Tools of Awakening: Situational Awareness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Being situational in thought and action isn’t how we are taught to be. We are taught THE RULES, we are governed by THE RULES, and frankly it seems easier to just follow THE RULES to the letter, or at least expect all others to. A certain amount of personal responsibility can be dodged with the words, “I was just following THE RULES.” This has been the excuse (not explanation) for many wrongdoings across times and cultures. Don’t get me wrong here . . . rules are needed in society. Some people would rather forego having to make their own moral/ethical decisions and let a higher authority decide. The danger arises when THE RULES take the place of a moral conscience and ethical behavior developed with the realization of human connectedness and personal responsibility.

Being situational in thought and action is rarely easy . . . at least in the beginning. Like any skill it takes practice, practice, practice. Siddhartha offered a guide to being situational, The Eightfold Path. He didn’t offer a teaching on how to be situational. That he knew would be a causal consequence of practicing a path that by its very nature requires a practitioner to be in the moment and respond to that moment in whatever way fits each unique circumstance. This is a practical approach to the situations in life that are never as black & white as we might want them to be; this is a pragmatic approach that will lead to choices being made with an encompassing view of an entire situation and more broadly corrective in their intent. Intent and view are the paths to wisdom that Siddhartha offers in the Eightfold Path.

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More Than One Path: Lesson in Pluralism


Tools of Awakening: More Than One Path

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Do you expect to agree with everyones point of view or for everyone to agree with yours? You shouldn’t . . . given that we are each unique expressions of the Universe it would be unrealistic to have such an expectation. Given that, how do you react when people don’t respond favorably to your point of view? Think about an issue that you are passionate about: gun control, assisting the homeless, politics, Buddhism, Christianity . . . and how you approach discussing these issues with others who may, or may not share your view. Do you feel the need to rise to the defense of your issue? Do you feel the need the attack the views of others? The answers to these questions will lead you to a recognition of a disposition that makes up part of your worldview, pluralism or a lack of it.

Your path is not the only path or the best path . . . it is only one path . . . there is not one true path, or one better path . . . there are only paths. The philosophy of pluralism acknowledges that there are different ways to live lives dedicated to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). There is no one “true” approach to living a noble life, there are only ones that work well, ones that sort of work, and others that don’t work at all as part of an effective path to liberation and the alleviation of suffering, discontent and anguish. Whether it is a scientific approach, a philosophical, religious or ideological one, they all have validity if they are focused on positive personal and social development. In pluralism there are paths viewed as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘acceptable’ and through the process of experiential verification the most encompassing and corrective path is the one we look to commit to. The experiences of others may lead them to commit to a different path. That whatever path is chosen is one directed toward the betterment of individuals and their societies is what is important and must be respected.

Viewing the world through a pluralistic lens takes practice. We have to set aside preconceptions about the paths of others so that we avoid prejudging and instead approach the commitments of others with an open-mind and open-heart. Through experiential verification and social consensus what is useful and productive ways are determined (pragmatism) without attacking another’s belief system (pluralism), and by being aware that dogma can limit positive transformation (philosophy). With so many different faiths, systems, philosophies, theologies and ideas traditional and contemporary that can be found in the ‘melting pot’ of the West the importance and value of pluralism must be realized.

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Reality: The Ideal Meets the Real

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

It becomes improbable after years of studying and practicing Buddhism that dharma lessons won’t seem to arise in the strangest ways.  For example, the mindfulness and awareness that develops transforms the very act of reading.  Whether it is a non-fiction book that is meant to be about reality . . . or at least the reality that the author experiences, or it is a work of fiction that is the author’s reality created whole-cloth from their own bodymind, there are lessons to be found.  Today I finished reading Lev Grossman’s excellent book, ‘The Magicians’ (described by some as Harry Potter with sex, drugs and mental instabilities) and in its pages were these words, ” . . . reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think, or feel or say about it.”

Can’t argue with that.

Reliance on the Dharma

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Dipping your toes into the vast river of Buddhist teachings can be frustrating and confusing. The language, the concepts, and the practice can seem alien to curious Westerners.You might want to enter the stream but you’re unsure how to reach the other side. You’re told that the Buddha never wrote anything down, that the Pali Nikayas contain sutras written down from as soon as a year after Siddhartha’s death to hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years later. Throughout those times and for the following couple of thousand years more texts were added. From the Theravada and Mahayana, Tibetan and Japanese, Nicheren and Pure Land, came non-canonical writings and commentaries meant to offer the dharma through the lens of each particular tradition. All of it claims to be the Dharma, and in some sense they are all the dharma if, capital D or lower case d they are experienced as the reality of the world we live in.


Authenticity is wanted, searched for, and has been argued over for thousands of years. In the Tibetan tradition rather than focusing on authenticity of who wrote it, the focus is on the efficacy of each teaching. Efficacy that is realized through action.


Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is the head of the Shambhala lineage and Shambhala International, a network of urban Buddhist meditation centers, retreat centers, monasteries, a university, and other enterprises, founded by his father, the lat Buddhist Master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He promotes intent rather than rule, wisdom rather than knowledge as more important in Buddhist practice. In his book, ‘The Sword of Wisdom’ he says, “If you do not have such understanding, Then, like a blind man leaning on his staff, You can rely on fame, mere words or what is easy to understand, And go against the logic of the four reliances.” In a later interview Mipham Rinpoche make this point much clearer. “The question of authorship was an important one for early Buddhists concerned with authenticity. But over the centuries it has become less so. Nowadays Buddhists resolve this issue by considering the teaching contained in the text on its own merits. Accordingly, the principle of the Four Reliances (catuh-pratisarana) has developed to deal with this issue: We are urged to rely on the teaching and not the author, the meaning and not the letter, the truth and not the convention, the knowledge and not the information. Thus, if a teaching accords with the Dharma, then the teacher must have been a buddha or someone empowered by a buddha to speak on his or her behalf.”


The Four Reliances are from the Tibetan tradition and is dharma, dharma that can help bring about real understanding that arises from experiencing the actions connected with the words.


Four Reliances (to learning Buddhist Dharma)
The four standards of Appropriate Dharma which should be relied upon and abided by:

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Agnostic Religion . . . Atheist Philosophy


by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There are some who view Buddhism as an agnostic religion, and some who view Buddhism as an atheistic philosophy. Agnosticism can play a vital role in Buddhist practice but not a central role. The concept of Buddhism as atheistic comes from a deep misunderstanding, or in some cases a complete misrepresentation of Buddhist philosophy.

Setting aside the question of an Ultimate Cause, a God that directs all phenomena that is how most people relate to agnosticism brings us to the more pragmatic view of this philosophy. Awareness, and acceptance of causal conditioning (dependent origination) subtracts the concept of an Ultimate Cause from any consideration. That the essential nature of things cannot be known has long been an ideal in Buddhist philosophy as no phenomena has an inherent existence, no essential nature to be known. In Buddhism this is not agnosticism . . . it is reality. What firmly grounds a Buddhist practice is that knowledge is gained through experience, and if something cannot be directly or indirectly experienced it is not knowledge, it is theory and speculation. In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha teaches: “When you know in yourselves: These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness, then you should practice and abide in them . . . “ (translation by Nanamoli Thera)

One lesson of this sutra is directed toward a common occurrence in the India of the Buddha’s time. There was a proliferation of religious teachers wandering the countryside extolling the virtues of their Truths and Practices, that they alone taught the True Way, the only way to their vision of salvation. In Western society, right this moment, folks are facing the same problem, and some of the teachers are Buddhist.

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Angulimala – Before the Buddha

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Angulimala Sutta, found in the Majjhima Nikayas is often viewed as proof of the power of the Dharma to transform even the most hardened bodymind from violence, hatred and fear to compassion, acceptance and loving-kindness. Early in the sutra Angulimala is described, The bandit Angulimala, a murderer, violent and deadly, showing no mercy haunts that road. He murders people and wears their fingers as a garland.”. Later, in such texts as the Jinakalamali 1, and the Milinda Panha 2 Angulimala’s early life is written of, and in the Theragatha text 3 his realizations as an arhat are given in the form of short poems. These texts act as bookends for the events described in the Angulimala Sutra. Without these texts it would seem as if this man, Angulimala, with his violent disposition just appeared in the Buddha’s world, in need of the Awakened One’s intervention.

Whether Angulimala was a real person or an allegorical construct created to teach Buddhist lessons, or whether the story of his early life has any basis in fact has little relevance. Both the story of his early life and the sutta itself have important teachings to offer those who take the time to realize them. It may well be that some disciple of the Buddha, or the Buddha himself saw this tale of Angulimala’s early life as a skillful way to offer lessons in causality, the not-self, and commitments in relationships (the Six Directions that the Buddha teaches to Sigala 4).


Angulimala and the Buddha.

Angulimala and the Buddha.

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Courageous Action: Refinement of Energy

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There will be experiences in our lives that invoke fear. Of all the possible human emotions, fear is the most primordial of them all, and can take a serious toll on the bodymind. Fear is the progenitor of other negative dispositions such as anger, greed, hatred and envy; in the case of prejudice and hatred they arise from a fear of others that are unlike ourselves in thought or form. The kinds of fear that human beings experience can arise as a result of a misunderstanding of their connection with the world around them, a feeling of being disconnected when that isn’t possible in any real sense. Fear can arise from a refusal to recognize the world as it really is, and to realize our own ability to make choices that will have a positive impact on ourselves and the world around us.

Think of the things you fear. Then consider if that fear is justified or, is that fear based on delusion.

The ability to face fear, and the experiences we encounter that cause it to arise is called courage, a fundamental part of the Buddhist refinement of energy. The refinement of energy, along with generosity, acceptance, moral and ethical character, meditation and wisdom are the pillars of practice for a bodhisattva-in-training. Fear is negative energy. Courage is positive energy that arises when fear is set-aside. Courage is not only needed to face some of the moment-to-moment aspects of daily life, but it is critical when faced with “spiritual weakness”. When, in practice we come to the “Plateau of Great Doubt” it is easy to quit, to let spiritual weakness have it’s way. Applying the energy of courage we can see past that doubt to a continuing path. We can employ courage to delve deeper into study, to find new commitment to practice, and to ask those questions we’ve may have hesitated to ask before. Courage is a positive character trait. To risk our current status and stability in order to pursue a greater purpose or goal, to expose ourselves self to risk, humiliation and even physical danger takes courage. Confronting fear is a human endeavor that is tied directly to the Buddhist ideal of the refinement of energy.

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Beginner’s Mind . . . and Body

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In Zen Buddhism, and put into common usage by Shunryu Suzuki, “beginner’s mind” (shoshin) is a way of approaching all situations with an open mind, fresh energy, and without preconceptions. Beginner’s mind is a path to discovering the new experiences and knowledge that are invisible to the unaware and the unmindful. Beginner’s minds experience new situations without preconceptions.

In Engaged Buddhism the term ‘bodymind’ is used so that the unbreakable interconnection and interdependence of body and mind are realized. With this we add “beginner’s body” to the lexicon. The body reacts to internal and external phenomena with habitual movements that consist of body language and micro-expressions. These too must be set-aside in order that positive transformation can take place.

We all engage in activities that have become habitual. From putting together jigsaw puzzles to hiking in the woods we can find ourselves becoming complacent. The aphorism, “been there . . . done that” can cause us to miss that piece of the puzzle with a bit of sky and the tiny curve of a bird’s wing or fall into the washed out gully that wasn’t along that trail last year. We may have in fact “been there” but it is just as much a fact that we haven’t “been there in that next moment”. The aphorism Buddhist style could be, “unique situation . . . unique experience” as a reminder that one has not “been there” or “done that” right now.

The Parable of Overflowing

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Path of Appropriate Concentration

By Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate concentration, along with effort and mindfulness, is an aspect of the Eightfold Path that leads to a meditative bodymind on-and-off the cushion. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are the path to insight. Whether it is called concentration or focus it begins as a meditative practice, particularly in the case of Mindfulness Meditation. Much instruction is given about ways to maintain concentration during meditation sessions. Some focus on a candle flame, the sound of a ching bell, or breathing. Concentration must also be actively practiced when off the cushion.

Last weekend I attended a mini-retreat at the Mid-America Buddhist Association (MABA). One of the teachings was on Mindfulness Meditation. It is well-known that while in meditation the bodymind can be distracted by feelings, thoughts and sounds. A dharani to help maintain concentration by re-focusing on breathing was handed out. It reads:

Focusing on the Breath – Anapanasati Practice

As you sit, notice the breath. Whenever distracted by feelings, thoughts, or sounds say

feeling-feeling-feeling, return to the breath,

thinking-thinking-thinking, return to the breath,

sound-sound-sound, return to the breath

or any method which helps keep the mind focused and brings it back gently when it strays.

Whenever distracted by feelings, thinking or sounds one must return to the breath, return there gently. Doing this gradually trains the bodymind to maintain focus on the cushion. With some creative re-description that dharani can guide one to deeper levels of concentration off the cushion where let’s be honest, we spend a lot more of our time.

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Right Action: You’ve Been Practicing It Since Birth

by Wayne Ren-Cheng


Of the practices of the Eightfold Path, one of them in particular you have been practicing every moment since birth. Call it ‘trial and error’ or ‘on-the-job-training’, you’ve learned what to do, and when to do it so that you get desired results. You’ve been practicing appropriate action. In all aspects of your life you’ve been doing it, with mixed outcomes. Whenever you’ve looked back on a situation and said to yourself, “That could have gone better’, it was a recognition that your actions in that moment weren’t as effective as they might have been. Whenever you said to yourself, “Next time I’ll do it differently”, it was a recognition that there was the potential to change your actions in order to change the outcome of future similar situations. In short, you’ve been aware of the ideal of appropriate action and have been applying it to the realities of life.


Every time you get in your car and drive you engage in appropriate action. You prepare yourself by checking to see what the weather is like. You know that you’ll need to drive differently depending on whether the roads are dry, wet, icy . . . the surface is smooth roadway or rough and rutted dirt road . . . bright sun, grey clouds, rain, snow, or the darkness of night . . . all phenomenal factors you consider before you even get behind the wheel.


You know the limits of your car . . . where can it go and how fast can it get there . . . safely. Each time you drive you engage your knowledge of those limits.


On the road you know you’ll encounter other drivers, drivers who rely on what you do to not put them in danger . . . and you rely on other drivers for the same reason. Still you know you must be mindful of how you are, and be aware of the actions of others, prepared to act defensively if the need suddenly arises. You drive in the correct lanes, stop at stop signs, yield at yield signs, watch for pedestrians at crosswalks, and detour cautiously around constructions sites and holes in the road. You drive appropriately.


You know to obey the posted speed limits . . . most of the time . . . unless road conditions or situations require you to take different actions. You’ll need to exceed the speed limit when passing other cars on a two-lane highway and drive slower through tight curves on a mountain road. You might choose, rightly, to drive under the speed limit in wet and icy conditions, if there is loose gravel on the road, or you’re driving through an area where animals or children are known to cross the road. Maybe you left late for work and have the urge to speed to work, disregarding the speed limit; or you realize the danger you put yourself and others in by reckless driving and choose the more appropriate action.

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