by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Venerable David Xi-Ken Astor wrote in his book, ‘Pragmatic Buddhism: Reflecting Contemporary Vitality’ that, “the Buddha’s arising occurred during a time of metaphysics, and as a result his teachings have metaphysical elements used to describe them and to realize them. Now those teachings are arising in a time of science and it is up to us to realize them through a lens of modern society, science and cultural influences in order to harness their potential of positive transformation.” This is a view that can be applied to much of what can be confusing philosophies in this ages old system of beliefs, a system of beliefs that the Buddha himself made clear must change with time, culture and context so that the intent of the dharma could be realized and valued. The Four Ennobling Truths were a reality before the Buddha awakened to them, they have been a reality ever since. Along the way, the mutability of the Dharma allowed it to effectively change dependent those cultures and times.
The Buddhist concepts samsara and nirvana are metaphysical ideals as they are difficult to prove, and can be difficult to understand and find the value of in a contemporary practice. Samsara is often experienced as the imperfect world of suffering discontent and anguish that human beings spend their existence in. Nirvana is the meta-physical place where ultimate liberation is found. What if these are not places WHERE one is, but are instead viewed as HOW one is? Can we pull away the traditional veil of metaphysics to reveal the contemporary value of these millennia old concepts that initially arose from Siddhartha’s (and his earliest disciples) Hindu beliefs?
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
There are some who view Buddhism as an agnostic religion, and some who view Buddhism as an atheistic philosophy. Agnosticism can play a vital role in Buddhist practice but not a central role. The concept of Buddhism as atheistic comes from a deep misunderstanding, or in some cases a complete misrepresentation of Buddhist philosophy.
Setting aside the question of an Ultimate Cause, a God that directs all phenomena that is how most people relate to agnosticism brings us to the more pragmatic view of this philosophy. Awareness, and acceptance of causal conditioning (dependent origination) subtracts the concept of an Ultimate Cause from any consideration. That the essential nature of things cannot be known has long been an ideal in Buddhist philosophy as no phenomena has an inherent existence, no essential nature to be known. In Buddhism this is not agnosticism . . . it is reality. What firmly grounds a Buddhist practice is that knowledge is gained through experience, and if something cannot be directly or indirectly experienced it is not knowledge, it is theory and speculation. In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha teaches: “When you know in yourselves: These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness, then you should practice and abide in them . . . “ (translation by Nanamoli Thera)
One lesson of this sutra is directed toward a common occurrence in the India of the Buddha’s time. There was a proliferation of religious teachers wandering the countryside extolling the virtues of their Truths and Practices, that they alone taught the True Way, the only way to their vision of salvation. In Western society, right this moment, folks are facing the same problem, and some of the teachers are Buddhist.
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In Zen Buddhism, and put into common usage by Shunryu Suzuki, “beginner’s mind” (shoshin) is a way of approaching all situations with an open mind, fresh energy, and without preconceptions. Beginner’s mind is a path to discovering the new experiences and knowledge that are invisible to the unaware and the unmindful. Beginner’s minds experience new situations without preconceptions.
In Engaged Buddhism the term ‘bodymind’ is used so that the unbreakable interconnection and interdependence of body and mind are realized. With this we add “beginner’s body” to the lexicon. The body reacts to internal and external phenomena with habitual movements that consist of body language and micro-expressions. These too must be set-aside in order that positive transformation can take place.
We all engage in activities that have become habitual. From putting together jigsaw puzzles to hiking in the woods we can find ourselves becoming complacent. The aphorism, “been there . . . done that” can cause us to miss that piece of the puzzle with a bit of sky and the tiny curve of a bird’s wing or fall into the washed out gully that wasn’t along that trail last year. We may have in fact “been there” but it is just as much a fact that we haven’t “been there in that next moment”. The aphorism Buddhist style could be, “unique situation . . . unique experience” as a reminder that one has not “been there” or “done that” right now.
The Parable of Overflowing
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
It takes skill and flexibility to positively engage your life. Each moment brings with it unique situations to respond to, and unique experiences to learn from. You know from experience that you can’t act the same way around each person; and, that you can’t respond in the same way to every situation even when they seem remarkable similar. To live in this ever-changing world among ever-changing people takes skill and flexibility. In Buddhist practice this ability is known as skill-in-means (Sk., upaya).
The Buddha would first assess the nature of his audience and then use a variety of tactics and strategies in order to guide them out of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. In the Mahayana tradition this is known as the Skill-In-Means Doctrine: “. . . taken to entail an apparently infinite flexibility in adapting the teaching of the Buddha to suit changing circumstances.” [Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Paul Williams, page 151] Skill-in-means, or skillful means is simply learning to “know your audience” and in addition, to “know yourself”. The life and teachings of the Buddha are a testament to his ability to speak in the language and worldview of his listeners. Was Siddhartha born with this skill? No, no one is born able to understand and adjust to any situation; it is a skill that must be learned and practiced.
The Buddha was able to transmit the message of the Dharma equally well to Brahmin or householder, King or thief. Siddhartha studied with the learned masters of his day and culture. Through them he came to know the languages and worldviews of the various mendicants that roamed and taught around India. As a child and young man he already had experience with the more royal strata of his culture. Traveling and teaching as the Awakened One he improved his ability to speak directly to all manner of people from every caste.
The Doctrine of Skill-In-Means is not only valuable when talking to people. It can be of great value when dealing with all aspects of your life. The trick is . . . learning how to develop it.
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In Buddhist philosophy there are three types of suffering (dukkha) traditionally recognized in the human experience. In our contemporary culture there is another to be recognized. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psycho-emotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. There is also suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offer the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path as the way to alleviate suffering; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about the arising of suffering and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.
Dukkha-dukkha is obvious suffering. It is physical pain that arises from injury or disease.
Some people enjoy growing roses. They invest time, effort and skill in order to reap the reward of beauty. Invariably during planting or pruning, even when harvesting beautiful flowers to put in a vase in the house they’ll get pricked by thorns or nick their finger with pruning shears. This is suffering caused by physical pain (dukkha-dukkha).
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
With the state of world economies it isn’t a surprise that people are searching for any means to improve their situations. Buddhists are no different. The posting, ‘Money Chant’ on the EDIG website has been very popular lately. Some of the search terms that have found it are: buddhist money chant – vasudhare – buddhist prosperity gospel – buddhism and economics – wealth and buddhism. The trend toward this posting reveals one aspect of human existence that is a root cause of suffering . . . wealth, material and spiritual.
The Awakened One shares practices that will enhance our wealth, material and spiritual. Most notably in the Sigalovada Sutra he teaches how material wealth affects personal relationships. Expanding the teaching from individual effects to the broader karmic consequences he arrived at the core lesson, it isn’t how much wealth one has, it is how one uses that wealth. Wealth should be viewed as a tool, a tool that can be an effective tool when used wisely. Some scholars and teachers say that the Awakened One tells practitioners that enhancing wealth will allow students to pursue their spiritual goals with less distractions.
Enhancing personal monetary wealth will indeed minimize distractions caused by bills due, home repairs needed and family to be provided for. Surplus wealth not needed for the comfort and care of family and friends should be directed toward helping others. This ideal fits firmly in the goal of the Four Ennobling Truths and the realization of personal responsibility for how we live. Some scholars and teachers offer that the Buddha introduced a wealth deity, a traditional Hindu goddess named Vasudhara (Sk., stream of treasure) who, when her name is chanted will bring prosperity and riches to the devotee. This concept is often heard referred to as the Buddhist Prosperity teaching, and offers the “Money Chant” as a path to that prosperity.
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In many aspects of human endeavor competition plays a valuable role. Competition spurs new invention and new extremes of human physical and mental strengths. Competition can also be a contributing causal factor in fear, hatred, anxiety, frustration, anger and envy; all negative dispositions that can tag along in the unconscious mind. In Chan practice there is no room for dispositions and actions that hinder progress. That is why, in the sangha is no place for competition between members. In Buddhist practice there is no place for competition because all people are unique expressions of the Universe, so one’s level of progress cannot be measured with another’s.
Siddhartha, the historical Buddha didn’t have to imagine the detrimental effects that competition could cause. After all, he had been to school, had siblings, had a father’s legacy to look up to, and he’d experienced who could deprive themselves the most when he traveled with the ascetics. The Awakened One must have contemplated what aspects of human existence were most likely to cause the arising of competition and conflict. In the Acintita Sutta he offered four and the negative consequences of pursuing them.
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
I’ve been reading “Hoofprint of the Ox” by Master Sheng-Yen. A wonderful book of Chan Buddhist wisdom from a highly respected contemporary Master. Like the times I go to flea markets and garage sales without any particular thing I am searching for, I never read books on Buddhist philosophy or practice looking for a particular point of view that will substantiate my own worldview. One takes the fun out of digging through other people’s stuff, the other takes the wisdom out of reading. For instance I encountered Master Sheng-Yen’s teaching of counting out-breaths as an initial meditation practice. This is not a view that I agree with as I have experienced that it can become confusing and frustrating for many beginning Western meditators. Then I came to a line that leapt off the page and into my conscious mind and joined the worldview that is held by my unconscious mind, “In the Mahayana tradition, all sentient beings (and even the leaves and grass!) are identical in nature to Buddhas.” The words and the ideal arises from the Tathagatagarbha doctrine, the Indian Buddhist philosophical concept of Tathagata-Womb in which all beings are equally discoverable in their Buddha-nature.
For many months the second most viewed post on the website has been “Buddhists Eat Meat”. The point of the posting revolves around the Jivaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya #55) where the Five Instances relevant to a Buddhist eating meat are taught. These are: if a specific living thing is requested, if the living thing is being mistreated or mishandled, if the intent was the animal was killed directly for the consumption of the monk, if the living thing is nervous or frightened, if knowing any of these things have happened and the person eats the meat anyway. In any of these instances either the consumer, the provider, or both will accumulate demerits. The sutta further offers that if one wants to make a case for their own choice of vegetarianism it smust be from the platform of loving-kindness and equanimity, not from a misguided idea that the “Buddha said so.” Whichever we choose, herbivore or carnivore or omnivore we must remain mindful of our interconnection with everything around us. As part of our daily practice we must develop an awareness of those connections and what we eat can be an opportunity to practice. Before each meal take a moment to respect the journey that whatever you are about to eat took to get to you. Take the time to honor all life.
A Creative Re-Description of the Sutra
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Acting with these five dispositions a lay-disciple is practicing falsely, a shadow of a lay-disciple, a lay-disciple in name only. What five? They do not have conviction for the value of an awakened bodymind; are without virtuous character; seek out the protection of charms, chants and the comfort of ceremony; believe that charms, chants and ceremony are cause rather than their own actions; and offer their wealth and skills only to heighten ego. Acting with these five dispositions, a lay-disciple practices falsely, is a shadow, is a disciple in name only.
Acting with these five dispositions a lay-disciple is aware of the Three Jewels, accepts the Pure Precepts, realizes the actions inherent in the Four Ennobling Truths. What five? They have conviction for the value of awakened bodymind; develop a virtuous character; see beyond the delusion of charms, chants and ceremony to their value as reminders of intent; know that what they do matters is revealed in karmic consequence; offer their wealth and skills selflessly for the benefit of others. Acting with these five dispositions, a lay-disciple practices the dharma, is an example of the dharma, is a fully realized disciple.
NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this important sutra into contemporary language and have used the buzz-words of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. Venerable David and myself have often discussed if any of sutras re-worded (or creatively re-described) in such a way could offer the same intent as the those translated directly from the Pali, and holding to the symbology and textual references of that time 2600 years ago. Using the sutra as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “Candala Sutta: The Outcaste” (AN 5.175), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 3 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.175.than.html . – I’ve attempted to do just that, present the sutra in a contemporary way and be true to the intent of the Buddha.
Sutras teaching a direct lesson sometimes begin with a ‘slap on the hand’, focusing on what not to do or be. The negative aspects of dispositions, habits and practices come first and are then, but not always followed by the positive. You might think that this was is only a cultural norm for Siddhartha’s time and place. Not so. Look at many Western writings, religious or secular, meant to convey lessons on behavior and character and you’re likely to encounter the negative first. What you ought not to be, followed by the ideal. Contrasting the opposites in Buddhist texts is not at all meant to show a duality of personality and action . . . instead it is meant to reveal that those contrasts exist in all bodyminds . . . in the unconscious mind are habits and dispositions we make the effort to recognize through rigorous self-honesty and follow that up with effort to practice positive transformations in the conscious mind. Transformation that will replace the negative aspects of our unconscious mind.
Let’s just skip even discussing the lay-disciple that practices falsely. Instead, let’s remind ourselves of the dispositions of a fully realized lay-disciple on the path of positive transformation and liberation.
The Buddha, a human like each of us, isn’t the only example of an awakened bodymind, though he is certainly at the top of a list that mustn’t in truth include only Buddhists. Think about Bill and Melinda Gates, Thomas Merton, Thich Naht Hanh, Venerable Shi Shen Long, Ghandi, Jesus, Mohammed . . . and even those times when you, yourself have an awakened moment . . . might not last but a flash but it has likely happened. In those moments you have the opportunity to personally realize the value of an awakened mind. In the next, and all moments to follow you have the opportunity to build your awareness and experience an awakened mind more often until an awakened mind is your natural state of being.
The Noble Path is one of practicing a virtuous character until it becomes a spontaneous part of how you are. Generosity becomes spontaneous. Without thought you give of your skills, wealth and gifts to any sentient being in need. Compassion becomes spontaneous. Hatred and intolerance in any form doesn’t arise in your bodymind no matter the situation or experience. You feel an empathetic connection with all sentient beings and want them each to discover their own way out of discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness. All the virtues of moral ideals and ethical behaviors become your ‘go to’ thoughts and actions because you know the value of a virtuous social self.
Everyday I wear a brass amulet depicting the Buddha. It was made in Vietnam during the latter years of that horrible war. I don’t wear it for protection from anything. The weight of it against my chest is an intentional reminder of the horrors of violence, the suffering of others, and of the path I’ve chosen to walk. Reliance on charms weaken personal responsibility.
Every morning I chant the Heart Sutra, an American version and a Japanese version. The words, the tone, the rhythm combined are an intentional reminder of compassion, the serenity that comes with acceptance, and the importance of mindfulness for an awakened mind. Belief that ceremonies allow contact with higher beings weakens personal responsibility.
Before each meal I silently recite to the causal Universe: ‘I honor all living things who gave their lives and all beings whose efforts brought this food before me. May the strength and vitality acquired by eating this meal be used for the benefit of all living beings. Svaha!’ This dharani, or prayer, isn’t being said to the Buddha. It is being said to me, to remind me that honoring all whose efforts keep my bodymind alive is an action of a fully realized awakened mind.
An object, a sound, or a recitation does not have any intrinsic power to affect change. Their only power is in triggering intentional practice. Whether it is bowing, chanting or lighting a stick of incense you are engaging in a ritual of intent. You are awakening your mind to the potential in each moment. This is a traditional and contemporary view in Chan Buddhism that all of your effort in practice is toward unleashing that potential.
Mindfulness of your thoughts and actions in each moment arises as you come to recognize that those thoughts and actions are both cause and effect. Cause and effect that have karmic consequences that will not be experienced by you, but will become part of the karmic web of potential. Awareness that what you do in each moment matters is how a fully realized disciple views their thoughts and actions.
Generosity of spirit without expectation of personal gain is a virtue realized by all disciples. At the end of each sangha session ‘sharing of merit’ is recited beginning with – Showing our gratitude and generosity, practicing the way of awareness which gives rise to benefits without limit, we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings. – words meant to remind each practitioner of the immense value that comes with generosity of spirit.
With these five dispositions – faith in an awakened bodymind, virtue, intentional action, awareness of karmic consequence, and generosity of spirit – you are a fully realized Buddhist lay-disciple. You look to the Buddha, the consummate teacher; the Dharma, the consummate teachings; and the Sangha, the consummate gathering of spiritual friends. Your intent in all thought and action is to cease to do harm, do only, and do good for others. And, you recognize that the Four Ennobling Truths are calls to action to accept, to learn about, to practice compassion through taking intentional actions.You are a fully realized lay-disciple.