Buddhist practice is about discovering our true nature, our Buddha nature. Therefore, Buddhist practices aim to turn our attention inwards.
For example, in Buddhist mindfulness training, we are taught to be aware of our body. In the sutta, it is described as being aware of our front and back simultaneously. Being mindful of our head and our legs. Being mindful of the filth within our body. Zen Buddhism teaches awareness of body posture. All that builds awareness of our physical body and facilitates the exploration of self.
We are also taught to be aware of our emotions, thoughts, mind and perceptions. All these are known as internal factors and they are crucial to our practices for enlightenment. There are no exceptions. Even for Buddhist chanters. For example, the 37 limbs of enlightenment that is embedded in Amitabha Sutra means that chanters are also expected to internalize their chanting. Therefore, we still need to be mindful of what is going on inside us when we chant.
The opposite of this is externalization.
Many people approaches spiritualism by pursuing a divine presence outside of themselves. For example, praying to Buddha and imagining that He is in some secret place call Nirvana while listening to our prayer or thinking that Buddha is inside an idol sitting on the altar. The Buddha’s teaching never taught idolatry.
However, such approach to Buddhism is not entirely bad. It can still motivate people to do good. In Vajrayana system, it is named as Kriya. We relate to Buddha or Bodhisattva as if they are an external divine entity. We make offerings to them, we please them by observing various formalities and manners. We observe our precepts. So on and so forth.
In Chinese Mahayana system, devotees worship Buddha images and chant scriptures as act of reverence and piety. We chant mantra over water to bless it for consumptions. We also observe the precepts to prevent bad karma. In Theravada traditions, we visit monks and make offerings of “traditional goodies” without caring whether the monks needed them. (Those standard packaged offerings that comes in a yellow pail?) Then we ask the monks to chant some blessings for us.
All these diversities resulted from different traditions and cultures. However, they are at the surface level of Buddhism only. Most people stop there. Thus Buddhism is being practiced like a religion.
When you start getting serious about enlightenment, you will hear teachers teaching us to internalize our practice. (if we meet a qualified one)
If the thought of sitting in silence for hours on end doesn’t turn you off or a requirement for you to chant a mantra a million times doesn’t discourages you. Then it is important to understand what internalization is.
To put it simply, it is back to meditation and understanding our inner self. As we walk along the path of enlightenment, we began to appreciate how our internal mind projects fear and vision unto us. We realized that the external divinities that we worship previously were actually created by our mind! This leads to the 2nd stage of understanding. So some people start saying Buddha is in me. However, we also realized the imperfections and flaws in our mind. This creates a dilemma. Therefore, we think that Buddha is different and separate from us. We say we can feel Buddha inside of us?
As we practice harder and attained Jhana or samadhi, we start to see things a bit clearer. We realize how our sensory inputs, trigger a “perceiver”, lead to emotions and thoughts etc. we slowly let go of our fixated notion of a “presence” in our body. We become more confident in the Dharma. Teachings also start to have depth. When we see Dharma,we see Buddha. The line starts to blur. Thus some people say they are becoming one with Buddha. But that is still not the end.
This is because we are still grasping to identities and notions. But wait. Buddhism is not about annihilating or denying or nihilism. We don’t force the mind to rest in comatose suspension too. Buddhism is the middle path. Because we are used to thinking in extreme polarity, the middle path had been described as having the width of a razor edge. Our standard vocabulary has no word for it. Buddhist terminology is emptiness or shunyata. The great masters nod knowingly but we are still trying to get there.
But never mind, it is good to know that Buddhist spiritualism involves internalization. That 1st step is important. Otherwise we will be walking the opposite direction and end up lifetimes apart from our intended goal.
May all be well and happy.