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.

PRANA – Keeping Relationships Connected for Over 2600 Years

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In the Sigalovada Sutra the Buddha speaks at length about relationships with friends and family to lay-householder Sigala. He teaches of the importance of these relationships and how to honor them through our actions. The Buddha realized that relationships can be a source of joy and contentment, or one of suffering and discontent, and that it was our responsibility to take the appropriate actions to maintain and strengthen them. One category in the Sigalovada Sutra was traditionally called Husband/Wife, what I creatively re-described for contemporary practitioners as Domestic Partners is the intimate relationship most likely to be a cause and effect of suffering, discontent and anguish. There is a path to a rewarding and fun intimate relationship and that way is through PRANA.

In the beginning there is love and it is fantastic! Heart’s a-flutter, breathing is shallow and rapid, and skin tingles. After that comes the relationship and time to put in some effort. After seven months in a monogamous relationship a sense of deep connection and intimacy is formed, you’ve begun to rely on sharing. Seven months isn’t long in terms of time, but it is long in terms of psychoemotional attachment. This is a positive thing. You come to rely on your partner being there for you, and you for them. There is someone to share with. This is something worth effort and commitment. You’ll want to be proactive as a partner. You’ll want to do things that strengthen the bond, engage in activities that bring about positive development. While you know that over time the dynamics of relationships will change, you can keep them on a path of positive transformation.

The seven month figure comes from an article by Robert Epstein in an issue of Scientific American Mind, Jan/Feb 2010. He went on to say, “The fix for our poor performance in romantic relationships: extract a practical technology (knowledge or dharma) from scientific research on how people learn to love each other — and then teach individuals how to use it.” For a pragmatic Buddhist the dharma, and the knowledge gained through making it part of how we are is certainly a practical technology.

P.R.A.N.A. – Dharma Technology

Prana (not to be confused with prajna which means wisdom) is a Sanskrit word that refers to our interconnection between our life force and the causal Universe. It is similar to the Chinese, qi — Japanese, ki — and Greek, pneuma. Each of which also speak to the connective force between people and the world around them. Relationships are all about connection and P.R.A.N.A. is a tool for helping you keep that relationship strong.

There are typical complaints when it comes to relationships. He/She doesn’t listen — has lost interest — doesn’t appreciate me — isn’t affectionate – doesn’t help out around the house. P.R.A.N.A. is a proactive approach that touches on these issues and offers ways to avoid them.

Partings: Before saying goodbye to each other for the day take 2 minutes and ask, “What is one thing you plan to do today?”

Reunions: At the end of each workday have a low-stress conversation. Take 20 minutes to talk about some cool plans for the time away from work, how the garden is looking, or exchange humorous stories about your day.

Appreciation: Take 5 minutes to show genuine (sincere) appreciation for something your partner did for you. This can be as simple as, “Thank you for being you.” After all it is the “you” you fell for in the first place.

Novelty: This is an opportunity to be creative. Arrange a weekly date. For 2 hours find a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere (it could be right there in your own home or in your backyard) and do something together. it can be a shared interest, learning about your partner’s interests, or even sitting quietly and enjoying each other’s company.

Affection: Try a little tenderness. For 5 minutes engage in some hand-holding, kissing, hugging and maybe even a little groping, but do it with tenderness, with gentleness, and most of all with compassion.

Do the math, that’s 5 hours a week to keep a loving, committed relationship creative and fun, 5 hours of pure practice of compassion, and 5 hours that will have lasting karmic effect. This is definitely a win-win situation.

Note that with some minor adjustments P.R.A.N.A. can be a guide when dealing with your children too. For example, after school ask your kid, “Tell me one thing you did at school today and it can’t be about lunch or recess.” It can also be tweaked and applied to family relationships. For example, taking a day each month to spend with a relative can go far in maintaining a stronger, more positive connection. Relationships with friends can also benefit with a little creative re-description of PRANA.

Your relationships, like the Universe, are based on dependent causality. You get out what you put into them. It is your awareness of the needs of your partner or children, your acceptance of ways to fill those needs, and the taking positive action that will lead to a harmonious relationship. Your example will likely become their actions as they realize the positive encompassing effect it is having on both lives.

Livelihood: Intent Matters — Imagination in Meditation 2




Business in weapons, business in meat, business in human beings, business in intoxicants, and business in poison were not appropriate livelihoods in the Buddha’s time and culture.

Now one must take a more appropriate view of livelihood.

Arms dealers profit from business in weapons . . . soldiers use weapons as tools to protect others.

Industiral farms cause suffering . . . butchers prepare food to alleviate hunger.

Pimps are slavers . . . adoption agencies find families for children.

Meth and heroin are dangerous poisons . . . marijuana is sold for medicinal and recreational purposes.

Chemical weapons are used to kill . . . pesticides (when used properly) are used to protect families.

Intent matters.

Now it is not the title of the job that makes it inappropriate . . . it is how that job is engaged.

What we do matters.






I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

Bodhisattva, Spiritual Guide

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

A bodhisattva can be compared to a wilderness guide who leads all sorts of people – young and old, experienced and novice, men and women – into a trackless forest. It is a task that requires the three aspects of skillful action: permission, preparation and resources. The guide must have the permission of those traveling with them to lead them into unknown territory as well as self-permission based on their knowledge of themselves; they must have taken the time and effort to prepare themselves, the gear, and their charges; and they must have the resources of knowledge of the terrain, the ability to respond appropriately to any situation, as well as the material goods such as food, water and shelter to sustain all that travel with them. The guide also needs the wisdom to be able to discern the minds of those traveling with them, what their strengths and weaknesses are, as well as the practical knowledge to make the most of both in any given situation. The guide must be willing to endure all hardships in order to reach their destination without loss of one being and then be as willing to go back and do it all again.

Why Am I A Buddhist . . . Why Are You A Buddhist?

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In St. Louis, Missouri a common question gets asked whenever strangers meet, “What high school did you graduate from?” The answer can make or break a possible friendship if one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day. The answer is important. Get more than one Buddhist in a room and the question, “What brought you to Buddhism?” will probably be asked. It isn’t the answer that is really important . . . it is the willingness to answer that is. I’ll venture to say that not one of you reading this would reject the friendship of another person because they didn’t come to Buddhism the same you did. Why we came to Buddhism really isn’t that important; why we choose to continue to pursue the Middle Path is. It is what defines practice.

Recently someone asked me, “Why are you a Buddhist?” Granted I’ve been asked this question before but it suddenly occurred to me that the reply that starts, “I found Buddhism because . . . your story goes here”, isn’t answering the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. Legitimate question, but having a legitimate answer requires me to listen deeply to myself, to be honest about why am I a Buddhist.

My response begins, “I practice Buddhism because . . .” and within those four words is a major reason why I am a Buddhist. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being and Buddhism offers me that opportunity through the guide offered by the Four Ennobling Truths and through how I choose to engage that guide in practice. I’m not expected to be perfect or to have all the answers but I am expected to keep practicing. Yeah, I know the saying “practice makes perfect” but honestly I’ve never seen any proof of that. In my experience I get better at being Buddhist but being “perfect” isn’t ever part of the agenda. In my experience “practice makes more practice” and I am good with that. For me it is in the doing, not in the done.

My response finishes with, “ . . . what we do matters.” Four words that encapsulate for me the whole of Buddhist psychology, philosophy and spiritualism as I have come to realize it. The Four Ennobling Truths are all about how our actions are the cause and effect of suffering – and that what we do matters. The Three Characteristics of Existence that include suffering and add impermanence and not-self are rooted in the ideal that we are each a unique part of dependent origination – what we do matters – we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale. I haven’t read a sutra or legacy teaching that wasn’t sending the message “go do it”. The ideal that what we do matters renews my intent to be the best human being I can be. I want to cease to do harm because it matters. I want to do good because it matters. I want to do good for others because it matters.

“I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.” I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders personal and social positive effects. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters and that is a force for positive transformation that can’t be equalled. There is a dark side to the “what we do matters” that a Buddhist must view realistically. The negative actions of others also matter and we, Buddhist or not must not hesitate to act appropriately and decisively whenever we can to mitigate the negative karmic consequences that can arise. We can control what we do and how we react to the results of the actions of others. This is all about karmic consequences.

Acting pluralistically is the I and We. It makes no difference to me what faith, religion or tradition another person is . . . they are part of the We. Our commitments may differ but it is the goal of alleviating suffering that matters. It is engaging in thought and action that promote human flourishing that matters. What we do matters.

Taking action is highlighted in the words practice and do. Am I a Buddhist because I take action or do I take action to be a Buddhist . . . doesn’t matter as both are more likely to result in positive karmic consequences. Buddhism is all about action. The psychology, philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism has roots, beginning with the Four Ennobling Truths, in action. It takes personal action to recognize the reality of suffering and it takes engaged action to realize the alleviation of suffering. The Eightfold Path guides me to actions that will improve how I am and how I can be an agent of positive transition in the world.

The two words in the middle have their significance. I am a unique factor in dependent origination, and ‘because’ is causality, think ‘be causal’ . . . in a positive way. This happened because that happened. I practice to “be cause” of more positive than negative ingredients in the karmic stew. Each moment, each experience and situation are also unique factors so I’m mindful of the WHAT. What is the reality of the situation and what would be the most harmonious action to take NOW.

The eight word sentence is a mirror of what keeps me on the path. Action and responsibility, being the cause of good, the I and We of pluralism, do something, actions have karmic consequences so each action matters. My personal mantra, and you are welcome to make it yours – I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.

Ask yourself the “Why am I a Buddhist?” question before someone else asks “Why are you a Buddhist?”. Without the ability to be honest with yourself about the answer your chance of having a deep and engaged Buddhist practice is slim. Curiosity, desire, life experience, or wanting to be cool might have caused you to look into Buddhism but why you continue when it takes such effort and commitment is what is more important. It is there you will find the depth of your practice and what you can do to enhance it.

I picture Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree after his awakening and thinking, “Man, what I just awakened to will really matter. Acting like that is going to take some practice.”


by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Universe is not wise, it is not compassionate, and it is certainly not fair. The Universe only acts from the causal conditions that occur within it. You only have to view the Universe through a lens that strips away delusion and personal perceptions to recognize these truths. This not only leads to the realization that bad things happen to good people, but that good things happen to bad people. You can be the best Buddhist you can possibly be and you will still encounter moments of suffering in life the Awakened One fully realized in the Four Ennobling Truths. You can be the worst type of human being possible and still encounter moments of joy and wonder that doesn’t seem deserved. This too is an aspect of the first of the Four Ennobling Truths. Doesn’t hardly seem fair . . . does it?

Ryugen Fisher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long, over his lifetime (and this continues today with his students and their students) created a list of Life Lessons that arose from his own experiences, or the experiences of others. I often refer to the list for insight, inspiration and a dose of spiritual humor. Rule #11, The Rule of Expectations, offers a view of fairness: Expecting life to treat you “fairly” because you’re a good person is like expecting the bull NOT to charge at you because you’re a vegetarian. Like the bull the Universe doesn’t care WHAT you are, it responds only to HOW you are.


Not sure where this perception of a fair Universe arose but it is believed by many who’ve been acculturated to the notion that the world is supposed to be inherently fair. You only have to look around to prove this belief is a delusion. Students struggle for high GPAs in high school and college only to find themselves without job opportunities. Some business people engage in illegal and immoral activities and become unimaginable wealthy. People live lives of exemplary compassion only to be struck down by genetic diseases. Innocent children are abused and abandoned. The Universe rolls along with human beings evolving within it, but we aren’t steering it. We have our role as part of its motive power but it also needs the bad weather, steep hills and earthquakes because they are just as important to the workings of the machine. So what if those things make our lives difficult, the machine is just the machine. This means from our perspective that the ideal of fairness is a delusion.

There is no compassion, wisdom or fairness inherent in the Universe. There is also no vengeance, ignorance, or bad intent inherent in the Universe. The perception of the Universe meting out cosmic justice or punishment is the result of a misunderstanding of the reality of HOW it works. What happens is causally conditioned by all the phenomena taking place each moment. There is no doubt you can take actions that lead to unwholesome consequences . . . which is why a Buddhist looks to the Three Pure Precepts (cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others) to guide us way from such actions. You don’t have any control over unwholesome decisions made by others, the arising of new diseases, or what the rest of the causal process of the Universe is doing. When bad things do happen you must avoid attaching to them the perception that it was because of something you did, and focus on practicing ways to make situations better. By realizing that the “fair Universe” concept is a delusion, and that you are not 100% of the karmic consequences, you will come to realize . . . and here comes the good part . . . that you have the ability to engage in wholesome transformation of your self and the global society you are interconnected with, and interdependent on.

You are not 100% of the karmic consequences . . . still, what you do matters. Life’s circumstances can sneak up on you. When you develop an awareness of the conditions under which difficulties arise, and that chances are there was no intent to directly harm you, though is may feel so, you become better prepared to accept them and take appropriate actions. Your actions do play a significant role in future experiences but your’s are a part of them, not the whole of them. Not only what you do matters, but what you control over what you do.

You are part of a causal web and the rest of the Universe is too. The concept of “personal karma”, while it has its validity, is an ideal not encompassing enough to recognize the broader reality of karmic influence. Causality, what makes karma a reality, is how the Universe reveals its neutrality. The Universe doesn’t add a view, an intent, an action, or any effort to make things happen. You are not a target of it. It is egoistic for you to believe things happen TO us, or that they happen FOR us. They happen as a result of nonlinear consequences of causality and you just happen to have a role in a particular experience.

The realization that you are part, but not the whole of the karmic web is actually empowering. It is why you engage in becoming the best possible you, the best possible example of a wise and compassionate human being. The “small” role as one thread interdependent on the threads of others whose intent and actions mesh with your own is how incremental wholesome transformations happen. The web becomes larger and the probability of snaring positive consequences increases exponentially. Things may not happen TO us, or FOR us, but they do happen BECAUSE of us. We are each unique expressions of the Universe and our actions within it have unique consequences.

With the knowledge that you play a role, no matter how small, comes the responsibility for your actions. What you do matters . . . negative, positive or neutral . . . how you act, how you respond is what makes personal practice so important. It is through intent and action that a sense of fairness will arise. Fairness arises as a result of awareness, compassion, generosity and acceptance.

You occupy a part of the karmic web and so have a responsibility to the strand you control. You must develop both mindfulness and awareness so you can overlay the “personal” with the “global” karma and find ways to improve both. You accept that there will be situations that you can, and can’t control. You learn to take wise actions to be the cause and effect of positive transformation whenever, and where ever the causal Universe offers you the opportunity.


by Wayne Ren-Cheng

What’s in it for me is not the question a bodhisattva-in-training asks before taking action. Actions to promote human flourishing are meant to be taken without any expectations of reward. No atta-boys, pats on the back, raise on your paycheck, or new car. The ideals of nirvana and enlightenment are dangled as possibilities, not as rewards but as destinations that may, or may not be at the finish line. There is a commitment to putting in a lot of selfless effort to be a better human being without any expectation of how that will benefit you.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a notion of enlightened self-interest in the choices one makes. Not enlightened as in the Buddhist philosophical sense of the term, but in the Western view of performing acts with the understanding and knowledge that personal gain of some sort will be one effect. There is a wide difference between expecting something in return and the knowledge gained through experience that there are selfish reasons to be a better human being. The Buddha knew that the Noble Path, given the effort and commitment needed to walk it, would initially be walked for reasons of self development, of self betterment, of enlightened self-interest. He accepted this dharma and so should we all.

It takes commitment to walk the path of a bodhisattva-in-training. Whether it is walked as a lay person or as a monk there is a lot to be mindful of, and a lot of practices to be mindful of as the causal world is engaged. However many people are on the planet . . . you vow to lead them all to liberation through the example you set with your own life. However many delusions you hold about yourself and the world around you . . . you vow to extinguish, to make fall away each and every one of them. However many Dharma teachings there are . . . and there a bunch . . . you vow to learn about them and practice them . . . all. However far the Noble Path stretches . . . you vow to walk it to the end. It is a huge commitment. And, to top it all off you are supposed to commit to it without any expectation . . . at least once Buddhist practice and knowledge of causal consequences matures.

In the Saddha Sutra the Buddha taught that there were rewards for the committed practitioner. There were five rewards that truly good people would “give”. The sutra was originally written for the monastic disciples to spark their self-interest so that they would pursue positive self-transformation. The Buddha knew from his own experience that through time and mindfulness that self-interest would fall away and selfless loving-kindness would arise in its place.

Saddha Sutra

NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this 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. In this instance I’ve replaced monk (bhikkhu) with lay person so that lay practitioners can gain the appropriate view that this teachings is of equal value to them. The sutra re-described was initially translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “Saddha Sutta: Conviction” (AN 5.38), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, .

“For a lay person, there are these five rewards of commitment. Which five?

When the truly good people in the world show compassion, they will naturally first show compassion to people of commitment, and not to people without commitment.

When visiting, they naturally first visit people of commitment, and not people without commitment.

When accepting gifts, they will naturally first accept those from people with commitment, and not from people without commitment.

When teaching the Dhamma, they will naturally first teach those with commitment, and not those without commitment.

A person of commitment, on death, will leave behind a legacy of positive thought and action. For a lay person, these are the five rewards of commitment.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of commitment is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.”

The commitment spoken of in the sutra is the commitment to ideals like the Three Pure Precepts: cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. The karmic causal process of the universe clearly reveals that a person looking to do good is more apt to offer their skills, gifts and practice to those people striving to do good themselves. So, in the name of enlightened self-interest it is better to be seen as doing good so positive causal effects can be experienced.

When the truly good people in the world show compassion, they will naturally first show compassion to people of commitment, and not to people without commitment.

It is not an expectation that because you act with compassion that others will show you compassion; it is knowledge that can be experientially verified through your own actions. You freely offer compassion to a person volunteering their time and skills in a nursing home. You naturally find it more difficult to offer that same compassion to a child molester.

When visiting, they naturally first visit people of commitment, and not people without commitment.

It is in a person’s self-interest to first visit someone with whom they have a shared commitment, or at least a parallel commitment. It is with those people that positive personal development will strengthen. Later, when visiting those without commitment that gained strength can be put to use building new commitments.

When accepting gifts, they will naturally first accept those from people with commitment, and not from people without commitment.

A bodhisattva-in-training must practice skillful generosity. Offering skills, gifts and practices to those people and organizations that will pass along that generosity doesn’t take a lot of conscious thinking. Offering the same to those who may not appreciate or acknowledge it is a more difficult practice. Engaging with those with similar commitments allows one to experience the feelings of acceptance and gratitude that future acts of generosity may not generate.

When teaching the Dharma, they will naturally first teach those with commitment, and not those without commitment.

There is an ideal in Buddhism that the student will come to the teacher. The teacher commits to teaching someone is showed the commitment to find a teacher. A layperson offers the dharma through their actions, so someone already committed, at some level to becoming a better human being is more likely to aware of the lesson and mindful of its value.

A person of commitment, on death, will leave behind a legacy of positive thought and action. For a lay person, these are the five rewards of commitment.

Many people regret their actions as they lay dying. They winge and complain about what they could have, or should have done with their lives. They regret not committing to something positive. This is part of the foundation for the traditional Buddhist philosophy behind rebirth and karma. There are many people who come to practice Buddhism as a way of expunging their past negative choices (stealing, sexual misconduct, killing, etc.) or past negative experiences (loss, illness, pain, depression) in order to pave the path for a better next life. This is an ultimate form of enlightened self-interest. In Engaged Dharma there is a more pragmatic, and selfless way of viewing this. A person committed to, and acting with the knowledge that what they do matters now, and after they die, will endeavor to always cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. In this way they live a life of enlightened self-interest that is also enlightened selflessness.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of commitment is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.”

The actions of a sincere and committed bodhisattva-in-training are clearly evident to those people with, or seeking the same commitment to human flourishing, and to positive personal transformation. Siddhartha is our example of the reality of this phenomena of karmic causality. Others, of all castes, were drawn toward the cool abiding shade of his wisdom and compassion. Enlightened self-interest arose as a need to figure out the human condition. After his awakening he questioned whether he should, or could offer what he discovered about the realities of human existence, and choose to allow enlightened self-interest to transform into enlightened selflessness.