Wearing Social Hat


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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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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