Verified Confidence – Faith in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Religious belief relies, to varying levels, on faith, the initial acceptance that what is being taught is real. Some religions teach that a practitioner must continue to believe what is not, or cannot be proven . . . that they ‘take it on faith’. This can lead to an overzealous faith that suffocates intelligent exploration and questioning. People who believe without any attempt to prove will likely find themselves mired in dogma rather than accruing knowledge of themselves and the world around them. There is a great disservice to the individual and society if faith replaces the motivation to investigate and to experience personally the efficacy of any teaching or knowledge.

Buddhism in its many traditions is practiced as a religion and so faith plays a role, but with particular views not shared with other religions. To highlight the difference in intent Siddhartha used a synonym for faith; he used the word confidence. The same intent from a different arising. Faith, arises as the acceptance that what is being taught is reality without the expectation of or means of verification . . . or too often the desire to verify.

Confidence arises as a result of knowledge, practice and experience proving the effectiveness of tenets and practices . . . it is verifiable faith. Knowledge that Siddhartha was human and that each of us are human gives us confidence (faith) that we can experience awakened moments. Engaging in practices such as generosity of spirit we experience that the good we do matters for ourselves and our society. Buddhisms’ is a verified faith (confidence). In the Nandiya Sutra, Siddhartha teaches the ideal of ‘verified confidence’.

There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’ Content with that verified confidence in the Dhamma, he does not exert himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night.

“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types of noble disciples when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’ Content with that verified confidence in the Sangha, he does not exert himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night.

Confidence in the Buddha doesn’t arise because HE IS THE BUDDHA. It arises due to the evidence of Siddhartha’s life, and the evidence of how his life affected others . . . including most importantly our own lives. It is verified confidence.

Confidence in the Dhamma doesn’t arise because they are texts of the WORDS OF THE BUDDHA. It arises due to the evidence of Siddhartha’s life, and the evidence that each practitioner gathers as they engage the Dhamma in life and experience the results. It is verified confidence.

Confidence in the Sangha doesn’t arise because the members are ALL ON THE SAME PATH. It arises due to the evidence of 2600+ years of Buddhists gathering together, and the evidence each of us experience when we sit together. It is verified confidence.

There is the concept of faith (sraddha) in Buddhist practice. Nagarjuna said, “When one’s mind is grounded in faith, one escapes doubt and regret. Then the power of faith is strong, one can seize and espouse the dharma; and this is called dharmaksanti: tolerance of the dharma, patient acceptance of the teachings about the nature of reality even though they are not yet within your grasp.” This also points to confidence. Though there are aspects of the dharma that aren’t immediately experienced the practitioner has ‘faith’ that they will eventual come to full realization.

The Buddha’s teachings do not begin with a leap of faith to affirm a metaphysical doctrine or theory but draw our attention to something we care deeply about: we don’t want to suffer. The Buddha’s teachings don’t ask us to solely believe, or have faith. Trust in the dharma, in the form of faith or confidence, is useful allowing the practitioners to continue practicing, studying, thinking and meditating even when one hasn’t yet realized how worthwhile the effort is. A mature practice goes beyond faith in the Buddha’s teachings to confidence in the practitioner’s own experience gained from mindful practice and awareness. Buddhist practice doesn’t ask you to just accept anything, even the reality of suffering. It offers teachings about the nature of reality while also offering ways that you can verify it for yourself.

Doubt and regret can arise at any level of Buddhist practice, the feeling that you just aren’t getting it; that you’re not seeing results. Meditation practice is where this is likely to first manifest. You meditate each day for twenty minutes and don’t recognize any benefit. You don’t feel more aware, it doesn’t feel like that part of your brain is getting bigger. You recognize the arising of emotions but still don’t seem able to control them. Everything else might be impermanent but you still feel like the same old you. There is doubt that what you are doing is of value and you develop a sense of regret that practice is wasted effort.

A sense of confidence enables you the patience necessary to come to the realization that ideals like impermanence, not-self and suffering are real. That those same realizations can lead to a more positive personal character. Acting with compassion and selflessness may not have immediate recognizable positive results, faith allows you the time to develop the encompassing awareness to realize them.

For some people the concept of faith in Buddhism is not complete with touching on the metaphysical ideals and practices in some Buddhist traditions. Faith in rebirth and karma as they relate to reincarnation, that some Zen Masters gain the ability to move instantaneously from one place to another, that a Vajrayana lama can control the weather, or the legendary birth stories of Siddhartha Guatama is up to the individual practitioner. For others an agnostic approach to the metaphysical may have more value. Setting those concepts aside they focus on those practices that have practical moment-to-moment value while remaining open to the possibility of altering their view through direct experience.

Will you choose to put your faith in the hands of others, or take confidence firmly in hand and turn it into a useful tool in your Life Toolbox? Actualizing confidence that allows the arising of patience and endurance works as a tool in the Life Toolbox. It can be the clamp that holds you together while the glue dries.

Meanings of Karma – Then to Now

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Buddha was not the first to speak about karma. This might come as a shock for those unfamiliar with the religious practices on the Indian continent before and during the life of Siddhartha. The concept, belief and practice of karma was first written about in the Upanishads around 500 bce, approximately 20 years after the birth of Siddhartha Guatama. Karma had been a factor in the many religious traditions of India for centuries before either event. Siddhartha, learned in the doctrines of karma from Hindu traditions creatively re-described the doctrine as a philosophical and practical ideal in Buddhism.

In Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ is a tracing of the layers of meaning in the Hindu concept and practice of karma (karma). The Upanishadic sages viewed death not as the end but as a beginning, a part of a cycle of beginning and ending that involved birth and rebirth. In the Upanishads the sage Yajnavalkya was asked by a pupil, “What happens to the person after death?” In answer the sage said, “A man becomes something good by good karma and something bad by bad karma”. Yajnavalkya was speaking of what form, good or bad, of rebirth could be expected dependent on that man’s good or bad karma, yet his answer has equal value with the acceptance of rebirth subtracted.

The most basic meaning of karma is action, whether physical or mental, doing or thinking. There are personal consequences (karmic consequences) attached to what is done, said or thought. A creative re-description of this meaning is that karma is human physics in action. Every action is affected by previous actions, every action is the cause of another action.

Karma is also ‘ritual action’ as it arises in the Rig Veda, the widely revered Hindu text. Offering a sacrifice, bathing in the Ganges or paying tribute to a holy man generates karma. In EDIG ‘rituals of intent’ are performed, rituals meant to be intentional reminders that what we do matters, a contemporary form of that ideal of ritual action. We want, in the words of Yajnavalkya to become something good by performing good actions.

In the Upanishads a third, new meaning arose for karma, the existence of a ‘karmic bank account’. Whenever one engaged in a morally charged action, an action based on good or bad objectives then the result would be deposited in that metaphysical account. This was the foundation for a fourth meaning, that morally charged actions would have direct consequences within each life and on future rebirths. In the Upanishad it was explained with the statement ‘you will become a sheep that people eat if you eat a sheep’. Yet, in the practice of animal sacrifice the same wasn’t a consequence.

With today’s actions affecting future lives a fifth meaning arose. Karma was not only the cause of future lives but must also be the guiding force for the present life. Actions taken in a previous life generated karma that affected how the present life was experienced. One was playing out a role dictated by what had been done rather than what was being done. In EDIG there is the realization that there are past causes of present circumstances and that what we know will affect the future, but this is only experienced between birth and death, not before and not after (at least as far as we can know now).

Given that karma was transferred from past, to present, to future lives the concept arose that good or bad karma might also transfer between people in particular situations. In the Vedic tradition this was already thought to happen between parent and child, and between sacrificial priest and believer. This sixth meaning added to that the possibility of karmic transfer in all human connections. The texts relate the example of a guest being allowed to depart a home unfed by their hosts. Whether this omission of courtesy was intentional or unintentional the guest would still leave with the host’s accumulated good karma and leave their own negative karma behind.

For some the concepts of karma and merit are synonymous. In EDIG these are understood to be linked but not interchangeable in language and meaning. Karma is action. Merit is what is learned from that action; the knowledge that develops into wisdom. This realization is offered at the end of each sangha session with the recitation of “Sharing the Merit” with the words ‘. . . we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings’. Merit is viewed as the benefits that arise for self and others through the actions we take. Merit increases in value when it is selflessly shared. Likewise in the Puja for the Release of Compassionate Energy is the words ‘. . . the merits of the gathered’s compassionate energy are being offered to . . .”. Whatever the gathered sangha’s compassion can do to transform unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish is selflessly offered to any in need.

Siddhartha, through his own experience would have learned of these views of karma and undoubtedly they would have played a role in how he saw himself and the world around him. These views would have been contemplated on as he sat beneath the bodhi tree, as he came to his full awakening of the realities of human existence and how man might best get beyond habitual reactivity and experience nirvanic moments. There is, and will likely continue to be debate as to whether the Buddha connected karma and rebirth from a position of belief or from seeing its value as a way to promote positive moral ideals and ethical responses. In EDIG we get beyond that metaphysical debate and see karma as one of the foundations for that same ideal in the time each human beings inhabits between birth and death because it is within the boundaries of what we know we experience.

In the Nibbedhika Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya 6:3) the Buddha speaks of karma. ‘Karma (action) should be known. The cause by which karma comes into play should be known. The diversity in karma should be known. The result of karma should be known. The cessation of karma should be known. The path of practice leading to the cessation of karma should be known.’ Thus it has been said. Why was it said?

Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, & intellect.’

We must be aware of our actions, must know why they were taken, whether better choices of action needed to be made, how actions impacted our self and others, and when actions must cease. The path of practice the Buddha speaks of is found in the Eightfold Path and is made clear in next verse . . . intention. With intent we reveal karma by taking physical, verbal and mental action.

Thinking good, wholesome thoughts leads to good, wholesome speech and action. Taking good, wholesome actions leads to good, wholesome speech and thought. Saying good, wholesome words leads to good, wholesome thoughts and actions. All of these scenarios are real and have been experienced, proven to be reality.

To practice Buddhism is this moment and the moments to follow until death let’s set aside the metaphysical concept of rebirth. The threat that if we don’t do good in this life that our next lives will suck shouldn’t be necessary for us to realize the value of doing good for self and others and the planet. Our moral ideals mustn’t be based on selfishness, on protecting the ego no matter past, present or future. Instead we must base moral ideals on our experiences. When we, or others do good then that good is realized far beyond the individual. That is the selfless reason to do good.

We can’t deny rebirth because we simply don’t know if it is a fact. So, instead of wasting precious moments arguing and debating it let’s set it aside and just make the effort to cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. Let’s act with compassion and generosity. Let’s offer trust, respect and loving-kindness to all. Doing these things will certainly make human lives from birth to death a more positive, wholesome experience . . . and . . . if rebirth is a fact then we are covered because we’ve been the best human beings we can be in this life . . . the only life we really know.

The Upanishads and the Rig Veda offered views of karma. Buddhist sutras and texts offer views of karma. You and I offer views of karma by how we respond to each unique situation we encounter.

T’was the Night Before Awakening

 

The traditional Christmas classic, T’was the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863) creatively re-described for the buddha-element in all of us.

 

Happy Holidays and a Peaceful Season

Wayne Ren-Cheng

2015

T’was the Night Before Awakening

by Wayne Ren-Cheng, a deep bow to Mr. Moore

T’was the night before Awakening, when throughout every house
All creatures were connected, every man to every mouse.
Siddhartha was sitting under the Bodhi tree with care,
In hopes that the answers he sought would be there.

He considered the children all snug in their beds,
While visions of cravings danced in their heads.
And mother in her sari, and I in my dhoti,
Had just settled down and got comfy.

When up on the stupa there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the leaves of the holy tree
Gave the lustre of mid-day to the man I could see.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But four truths, and eight paths to hear.

With a little wisdom, so compassionate and intended,
I knew in a moment he must be Awakened.
More powerful than emotions his insights they came,
And he thought, and took action, and called them by name!

“Now View! Now, Intent! Now, Speech and Action!
On, Livelihood! On, Effort!, On Mindfulness and Concentration!
To ease the suffering! To walk the Middle Way!
Realize impermanence! Realize not-self! Realize awakened moments each day!”

As delusions that before self-honesty fly,
When they meet with a hindrance, the bodymind asks why.
So into that culture a new paradigm flew,
With a heart full of compassion, and the Buddha too.

And then, in a twinkling, I experienced proof
That these ideals were more than a goof.
As they were recognized in my head, and I was coming around,
I saw the Buddha still sitting on the ground.

He was bathed in pure light, from his head to his foot,
And his mind once clouded viewed clearly the route.
Four Truths and Eight Paths he offered us all,
From kings to householders, the large and the small.

His eyes they showed wisdom! His smile it was joyful!
His urna was glowing, his thoughts were mindful!
From his mouth there came knowledge,
Of the Middle Way and Hinduism to which he paid homage.

He held his tongue firmly against his top teeth,
And meditative calm encircled him like a wreath.
He was awakening to the experiences of man,
That made him wonder if man could realize something so grand!

He was aware that there was no self,
And I laughed when he told me I was not-self!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know there was truth in what he said.

He spoke a few words, and then went straight to work,
And filled my head with the path, then turned with a jerk.
And putting his hand together in gassho, he bowed deeply,
And giving a nod, he stood tall and humbly!

He sprang to his duty, to his commitments he gave direction,
And they were accepted as refinements not perfections.
And I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he set out to teach,
“Four Ennobling Truths to all, and to all the Eightfold Path is within reach!”

Holiday Practice – Making Cookies

Making Unique Cookies

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Everything is right in front of me . . . the tools . . . the recipe . . . the ingredients . . . it is up to me to put them together to create how I imagine they can be. Sweet or savory . . . chewy or crunchy . . . plain or frosted . . . many or few . . . the choice is mine . . . a choice dependent on many causal factors. What ingredients are around the house? What ingredients did I remember to buy? What cookies did people like the best last year? What are my favorite cookies? How many hours can I devote to cookie baking? How many? Who gets them?

Then it is a matter of flipping through all the recipes. For each type of cookie there is a recipe to follow that was created by someone else or by me . . . they each have been proven to work through experience, mine making them and the oohs . . . aahs . . . and the ‘I don’t like those’ comments. Each recipe has been tested, and continues to be tested with every batch that is made. It is a guide to what tools I’ll need, what ingredients are necessary, how to combine them, and how long it will take to reach the final product. So, I can depend on the experiences of others, or I can modify the recipes . . . or choose to create something totally new . . . whatever my choice it will be an experience unique to me, the cookies a unique experience to all who eat them. When making cookies ultimately it is what I do that matters.

Making my choice, recognizing what goal I am setting out for . . . in this case delicious cookies I decide what to make, take stock of what I have, what I need to know, and what I need to get. Together the bowls, measuring spoons and cups, mixer, flour, brown sugar, chile mango and pineapple, chocolate chips, walnuts, eggs, and vanilla have their self-identity that is destined undergo a transformation to a completely different form, and still impermanent form (somebody will eat them). The tools and ingredients seem separate but they are all part of the same phenomena . . . making cookies. Tools are ingredients and ingredients are tools, combined they are the potential for something delicious, something that can cause the arising of health (don’t eat too many), happiness and harmony. Making cookies is transforming emptiness to form, form to emptiness.

Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef, writer and traveler says, “To be a cook or to enjoy food you must be willing take chances.” Whether the recipe is a success or flop . . . whether the cookies are welcomed or rejected . . . whether they come out looking like the picture in the recipe book or not . . . my intent is to make something tasty. If a mistake is made in combining ingredients and the cookies aren’t perfect I can creatively re-describe them and go on and try again. Or, discover that a “mistake” led to an even more delicious cookies. On the plate it is intent that matters.

A recipe is a guide much like the Four Ennobling Realities, the Pure Precepts, and the lessons encountered in a mindful Buddhist practice. A recipe gives you the ingredients and the process necessary to reach a positive product. You’re a product. You’re a product of culture, context, effort, intent, action, thought, experience, history, and goals . . . so are cookies. It is HOW you are and HOW you imagine you could be that matters.

Each of us are a unique combination of tools and ingredients. An engaged Buddhist practice is the recipe for putting it all together to achieve positive transformation. It begins with an honest view of how you are and the development of an honest intent to work toward how you want to be. Personal attributes like your intelligence, steadfastness, mindfulness, physical and mental strength are the tools you already have . . . at least to some degree. They are tools that can be improved upon through knowledge, commitment and effort. Personal dispositions and habits like compassion, anger, patience, fear, procrastination and acceptance can promote or hinder your transition depending on the causal consequences they invoke. Dispositions and habits can be discarded if they don’t fit the “recipe” or can be improved and built upon if they can refine the “product” that is you. How you combine your unique ingredients matters.

The engaged Buddhist “recipe” combines the traditional lessons of Buddhism found in the Pali Nikayas and pragmatic teachings from other Buddhist platforms, along with the contemporary teachings of Pragmatic Buddhism, Western philosophy and science, and the knowledge that comes from experiencing the efficacy of a committed Buddhist practice. Siddhartha awakened to the realization of the Four Ennobling Realities as ideals to be engaged and dependent origination and impermanence as realities to be experienced. It is through the awareness of the facts, the mixing into your previous held worldview the reality that comes with an appropriate view of the causal Universe. Accepting the addition of the Dharma as an ingredient that enriches and benefits, and taking the action to use the tools and ingredients to their most beneficial effects will produce a compassionate agent of positive personal and social development is the process of blending what you have and what you need for a positive transition. It is a contemporary/traditionalist recipe that matters.

The engaged Buddhist “recipe” isn’t dogmatic so it leaves room for change as long as the core ideals are realized . . . much like a chocolate chip cookie can have nuts, peanut butter chips or coconut but still be a type of chocolate chip cookie. Depending on the unique situation encountered by an engaged Buddhist there may be a need for compassion or altruism . . . pluralism or pragmatism; just like sometimes we want a crunchy cookie, sometimes a chewy one.

Everything is right in front of you . . . the tools . . . the recipe . . . the ingredients . . . it is up to you to put them together to make you how you want to be. Compassionate or greedy . . . tolerant or impatient . . . selfless or angry . . . you get to make the choice. You learn the core “recipe”, acquire the ingredients, develop the skillful means to use the tools, then you can choose how you want to be and Sva Ha! . . . so be it.

The Habit of Distraction

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate Concentration is last on the list of the Eightfold Path, yet it arises in a committed practice of the other seven: view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness. At the beginning of a Buddhist practice, and in those instances when practice falters due to distractions or vexations it is a renewed focus on the goal that is needed. The modern world offers a multitude of distractions whether we are at home or at work. Email accounts, texting, devices that start with the letter ‘i’, Twitter, phones, magazines, and looking out the window to check the weather seem to actively seek to draw attention away from creating and maintaining an engaged, responsive and productive state of being. Discovering a new show on Netflix or seeing what funny-business Gwyneth Paltrow is up to can be an entertaining diversion, more enticing than whatever task currently needs to be accomplished. We can find ourselves reacting out of habit and allowing these diversions to sap concentration, or we can transform habitual reactivity into appropriate concentration.

Along with distractions, multi-tasking is a hindrance to appropriate concentration. Multi-tasking creates the opposite state of being from one that is focused on whatever the important task is necessary in that moment. Focus is safer . . . think of driving a car. Loss of awareness of traffic patterns, the actions of other motorists, road signs, and pedestrians will eventually lead to a crash that will cause discontent and anguish at the very least, death and injury at the very worst. Anyone who believes that multi-tasking by eating, texting or holding a phone to their ear while driving is an appropriate action is deluding themselves.

Focus is more effective . . . think of what you haven’t gotten done yet because of distractions.

Focus is more satisfying . . . think of how you felt the last time you fully completed a task.

Distraction arises in two forms. There are multiple tasks that are calling out to us to be done simultaneously, and the attraction of mental relaxation in the midst of concentrated tasks. In the first it is highly unlikely that simultaneous tasks will each be accomplished well; the other can be turned to our advantage.

The modern world is not only full of distractions but it is equally full of things that must be done. Chores, work assignments, scheduled activities for the kids, appointments of all kinds and the dreaded “this needs to done right now . . . not later . . . now” situations vie for attention alongside the entertaining and the diverting. With so much that needs to be done and the distractions in our contemporary society it is no wonder that the glories of multitasking are touted as an antidote to anxiety and confusion. Yet, more often than not multi-tasking results in the very bodymind conditions it purports to lessen.

Multitasking is touted as a positive aspect of the American work ethic. It is a misnomer and a major distraction when pursuing a complicated task or engaging a deep practice. In Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, Marc Lesser writes, “There are two primary types of distractions: those that draw us in multiple directions at once, resulting in confusion and an inability to complete a thought or action, and those that provide mental relaxation, offering small “breaks” that support intense focus and effort. Clearly we want less of the former and more of the latter.”

You might ask here, what is deep practice? There is an aspect of appropriate speech called Deep Listening, the action of sincerely giving over your whole attention to what is being said. Doing so allows you to hear what is really being said, as opposed to what you might want to, or think you hear. Deep practice has the same foundational ideal. You sincerely give over total concentration to the task at hand so you get done well what needs doing in a timely manner. This doesn’t mean no breaks . . . it does mean productive breaks.

Multi-tasking is the negative distraction that the author is referring to in the quote above. Multi-tasking might make us feel more important and more valuable in our jobs and private lives but it is an anathema to deep practice. The human brain and body is good but it never truly does two things at once. It bounces back and forth between actions/thoughts making excellence in any task nearly impossible to achieve. We might be 100% focused on multi-tasking but we won’t be 100% focused on either task because there isn’t a percentage higher than 100. Only 100% focus is appropriate concentration.

Mr. Lesser offers that a small break, five minutes of mindfulness meditation, standing and stretching, or just taking three deep cleansing breaths can help to maintain intense focus rather than diminish it. There is much value in Mr. Lesser’s idea. For example, during meditation retreats when periods of up to three hours are spent in silent meditation breaks are taken for meditators to rise and perform a short session of Qigong, a short walking meditation, or just stretch their muscles and breath deeply before continuing to sit. What works on the cushion works as well off.

Multiple tasks and distractions can be detrimental to whatever you are trying to accomplish. What if you turned those multiple tasks into distractions that would work for you in two ways . . . you take a break from a concentrated task and complete another task? Not trying to do both tasks at once, actually fully engaging one as a distraction from the other. Doing so we can remain in an engaged, responsive and productive state of being more of the day.

Whenever I have a time-consuming, brain-busting, thought and action heavy period of writing or studying to do I make sure there is also a necessary chore needing to be done, and that is what I use for a distraction. Not a distraction for fun . . . a productive distraction. I creatively re-describe what would be multi-tasking to deeply practicing one task and viewing another task as a distraction. I’ve been doing this for so long now that both tasks become distractions for the other and I get more done during the “work day” and have more time to relax when the “work day” is over.

For example, as I sit writing this very dharma talk I know I’m going to do some refresher reading, a little Internet searching, time for contemplation, and lots of typing. This is also the day I do laundry, washing clothes, drying, hanging up, folding and putting away. So, when my eyes are tiring and my focus slipping from reading and searching, my fingertips sore from tapping the keys I go put a load in, switch a load to the dryer, hang up clothes on the line or whatever needs doing. Any one of those ‘distractions’ take five or so minutes and then I am back to the computer and the books. Doing this I’ve come to look forward to doing laundry because it can be a welcome distraction and give my bodymind some downtime.

I don’t engage in frivolous activities during ‘breaks’. No email checking, no Twitter, no phone calls, or computer games. Whatever is the ‘distraction’ that day is a chore that must be done. It’ll be walking the dog or giving her a bath, weeding the herb or rose garden, washing the car, laundry, dishes, cleaning out the refrigerator . . . you get the point.

This isn’t really multitasking because total concentration is given to the ‘distraction’ for its time. I’m not thinking about the dharma talk while doing laundry . . . I’m doing laundry then. Distraction becomes a positive action rather than a hindrance to what needs to be done. You may be thinking that this sounds suspiciously like multitasking with a new name. I’d agree, except my experience has taught me otherwise. There is 100% concentration on the process, or deep practice. The task and the distraction are immersed in totally during their time.

Sutra of Eight Realizations – Part Three – Practice, Study, Generosity

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Fourth Realization:
Indolence leads to degradation.
Always practice with diligence,
Vanquish all vexations,
Subdue the four maras,
And escape the prison of the skandhas.

The Fifth Realization:
Ignorance leads to birth and death.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should always be mindful
To study and learn extensively,
To increase their wisdom
And refine their eloquence,
So they can teach and enlighten all beings,
And impart great joy to all.

The Sixth Realization:
Poverty and hardship breed resentment,
Creating harm and discord.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should practice dana,
Beholding the friendly and hostile equally;
They neither harbor grudges
Nor despise malicious people.

The 4th and 5th Realizations are calls to realize that a commitment to practice and one to life-long learning are the most effective ways to achieve and maintain a noble life, one of positive personal development and of positive social development. Siddhartha was a human being . . . he did it . . . any of us can do it. It was the human-ness of Siddhartha that is the mirror of the human-ness in each of us.

The 6th is a call to develop and practice generosity of spirit and action. The Buddhist ideal of dana, contributing through material goods and wealth, time, and skills in order to alleviate suffering and to contribute to those working toward the same is how one shows compassion and their realization of their interconnectedness with all beings.

The goal of Buddhism as expressed in the Four Ennobling Truths is the cessation of suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontentment or the achieving of liberation, for all sentient beings. That can only be accomplished through the actions of human beings because we are the ones (as far as we know right now) with the capacity to realize, and to act upon the profound truths the Buddha offered. I want to take a moment to talk about the concept of “the Buddha offered”. He wasn’t forcing the Middle Path on anyone. He offered it as a path that in his experience worked. It was up to whomever heard his teachings to put them into practice and prove their value to themselves.

Fourth Realization:

The Fourth Realization presents the dangers to our continuing practice of the Dharma and meditation. Laziness and procrastination can arise as major hindrances to a practice. My root teacher, Eubanks Sensei says, “It is when no one is watching that we must practice the hardest.” It is a reminder that sometimes we must be our own mentor and monitor.

Like the bodymind is one, so are meditation/practice. Beware of falling into thinking that you can practice Buddhism without having a committed mediation practice. Meditation is foundation where we begin to be mindful, where we begin to be aware of our wholesome and unwholesome habits and dispositions (skandhas), and begin to develop serenity and equanimity. Meditation is the beginning but it can’t end there. All of the ideals of Buddhist practice must be taken out into our everyday lives where it can be useful and productive.

It isn’t called practice because once you think, “I’ve got it,” you can abandon the “practice mind”.

It isn’t called practice because when you’ve slipped up, didn’t meditate, got angry, ignored an obligation, or craved a cheeseburger you can say, “Alright I’m a terrible Buddhist, I’m gonna quit”.

Writers, actors and painters, anyone in a creative field would sum this stanza up with these words. “Tell your inner editor/critic/procrastinator to shut the hell up.”

Hindrances come in many forms, but they are empty of power unless we allow them to have effect. Others can be finding the time to meditate and dealing with difficult people at home/work/play. Our inner editor may say “You don’t have time to listen deeply to . . .” – Our inner critic might say, “You really don’t do that well.” – Our inner procrastinator may say, “Tomorrow, we’ll do it tomorrow.” This is where creative re-description comes in. What some would view as vexations, we can turn around and make opportunities to practice. We can take the time to listen, try again, and do today.

The four maras are negative dispositions given legendary form. The mara of the aggregates: grasping/clinging to a permanent self – mara of disturbing emotions: habitual patterns of emotions – mara of death: death/fear – mara of the son of the gods: craving. Singly or in any combination they can impede our engagement of Buddhist practice. Meditation can lead us to the realization of these “maras” so through meditation we become aware of them before they impede our Buddhist practice in everyday life.

In short the Fourth Realization is all about commitment to practice. Practice on the cushion and practice off the cushion; Buddhist practice is a holistic endeavor.

Fifth Realization:

Engaged Dharma promotes attitudes and actions directed toward “life-long learning” and that is what the 5th Realization is all about. Simply put this means be open-minded and open-hearted to any and all new information, new experiences, and new opportunities. Learning begins with gathering information. Then we transform information into knowledge by putting it through the filter of experiential verification and then decide if it works. If it does we continue to make it a part of our approach to life; if not we discard it. In this way we transform knowledge into wisdom.

Ignorance is the condition of being unaware, uneducated or uninformed. This can result from cultural conditions that don’t offer to opportunity, or allow one to learn; or, it can be a product of not being interested in learning. Birth of bad decisions, and death of opportunities result from ignorance.

Learning extensively, increasing wisdom and refining eloquence is a very Daoist goal that fits well into Buddhist philosophy. The individual who does these things develops skillful ways to connect with others. Having some knowledge of the history and teachings of other Buddhist traditions, or other faiths will help us develop connections and relationships with others whose goal is human flourishing and the alleviation of suffering. When we have committed to a tradition we learn all we can, we practice diligently and become a positive example to others.

Sixth Realization:

In the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva-in-training practices an encompassing compassion that is offered equally to all. The well-being of others is of equal importance as that of their self. This may seem contradictory unless one recalls that the Buddha made it clear that without caring for ourselves we would not be able to extend that care and compassion to others. It is through the practice of “generosity of the spirit” that practitioners develop this skill, the ability to give of ones self in a variety of ways – material goods, wealth, time, skills.

Hunger, poverty, and disease can block or slow the realization of the dharma so material generosity is the initial step. The sutra says, “Do give gifts! For poverty is a painful thing. One is unable, when poor, to accomplish one’s own welfare, much less that of others.” (Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, Edward Conze translator) Material gifts includes: food, drink, clothing, shelter, land; all of these are needed to sustain life.

INTENT is a critical aspect of generosity. The intent/attitude of the giver, the intent/spirit of the gift are essential, and the knowledge that the giving will need to end must be taken into account in any situation. The donor should be prompted by the need while being mindful of the encompassing effect their generosity may have. They should not be influenced by the possible rewards, material or otherwise that may come . . . this is selflessness. Any hope/expectation/self congratulation diminishes the act and demonstrates the immaturity of the giver’s practice.

Realization of Action:

Each stanza of the Eight Realizations are calls to action.

#1 – Realize the impermanence of the self.

#2 – Realize that craving is the root cause of suffering.

#3 – Recognize our own cravings and realize their alleviation.

#4 – Practice, practice, practice.

#5 – Engage in life-long learning.

#6 – Refine generosity of spirit and action.

Sutra of Eight Realizations – Part Two – Desire and Craving

Second and Third Realizations

Desire and Craving

by Wayne Ren Cheng

The Second Realization:

Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei,
Bodymind are at ease and free.

The Third Realization:
The mind is insatiable,
Always seeking, thirsty for more,
Thus increasing our cravings.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should renounce such conduct.
Always remember to follow the way,
Be content and at peace with poverty,
With wisdom as the sole vocation.

The second and third stanzas of the Sutra of Eight Realizations (of Great Beings) direct us to meditative practice designed to expose our excessive, or unnatural desires and cravings that stem from greediness. Through rigorous self-honesty and committed practice we can stay on the Middle Path avoiding the suffering to the bodymind that comes from unquenchable desire and craving for permanence.

The Second Realization speaks to desire and the cravings that can arise in an uncontrolled bodymind.

The Buddha teaches in the Four Ennobling Truths that there is craving, craving leads to suffering, there is a way to alleviate it, the Eightfold Path is the way. But . . . what is craving and how is it different from desire?

We’ll start with a contemporary definition of craving from the Oxford Desk Dictionary: strong desire or longing. Then craving is a fixation, an unhealthy want for something (think addiction).

Desire according to the same source is: longing or craving. Craving and desire are inexorably linked.

Craving is an activity of the mind that can lead us into unwholesome states of being like anger, depression, fear and anxiety. These states arise when one doesn’t get what they want, they don’t get it when they want, or it undergoes changes or is lost after it is obtained. It is the result of not recognizing that cravings are also subject to the realities of impermanence and dependent causality. What we crave can become impossible to find or hold on to (whether it is love, drugs or a host of other things) dependent on the circumstances of their arising and falling away. With the unique freedom that human beings have we can choose to let go of craving, make the changes physical and mental (bodymind) that release us from all unnatural cravings and attachments.

Some contemporary Buddhist scholars and masters are telling people that desire is BAD. They do so without making clear that it is when desire becomes uncontrolled and without realization of dependent causality and impermanence that desire becomes craving and thus a negative disposition. Desire itself, when creatively re-described as desirable leads to a positive disposition when used for goal-setting while recognizing causality and impermanence. Desirable is having such quality as to be worth seeking, worth waiting to do, and worth letting go of when it becomes a burden.

Would Siddhartha Guatama have worked so hard and long to find the answer to human suffering if he hadn’t seen a desirable outcome? Desirability, when put to positive use is the aspiration to make things better. Desirability becomes the initiative necessary to make good things happen. There is nothing wrong with desire leading us to make and keep goals that lead to our own positive personal development, then on to a more encompassing and corrective human flourishing.

Desiring an outcome begins with the individual and optimally it leads to a socially encompassing result. Desirability is desire + positive intent = encompassing action.

We are human beings with imaginations and the ability to plan future actions and this leads to WANTING. To want is not negative, just as to desire is not negative. Letting it reach the point of craving is when the negative begins, suffering begins. Craving is a psychoemotional, psychophysical state of intense want that becomes the delusion of an intense need.

In the Second Realization “birth, death” are not seen literally. Our desire when channeled positively can lead to the “birth” of new directions in life and new ideas that contribute positively; through mindfulness we learn to recognize when desire becomes craving that can lead to negative consequences. “Death” of negative dispositions and situations can happen only when we recognize craving and eliminate it from our bodymind.

Wu-wei” is taken from the Dao de Jing and brings a particular nuance to this stanza about desire. In early translations wu-wei was inaction, one relies on the cyclic nature of reality for results rather than engaging in direct action. Contemporary scholars like Roger Ames translate wu-wei as, “non-coercive actions in deference to the particular focus of things”. By practicing to desire less we can avoid the suffering that is brought on by craving. Further, we shape our desires, be they aspirations, goals or wants with the knowledge that impermanence WILL play its role. This is where acting wu-wei becomes important. We don’t cause further suffering by trying to take coercive actions to change the outcome as long as that outcome has positive potential.

Third Realization reminds us that craving ultimately arises in the mind, affecting the bodymind as a whole:

“The mind is insatiable . . .” so it is up to each of us to feed that insatiable mind with wholesome, valuable input. Feed the bodymind with the realities of form and emptiness that is the dharma. Practice the ways of the Middle Path. In these ways we train the bodymind and avoid the suffering of craving.

In our practice we meditate to learn to recognize our cravings and to realize our ability to change them. We practice to also recognize the positive desires we have and our ability to realize those desirable goals while keeping the reality of impermanence and causality in mind.

Learning and applying the Dharma to our everyday lives is a positive thing. Becoming so attached to one aspect of it, not realizing that it to, the Dharma is subject to impermanence can lead to suffering of ourselves and others.

Follow the Middle Path. Don’t take the word “poverty” too literally. As we’ll learn in later stanzas of the Eight Realizations, poverty too can lead to negative consequences beyond the scarcity of material goods. If for a time we “don’t have” that shouldn’t lead us into anxiety and worry because we are empowered by the teachings of the Buddha with the knowledge that change is not only possible, it is probable.

Training the bodymind to engage in non-coercive actions in deference to the particular focus of things, to be wu-wei will cause the falling away of cravings and unnatural attachments. The Middle Path is one of actions taken with positive intent, actions taken with the dharma of impermanence and dependent causality always in clear view.

Sutra of Eight Realizations – Part One – The Personal Element

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism: The Personal Element

Sutra of the Eight Realizations

Day and night, at all times,
Buddha’s disciples should
Mindfully recite and contemplate
The eight realizations of Great Beings.

The First Realization:
All the world is impermanent.
The earth is fragile and perilous.
The four great elements in here, suffering and emptiness.
In the five skandhas there is no self.
All that arise, change, and perish,
Are illusive, unreal, and without a master.
Mind is the root of evil;
Body a reservoir of sin.
Thus observing and contemplating,
One gradually breaks free from birth and death.

The Second Realization:

Excessive desire is suffering.
Birth, death, and weariness in life
All originate from greed and desires.
Desiring less, being wu-wei,
Bodymind are at ease and free.

The Third Realization:

The mind is insatiable,
Always seeking, thirsty for more,
Thus increasing our cravings.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should renounce such conduct.
Always remember to follow the way,
Be content and at peace with poverty,
With wisdom as the sole vocation.

The Fourth Realization:

Indolence leads to degradation.
Always practice with diligence,
Vanquish all vexations,
Subdue the four maras,
And escape the prison of the skandhas.

The Fifth Realization:
Ignorance leads to birth and death.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should always be mindful
To study and learn extensively,
To increase their wisdom
And perfect their eloquence,
So they can teach and enlighten all beings,
And impart great joy to all.

The Sixth Realization:
Poverty and hardship breed resentment,
Creating harm and discord.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should practice dana,
Beholding the friendly and hostile equally;
They neither harbor grudges
Nor despise malicious people.

The Seventh Realization:
The five desires are perilous.
Even as laity, be not sullied by worldly pleasures;
Think frequently of the three robes,
The tiled bowl, and instruments of Dharma;
Aspire to the noble life
And cultivate the Way with purity;
Let your actions be noble and sublime,
Showering compassion on all.

The Eighth Realization:
Birth and death are like a blazing fire
Plagued with endless afflictions and suffering.
Vow to cultivate the
serene mind,
To bring relief to all;
To take on infinite sufferings for sentient beings,
And lead all to supreme joy.

Translated from Chinese by the Chung Tai Translation Committee with pragmatic cultural changes made by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It is important when reading and studying the sutras and other Buddhist texts that we do not always take the language and ideas literally. From Siddhartha’s language and concepts being tied so closely with the pre-Buddhism Hindi culture and faith, to the early Buddhist Councils where the sutras were first written down, all the way to contemporary translations there are the cultural dynamics and use of language at each stage that need close examination.

Siddhartha, with his central focus on teaching the Four Ennobling Truths, and the dharma of impermanence and dependent origination spoke with the language and worldview of the Hindu culture. Siddhartha understood that only through the skillful means using ideas that already resonated with the people could he reach them with his radically different message.

In the initial Buddhist Council, when Ananda and others recited what they had heard the Buddha had say there were others writing it down using words and concepts they were comfortable with. Later councils, some hundreds of years later interpreted the Buddha’s words within different cultural and religious contexts. The arising Buddhists of the Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Tibetan cultures did the same. Jumping ahead to Westerner’s first encounters with Buddhist philosophy and writings, the language they knew was that of Christianity so the language revealed that. It is fairly certain that the Buddha didn’t use the words “thee” and “thou” or talk about “sin” and “forgiveness”.

Pragmatically, in contemporary culture the language of Buddhism in the West is changing again. In Engaged Dharma we try to approach the sutras with what Richard Rorty (whose Neo-pragmatist philosophy plays a determining role in many arising American Buddhist traditions) would term pre-linguistic (before attaching words) awareness. Teachers and scholars who work to offer the traditional dharma to a contemporary audience work diligently to get beyond the words to the intent of any teaching so that its value can be realized. Siddhartha himself must have had a pre-linguistic awareness of the Dharma before it was necessary to put it into words. While the words are important, it is the INTENT that is critical.

The Origin of the Sutra

This sutra was translated from Pali to Chinese by the Parthian monk, An Shih Kao during the later Han Dynasty, 140-171 CE. The original Pali document has since been lost. Like the Sutra on the Six Paramitas it is thought to be combination of smaller works. The sutra is chanted and studied in both the Mahayana and Theravadan traditions, making it a text that broadly influences Buddhist practices.

Each of the eight realizations are meant to be subjects of meditation and moment-to-moment practice. Within each one there are levels of practice that lead to gradual realization of the paths to positive personal development. The sutra is lyrical, its simple words meant to be chanted and memorized. And, each of these subjects can be further divided to reveal the depth of ideals contained in Buddhist philosophy. The concepts of causality (dependent origination), not-self, karma, attachment, potential (emptiness), selflessness, impermanence, mindfulness and more are found in the Sutra of Eight Realizations.

Although the form of the sutra is simple, its content is extremely profound and marvelous. The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings is not an analysis of anything. It is a realistic and effective approach to meditation.

We’ll be experiencing the Eight Realizations through a contemporary, pragmatic lens, one meant to reveal that even 2500 years later this work has relevance in practicing Buddhism in the West.

These Eight Realizations empower humans to make positive changes to alleviate suffering, and enable them to realize their potential as positive agents of change in the Universe. We can choose to be more aware of our carbon footprint and other environmental factors of living. Through that awareness followed by action we can make positive changes, or at least mitigate the negative. Personally we improve the matter (health) of our bodies. We can come to recognize that emotions and sensations are transitory phenomena and that we can choose how we react to them. Mental formations, our dispositions such as selfishness and attachment can be discarded and replaced with selflessness and generosity.

We will be creatively re-describing “evil and sin”, offering a more useful view for a contemporary practice. We develop mindfulness so we can recognize our dispositions and habits, we practice meditation to develop awareness so that we come to realize that each experience causes the “death” of what we were then and the “birth” of what we come to be. It is not a matter of WHO we are, it is a matter of HOW we are.

The First Realization clarifies the four basic subjects of Buddhist meditation: impermanence, suffering, not-self, and dispositions. Our meditation practice should develop deeper levels of mindfulness of these realities.

All things are impermanent. Moment-to-moment everything goes through changes dependent on their experiences and intent. Impermanence is a direct result of the core Buddhist concept of casuality or dependent origination. The Universe is a causal process where everything changes dependent on its experiences. We must always be aware and mindful that our actions have consequences.

The four great elements (earth, water, fire, air) that make up the world, and the five skandhas or aggregates (Matter, Feelings/Sensations, Perception, Mental Formations, Thought Processes, Consciousness) that make up the self are all impermanent.

There must be awareness of psychophysical suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Being aware of suffering leads us to our responsibility to work toward its alleviation in ourselves and the surrounding Universe.

Physical pain is a small part of the suffering that the Four Ennobling Truths reveal. More important is the psychophysical suffering; the suffering/unsatisfactoriness/discontent/anguish that comes from unnatural attachments and desires. The suffering that comes from not realizing the transitory/impermanent nature of phenomena, even pain.

There is no permanent self, there is the not-self that is subject to impermanence and the causal process of the Universe. This empowers us by making us mindful that our actions and thoughts can be changed for the better.

All of us have heard someone say, “I can’t change. This is who I am.” The Buddha would say, “Bull!” Stephen Batchelor, one of the most respected Buddhist teachers of our time has a suggestion for anyone who believes they “can never change”. Get your family photo albums and find every possible photo of yourself. Now, put them in chronological order. Begin with yourself as a baby and continue through to the present. Think about who you were at each stage, think about the experiences of each stage, and then try to convince yourself that you’ve never changed.

The skandhas, the five aggregates of material form, feelings, perception, mental formations, and the six senses arise and fall within moment-to-moment experience but they have no inherent existence, nor are they a permanent aspect of HOW we are. They are causal factors of our dispositions and habits but they are not us. Whether positive, negative or neutral they are transitory phenomena and can, and will change. Some change happens as a result of universal circumstances beyond our control, while other changes must be achieved through our own effort and commitment.

Anger can be changed to calm. Anxiety can be changed to action. Grasping can be changed to generosity. And, in this causal Universe good dispositions like contentment can be changed to depression. Buddhist practice, beginning with meditation can help one develop their positive dispositions and weaken the negative ones. Dispositions are as affected by impermanence as any other thing.

In Buddhist philosophy the mind is not a root of evil any more than it is the root of good. The mind, or consciousness is the root of choices, choices that are influenced by HOW we are. Ignorance is more likely to lead to negative choices, while a mind trained in the ways of equanimity and wisdom is likely to make positive choices. The body is not a reservoir of sin. The actions of the body are directly caused by the state of the mind which is why I prefer the term ‘bodymind’ as a reminder of that link. The body doesn’t store up the positive and negative experiences, it only responds to them.

As we observe and contemplate the Sutra of Eight Realizations the realizations of impermanence, of dependent causality, of not-self, and of the bodymind will arise, and the knowledge of our ability to transform from a state of ignorance, to one of equanimity and wisdom will follow.

Sokei-An and Realizing Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Looking through the Dewey Decimal 294.93s in library catalog I cam across a book titled “Cat’s Yawn”. Finding it listed under Zen I was intrigued by the title and had it brought out from the stacks where all the old books are shelved. The cover, with the line drawing of a yawning cat made me smile and what I found inside opened my bodymind to a Zen Legacy Master I’d never heard of but was very happy to discover. Sokei-An Soshin Taiko Choro Zenji (1882 – 1945) was the first Zen Master to make his home in the Western world. In 1916 he emigrated to the U.S. under the direction of his teacher to bring Zen to the West. He founded the First Zen Institute of America which is still active today. Sokei-An died in 1945 leaving behind a legacy of Buddhist thought that mirrors what many Buddhist teachers today, myself included, think of as contemporary to our culture, context and time. Sokei-An was way ahead of us.

In 1940 the First Zen Institute began publishing a newsletter . . . yeah, they had newsletters in the 40s . . . in which he offered Zen in a way he felt would open the bodyminds of Westerners to Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cat’s Yawn was first published in 1947 and is still being distributed today. After spending time reading and pondering Sokei-An’s words I came to the realization of their value now. In Volume 1, No. 1 of Cat’s Yawn, Sokei-An revealed his view of Zen as a religion and his intent in teaching it. It is titled: “The Man Who Is Not a Sky-Dweller”.

He begins by speaking about Chinese calligraphy’s three recognized styles of writing: rigid, less rigid and flowing style, then moves to three styles of deportment (behavior and manners): formal, semi-formal and informal. These serve to describe Sokei-An’s view of religious practices.

He goes on to say, “In religion also there are three styles: ritualistic sermons, preaching from the altar and discussion at the dinner-table when the priest is invited to a lay-house. In addition there is religious discussion among the monks in their own cells, when this is permitted. I am weary of talking about Buddhism in a formal attitude, as I perform the ritual under the candle lights, and burn incense in air vibrant with the sound of the gong. Since a man is a Buddha it is majestic and beautiful to discourse upon religion in a rigid, formal attitude. But since a man is also merely a man, and nothing more, he prefers to talk about his own faith in a less formal or informal attitude, or in no attitude at all.

I wish to talk about my faith in a very disheveled attitude, just as a cat vomits the breath from its mouth in yawning. In this western world Buddhism has been studied for about two hundred years, so I understand. First it was investigated by Englishmen in Ceylon in order to gain control over the natives. In the second period this religion was studied by Christians whose purpose was to disparage it in the Orient. In the third period it was studied as an odd Oriental philosophy, and in the present day, in what is its fourth period, western people are attempting to discover whether there is any element of truth in Buddhism. But in my opinion they have failed. They are merely talking about what Buddhism is; but this “What is Buddhism?” is a great question!

I was initiated into Buddhism when I was still a boy. My age is now three score years. It was only yesterday that I came to understand what Buddhism is. Let me speak, lying on the floor with my yawning cat at my side, about the Buddhism which is my very self.”

These words have given me much to think about. Sokei-An’s three styles of religious practice are parallel to my own view of the Three Refuges. The Buddha offers teachings from the altar (or cushion), the Dharma offers the intentional rituals that guide practitioners; the discussion at the dinner-table is the sangha . . . each with its own value depending on the audience and the situation. At times these practices swirl together, seeming dualities coming together as a holistic experience. When I preach from the altar it is to communicate the dharma as I comprehend it from the Buddha’s sermons presented in a ritualistic way through the Pali Nikayas and other Buddhist scriptures. Talking one-on-one with family, friends and sangha members tends to take on the flavor of a casual dinner conversation. Discussions between myself and my dharma brother, David Sensei, for example, definitely have the character of all three . . . preaching, ritual, and casual.

Sokei-An writes of being weary of the formal attitude, an attitude I feel certain was demanded of him during his years in a Japanese monastery. Coming to the West must have felt liberating in some sense to him, freeing him from those expectations. His writing shows a sense of opening up and allowing the man who is a Buddhist to be more informal yet firm in his faith.

I believe we in the West are still in, and are likely to remain in Sokei-An’s described fourth period for some time trying to decide if there are elements of truth in Buddhism. We are trying to decide if the rituals are necessary. We are trying to decide if we want to be Buddhists in America acting like Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan, or American Buddhists letting a Western way of practice evolve naturally out of the teachings of the Buddha, and the experiences of cultures before us. The proliferation of Buddhist traditions and platforms in the West offer choices of elements leaving it up to each of us to experience them as truths in our own lives. During his own time he viewed that search for truth as a failed endeavor. Still he recognized that some people were talking about what Buddhism “is” and he thought that the question “What is Buddhism” was a good start.

Sokei-An died in 1945 and since then that question, “What is Buddhism?” can be viewed as the core of the Western approach. Most of us weren’t raised in Buddhist culture so that needs to be the initial question. In nearly six decades of living it has been only in the last eighteen years have I been asking that question and striving through practice, study and experience to discover the answer that uniquely applies to me.

Each of us who currently practice or are exploring the possibilities of Buddhist practice are hoping to find out what Buddhism is to us. In time, like Sokei-An, the realization that Buddhism is our very self can arise with the falling away of our delusions.