I'm often asked by those new to Buddhism how one actually becomes a Buddhist and what groups one should join. My advice is to not worry about taking on a 'Buddhist' identity - Buddhism is a practical path rather than a tribe that one joins. But visiting one (or preferably more than one) group can be very helpful, so you need to check what is available within travelling distance. Use the Internet to gather information about local groups and check on their reputations. There is great diversity within Buddhism and a great number of different traditions have become established in the UK. Some of these traditions have their roots in Asian cultures; some are home-grown varieties.
A great advantage that we have today is the huge range of good material on the Internet, including e-books and talks from a wide range of Buddhist teachers. We can find numerous Buddhist blogs and Facebook groups where we can interact with Buddhist practitioners, ask questions, and study previous conversations. These are a good way to become familiar not only with particular varieties of Buddhism but also with the qualities of different teachers. Using the Internet enables us to find out in a few weeks what might previously have taken months or even years of determined research.
As well as reading books and information from particular traditions, and listening to talks on the Internet, we can also visit local groups. This can be a hit and miss business, since we may live in an area where there are few groups. Our aim should be to find a group of like-minded practitioners who we can trust, learn from, and establish friendship. This takes time and should be carried out with a degree of caution.
We should not expect any Buddhist teachers or groups that we visit to demand large fees from us, or to expect us to take part in particular rituals, or to pressurise us in other ways, and we should expect that those teaching or leading such groups should be clear about what it is they teach, their backgrounds, and their levels of competence.
If we cannot find a congenial and reputable local group, then the internet might become our main channel to a virtual Buddhist community. Ideally, we can also occasionally visit reputable centres for retreats or day visits and perhaps after a while, we may even consider launching our own local group.
One growing source of support for practice is in the ‘mindfulness’ movement. There are lots of training courses in mindfulness and these can be very helpful in many ways. And there is the relatively new 'secular Buddhist' movement.
It is not necessary to have a personal guru or teacher, (although some practitioners find this helpful, and some major Buddhist traditions do have gurus). The vast array of material on the Internet means that we can listen and interact with many teachers, without having to establish a particular relationship with just one.
I would strongly encourage both new and more experienced practitioners to adopt an independent attitude to their practice and not to develop a dependency on a particular individual teacher. The psychological projection and idealisations that can drive such dependencies may harm both the student and teacher. There are just too many examples of this to imagine that any teacher is entirely immune to the abuses of power that become possible after being ‘sanctified’ by pious disciples.
The main focus, of course, for those who are interested in the path of awakening, is to actually practice it. Although the Buddha's teaching has developed into a diverse range of religions, at its core is an emphasis on investigating our experience. This focus cannot be seen as ‘religious’ in the sense of requiring knowledge of rituals and doctrines, but is more like the development of a skill. Just as a potter works with clay, and a musician with his instruments, we practice with our mind and body, paying attention to our sensory experience in developing our abilities to concentrate and gain perspective and insight.
No matter what our backgrounds, we can all develop the ability to be mindful, to live good lives and to awaken. Awakening or enlightenment is a natural human potential and does not require us to adopt any particular identity, follow any particular doctrine, or to swear allegiance to any particular religion.
I am often deeply dismayed by the sectarianism and tribalism that I find in English Buddhism especially since it is only about forty years old. Please do not assume that the local group that you stumbled into and have grown to like is ‘true and pure Buddhism’, no matter what those leading the group might say. And please do not assume that links with an Asian tradition, a deep familiarity with Himalayan caves, and a set of impressive robes, automatically makes someone a wise, intelligent and well-behaved human being.
...Although some good teachers do match this description!
And don't imagine that 'modern' Buddhist organisations are trouble-free either. These often have their own problems - ranging from 'dodgy teachers', through non-Buddhist rituals such as deity worship, and a lack of real insight into any authentic Buddhist practice.
I also encourage you to consider your own heritage. European culture has much of great value and we should not simply dismiss this in a search for the 'ancient wisdom of the orient'. Good Buddhist teaching does not criticise and devalue Western culture.
Honour your history.
We have to adopt the same careful and circumspect approach to finding good Buddhist groups, teachings and teachers as we do with any other serious enterprise.