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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Shattering the Links of samsara

Cycling Through samsara to nirvana II

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Last week we talked about samsara as a lack of mindfulness from birth to death of the suffering we all experience, and that finding ways to break that cycle will lead us to bodymind states of nirvana in our moment-to-moment existence. We used the definition from John J. Holder as a bridge to understanding the concept of samsara and its value in our Buddhist practice.

samsara: cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; mundane, unenlightened existence; escape from samsara constitutes liberation or nibbana.

To “escape” from samsara and experience awakened (or liberated) moments you need to know what the aspects of the samsara state of mind are that will hinder you from those experiences. I ended the talk last week with these words, “It is up to you to get on your bicycle and ride.” So, let’s do it.

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The Language of Pluralism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

A talk given at the Buddha Center in the virtual space of Second Life.

 

The Engaged Dharma philosophy of pluralism, that arises from the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists tradition and the Harvard Pluralism Project, acknowledges that there are different ways to live lives directed toward the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony) and the alleviation of suffering. We acknowledge that there is more than one path to any goal. There is no one “true” approach to living, only ones that work well, or ones that don’t. It is important that we are aware that there are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” paths and develop the wisdom to know the difference. Whether it is a scientific approach, a philosophical approach, a religious approach, or an ideological approach; those that are focused on positive personal and social development have value and we must be willing to set aside differences in favor of combining skills and resources to relieve suffering.

Viewing the world through a pluralistic lens takes practice and commitment. We verify through experiential verification (our own experience proves the validity of a practice or idea) and social consensus (practices and ideas found to work on a societal level) what is useful and productive practices (pragmatism) without attacking another’s belief system (pluralism), and by being aware that blind adherence to dogma can limit positive transformations (philosophy). Professor Diana Eck of the Harvard Pluralism Project clearly describes four aspects of thinking and acting pluralistically.

First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but energetic engagement with diversity.

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Cycling Through samsara To nirvana

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Venerable David Xi-Ken Astor wrote in his book, ‘Pragmatic Buddhism: Reflecting Contemporary Vitality’ that, “the Buddha’s arising occurred during a time of metaphysics, and as a result his teachings have metaphysical elements used to describe them and to realize them. Now those teachings are arising in a time of science and it is up to us to realize them through a lens of modern society, science and cultural influences in order to harness their potential of positive transformation.” This is a view that can be applied to much of what can be confusing philosophies in this ages old system of beliefs, a system of beliefs that the Buddha himself made clear must change with time, culture and context so that the intent of the dharma could be realized and valued. The Four Ennobling Truths were a reality before the Buddha awakened to them, they have been a reality ever since. Along the way, the mutability of the Dharma allowed it to effectively change dependent those cultures and times.

The Buddhist concepts samsara and nirvana are metaphysical ideals as they are difficult to prove, and can be difficult to understand and find the value of in a contemporary practice. Samsara is often experienced as the imperfect world of suffering discontent and anguish that human beings spend their existence in. Nirvana is the meta-physical place where ultimate liberation is found. What if these are not places WHERE one is, but are instead viewed as HOW one is? Can we pull away the traditional veil of metaphysics to reveal the contemporary value of these millennia old concepts that initially arose from Siddhartha’s (and his earliest disciples) Hindu beliefs?

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Agnostic Religion . . . Atheist Philosophy

EGGNOSTIC CARTOON

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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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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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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