Hello to all,
Invited by my neighbors, Karen and John, I had the honor of speaking to an interspiritual study group at the 1st Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, here in St. Louis. The talk was preceded by a potluck dinner with some delicious salads and desserts (big props to the Strawberry Pretzel salad and chocolate bundt cake) and great conversation. This was a fine opportunity to get to know the folks I’d be talking to.
Below is what we talked about:
by Ven. Wayne (Ren Cheng)
Teaching Buddhism to a Western audience, one coming from a culture dominated by Judeo/Christian beliefs often involves relating the values and aphorisms of those teachings to those offered in the teachings of Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha. I thought about the questions I get asked most often and recent experiences I have had with friends and neighbors . . . and a word jumped out at me . . . neighbor. Further thought broadened that word to the aphorism “Love thy neighbor”. Like any useful aphorism there is truth in it. I’ll tell you honestly that I don’t have much background or knowledge about the depth and breadth of Christian theology and practice. Instead I rely on my own experiences as a child and young adult growing up around the world . . . and on some research I’ve done on the Internet . . . and on the expansive knowledge of my dharma brother Ven. David.
I had no idea how often a derivation of ‘love thy neighbor’ appears in the Bible until I looked it up. In Leviticus . . . in Matthew . . . in Mark . . . in Luke . . . in Romans . . . in Galatians . . . and in James it is written. Just like in the Pali Nikayas, the earliest writings of words attributed directly to Siddhartha Guatama, when something is repeated again-and-again then you better take notes because it will be on the test
How, as a Buddhist, do I practice the ideal of ‘love thy neighbor’? It starts with an awareness of the dualism of thought and action that can arise from the Western concepts of love and neighbor . . . a view of the loved and the not loved . . . the neighbor and the not neighbor. You may be thinking ‘I recognize different levels of love’. You are an exception to the norm if you honestly think and act that way. You may be thinking ‘I recognize all people as my neighbor’. Again, you are an exception to the norm if you honestly think and act that way. In my experience these concepts manifests as an either/or situation . . . love or not, neighbor or not . . . their actions taken reflecting whichever choice is made. I creatively re-describe the aphorism to . . . Loving-kindness for all living beings. Granted that isn’t as catchy as ‘love thy neighbor’
Practicing loving-kindness for all living beings isn’t easy. There are the obnoxious, the greedy, the mean, the users, the abusers, and the just plain creepy and they all are deserving of compassionate loving-kindness. When asked for a definition of loving-kindness I look to the words of the Buddha. In the Kakacupama Sutta, Siddhartha teaches:
Thus I have heard,
‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.
To train myself and others I teach this mantra . . . ‘We are not afraid to go first.’ With each encounter we freely offer our good will, our willingness to act selflessly, our respect, our trust . . . acts of loving-kindness. In subsequent encounters we freely offer the same. This does not mean continually putting up with the negative actions and speech of others. It is an act of loving-kindness to let someone know when their actions are having a negative effect and to cease that contact. It may become necessary to end future contact if an individual repeatedly engages in similar behavior. As a Buddhist I am not a pacifist. There comes situations where ‘direct and non-punishing’ action needs to be taken, action imbued with good will but meant to teach a lesson even if that lesson is never learned. When done without ill will or hostility this is acting with loving-kindness. As we train ourselves we also seek to teach others.
When talking about this with others I’ll get responses like: “I wave and they don’t wave back.” . . . “I don’t even know their name.” . . . “They are fill in religion, race, amount of tattoos, etc. here.” . . . “I don’t like the way they act.” . . . and other excuses for not choosing to act with loving-kindness. This always brings to mind another aphorism, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Again I took the liberty to creatively re-describe this valuable ideal, directing it more clearly toward Buddhist practice and goals, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto others.’ How we treat others is not predicated on how they may, or may not treat us . . . experience has proven that how we treat others has a direct causal effect on how they treat everyone else, not just us. Siddhartha says to train ourselves to the spontaneous action of: We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will . . “. This is the foundation of the Bodhisattva vow, selfless action.
In my mind do I still label people as neighbor? Yes, it is a perfectly good word. It is the meaning of the word that has changed for me. I grew up a ‘military brat’ and experienced a half-dozen other countries and cultures, and more than thirty states in the U.S. before I turned eighteen. This had a profound effect on my worldview . . . it broadened my view of what a neighbor was. I didn’t realize until studying and practicing Buddhism how positively that worldview affected how I live and interact with others. Now, teaching and practicing Buddhism over the Internet through the virtual world of Second Life, on the Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) website, and via Skype I more fully realize that my ‘block’ has gotten much bigger. The virtual EDIG sangha at the Buddha Center on Second Life is international. I regularly connect with Buddhists and non-Buddhists in France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and a number of U.S. states via Skype. The EDIG website is accessed by readers from every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic. There arises an equanimity of thought and action when it doesn’t matter if the person lives on my block or lives on a block across the planet from me I view them as my neighbor.
Pragmatically it doesn’t matter so much how you say it . . . love thy neighbor . . . loving-kindness for all living beings . . . what matters more is what we do. If a neighbor doesn’t return your wave the causal effect of your action won’t stop there. It may have made them feel good even if they were too shy to return it. Another neighbor may have witnessed it and thought . . . that’s how I need to act. What we do matters is my mantra for realizing the cause and effect inherent in the causal Universe. It reminds myself and others that every action we take has consequences so we must strive to take positive actions with positive intent. In Buddhist philosophy it is known as dependent origination, that actions cause the arising of other actions. In Buddhist practice it is the Three Pure Precepts . . . cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others. In Buddhist spirituality it is the transformation to positive connections on an encompassing scale.
I am in this moment awakening to a fresh realization.