FUN WITH KOANS & PARABLES — July 31, 2014

This is going to be a weekly excursion into thinking differently about traditional koans and parables. Not having been trained in koans I am certain I think differently about them already. The parables are timeless in their lessons . . . but the metaphors of their time and culture don’t always translate well into the contemporary minds and experiences of today. Still, we must experience the traditional within our contemporary bodyminds so that lessons can be realized.

A traditional writing will be followed by a contemporary creatively re-described version with the intent of offering a lesson in non-discursive thought from the koan or parable.

 

First Principle

The Master Kosen drew the words “The First Principle” which are carved over the gate of the Oaku Temple in Kyoto. He drew them with his brush on a sheet of paper — later they were carved in wood.

A pupil of the master had mixed the ink for him, and stood by, watching the master’s calligraphy. This pupil said: “Not so good!” Kosen tried again. The pupil said; “That’s worse than the first one!” and Kosen tried again.

After the sixty-fourth try, the ink was running low, and the pupil went out to mix some more. Left alone, undistracted by any critical eye watching him, Kosen made one more quick drawing with the last of the ink. When the pupil returned, he took a good look at this latest effort.

A masterpiece!” he said.

Thousands of years later.

Just Sitting

Wade came to understand “The First Principle”. He recognized the need to empty one’s mind. He came to realize it sitting in zazen.

A voice tells him he isn’t doing it right. Wade is sitting, breathing, counting each out-breath. The voice cries out, “Too many thoughts, too much fidgeting.” He shifts on the cushion and tries to focus on emptying his mind.

After sixty-four minutes he is ready to give up because the thoughts are still there. Then Wade realized that it wasn’t the thoughts . . . it was thinking about the thoughts.

An awakened moment!” he said.

During the week ponder either, or both of these writings . . . then return to the blog and give an opinion, an insight, or a comment. Remember Buddhist philosophy isn’t meant to be only theory . . . there must be an element of action or it has no value.

Fun with Koans and Parables — July 24, 2014

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

This is going to be a weekly excursion into thinking differently about traditional koans and parables. Not having been trained in koans I am certain I think differently about them already. The parables are timeless in their lessons . . . but the metaphors of their time and culture don’t always translate well into the contemporary minds and experiences of today. Still, we must experience the traditional within our contemporary bodyminds so that lessons can be realized.

A traditional writing will be followed by a contemporary creatively re-described version with the intent of offering a lesson in non-discursive thought from the koan or parable.

Mountain Way

A master who lived as a hermit on a mountain was asked by a monk, “What is the Way?”

What a fine mountain this is,” the master said in reply.

I am not asking you about the mountain, but about the Way.”

So long as you cannot go beyond the mountain, my son, you cannot reach the Way,” replied the master.

 

And a thousand plus years later . . .

Shelves in the Way

 

A ‘stream seeker’ encountered a Buddhist monk in the philosophy section of the library. She asked the monk, “What is the Way?”

What a fine selection of books about Buddhism there is here,” he replied.

I am aware of all the choices here, but I asked you about the Way.”

Until you get past the selections you will not reach the Way,” replied the monk.

During the week ponder either, or both of these writings . . . then return to the blog and give an opinion, an insight, or a comment. Remember Buddhist philosophy isn’t meant to be only theory . . . there must be an element of action or it has no value.

Drive Safely: Actions on the Noble Path

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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Choosing the Noble Path

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

 

Whenever strangers meet In St. Louis, Missouri the first question asked is, “What high school did you graduate from?” If one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day or if they they didn’t the answer is important. The answer can make or break a possible friendship. 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 along the same path 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.

 

I often get asked, “Why did you chose to be a Buddhist?” My reply of, “I found Buddhism because at a difficult time in my life Buddhism offered a different way of thinking and acting in relation to how I was then.”, doesn’t really answering the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal to them what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. How can it, Buddhist practice, help them through life’s situations. It is a legitimate question, but having an honest answer requires me to listen deeply to myself, to be honest about why am I a Buddhist.

 

 

A better answer begins with, “I practice Buddhism because . . .”, within those four words is a major reason why I chose the Noble Path. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being. Buddhism offers me that opportunity through 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. Refining my character, refining how I am in relation to myself and the world around me is 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.

 

The 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 of suffering, and can be cause of the alleviation of suffering – 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 the causal process of the Universe; we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale if we choose to make the appropriate effort. 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.” Together the answer reveals the I and the We, the interconnection I realize between all phenomena. I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders positive effects both personal and social. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters and it 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.

 

Acting pluralistically is the I and We. The We in the equation may not always be a Buddhist. 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.

 

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 the causal process of the Universe, and ‘because’ is causality. 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 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.”

 

Confident in Faith

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Religion relies on faith, the initial acceptance that what is being taught is real. Some religions teach that a practitioner must continue to believe what is not, or cannot be proven . . . that they ‘take it on faith’. This can lead to an overzealous faith that suffocates intelligent exploration and questioning. People who believe without any attempt to prove will likely discover dogma rather than accrue knowledge. There is a great disservice to the individual and society if faith replaces the motivation to investigate and to experience personally the efficacy of any teaching or knowledge.

 

Buddhism in its many traditions is practiced as a religion and so faith plays a role, but with a different view not shared with other religions. To highlight the difference, Siddhartha used a synonym for faith, confidence. Same intent, different arising. Faith, the acceptance that what is being taught is real arises without any means of verification or often, desire to verify. A practitioner must continue to believe what is not, or cannot be proven. This can lead to an overzealous faith that suffocates intelligent exploration and questioning. People who believe without any attempt to prove will likely discover dogma rather than accrue knowledge. There is a great disservice done to the individual and society if faith replaces the motivation to investigate and to experience personally the efficacy of any teaching or knowledge.

 

Confidence arises as a result of knowledge, practice and experience. Knowledge that Siddhartha was human and that each of us are human gives us confidence (faith) that we can experience awakened moments. Engaging in practices such as generosity of spirit we experience that the good we do matters for ourselves and our society. Buddhism’s is a verified faith (confidence). In the Nandiya Sutra, Siddhartha teaches the ideal of ‘verified confidence’.

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Navigating Life Skillfully

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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Better Human Beings Through Dharma

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

 

What do you think is the encompassing and corrective goal of practicing Buddhism, of walking the Noble Path? Sure, the first ideal that comes to mind is most likely to reach nirvana, to be removed from the ‘cycle of birth’. Is this really the path that the Awakened One was laying out for the majority of human beings? Or, was there a loftier, even more important goal?

 

Siddhartha was a human being with human being issues. He awakened to the realities of the Four Ennobling Truths as a human being, and as the Buddha, still a human being, he taught those realities. As a human being he lived those realities, realities that were all about the human condition. All humans suffer. A cause of suffering is unnatural craving and attachment, particularly for permanence. There is a way to out of suffering. That way is Eightfold. His focus was on the plight and liberation of human beings. Doesn’t this point to a particular intent in all of the Buddha’s teachings . . . how to be a better human being whether a monk or a layperson? In my worldview I believe the answer to be a loud and joyous . . . YES.

 

When the recognition arises that you are not the only one who suffers, that it is an encompassing human condition then you can’t help but develop empathy for the suffering of others as well as yourself. You start to look deeply at your own cravings and attachments and learn ways to lessen their hold on your psyche. You discover that there is an Eightfold Path away from suffering and apply the lessons of appropriate view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Your mindfulness and awareness grow. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?

 

Karma, compassion and generosity are three aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practice at the top of the “to do” list for any practitioner. These are meant to be the key considerations of a bodhisattva-in-training. One allows learning about the self, one requires learning about others, and one involves helping others without expectation. While these thoughts and actions are part of the path to nirvana, how important are they once that goal is reached?

 

You learn about karma. Every action you take has consequences. Every action that any human being takes has consequences. You recognize that you can’t control the actions of others, but you can, and must control your own actions. Taking an honest look at your past and at your present moment you assess actions taken with the intent of uncovering good and bad choices. Then, with a deeper look you reveal some of the consequences of those actions. Granted, most of the consequences will be unknown to you, but the ones you can see will prove the existence of karma, of human physics in action. Your bad choices led directly to bad results, for you or someone else. Your good choices, to good results. With this realization you strive to do your best for yourself and others. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?

 

Compassion is non-negotiable for a Buddhist. The first of the Four Ennobling Truths teaches that suffering is a fact of human existence. That deep look at karmic consequences reveals the different depths of suffering that Truth points to. Suffering is something that all human beings have in common. Every human being is deserving of compassion because we are all connected through the Truth of suffering. Once compassion is realized then the dispositions of anger, hatred, intolerance, envy and fear fall away, and loving-kindness and tolerance arise. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?

 

The other disposition that arises from a compassionate bodymind is generosity, and compassion arises from acts of a spirit of generosity. You can’t realize the encompassing nature of suffering, experience the arising of compassion, and not want to take intentional action to alleviate it. Generosity of spirit is that action. You take the path of freely offering your skills, time and gifts to all beings, offering done without any expectation of reward or recognition. You do it because it needs to be done. Whether you volunteer to teach unwed teenage mothers to care for their infants and themselves, or you make contributions of material goods to charitable organizations (first assuring you and your family have what is needed) you are practicing generosity of spirit. Isn’t this cultivating a better human being?

 

The second of the Four Ennobling Truths is that the major cause of suffering is unnatural craving and attachment, particularly for permanence. Nirvana, in the traditional sense seems like a state of permanence. You are released from the cycle of birth and death. You get to inhabit what I can only think of as a Buddhist sort of heaven. If the major cause of suffering is a craving for permanence and nothing is permanent then isn’t the goal of Nirvana going to cause suffering?

 

My teacher impressed upon me that Buddhist teachers are farmers, not hunters. I am not out trying to ‘hunt down’ nirvana . . . or enlightenment for that matter. Years of experience have shown me that this needs to be the intent of all practitioners, layperson and monk. The positive thoughts and actions we take must not be with the intent that ‘by doing this or that I will reach Nirvana’. If, or when Nirvana is reached it won’t be because it was hunted down through thought or action. It will be reached because it was grown into through thought and action. If reaching Nirvana is at the core of intent for those thoughts and actions then Nirvana can never be reached. Why you ask? If the intent of good thoughts and actions is predicated on reaching Nirvana then the intent is a selfish one . . . and selfishness can’t get you into Nirvana.

 

There is a goal for Buddhist practitioners that is much more important than reaching Nirvana, and that goal can be reached in the very next moment. Realizing the dharma named karma, the dharma named compassion, and the dharma named generosity will cause the arising of a better human being.

Dukkha X 4

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: Cakka Sutra

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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Acintita Sutta: Content in Not-Knowing

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In many aspects of human endeavor competition plays a valuable role. Competition spurs new invention and new extremes of human physical and mental strengths. Competition can also be a contributing causal factor in fear, hatred, anxiety, frustration, anger and envy; all negative dispositions that can tag along in the unconscious mind. In Chan practice there is no room for dispositions and actions that hinder progress. That is why, in the sangha is no place for competition between members. In Buddhist practice there is no place for competition because all people are unique expressions of the Universe, so one’s level of progress cannot be measured with another’s.

Siddhartha, the historical Buddha didn’t have to imagine the detrimental effects that competition could cause. After all, he had been to school, had siblings, had a father’s legacy to look up to, and he’d experienced who could deprive themselves the most when he traveled with the ascetics. The Awakened One must have contemplated what aspects of human existence were most likely to cause the arising of competition and conflict. In the Acintita Sutta he offered four and the negative consequences of pursuing them.

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