I'll admit, before even continuing on, that I'm ignorant of much of what is even possible to study about Theravada Buddhism. As such, there could be a lot of things I say in this post, comparisons I make, and lines I draw, that will be incorrect. I would appreciate your guidance on this matter as I'm going to be laying out a small frustration, some theory, and so on.
Let me first begin by simply saying this: I am very, very, confused. I have attempted to curb my enthusiasm for this religion in such a way as to make sure I adopt the pillars of it (such as the 8 fold path and the five precepts) in an appropriate way. I've been doing more and more reading as recommended by the fine members of this forum, and not only has this done very little to quell my confusion in many ways it has exacerbated it. This is not your failing as a community, I assume it's mine for not understanding. Perhaps my frustration would be easier to quell if I had a teacher to guide me, and much of the reading I've done suggests as much.
My first frustration is with documentation in itself. The "reading list" for these forums spans dozens of articles that are many pages each. With varying degrees of quality of translation, etc., I suppose I only find this frustrating relative to the somewhat available documentation of other religions (The Qur'an, The holy bible (although it has many translations that vary slightly), and so forth..) I haven't really found or been told of just one set of documents that I can go to for the original discourses of the buddha, etc., Many of the admittedly great articles that you all link to provide interpretation of suttas for me, and I'm thankful that teachers have done this and published it; but it feels like, to make a comparison, I'm a Christian listening to sermons without ever reading the bible. It feels as though there is a piece missing. What SHOULD I be reading and will these texts in themselves help me with my practice?
My second area of confusion, and I've asked a lot of questions on the topic here, is vipassana. Perhaps I'm just misunderstanding the guides I've read, and the teachers, etc., but the more I read about it the more convinced I am that I'm doing something incorrect in my practice. My current approach is to sit, find my breath, spread loving-kindness, and then attempt to stay focused on my breath, just noting everything else that comes up and watching it without really trying to get involved or contemplate it. Is that essentially the correct practice, or is there a kind of "end all be all" guide to vipassana?
The last confusion I have is one of relativity. I am both thankful and kind of lost at the lack of ritual in theravada. This may be where my ignorance shows. The only other religion I know of that has basic rules for living and is as much a practice as it is a religion, is Islam. But Islam has its important practices, and things that must be done daily (praying five times a day facing mecca, etc.,). I want to be clear that I understand these rituals and practices are just trappings if they're all you do and focus on, but I particularly feel like in my case I'm a little too "free flowing" and that makes it very easy for me to "go off the rails" and lose track of my mindfulness or even just let my entire day go off the rails. Is there a practice to Theravada that I'm not aware of, or is it really just as simple as attempting to follow the path?
Again, I apologize for being so ignorant on these matters, but I'm thankful that I have such a wonderful community to, at the least, ask these questions of.