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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Wearing Social Hat

BUDDHA SANTA

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Wearing a social hat is key to the practice of connecting with a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of circumstances. It is known as the practice of social virtuosity. To engage the path of social virtuosity that strengthens practice and enhances how you relate to the causal word it is necessary to understand the concept of self from a pragmatic Buddhist perspective. There is the “self” and there is the “not-self”. Confusion and misunderstanding arises from dualistic thinking, that there is both permanence and impermanence, that you are self (a perfectly good word and concept), one that undergoes change in each moment. In fact you are both in any given moment. It is said that language cannot convey what we really mean by “the self”. Granted there are limitations to language but we must accept the challenge because if we won’t be a foundational understanding of “the self” so how then can personal transformation to a social self begin? The tricky part comes courtesy of the Causal Process of the Universe, the cause and effect of the ever-changing, ever-impermanent nature of “the self”. In each moment there is the “self” as it is in each moment, AND there is the “not-self” that is undergoing change caused by the causal factors that arise in each moment; a cycle that continues from birth to death. Each of you are unique expressions of the Universe, a “self” that defines you in each moment, and a “not-self” that defines how you interact with the world in that moment.

The recognition that you are a unique expression of the causal universe but not unique in the universe; that the goals you set can’t be achieved and issues can’t be resolved independently, then you come to realize our role as a social self in a world of social selves. You realize that what you do matters; the realization of being a social self becomes even more critical to your contributions to the positive transformation of the world. People new to Buddhism and even some with a broad experience in Buddhism see the intent of Buddhist practice as purely “personal development” that comes through meditative practice and mindfulness of how one is, and how one imagines that can be. In Mahayana Buddhism there is meant to be a balance of value between personal mindfulness and social awareness. A practitioner begins by working on “the self” and in doing so becomes an example of what is individually possible that is revealed in their social actions. Positive character traits and actions arise to become examples to others that positive transformation is possible for them, and translates into the realization that positive transformation is possible for the world. There is no separation between local and global, between person and community, between your thoughts and your actions because as every phenomena inter-dependently arises and you are a causal factor.

There is no “private” practice, even when you are sitting on a cushion in the privacy of your home. The practice will become HOW you are so you must be the same you when you alone and when you are engaging with others. Venerable Shi Yong Xiang would say that when we are alone is when we must practice hardest. There is a realization that HOW we act and think moment-to-moment affects the self that you are, the self you want to become, and the selves of those around you. All human beings are each as unique as you are and in order to effectively interact with them you must develop social virtuosity, the ability to view them how they are without engaging any preconceptions, and to engage in levels of communication where ideas and issues can be clearly transmitted. “Your” thoughts, language and actions are informed by the thoughts, language and actions of all members of society, and of the outside non-human causal forces. You have a unique social history, local history, global history and spiritual history that you must harness into social virtuosity.

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The Language of Burdens

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Awakened One came to realize that human beings weight themselves down with unnecessary burdens as they walk the path of life. Once a physical or mental phenomena becomes a burden than it naturally becomes a source of discontentment and anguish as one struggles to carry it even when deep in the sub-conscious mind there is recognition that it has little or no value. He used a parable to offer a teaching on those burdens.

Once there was a man on a long journey who came to a river. He said to himself: ‘This side of the river is very difficult and dangerous to walk on, and the other side seems easier and safer, but how shall I get across?’ So he built a raft out of branches and reeds and safely crossed the river. Then he thought to himself: ‘This raft has been very useful to me in crossing the river; I will not abandon it to rot on the bank, but will carry it along with me.’ And thus he voluntarily assumed an unnecessary burden. Can this man be called a wise man?

This parable teaches that even a good thing, when it becomes an unnecessary burden, should be thrown away; much more so if it is a bad thing. Buddha made it the rule of his life to avoid useless and unnecessary discussions. The Teaching of Buddha, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Society for the Promotion of Buddhism), 1966, pg. 106

These are the words that over twenty years ago changed my perspective on how I was living my life, and provided the impetus to transform it. Before these words I felt trapped in a cycle of being that was debilitating, dangerous and destructive. It was my introduction to the Buddhist ideal of craving and attachment but I didn’t discover that until many years later. In that moment an attachment to a relationship that I viewed as necessary for my being manifested as a craving to do whatever it might take to have it continue, even at the cost of the contentment of myself and others, was causing suffering for all involved.

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Letter to the Grief Stricken

To the Grief-Stricken,

You’ve lost someone very close to you and you are grieving. No shock there, grief is an emotion that comes along with the human condition. It’s perfectly normal to experience denial, anger, and sadness when you’ve suffered a loss. You asked me what does Buddhism offer as ways to deal with grief and loss. To come to an acceptance of loss and a relieving of grief after the death of a loved one you first have to accept the reality that death inevitably follows birth. What can suck is death too soon sometimes follows birth.

There is a Buddhist parable, The Mustard Seed, that speaks to thinking one is alone in their suffering after loss. In a condensed version a young woman named Kisa, carrying the body of her deceased young child came before the Buddha. She was in a state of intense grieving, refusing to believe her child was dead, that such suffering could be dealt to her alone. She was confused, angry and sad all at the same time. The emotion of grief dominated her bodymind. Kisa demanded of the Buddha that he cure her son, bring him back to life. He tells her that to do as she asked he would need a mustard seed from a house in which there had been no death or suffering. At every door she was offered mustard seeds but when she asked if anyone had died there she heard, “Yes, my . . . died here.” Spending the day knocking on door after door she finally came to realize that death was a part of everyone’s life, that she was not alone in her pain and grief. Loss comes to everyone. Kisa gained an understanding that she was not alone in her suffering, that she suffered along with many others.

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Suffering Calf — Future Buddha Jataka Tale

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The traditional Jataka Tales, stories of Siddhartha’s previous lives before awakening, are meant to teach lessons in moral thought and ethical action. Siddhartha was viewed as having lived lives as beggar and king, holy man and untouchable, eagle and hummingbird, lion and rabbit, water nymph and deva; in each he learned lessons of wisdom, wisdom that would eventually lead him to his life as Siddhartha, then as the Awakened One.

Siddhartha is the historical Buddha of our time. What about the future Buddha? The Awakened One told us, “I am not the first Buddha to come upon this earth; nor shall I be the last. Previously, there were many Buddhas who appeared in this world. In due time, another Buddha will arise in this world, within this world cycle.” Viewing this as a truth then those previous lives have been, or are currently being lived right in this moment.

What are the lives of the future Buddha? What lessons have the future Awakened One learned?

With all this, I will endeavor to write some Future Buddha Jataka Tales. Like the traditional tales the bodhisattva can arise as any sentient being because all sentient beings might be a Buddha.

Traditional Jataka Tales often begin with the words, ‘Once upon a time when . . .’, to denote events and people from their past. These Future Jataka Tales will begin with ‘In this time . . .’ to show their more immediate connection to our present moment.

Future Buddha Jataka: Suffering Calf

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