Engaging Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Three ethical ideals are the foundation of an Engaged Buddhist practice. They are pragmatism that arises from the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition of my teacher, the Venerable Shi Yong Xiang, and his teacher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long; pluralism as it arises from its value in connecting with others in a respectful and productive way; and in a commitment to practice as practice is the only way to experience the teachings of the Buddha as they can be positively applied to contemporary life. From these three ideals arises the moral actions that are most likely to have positive karmic consequences for the individual and for society.

Pragmatism is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. In Engaged Dharma those ideals can be trimmed down to the importance of language, because it is how ideas and concepts are recognized; as well as the importance of going beyond language to experience the realization of the value of a teaching when it is put into practice.

In the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River” the language teaches a lesson on attachment, while the experience teaches one of the value of pragmatism.

The Monks at the River”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk was silent.

They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”

The senior monk was silent.

It was against the rules.”

The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.
In Buddhist philosophy and in American Pragmatic philosophy importance is placed on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it’s focus is on “what we can do right now to make things better” strengthens an engaged practice. The Buddhist worldview underwent changes, and affected changes in the worldviews it encountered as it spread from India across the continents. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews, such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

In the parable of the “Monks at the River” a pragmatic lesson is one of detachment. It is a valuable skill to know when to detach from the letter of a rule, and instead act with the intent of an entire body of teaching. The senior monk knew the rules, but he used them as a guide to taking the most appropriate action dependent on each unique situation. Pragmatically this is known as thinking and acting situationally. The junior monk was dogmatically focused on the rule, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” His lack of experience wasn’t allowing him to realize that the senior monk’s decision was based on the Three Pure Precepts and the ideal of skillful action as taught by the Awakened One.

The senior monk, seeing a human being in need set aside dogmatism and achieved an appropriate view of the situation. That led him to take appropriate action to alleviate suffering.
Cease to do harm – If he left the woman stranded she would undergo the suffering of anxiety and fear and possibly drown or be injured.

Do only good – Ignoring the woman’s plight, causing suffering is not a good action.

Do good for others – Note here that this precept doesn’t add “if it isn’t against the rules”.
The senior monk did not create the situation of the woman at the river. It was a causally conditioned phenomenon that he had to choose how to react to. As human beings we don’t create the nature of the event; we have the choice of responding negatively or positively. The senior monk recognized a need and chose to act altruistically. The senior monk not only does good for a fellow citizen; he also does good for the junior monk. His actions allow the junior monk to learn the lessons of detachment and pragmatism.

Pragmatism in the Buddha’s teachings

Reading the story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening it is clear that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.

We can use the Eightfold Path as an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must engage the teachings as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and productive. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.
Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most encompassing response. We want to take the most useful and productive course that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.
Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

New Sangha Sessions at the Buddha Center, Second Life

BUDDHA CENTER SHOT

Starting Monday, March 9th at 6:30pm Second Life Time (SLT), VenerableWayne Slacker, Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi will begin holding sangha sessions in the beautiful “outdoor” setting of the Deer Park in the virtual world of Second Life. Join the Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG)/Buddha Center sangha for sessions that include a short period of bell meditation to develop focus, contemporary/traditionalist talks on Buddhist philosophy and practice, followed by the opportunity to ask questions and engage in discussions.

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The sessions will be held the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 6:30pm SLT – 8:30pm Central, 9:30pm Eastern, 7:30pm Mountain, 6:30pm Western.

Everyone is welcome. This is not role-playing. It is a real Buddhist sangha meeting in the virtual world of Second Life. Please join us.

Go to engageddharma.com to learn more about VenerableWayne and EDIG.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

 

Insight – Appropriate Inward View

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

 

A man experiences insight.

I had no idea that people suffer death, despair, disease and aging. All around me, all these years these things have been taking place and I’ve been isolated, pampered and wanting for nothing. What kind of person am I? I’ve got food to fill my belly . . . some have only a handful of rice for an entire family. The family healer has assured that I’ve never taken ill, yet illness strikes many others. The family holy man has assured me that my karma is unblemished . . . or so he says . . . yet he preaches that others will suffer in lives to come. I’ve learned to be a warrior, a sage, and a leader . . . but I guess I haven’t learned how to be a human being. My life has been one of leisure, wealth, parties, harems, feasts and servants. Beyond my home lives seem to be ones of wants and deprivations while I have everything I need and much, much more.”

I am such an idiot not to have noticed this before now. What can I do to make up for my ignorance? I know . . . I’ll experience their lives by leaving home and becoming an ascetic. I’ll experience suffering. I’ll live off a grain of rice a day and purge myself of the negative karma I’ve accumulated through my own ignorant thoughts and actions.”

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Really though, no one knows how Siddhartha viewed himself. When he came to recognize the realities of suffering did he put a hand to his forehead and say to himself, “I’ve been so stupid all these years. All around me are people in distress and I’ve been blind to it.” Did he wonder if that since he had only experienced comfort and happiness while others experienced suffering and discontent was that the duality of the world. We’ve really got no idea if he immediately set forth on his spiritual quest or if he agonized over it for months or years before deciding to leave his home and family, to become a medicant and ascetic. Like all of us, Siddhartha must have carried on internal conversations between him and . . . him. His teachings do reveal that he re-described those conversations with himself as his worldview changed. Conversations that became the Dharma.

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Message for Human Flourishing — Letter to Parents

Hello to all,

This article in the Washington Post caught my attention this morning.  Here is an excellent example of compassion, right speech and right intent being offered for the cause of human flourishing.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/dear-anti-vax-parents-were-not-mad-at-you-sincerely-your-doctor/2015/02/06/d7b307be-ac80-11e4-abe8-e1ef60ca26de_story.html

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

Path to Refinement

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a question that each of us must answer if we are to have an effective Buddhist practice: “How am I going to be?” For better or worse you make the decisions that affect ‘how you are’ and how people perceive you. You’ll have to decide what you want your life to be; then, you’ll have to go about building the life that you imagine. As a human being you are empowered with the freedom to engage in self-cultivation, to deliberately mold how you live in, and interact with the world. You can choose to act as an agent of positive transformation . . . or not. You have access to the knowledge and the tools to make good choices; and to actualize a social self by engaging your imagination, courage, and integrity. In Chan practice this ideal human state begins with “thoughts of enlightenment” that lead to a more constant state of awareness, of realizing thoughts of enlightenment rather than constantly grasping for them.

There is the person on the horse that is totally focused on trying to reach out and grab the brass ring each time they go around. They are certain that that is the goal of riding the merry-go-round; that if they get that ring their ride will be successful. They can hold up that ring and say, “I have it, you don’t.”

Then there is the person who is aware of the motion of their merry-go-round horse going up and down, the bright music, the little girl in the pink dress riding the goofy looking bunny, the elderly couple in the sleigh still holding hands after 50 years of marriage, the breeze that carries the aroma of cotton candy, and the mirror in the center that reflects it all. We all smile the same smile. They are part of the experience, connected to those around them through that shared experience.

The one grasping for the brass ring wants to be the person who starts and stops the ride. The other person wants to help others enjoy the ride.

You choose how you ride.

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Practice Skill-In-Means

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It takes skill and flexibility to positively engage your life. Each moment brings with it unique situations to respond to, and unique experiences to learn from. You know from experience that you can’t act the same way around each person; or act the same way with one person every moment. The fact that causality is affecting them in each moment requires you to respond differently in each moment. The same is true for each event in life. While events may, on the surface, seem the same there are always differences and so responses and reactions must arise situationally. To live in this ever-changing world among ever-changing people and events takes skill and flexibility. In Buddhist practice this ability is known as skill-in-means (Sk., upaya).

In Buddhist philosophy and practice the Skill-In-Means Doctrine is the development and application of actions taken with the acceptance that one needs to develop infinite flexibility in adapting the teaching of the Buddha to suit changing circumstances. Skill-in-means, or skillful means is learning to “know your audience” and in addition, to “know yourself” in each moment; it is the practice of deep mindfulness and awareness. The life and teachings of the Buddha are a testament to his ability to speak to the worldview of his listeners. Was Siddhartha born with this skill? No, no one is born able to understand and adjust to any situation; it is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

The Buddha would first assess the nature of his audience and then use a variety of tactics and strategies in order to guide them out of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. As a teacher he was able to transmit the lessons of the Dharma equally well to Brahmin or householder, King or thief. On his path Siddhartha studied with the learned masters of his day and culture and through them he came to know the languages and worldviews of the various mendicants that roamed and taught around India, and how to communicate effectively with all castes. Throughout his life traveling and teaching he continuously improved his ability to speak directly to all manner of people.

The Doctrine of Skill-In-Means is not only valuable when talking to people. It can be of great value when dealing with all aspects of your life. The trick is . . . learning how to develop it.

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Strangers — Form and Emptiness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In the Sigalovada Sutra the Buddha talks to Sigala about the six key relationships he realized as important to human existence. The child/parent, student/secular teacher, domestic partners, friends, employer/employee, and student/spiritual teacher relationships, as well as that of material goods are offered in the sutra. Considering the social aspects of Siddhartha’s time and culture these were the relationships that had direct impact of each person’s life. Today, considering the global nature of society there is another relationship that has tremendous impact, moment-to-moment in each person’s life . . . that of strangers.

The dharma of strangers is that they hold the place of both form and emptiness in each of our lives. For some, strangers are to be feared and avoided; for others, strangers are possible friends or at the very least probable acquaintances. There are people viewed as strangers whom little is known about such as the sales clerk in the store where you buy your shoes, and those viewed as strangers who contribute greatly to your life but who you know absolutely nothing about such as the coders who make the virtual world of Second Life possible. There is in an emptiness of knowledge and contact while they take on a form by how they impact your life.

Strangers are people that we categorize by gender, race, profession and physical characteristics. That is often the full extent of our knowledge of them and so it is how we can come to judge them. Becoming aware of the consequential aspect of those we see as strangers offers a wholly different perspective. Most of us probably intuit that there is a strata of people between stranger and friend. We recognize that there are people we are connected with beyond family and friend but that connection is so subtle its value can go unnoticed. Often the term acquaintance is used as the bridge between friend and stranger. They might earn the description, “my friend the . . . (hairdresser, bank teller, car mechanic)” but in reality they are acquaintances. In their book “Consequential Strangers”, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman creatively re-describe this category of strangers and acquaintances in our lives. They give the people we once classified as strangers and acquaintances stronger connections to HOW we are.

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Engaging the Three Refuges

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Across Buddhist traditions the Three Refuges (P., tritratna) is the initial step for all on the Noble Path. In the Chinese Ch’an tradition reciting the Three Refuges (also known as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism) is how a person “becomes” a Buddhist, it is known as Taking Refuge (P., sarana). It is a recognition that at any time, when needed a Buddhist can return to, or find sanctuary in the Three Refuges. It is not an act of conversion. It is a choice. We can choose approach the Noble Path with the knowledge that Siddhartha was a human being like ourselves, one whose example we can follow. We can approach the Noble Path with the realization that the dharma is a dynamic reality. We can approach the Noble Path alongside others who have similar goals and are searching for similar experiences.

The precise meanings of each of jewels, their interconnectedness, and how to honor each differs between traditions, while the intent remains steadfast. The intent being that once on the Noble Path the practitioner can return to the ideals of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha whenever needed to reinforce and strengthen practice.

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Appropriate Questions

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

You need tools in your Buddhist Toolbox that allow you to gain knowledge and experience so you respond more appropriately to all situations. The main tool to accomplish this with is the willingness to be aware of what you don’t know and then ask the appropriate questions so that you can arrive at an appropriate answer. The Buddha asked a BIG question, “Is suffering an integral part of how human beings are?” He found the answer to that question to be an emphatic . . . YES.

From the moment you are born, until that moment when you die you ask questions as a way to learn what you can do, what needs to be done, and how you can do it. Your very first cry upon birth is an articulation of the question, ‘Whose here to take care of me?’, and your final question might be, ‘Who’ll be there to take care of me?’ In between, it is questions that drive you to knowledge, to skills, and to how you choose to be in life. The majority are silent questions, ones you ask in the midst of your experiences – ‘Did I do that right?’, ‘Could I have done that better?’, ‘Will anyone notice?’. There are the questions you ask of others, ones you ask so that your knowledge and experience can expand – ‘What is the best way to . . .?’, ‘How can I reach Nirvana?’, ‘I am doing this right?’. You also ask questions of the Universe when you, and those you trust don’t seem to have the answers. The Universe is often asked, ‘Why me?’, for example. In all of these instances questions are critically important because without the questions the answers would never be found.

An important question for a practicing Buddhist to ask moment-to-moment is ‘Am I making a good choice?’, and each must answer with rigorous self-honesty so that the answer has value. The Eightfold Path can be used as a guide to finding that answer because it requires you to ask questions. To practice the Eightfold Path that can lead you out of suffering you must constantly be asking questions: ‘Do I have a view appropriate to this situation?’ – ‘Is my intent to gather information or practice knowledge?’ – ‘Is the effort I am putting into my practice enough?’. Without asking these sorts of questions of yourself, your teachers, and . . . yes . . . sometimes the Universe, there will be no progress in your practice.

You should ask questions of people you trust, and verify through your own experience that their answer has value. Asking questions of the Universe has been the path to some of the greatest answers in human history. Isaac Newton questioned gravity. Albert Einstein questioned the constancy of the Universe. Many theologians have questioned the existence of God. Without the questions no answers will ever be found. In some instances questions are asked that can’t be fully answered with the knowledge of that time, but must be asked again-and-again before the answer is realized. That is the nature of questions.

Siddhartha realized the importance of questions. In the Awakened One’s final talk (Maha-parinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya) he spoke directly to the assembled.

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