5. DECIDE HOW YOU WANT TO MAKE BUDDHISM PART OF YOUR LIFE

Sometimes Buddhism, especially as it's been adopted in the West, can appear so liberal and watered down that it's difficult to distinguish between an actual Buddhist and a plain old "open-minded seeker of wisdom." There's no sacred law telling you, for example, that you ought to attend service at the temple every Wednesday and donate 10% of your income to the Dalai Lama. Lay Buddhism is about as flexible as religion can get.

Nonetheless, one of your refuges as a Buddhist is the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns), so why not make use of it? These intrepid souls have given up all worldly possessions, shaved their heads, and left their families. They spend each and every day trying to become wiser, better people (with varying degrees of success), and some of them are available to you at certain times for guidance and counseling. Your spiritual journey might benefit from their wisdom, as well as from the companionship of fellow Buddhists.

What role will Buddhism play in your everyday life?

The tricky thing about the Middle Way is the Emptiness of it. Here's what the Buddha said about Nirvana (that is, the paradisical state of enlightenment towards which all Buddhists are journeying):

'Monks, there is that sphere in which there is neither earth nor water, fire nor air: it is not the infinity of space, nor the infinity of perception; it is not nothingness, nor is it neither idea nor non-idea; it is neither this world nor the next, nor is it both; it is neither the sun nor the moon.'

'Monks, I declare that it neither comes nor goes, it neither abides nor passes away; it is not caused, established, begun, supported: it is the end of suffering.'

'What I call the selfless is hard to see, for it is not easy to see the truth. But he who knows it penetrates his craving; and for him who sees it, there is nothing there.'

Buddhism can be frustrating for someone seeking spiritual guidance precisely because the Awakened One perceived the highest wisdom as a kind of absence. Every time you find a star in the Buddhist firmament to guide yourself by, it fades into darkness. That's sort of the point. The truth of the Middle Way is supposed to be beyond the reach of those who are chasing it. Mellow out. Enjoy life. Rejoice in the absence of a great burden of rules and doctrines.

As a Buddhist, you don't have to make a big deal of being a Buddhist. Feel free to keep a low profile in the broader community if it's easier for you. Keeping a little bronze Buddha statue on your desk at work isn't going to win you any special points. Were he alive today, the Buddha wouldn't care whether you denied his Buddhahood to the world, or had an image of him tattooed on your forehead. As a Buddhist, you can even participate in other religions. Allow us to illustrate with a story (Buddhism is big on stories):

A Buddhist master was once asked by a student, "Have you ever read the Bible?

"No," said the master. "Why don't you read it to me?"

"'Do not worry about tomorrow,'" read the student, "'for tomorrow shall worry about itself.'"

"That man was enlightened who said that," commented the master.

The student read further: "'Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asks receives, and he that seeks finds, and to him that knocks, it shall be opened.'"

"That's great stuff!" exclaimed the master. "The writer of those words is very close to Buddhahood."

Discovering Buddhism isn't the beginning of your search for wisdom, and taking refuge in the Buddha won't be the end. Follow the guidance of your priest (if you have one), keep on reading, and build a spiritual routine that feels right for you. This might include going to the local temple, performing acts of charity, going on retreat, meditation, contemplating the sacred texts, and perhaps even becoming a novice monk. Go in peace, and above all, keep your sense of humor, cause you're gonna need it. Some Buddhism humor to leave with:

What did the Buddhist monk say to the hotdog vendor? "Make me one with everything."
When the monk asked for his change, the vendor replied, "Change comes from within."