Unlike some other religions, salvation in Buddhism is an individual affair. You have to save yourself just as you eat, drink and sleep by yourself. With the teachings of Buddha at our side, we must have an attitude of being ready to learn from every life experience. We must be our own teachers. If we are wise, then every personal problem and event will instruct us and be a learning tool. If we choose to be foolish, then not even having Buddha next to us explaining everything would help.
If we study the Buddha’s teachings but don’t walk the path ourselves by practicing, we won’t get any results. Whether we reap the fruits of practice is strictly up to each one of us. Even praying and making vows alone will not bring us inner peace or get us what we want. As the famous monk Ajahn Chah once said: “All those who seriously engage in spiritual practice should expect to experience a great deal of fraction and difficulty” because we are training our minds and hearts to go against the current of self-centered habits.
To illustrate the point, here’s an example comparing the practice of inner peace to a prescription given by a doctor. Imagine that you’ve had chronic headaches (I know, some of us don’t have to imagine) and that you’ve never seen a doctor about it.
One day you say to yourself, enough is enough, and promptly make an appointment with a well-regarded headache specialist. You go to your appointment and she prescribes you medicine.
Like all prescription, your bottle has detailed written instructions on how to take the medicine and you read the directions hundreds of times. Imagine that several weeks pass and your headaches haven’t improved at all.
Frustrated, you may complain that the doctor wasn’t any good or a fake and that the medicine was worthless. Meanwhile you haven’t followed the doctor’s advice and actually taken any of the medicine. The medicine will never help you if you never take it.
If you had actually followed the doctor’s advice and taken the medicine regularly as prescription, your headache pain would have improved. If your headache pain was only minor, you could have been cured with just a little medication; whereas if your pain was severe, it would have been necessary to take a lot of medicine.
This may seem a ridiculous example, but it illustrates that the teachings of Buddha are prescribed to cure a disease of the mind that we all possess; to bring it back to its natural healthy state. So the Buddha can be considered to be a doctor who prescribes cures for the ills of the mind. He is, in fact, the greatest doctor in the world.
Watch out you don’t become like the person in the headache example. This means we should study the materials but we won’t learn know how to let go of defilements, we don’t know how to push greed, anger and delusion from our mind without practice. Study without practice, without this “giving up”, brings no results.
This advice is particular relevant to the intellectuals out there because they have a tenancy to spend too much of their time on study, analysis and debate. This in unbalanced because they spend too little or no time on practice. This is why some people say that Buddhism is a do-it-yourself religion. Buddha once said, “The Enlightened one only points the way.” No one can do the practice for you because the truth is something that you can not put into words or give away.
So how do we practice? Buddha placed great emphasis on personal experience which means that we must meditate. Meditation is a practical scientific method that allows us to use our personal experience and insight to purify our mind of the defilement that are causing our suffering. For a more detailed discussion on meditation, see Step 8: Meditation and Are You Ready to Meditate for the First Time?