Orthodox Chinese Buddhism

What Methods of Spiritual Practice Do Buddhists Carry Out?

This is certainly a very important question. If one believes in Buddhism without practicing it in daily life, the only benefit one will acquire is the planting of a seed for future Buddhahood.

Such a person will hardly gain any benefit in this life. Buddhist practice is the realization of a Buddhist lifestyle. The four major aspects of practice are faith, precepts, meditative concentration, and wisdom.
Without faith, one has not even entered the gate of Buddhist practice. So, faith is the first requirement to practice Buddhism. And taking refuge in the Three Jewels is the first step to establishing faith.
There are many classes of precepts. As a basic requirement, it is enough if one can adhere to the five precepts and ten good deeds. Of course, it is even better if one can take the eight precepts and/or the bodhisattva precepts. For Buddhists, precepts function very much like defensive fortifications do to soldiers holding a garrison during a battle. If someone cannot keep the five precepts and the ten good deeds, she will not even have the disposition of a Buddhist. And if one practices meditative absorptions without keeping the precepts, the meditator will fall into demonic states.
Meditative concentration is the practice of collecting and focusing the mind so that external surroundings will not disturb it. This is a common practice emphasized by many religions, including all the “outer-path” religions in India. The Daoist technique of abdominal breathing called tuna and the Christian practice of praying are also kinds of meditation to develop concentration. The purpose of such meditation is to allow the mind to settle on one object. Only when the mind can become absorbed in one object can one truly appreciate the lofty, great value of religion and attain physical ease and mental contentment—an experience clearly superior to sensual pleasure. Once someone experiences this concentrated state of mind, his religious faith will grow progressively faster. It is impossible for such a person not to have faith. But the practice of meditative concentration is not something unique to Buddhism.
What is unique to Buddhism is wisdom, which serves as a guide to meditation and an antidote to craving for meditative absorptions. Because concentration makes one's mind undisturbed by external surroundings, when someone enters into an absorption state and experiences joy, it is very easy to become attached to the ecstasy and not want to leave the absorption. Upon dying, this kind of person will be reborn in a dhyāna heaven. According to Buddhist cosmology, the dhyāna heavens are divided into eight general levels, corresponding to the four absorptions of form and the four absorptions of formlessness.
All these heavens are in the realms of form and formlessness within the three realms, where one's life expectancy is long; however, one is still unliberated from the cycle of rebirth. So Buddhists regard meditative concentration as one means of practice and not as an end in itself. The Chan school in China therefore stresses enlightenment over meditative concentration even though meditation is central to its practices.
Enlightenment is the blossoming of wisdom. Only when one gains the wisdom that penetrates into the true nature of all dharmas can one transcend samsāra and leave behind the three realms. For questions regarding practice, it is best if one can associate with a knowledgeable and skillful practitioner to help show one the way. This entry is only a summary of the basics, and is not intended to be comprehensive.