that is greatly happy that becomes content enough to stay in the present moment without struggle. It is satisfied for a time.
But how does one use these things to develop wisdom? When these qualities become well developed in the mind they act as a place of calm for you to ask these three questions.
1. is this experience steady and reliable?
2. might it lead to stress now or in the future?
3. if it is unreliable and leads to various stresses, do I really want to say that this is what I am?
Simple questions, yes. They may not seem that profound, I know. All people before practicing will assume on one level or another that they know the answers already. It is this hidden assumption that you must first challenge: do you really know the answers, or are you being to short sighted to see that this experience now is actually unsteady and stressful?
It is by asking these questions honestly of yourself time and again that you will develop true wisdom. This true wisdom doesn’t make itself known by complex arguments, or an increased ability to win debates. It makes itself known to those that recognize that they crave and cling less to their own experiences of life. It makes itself known by a steady reduction in suffering, perceivable to the practitioner’s own mind.
Of course there are many more things that might be said about Buddhist practice, but I hope that the above is enough for the time being. For if you can exert yourself in training-in-virtue, training-in-mind and training in knowing things as they are, then you will be doing very well indeed.