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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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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Contenment from Not Knowing: Ancintita Sutra

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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