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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Generosity of Spirit: The Ideal Meets the Real

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

A bodhisattva-in-training practices generosity of spirit offering their skills, material goods and time to whomever needs them, whenever the need arises. This ideal is at the core of how a bodhisattva-in-training thinks and acts. The practice of generosity hastens the arising of other positive dispositions such as selflessness, humility, loving-kindness and wisdom. The first three are logical results of such a practice . . . but . . . wisdom?

Wisdom arises gradually as a practitioner learns through experience how their actions impact others, and themselves.

There are traditional parables and tales that reveal the lengths a bodhisattva-in-training is expected to go to in the practice of generosity. There is a Jataka Tale in which Siddhartha was a rabbit in a previous life. He was said to be a wise and learned rabbit whose friends looked to him for teaching and advice. The rabbit realized that on a Holy Day when all are expected to give freely to strangers that all he had to contribute was grass. Feeling that grass wasn’t sufficient to offer a guest he threw himself into the fire, offering his own body as food. This is viewed as the ultimate traditional ideal of generosity.

Giving your life, not so another can live, but so another can enjoy a meal seems contradictory to a practice of the Middle Path.

Still, there are those who place the ideal above the real. They consistently do for others while ignoring what they need to do for themselves. The reality is that anyone, Buddhist practitioner or other belief, who doesn’t take care of their needs . . . NOT wants . . . before looking to the needs of others hasn’t realized an appropriate view of generosity of spirit. A bodhisattva-in-training must take care so that when generosity of spirit is practiced it isn’t to the detriment of themselves and their family.

Ideally one doesn’t throw themselves into the fire. One looks for more realistic options to practice generosity of spirit.

Wisdom arises gradually as a practitioner learns through experience how their actions impact others, and themselves.

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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Navigating Life with Skillful Means (Upaya)

by Wayne Ren-Cheng


It takes skill and flexibility to positively engage your life. Each moment brings with it unique situations to respond to, and unique experiences to learn from. You know from experience that you can’t act the same way around each person; and, that you can’t respond in the same way to every situation even when they seem remarkable similar. To live in this ever-changing world among ever-changing people takes skill and flexibility. In Buddhist practice this ability is known as skill-in-means (Sk., upaya).

The Buddha would first assess the nature of his audience and then use a variety of tactics and strategies in order to guide them out of suffering and unsatisfactoriness. In the Mahayana tradition this is known as the Skill-In-Means Doctrine: “. . . taken to entail an apparently infinite flexibility in adapting the teaching of the Buddha to suit changing circumstances.” [Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, Paul Williams, page 151] Skill-in-means, or skillful means is simply learning to “know your audience” and in addition, to “know yourself”. The life and teachings of the Buddha are a testament to his ability to speak in the language and worldview of his listeners. Was Siddhartha born with this skill? No, no one is born able to understand and adjust to any situation; it is a skill that must be learned and practiced.

The Buddha was able to transmit the message of the Dharma equally well to Brahmin or householder, King or thief. Siddhartha studied with the learned masters of his day and culture. Through them he came to know the languages and worldviews of the various mendicants that roamed and taught around India. As a child and young man he already had experience with the more royal strata of his culture. Traveling and teaching as the Awakened One he improved his ability to speak directly to all manner of people from every caste.

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

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Dukkha X 4: The Truths of Human Existence

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In Buddhist philosophy there are three types of suffering (dukkha) traditionally recognized in the human experience. In our contemporary culture there is another to be recognized. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psycho-emotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. There is also suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offer the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path as the way to alleviate suffering; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about the arising of suffering and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.


Dukkha-dukkha is obvious suffering. It is physical pain that arises from injury or disease.


Some people enjoy growing roses. They invest time, effort and skill in order to reap the reward of beauty. Invariably during planting or pruning, even when harvesting beautiful flowers to put in a vase in the house they’ll get pricked by thorns or nick their finger with pruning shears. This is suffering caused by physical pain (dukkha-dukkha).

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4 Wheel Drive Prosperity: Drive to Wealth

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

With the state of world economies it isn’t a surprise that people are searching for any means to improve their situations. Buddhists are no different. The posting, ‘Money Chant’ on the EDIG website has been very popular lately. Some of the search terms that have found it are: buddhist money chant – vasudhare – buddhist prosperity gospel – buddhism and economics – wealth and buddhism. The trend toward this posting reveals one aspect of human existence that is a root cause of suffering . . . wealth, material and spiritual.

The Awakened One shares practices that will enhance our wealth, material and spiritual. Most notably in the Sigalovada Sutra he teaches how material wealth affects personal relationships. Expanding the teaching from individual effects to the broader karmic consequences he arrived at the core lesson, it isn’t how much wealth one has, it is how one uses that wealth. Wealth should be viewed as a tool, a tool that can be an effective tool when used wisely. Some scholars and teachers say that the Awakened One tells practitioners that enhancing wealth will allow students to pursue their spiritual goals with less distractions.

Enhancing personal monetary wealth will indeed minimize distractions caused by bills due, home repairs needed and family to be provided for. Surplus wealth not needed for the comfort and care of family and friends should be directed toward helping others. This ideal fits firmly in the goal of the Four Ennobling Truths and the realization of personal responsibility for how we live. Some scholars and teachers offer that the Buddha introduced a wealth deity, a traditional Hindu goddess named Vasudhara (Sk., stream of treasure) who, when her name is chanted will bring prosperity and riches to the devotee. This concept is often heard referred to as the Buddhist Prosperity teaching, and offers the “Money Chant” as a path to that prosperity.

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