How do Buddhists live? Buddhist lifestyle!

How to live like a Buddhist? Buddhists live all over the world. They live in all kinds of ways, so there is no simple all encompassing answer to the question how Buddhists live. Still, there are a few things to take into account:

  1. Real Buddhists have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha
  2. Many Buddhists meditate (though traditionally this was only done by a few monks)
  3. Buddhists will often vow to take on the Five Vows – pancha sila – either on religious holidays or throughout their life.
  4. Many Buddhists are vegetarians
  5. Buddhists often have rituals dedicated to the Buddha: puja rituals.

I’ll explain each of these.

1) Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha

A bit like baptism in Christianity, Buddhists have usually taken refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), Dharma (the teaching) and Sangha (the Buddhist community). This ‘triple gem‘ ritual is common to all types of Buddhism and therefore probably originated in early Buddhism. It’s basically a way of saying you believe that the Buddha was enlightened and will try to live up to his teachings (Dharma)and support those who try too (Sangha).

More about taking refuge

Refuge in the three jewels is the most important ritual in Buddhism

2) Meditation

Most people who call themselves Buddhists in the West, meditate. This is a modern development, because meditation used to be something done by the rare monk who had the time and inclination. Not even the majority of Buddhist monks meditated.

3) Pancha Sila – the Five Precepts

The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. To take Pancha Sila, that is, to vow to live according to the following rules of conduct, is a set of vows a lay-person may take on, to try and live by, to the best of their understanding. So here goes: Pancha ( = five ) Sila ( = discipline ), the Five Precepts:

  1. Do not take life
  2. Do not take what is not given
  3. Do not distort facts
  4. Refrain from misuse of the senses
  5. Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs

The first of these is the reason many Buddhists refrain from eating meat altogether, or at least on religious holidays.

Refrain from misuse of the senses is usually interpreted as being about sex. For most Buddhists it means being faithful to your spouse, or partner. For nuns and monks it’s more strict: they’re expected not to have sexual relations at all. Some people interpret this to mean that homosexual relations should be avoided. However, I don’t think that can be traced back to the Buddha.

4) Buddhism and Vegetarianism

Most Buddhists in the West are vegetarians, but many Buddhists in Buddhist countries are not.

In case of Tibetan Buddhism there is a good reason for this: animal food was simply the easiest to produce and keep in the harsh Himalayan climate.

In general though it depends no how strictly one takes the vow to not harm any sentient beings.

5) Puja: Worshipping the Buddha? 

Puja is a Hindu ritual in which the image of a God is cleaned and worshipped with candy, milk, flowers etc. There is often singing and chanting involved.

Puja in a Buddhist context surrounds Buddha images and statues, though pictures of the Dalai Lama or another spiritual teacher can get the same treatment.

The aim is not the worship of the person or the statue itself, but the spirit of Truth and Love that moved in that person. Many people believe that such rituals can help stimulate an attitude of devotion and this devotion itself can help bring about spiritual transformation.

More on the philosophy, practice, religious views and beliefs of Buddhism

Questions by readers (on a earlier version of this post)

What do Buddhists do in their daily life? 

Buddhists are people, so most of their lives are just like ours: work, school, eating, sleeping, etc.

Reader comments

This opened my appetite to learn more, especially because it proves once again how similar all religions are. “Do not take life” is the exact “Do not kill” of the Bible and it goes on with “Do not steal”, “Do not lie”, etc.

Commercial Intent – aka Buddhism, money and making a living (online)

As I write this, this blog has a whopping 4 visitors a day, on average. As a seasoned web professional of over 10 years, I knew that it was never going to get a lot of traffic overnight. Why not? Because I started this blog with the intent of simply writing about what I care about. My more general spiritual stuff gets posted on my All Considering blog which has over 500 subscribers and about a 1000 visitors daily and still doesn’t make a significant dent in my income. Still when I write about popular Buddhist topics like mindfulness, it gets posted there.

To make that even clearer: I have never decided the TOPIC of my spiritual writing by the kind of audience I expect it to pull in. If I were to do that, I would end up writing about how to make money by thinking positively (aka lying) or how to get your health back by doing puja’s (aka lying) or simply on how to become happy for ever more (aka lying). Instead I write about what I think about, believe in and have learned. 

This blog is for the stuff that is only interesting to a specifically Buddhist audience. And by that I mean the kind of Buddhist that has actually taken refuge, believes in karma and rebirth and studies Buddhist texts at least to some extent. It’s a small group. Far smaller than the audience of people like H.H. the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron. Of course it’s still a bigger group than my former sangha of theosophists, but I digress. 

The thing is – a few Buddhist sticklers have decided this blog is too commercial for their taste. Why? Because I link to pages with Buddhist merchandise, which signifies commercial intent in their eyes. 

And yes, I’ll readily confess, those pages make me a few dollars a month. 

Buddhism and money is a tricky topic. Ask any Buddhist scholar and they’ll tell you money and Buddhism go back a long way. Let’s get some facts out there:

  1. Buddhism was probably most popular in it’s Indian heyday (300 BC to 500 AD) among traders and merchants. 
  2. Originally the Buddha, monks and nuns begged daily for their food. Literally. In India roaming religious people were (and are) a normal part of the landscape. Lay people giving food to such people think it will be good karma for them to support them. 
  3. Not long after the Buddha’s death (and perhaps even before) donations from lay people became so large that it enabled monks and nuns to live in monasteries with their own land. That land could of course not be worked by the monks themselves, so they had people who did it for them living on the land. Any profit went to the sangha. Since monks aren’t supposed to touch money, they hired people to do it for them. (seeing a problem yet?)
  4. In all Asian countries where Buddhism is alive today, there is an active culture of giving TO the sangha. Monasteries are kept on such donations, often given for the purpose of specific prayers the monks are to recite for lay people’s worldly success or their deceased relatives. (most Western readers will now scoff)
  5. In the protestant West we got rid of monks and nuns centuries ago. We have a tradition of paid religious workers (ministers, priests). Salaried priests, as Blavatsky scathingly called them. When we go to a spiritual meeting, we expect part of the money to go to the teacher – unless we realize they’re a volunteer. 
  6. Professional Buddhists in the West are therefore not expected to be paid (you can’t pay for dharma after all), but their audience expects the money they paid to go into their pockets at least a bit. We expect salaried priests, after all. 
  7. Asking for donations is a taboo in many Western countries. It’s associated with charity, with not earning your keep, with super-rich tv-ministers. 
  8. Professional Buddhists do have rent or mortgage to pay, electricity bills etc and they inhabit bodies that require food. 

In short: Professional Buddhists are in a bind. They can’t really ask for money – though the ‘dana talk’ has evolved so that often money gets requested FOR them. They have all the costs of a human being living in a modern world, but since they gave up on a normal day job, it’s unclear where the money is to come from. 

When I started my business almost a decade ago I had been online for about 5 years already. I knew I wanted to spend as much time and energy on studying spirituality as I could manage, so I wanted my business to take up as little time as possible. For about 4 years now that dream is a reality: I can live off my online income mostly recommending worldly stuff like PCs and Christmas presents. As much as my personality will allow I can study and meditate and write about spirituality in general and Buddhism in particular. More about my online journey

Unlike some Buddhist teachers, I don’t ask for donations on my main site (at least not prominently enough to actually get me (m)any donations). Instead I have ads on there. The result is very similar though: I can offer dharma online for free. Those ads pay the webhosting bill, on average. 

Personally I think that as long as Western Buddhists aren’t prepared to financially support their sangha enough for them to live off donations, they have no right to decide on how Buddhist authors and teachers make their living. Deciding on someone else’s motive is even worse.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a nun. The difference is immaterial for  purposes of this post though. 

Prostrating to the guru and other guru yoga practices explained

If you come to Tibetan Buddhism after having read one of the easily accessible books by the Dalai Lama you may be in for a shock: there are a LOT of rituals involved in Tibetan Buddhism. For Westerners the first responses will be alienation and curiosity.

To help you deal, here are some common practices. The main thing to remember is that this is about respect, not servility. A real spiritual teacher will help you develop your own wisdom and this includes your ability to think for yourself. (more about guru yoga)


When we prostrate to the guru, we’re really prostrating to the teacher as a vessel for the dharma.

Prostrating before teachers is about respect for that teacher. This does not imply listening without critical thought. In fact, my teacher stresses thinking for yourself every opportunity he gets.

Standing up when the guru comes into a room, passes by or leaves the room

Again: a mark of respect.

The guru sits on a throne

The oral tradition around my teacher has it that he didn’t want a throne to teach from. It was explained to him that the students would be sitting on chairs and would feel uncomfortable towering over him sitting on the floor.

That’s one explanation, but the fact is that in Tibetan Buddhism it is usual for the teacher to sit on a throne or pedestal. This is not as alien to Western culture as it might seem: in some classrooms at my old high school there were still pedestals for the teacher’s desk. The advantage is that the teacher can see the students better and they can see him or her better as well.

Incense and so on

All of the above is about respect. Respect for authority is a suspect attitude in Western culture these days. When a guru literally had incense burned in front of him as he walked into the room to teach, I felt a bit overwhelmed. However, for those with a Catholic background it is probably not at all offensive. In a Buddhist context it’s important to realize that it’s not so much the person of the teacher that is being honored, it’s the dharma, the teachings. That guru sat on a normal chair and wore normal clothes when he simply wanted to welcome everybody without giving any teachings. On that evening there wasn’t incense either.

How to do Guru Yoga in Tibetan Buddhism – guru yoga practice

For Westerners Guru yoga is difficult. It’s so difficult for us that the Dalai Lama teaches Guru Yoga at the end of the Lam Rim, even though it’s right at the beginning in every Lam Rim text.

Basically guru yoga can be translated as guru devotion. That is: devotion to your spiritual teacher.

On the most fundamental level this is natural. Of course you will be devoted to the person who guides you along the path, helps you become a happier and more balanced person and so on. Since most spiritual teachers have charisma, devotion to them is in some ways a matter of course.

However, as you read this you are probably conjuring up all kinds of images of guru’s misusing their disciples. The advice given in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is very simple: if your teacher behaves in a way that you cannot reconcile with his (or her) role as a spiritual teacher, keep your distance. Treat specific outrageous requests, like giving up all your money to him, as jokes.(*)

Of course the main way to prevent trouble is much simpler: only take on someone as your spiritual teacher if you feel you can trust them.

Summer 2012 I attended Lam Rim teachings on Lama Tsong Khapa’s Short Lam Rim text. During the course of those teachings he gave clear instructions on the levels of Guru Yoga in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Since these levels make sense in a general Buddhist setting I think it’s useful to share them here.

  1. When you take refuge or pratimoksa vows, like the lay vows, the teacher who gives you those vows becomes a guru for you on a very basic level. You’re only required to see him or her as a teacher, nothing more. This makes sense as those vows are common to all of Buddhism, including Theravada Buddhism. Since guru yoga plays no part in Theravada Buddhism it would be a break with tradition if it were necessary to see the vow preceptor as a guru in a higher sense.
  2. When you take the Bodhisattva vows, you are expected to see the person who gives them to you as an emanation of the Buddha. This is still doable, because faults and mistakes come with the territory of emanations of the Buddha.
  3. When you take a tantric initiation, you are required to see the person who gives those vows as an actual Buddha. Any limitations you see in them will have to be seen as necessary for the development of the students.
There are all kinds of issues with devotion to the spiritual teacher that I won’t go into here, because Alex Berzin has created a whole book (available as a free ebook) on the topic. What it boils down to is simple, I think:
  • Don’t move too quickly. Some people who pose as spiritual teachers do misuse their position in all the ways that people in power tend to do. It’s better not to have a spiritual teacher at all than to have to break the relationship.
  • Keep as much distance as you need in order to be able to see that person as a Buddha. Seeing them brush their teeth may not be conducive to the relationship.
Dr. Berzin’s book is great to set the mind at ease on all the issues that may come up in trying to deal with guru yoga in a Western context. However, amid all the good advice one thing seemed missing to me: how to do the actual devotion part. I think for many people it’s not hard to feel thankful to the teacher. It’s also useful to remember that what we are doing is generally speaking not so much tantra as training for tantra, even if we have taken vows.
When  Kay Cooper and Gordon McDougall came to Amsterdam to teach the Tantra module of Discovering Buddhism I asked them about this and they shared what their teacher Geshe Tashi had said: the main thing is to stay present in the relationship with the master and practice what they teach.
The main thing about spiritual teachers is that they will teach what their students need to hear at that point in time. So if the teacher tells you something opposite to the above, as long as they’re not asking you for something unreasonable, take their advice as teachings and ignore the above.
If a spiritual teacher asks you to do something you can’t do: it’s perfectly alright to just not do it.


(*) My own teacher, Geshe Sonam Gyaltsen, literally gave the advice to treat outrageous requests as jokes. I’ve heard several other teachers in the FPMT advise to just stay away from a teacher whose behavior you can no longer live with up close. Most of this post is condensed from my notes on the summer 2012 Lam Rim teachings he gave on the short Lam Rim by Lama Tsong Khapa, using the 3rd Dalai Lama’s Essence of Refined Gold and Trijang Rinpoche’s Lam Rim outlines. I did not check these notes against the audio files, nor did I check with the translator to see if I understood everything correctly. Mistakes are entirely my own responsibility.