When we live as Buddhists, we ideally follow what is called the Threefold Training, consisting of training in ethics, meditation and wisdom. These three different types of training are not like steps of a staircase, but rather like spokes in a wheel, because they all affect and support each other. Some are only interested in meditation, but an ethically justifiable life, and some knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, will support our meditations. In most traditional descriptions of the Threefold Training, ethics is included first, but to know Buddhist ethics requires a understanding of Buddhist wisdom. Why would you want to follow a certain form of ethical training, if you do not have an idea of why you do it, and what can be achieved?
A good start is to hear about the Buddhist ideas on the cessation of suffering, have a fundamental trust that these ideas could be true, and have the will to test whether you can achieve it. When this confidence or interest is in place, one can begin the actual training where an ethically justifiable life is seen as the foundation of a calm mind. A calm mind makes it easier to meditate, and through meditation wisdom is developed. When we gradually gain deeper understanding, it will also affect the way we live; ethics become better integrated into one’s life, whereby meditation deepens and one’s wisdom is further developed. In this way it supports the three elements in an ever positively reinforcing process.
Thus, meditation is only one part of Buddhist practice. This is the part we hear about here in the West, but not actually the part that is most prevalent in indigenous Buddhist cultures. If we look at Buddhist practice globally, we will find that it is very diverse and very much alive. There are many varieties of practice from the monasteries focused and regulated life, the devout laity with dana (generosity, giving or donation) as the main practice to the intellectual Buddhists focused on philosophy and perhaps periodically seated meditation – and everything in between.