The Empty Cushion

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is an empty cushion. There is no teacher. There is the dharma. There is discipline.


Realizing that the death of the Buddha was imminent his followers were faced with the inevitability of an empty cushion and that frightened them. They feared being separated from the Awakened One, their teacher, mentor and monitor on the Middle Path. They feared the loss of a cushion they viewed as overflowing with the wisdom, compassion and knowledge of their teacher. Ananda voiced that fear. The Awakened One replied to the Ananda, saying: “It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dharma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.”

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Easter And The Power Of Karma

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

This is Palm Sunday and that means that Easter season is almost upon us again. As a Buddhist monk pondering the lessons that can be realized in this Christian day of celebration I once again work to find common ground between what the lives of Siddhartha and Jesus can mean to us living in the 21st century. In the Christian narrative the death and resurrection of Christ should become a more urgent intellectual necessity to all Christians who ponder the challenges of life today if they fully believe that Christianity has yet a message to give to the world. Alongside this Christian imperative is the Buddhist challenge to find vitality and meaning in what the Buddha awakened to over 2500 years ago for us struggling to make sense out of a world in crisis.

When we examine our contemporary Western civilization with a critical eye, it is difficult to call it’s ethical and moral fabric Christian anymore. This is an extraordinary statement perhaps coming from a Buddhist, but it is also admitted by a consensus of opinion of many Christian thinkers as well. Buddhism, however, has yet to significantly influence Western culture in any meaningful manner to place it’s mark on human behavior either. It has been over 2000 years that Jesus left us and it seems that Christian values are still struggling to find fertile ground upon which to nourish the human condition. The reason may be that we have only tried to practice only half of Jesus’ message. While he spoke often about the need for us to connect to our original self as is manifested in the creation process, he also spent most of his time speaking about how we should refine our compassionate actions toward others. I am thinking of the Golden Rule, for example, which states that we should treat our neighbors like ourselves.

The problem seems to be that who or what a neighbor is can still be a vague concept for many of us. There should be no doubt that we need to come to a truer concept of what Jesus means by ‘neighbor’. This is where Buddhist thought can provide a significant contribution in how we can consider the reality of our interdependence and interconnectiveness between self and other. From our Western perspective, we have a curious habit of judging our fellows not from the standpoint of a spiritual life but from a material or capitalistic one. By using this kind of perspective we devalue the poor among us as a kind of social disgrace. Poverty has a tendency to create inhibitors, or walls, between those with social advantages and those without. We find in most Western cultures a conception of the poor which is radically wrong. What lessons of Easter can be discovered that might shed light on how we walk the path that both Jesus and Siddhartha did that can change our own and our cultures’ worldview to promote human flourishing for all, not just the chosen few.

During this time of contemplation of the lesson of Jesus’ transformation, we are called to examine how we practice the spiritual path from the reality of the Jesus-experience. Christians would say “He has arisen”. As a Buddhist I would change that expression to “His has arisen”. His what has arisen you might ask? From a Buddhist point of view the answer is “his karma”. The word ‘arisen’ is to convey something that comes into being, as in effective action, not just the simple act of getting up. The causal-chain of how Jesus lived and taught produced a strong chain of effects that when released by his intentional actions for useful and positive good is projected forward through time. His death did not stop the good that he caused to bring into existence, but his legacy actions resonates throughout time as long as it is encountered and acted on by others. The same is true with the life and death of the Buddha. The dynamic energy of their life and death was so strong that it continues to influence how we can choose to live our life for the nourishment of what is good and pure in all of us, when we use their good works as examples.

There is nothing so adequate in any religion or spiritual practice that can unconditionally drive the reconstruction of a world in crisis alone. It can only be accomplished by individual and community effort. There is nothing in our science, philosophy, or political models to bring about the great change that can equalize the world state of injustice. But with the karmic energy inherent in the legacy teachings and way of life as Jesus and Siddhartha exemplified we can move forward with a renewed sense of purpose when we awaken to the arising wisdom driven forward on the wave of their own karma that is with us still.

Note: This was reposted from

Candala Sutta: Fully Realized Disciple

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, . – 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.

Upajjhatthana Sutta: Contemplating the Realities

Upajjhatthana Sutta: Contemplating the Realities

Creatively Re-described by Wayne Ren-Cheng

“There are five realities that you must contemplate whether you are a woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.

I am going to grow older, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am going to get ill at some time, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am going to die, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I will constantly change and seem to separate from all that I care about, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whether my choices are good or bad, the karmic consequences will not be only mine, others will be affected . . .

These are the five realities that you must contemplate often, whether woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.

Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I will grow older?’ Some people are so desirous of the ideal of youth that they make bad decisions, take negative paths meant to achieve eternal youth. But, when you contemplate the reality of growing older that ideal of youth will fall away . . .

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Confidence Trumps Understanding In Our Practice

By: Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said, “Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says that originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.” This statement which comes form his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind got my attention. I have not thought of my practice in this way before. Not knowledge, but confidence is what we should cultivate is what Suzuki is stressing. This emphases on confidence over knowledge can be a strong agent for change. It asks the question, “Do we really believe what we know?“ I speak often about how Buddhist practice and study can be viewed from a philosophical, psychological, and spiritual perspective. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very comprehensive and profound system of thought-processing. But traditional Zen practice is not taught or practiced with a great deal of philosophical explanations. Focusing rather on our personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, are considered more essential for coming to a realized state of body-mind.

I have not considered the term confidence before when expressing how one should consider their practice, I use other words. Although without confidence the student/teacher relationship is in jeopardy. What I like about exchanging the word ‘understanding’ to ‘confidence’ is that it places focus on the importance of acceptance of what we are learning as we practice. Not just on knowing by analysis something about Buddhist thought. It is more about acceptance, assurance, and certainty that the path we are on can achieve insight. That insight may also awaken the body-mind to the bigger picture of how we are in this world. We can be aware, but the subject of this awareness must transition into acceptance. When that happens we have gained confidence of its value, and our practice is strengthened as a result.

There is a danger in relying on invalidated knowledge alone. The human system for acquiring new information is complicated and involves some degree of interpretation and filtering on our part as we go about the learning process. Sometimes we get out of the way and let another’s thoughts and ideas replace our own. This, of course, is not a bad thing because we always rely on another’s expertise for guidance. This in fact is very pragmatic. But without validating new knowledge with our own personal experiences, we are only taking what we are learning as a state of faith. But when we have gained the experience of validating what we are learning, and thus acknowledging its reality, we gain the confidence that our worldview is on solid ground. This gets the ego out of the learning and acceptance process when it makes choices for us by using preconceived notions of what it thinks reality is.

Confidence should be the cornerstone of our practice, and also it’s main human ingredient. When we truly believe in our way, the path becomes more clear. But when we have not developed unwavering confidence in the meaning of our practice, each moment presents the possibly of us walking around with a monkey-mind in the weeds. The Buddha talked often about this possibility from his own experience both before and after enlightenment. He was not entirely free of causal-life consequences either, he was only human after all. But he continued to walk the path of liberation with absolute confidence. His view of life was not shaken as he continued to experience awakened moments, and watched what was happening around him. He observed with great intent and awakened body-mind state of awareness how the Universe is. He had a very scientific understanding of Universal reality for his day which contributed to confidence-in-practice.

So our Buddhist practice is not just based on informative and intellectual understanding, metaphysical beliefs, or faith alone. It is through actual action-practice, not by reading or contemplation of philosophical constructs that we reach awakening, and the confidence to know the difference. Master Suzuki put it this way, “Our understanding at the same time is its own expression, is the practice itself.” This practice stands on the very surface of our confidence, moment after each moment.

Note: Re-posted from the Order of Engaged Buddhists website

Don’t Be An Ass — The Gadrabha Sutta

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Anguttara Nikaya is the fourth section of the Sutta Pitaka. Found there are eleven books (nipatas) arranged as numbered discourses — Book of Ones, Twos, Threes, etc. – numbered for how many lessons are meant to be realized in each discourse. Like any sutta one lesson or topic may be as beautiful as the white lotus that the Buddha held forth at Vulture Mountain, and in the Book of Ones that would be the lesson, that there is beauty in the dharma. The Book of Twos would take the reader deeper to the silence of thousands of disciples viewing that flower. The Book of Threes to Mahakasyapa’s enlightened moment. Each Book of the Anguttara Nikaya requires the reader to engaged in realizing deeper and deeper levels of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

There are also wonderful, and entertaining similes and parables to found in the Anguttara Nikaya. Tales that make the bodymind think differently, to realize in new ways the teachings of the Awakened One. From the Book of Threes comes the – Gadrabha Sutta: The Donkey.

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Appropriate Speech: It Is Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is a path of moral discipline (sila) on the Eightfold Path. Together they encompass the outward signs of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). A moral voice arises in speech driven by positive intent, in speech grounded in the realities of causal conditioning. There are four divisions to speech, in one wording or another, in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress that we must also be mindful of. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions.

Aphorisms; phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery are handy tools for memorization and for teaching moral ideals and ethical behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its encompassing philosophy. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice his teachings.

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Three Pure Precepts: Cleansing the Mind

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhist tradition teaches that the Three Pure Precepts came from the Dhammapada, Buddhavagga Sutra , verse #183 – To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas. Translations have changed over the centuries and according to the culture, place and tradition, though they are all directed toward doing good as a fundamental part of Buddhist practice. They pay homage to the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahayana tradition as they are as much a social contract, as a personal one.

Evil in Buddhism is not that of the Judeo/Christian worldview. Evil is not a thing, it is an effect of the bad choices that human beings make when they live a life ignorant of the causal nature of the Universe. They lack the realization that there are karmic consequences that go way beyond just one person’s view. Bad choices that arise from bad intent and action don’t just fall away. They tend to be the cause and effect of more bad choices.

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Karma: Where The Ideal Meets The Real

By: David Xi-Ken Astor

Karma is one of those terms that is in popular use, but interesting enough, not by many individuals that know anything about what it really is.   Most of the time when I encounter the term it is not how I have come to understand it’s meaning at all.  Karma is also know as the law of cause and effect.  As a Buddhist principle, it is know as Dependent Origination, or Relational Origination, or Co-dependent Origination.  So as you see, karma is know by many names.   Buddhism does not own the term.  What is most unusual, is that karma is not unusual at all.  It fact, it is in most moments evident when we know how to look at the world around us.  Karma is seen in action, and also what is behind action.  Karma is not linear, but is multi-directional.  In fact, it might be helpful to consider karma as circular.   When we think about interconnectiveness, we should think that karma effects all points of a single connection, and possibly throughout the net of connections.  When you come to think about it, when we turn on a light, switch on our computers, or turn the ignition key in the car, we demonstrate the karmic consequences of these actions.

Everything in the material world acts in accordance with this law.  Nothing is caused by chance.  Nothing.  This is also the case with our minds.  Every thought we have, every word we say, every intentional action we take, creates a cause.  Over time these causes ripen to become effects.  Time being a relative term.  Our thoughts emerge as words; the words we use can manifest into actions; these actions develop into habits; and our habits hardens into character.  We should watch our thoughts and their results with great care, and let it arise for the compassionate concern for self and others.   Remember the adage: “As we think, so we become.” Continue reading

Say the Magic Words: Intent in Action

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Growing up with a Canadian mother and a father born and raised in America’s deep south, and who was in the U.S. Air Force, I learned early the power of the magic words . . . please, thank you, excuse me, and sorry. My parents came from different countries and different cultures but had the same worldview when it came to showing respect to other people by being polite. You say “please” when asking for something. You say “thank you” when given something or when something is done for you. You say “excuse me” or “sorry” when appropriate. For a child these words do have a sense of magic about them. “Please” was more likely to lead to getting what you wanted and “thank you”, while meant to convey appreciation was sometimes viewed as a way to get more later. You said “excuse me” when you wanted attention or bumped into someone. After a burp or fart “excuse me” was usually followed by a smile and a giggle. “Sorry” was meant to convey regret or repentance whenever you did something wrong. For me these words did seem magical, did seem to have power when they defused anger in adults or gave me access to something I wasn’t sure I’d get.

These words don’t hold their magical power for long though. Most children quickly learn that just because they say “please, please, please” it doesn’t always lead to satisfaction of desires and wants. “Thank you” becomes a rote phrase that is a cultural expectation after receiving something and so may become insincere. Saying “excuse me” wasn’t a license to interrupt other people’s conversations or to fart in a room full of people. Of them all the word “sorry”, which for many kids held the most magical power, no longer absolved them of responsibility.

Mother: “Did you hit your sister?”

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