Mind in a New Moment — Engaging Beginner’s Mind

By Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi

Be in the moment. This adamant instruction arises in many talks or writings about the practice of Zen. To experience the moment one is further instructed to develop a beginner’s mind. How is that done?

In Zen Buddhism this practice starts with the recognition of the value of a “beginner’s mind” (shoshin) is a way of approaching all situations with an open mind, fresh energy, and without preconceptions. In the 1960s this term came into common usage as a result of a talk given by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the venerated Zen teacher who founded the San Francisco Zen Center, and whose book ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ offered a way to realize this ideal in a Buddhist pracitce. Beginner’s mind is the path to discovering the new experiences and knowledge that are invisible to the unaware. It is a factor in the stilling of the “monkey mind”, the state of being when the mind continually chatters like an excited monkey. The beginner’s mind opens the practitioner up to fully experiencing the reality of each moment and to respond to those moments without preconceptions.

Each of us 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 . . . right in that moment”. The aphorism Buddhist style could be, “unique situation, unique experience” as an intentional reminder that a past experience doesn’t equal a present experience.

Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The beginner’s mind in Buddhism is always asking, “what is there to learn now?”. The beginner’s mind is one that questions. The expert’s mind is always saying, “this is what I know”. The expert’s mind is one that thinks it already knows what others need to hear. The question does arise, “If I am always beginning then how do I progress?” Thinking with a beginner’s mind doesn’t require starting over. It is the action of setting aside what you think you already know . . . to learn what you need to know. This is when ego can arise as a hindrance. Few people are comfortable admitting their own ignorance. The ego may cause one to resist acting with a beginner’s mind because it views that action as a tacit admittance that there are gaps in information, and gaps in practice. What needs arise in the hearts of men . . . the ego knows . . . or likes to believe it does.

Before I became a formal student of Buddhism I had read many books on the subject. I was a hard-core “book Buddhist”. From the colorful and mystical Buddhism of Tibet to formally structured Soto Zen, the words of Thich Naht Hanh to translations of the sutras by Edward Conze I had gathered quite a bit of information. . . or thought I did, and I did. What I hadn’t gained was the knowledge that comes through engaging the information with a commitment to moment-to-moment practice. . . there just wasn’t any real foundation to it. It wasn’t until I sat before my first Buddhist teacher, decided that his was the tradition I felt connected with, listened with an open-mind and open-heart, letting my beginner’s mind arise that I discovered how much I didn’t know. At first I had to consciously set-aside what I thought I knew so that I could deeply listen to what was being taught. My discursive mind eventually stopped comparing what I was learning to what I had learned. . . and then real learning began. With the view that each moment we encounter is unique, and each situation is unique then each moment and situation requires a beginner’s mind so that it can be appropriately engaged.

It is meditation practice that the beginner’s mind can most readily be experienced. In fact, this can be the first thought of enlightenment that many practitioners recognize. You get into a good meditation posture, erect but relaxed, chin tucked, tongue touching behind the upper front teeth, eyes half-lidded, arms resting in the lap, hands in the proper mudra, and begin to watch your breath. Then . . . suddenly . . . the phone rings, the dog barks, the image of your Google calendar pops into your head, did you mail the electric bill, boredom arises, leg itches . . . and there goes your focus. That was the monkey mind. You stop the chattering of the monkey mind by gently starting over. You get into a good meditation posture, erect but relaxed, chin tucked, tongue touching behind the upper front teeth, eyes half-lidded, arms resting in the lap, hands in the proper mudra, and you begin again to watch your breath. The act of starting over, of gently returning to a practice is the way of a beginner’s mind.

There is a parable that Shunryu Suzuki Roshi would offer his listeners as an opportunity for a thought of enlightenment concerning a beginner’s mind.

The Parable of Overflowing

Once, a learned professor of Asian studies went to a Buddhist Zen Master. He asked him to explain the meaning of Zen. The Master quietly poured a cup of tea. The cup was full but he continued to pour.

The professor could not stand this any longer, so he questioned the Master impatiently, “Why do you keep pouring when the cup is full?”

“I want to point out to you,” the Master said, “that you are similarly attempting to understand Zen while your mind is full. First, empty your mind of preconceptions before you attempt to understand Zen.”

Beginner’s mind requires one to ’empty the cup’ between moments, so that the next moment can fill it with that reality.

Engaging Appropriate Mindfulness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

I’ve encountered people new to, or just curious about Buddhism who ask, “To be mindful, what is my mind supposed to be full of?” This is a clear indication of a prevalent Western mind-set. In the West so much of how a person sees themselves as is tied up in what they know . . . or, in some cases what they think they know. Look at the popular games shows – Jeopardy, I Want to be a Millionaire, Do You Know More Than A Fifth Grader – that tie winning with what information a person holds in their memory, and how broad a range of subjects they have answers for. They exhibit a mind full of encompassing information. The persons who ask the question are seeing the word they are saying . . . mindful . . . as mind full. A mind full of what? A legitimate question considering the culture and time of the person asking.

The answer I give tends to cause confusion. “Actually your mind should be mostly empty.”

But how can an empty mind be mindful?”

And the reply is, “You’ve got it.”

In order for you to mindful you can’t let a whirlwind of thoughts and information dominate your head. The whistling in your ears and the swirling of letters and numbers in front of your eyes will blind you to whatever is going on in each moment. To be mindful you’ve got to be ‘mind mostly empty’. That isn’t to say a mind without thought because that isn’t possible. You are a human, a biological machine with a brain whose main function is to think and it is really difficult to make that thinking slow down . . . much less stop. And, you don’t want it to stop. That should only happen when you are dead. You want it to make better choices as to what to think about so that meaningless thoughts don’t arise . . . so that there is more space, some emptiness is there.

Think about the computer, pad or phone you’re sitting at right now. You don’t want it’s active memory full do you? You know that if that is full its “brain” won’t be able to process the stuff you want it to do in that moment. It’ll lag, slow down and maybe even crash. Its processor will be so busy you might get kicked out of Second Life and miss that moment. You only want to be running programs that have value in that moment.

The brain is biological computer, a fantastic one no doubt, but it has limitations. A mind too full doesn’t allow space for processing the moment, and for responding to the moment. It is more likely to react spontaneously based on past situations, rather than in a way that will encompass the unique moment you find yourself in presently. It’ll choose to rely on what was corrective for an old situation. It will miss the significance of the present moment.

There are three aspects of mindfulness that will lead you to an encompassing and corrective state of being. States of being that will allow you to be in the moment, and respond more appropriately in each moment.

Mindfulness of Bodymind is the key to the realization of mindfulness as a moment-to-moment mental state. It is mindfulness that begins with a meditation practice. Meditation leads you to uncovering how you are and how you want to be. Mindfulness of habits and dispositions, knowledge and ignorance will open avenues of improvement that will make you a more effective social self. You first come to recognize how your bodymind reacts to situation whether they are stressful, joyful, fearful or just ordinary. You learn to know through your breathing and posture whether anger or calm, fear or courage are arising in your bodymind. The breath is an honest indication of how the bodymind responds to situations and experiences. Heavy breathing may be the result of exertion passing the limits of the body or of the arising of anxiety or fear. Relaxed posture may indicate contentment or laziness; arms crossed over chest might indicate fear or mistrust. Communication, speaking and body language is directly influenced by how mindful we are of bodymind. This allows you to better choose an appropriate way to think and act.

Recognizing how the bodymind is (Mindfulness of Bodymind) you engage in Mindfulness of Practice to take the actions needed to realize positive change. To reach the goal of how we imagine ourselves and world could be takes action and that is what is expected in an engaged Buddhist practice. It empowers us with the truth that emotions are not feelings. Emotions like anger and joy we can find control over. Feelings like hot and cold you can learn to endure (to a point because a hot stove will still burn and dry ice will still do the same). You must be mindful that practice is a 24/7/365 commitment for lasting encompassing and corrective effects. Mindfulness of Practice is just as it sounds. Every moment is an opportunity for you to practice. You must be mindful of what can hinder your achievement and what practices will counter them – unnatural attachment/bodymind meditation, anger/compassion, laziness/posture and light, worry/breathing, doubt/study and ask. Making mistakes is also a factor in Mindfulness of Practice. They are opportunities to learn through experience. Practice is just that, you keep trying in order to become better.

The body and mind are meant to work as a holistic unit. Mindfulness of Bodymind develops mindfulness of how you are, Mindfulness of Practice is actions taken to make positive, lasting changes. Engaging in a regular committed meditation practice encompasses the bodymind and opens up the path to the corrective actions necessary to do, and be better. The calm and contentment the arises from understanding yourself is a powerful tool when practicing generosity, morals, tolerance and wisdom off the cushion.

The verification of the effectiveness of Mindfulness of Bodymind and Mindfulness of Practice can be experienced through engagement with Mindfulness of Karmic Causality. Awareness that everything you do matters, that what others do matters, and that what the Universe does matters leads logically to you maintaining mindfulness your actions, the only ones you can truly control. It is also crucial that you develop awareness that there are events, situations and experiences whose arising you can’t control and focus efforts on how you react to them, and in some cases how to subtract them from your life. You are just part of the causal process of the Universe. You learn that you can promote more positive occurrences through your own positive actions and you can choose to engage with those people and activities that seek to do the same. When, at the end of a sangha meeting I recite the sharing of merit: Showing our gratitude and generosity, practicing the way of awareness which gives rise to benefits without limit, we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings. Let us be reminded that a life of engagement and compassion is supremely important. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to become aware of our connectedness to others, and not squander the gift of realizing the wisdom of engaging the Dharma, it is a call to be mindful of all actions taken. This is the most important consideration in engaging mindfulness.

In the beginning these states of mindfulness – Mindfulness of Bodymind, Practice and Karmic Causality – will seem to take up a lot of brain space. With the passage of time and with experience they become a natural part of how you think and act, spontaneous ways of being that arise from practice. Your mindfulness will encompass each moment and you’ll experience those moments as they are, not as the past or future might color them. Because the brain won’t be lagging with useless and meaningless thought you’ll experience the beauty and suffering of human existence more fully. How you are and how you choose to be will encompass your being, and you’ll become a corrective force in the causal Universe.

New Sangha Sessions at the Buddha Center, Second Life

BUDDHA CENTER SHOT

Starting Monday, March 9th at 6:30pm Second Life Time (SLT), VenerableWayne Slacker, Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi will begin holding sangha sessions in the beautiful “outdoor” setting of the Deer Park in the virtual world of Second Life. Join the Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG)/Buddha Center sangha for sessions that include a short period of bell meditation to develop focus, contemporary/traditionalist talks on Buddhist philosophy and practice, followed by the opportunity to ask questions and engage in discussions.

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The sessions will be held the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month, 6:30pm SLT – 8:30pm Central, 9:30pm Eastern, 7:30pm Mountain, 6:30pm Western.

Everyone is welcome. This is not role-playing. It is a real Buddhist sangha meeting in the virtual world of Second Life. Please join us.

Go to engageddharma.com to learn more about VenerableWayne and EDIG.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

 

Insight – Appropriate Inward View

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

 

A man experiences insight.

I had no idea that people suffer death, despair, disease and aging. All around me, all these years these things have been taking place and I’ve been isolated, pampered and wanting for nothing. What kind of person am I? I’ve got food to fill my belly . . . some have only a handful of rice for an entire family. The family healer has assured that I’ve never taken ill, yet illness strikes many others. The family holy man has assured me that my karma is unblemished . . . or so he says . . . yet he preaches that others will suffer in lives to come. I’ve learned to be a warrior, a sage, and a leader . . . but I guess I haven’t learned how to be a human being. My life has been one of leisure, wealth, parties, harems, feasts and servants. Beyond my home lives seem to be ones of wants and deprivations while I have everything I need and much, much more.”

I am such an idiot not to have noticed this before now. What can I do to make up for my ignorance? I know . . . I’ll experience their lives by leaving home and becoming an ascetic. I’ll experience suffering. I’ll live off a grain of rice a day and purge myself of the negative karma I’ve accumulated through my own ignorant thoughts and actions.”

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Really though, no one knows how Siddhartha viewed himself. When he came to recognize the realities of suffering did he put a hand to his forehead and say to himself, “I’ve been so stupid all these years. All around me are people in distress and I’ve been blind to it.” Did he wonder if that since he had only experienced comfort and happiness while others experienced suffering and discontent was that the duality of the world. We’ve really got no idea if he immediately set forth on his spiritual quest or if he agonized over it for months or years before deciding to leave his home and family, to become a medicant and ascetic. Like all of us, Siddhartha must have carried on internal conversations between him and . . . him. His teachings do reveal that he re-described those conversations with himself as his worldview changed. Conversations that became the Dharma.

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Path to Refinement

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a question that each of us must answer if we are to have an effective Buddhist practice: “How am I going to be?” For better or worse you make the decisions that affect ‘how you are’ and how people perceive you. You’ll have to decide what you want your life to be; then, you’ll have to go about building the life that you imagine. As a human being you are empowered with the freedom to engage in self-cultivation, to deliberately mold how you live in, and interact with the world. You can choose to act as an agent of positive transformation . . . or not. You have access to the knowledge and the tools to make good choices; and to actualize a social self by engaging your imagination, courage, and integrity. In Chan practice this ideal human state begins with “thoughts of enlightenment” that lead to a more constant state of awareness, of realizing thoughts of enlightenment rather than constantly grasping for them.

There is the person on the horse that is totally focused on trying to reach out and grab the brass ring each time they go around. They are certain that that is the goal of riding the merry-go-round; that if they get that ring their ride will be successful. They can hold up that ring and say, “I have it, you don’t.”

Then there is the person who is aware of the motion of their merry-go-round horse going up and down, the bright music, the little girl in the pink dress riding the goofy looking bunny, the elderly couple in the sleigh still holding hands after 50 years of marriage, the breeze that carries the aroma of cotton candy, and the mirror in the center that reflects it all. We all smile the same smile. They are part of the experience, connected to those around them through that shared experience.

The one grasping for the brass ring wants to be the person who starts and stops the ride. The other person wants to help others enjoy the ride.

You choose how you ride.

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Practice Skill-In-Means

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; or act the same way with one person every moment. The fact that causality is affecting them in each moment requires you to respond differently in each moment. The same is true for each event in life. While events may, on the surface, seem the same there are always differences and so responses and reactions must arise situationally. To live in this ever-changing world among ever-changing people and events takes skill and flexibility. In Buddhist practice this ability is known as skill-in-means (Sk., upaya).

In Buddhist philosophy and practice the Skill-In-Means Doctrine is the development and application of actions taken with the acceptance that one needs to develop infinite flexibility in adapting the teaching of the Buddha to suit changing circumstances. Skill-in-means, or skillful means is learning to “know your audience” and in addition, to “know yourself” in each moment; it is the practice of deep mindfulness and awareness. The life and teachings of the Buddha are a testament to his ability to speak to the 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 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. As a teacher he was able to transmit the lessons of the Dharma equally well to Brahmin or householder, King or thief. On his path Siddhartha studied with the learned masters of his day and culture and through them he came to know the languages and worldviews of the various mendicants that roamed and taught around India, and how to communicate effectively with all castes. Throughout his life traveling and teaching he continuously improved his ability to speak directly to all manner of people.

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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Strangers — Form and Emptiness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In the Sigalovada Sutra the Buddha talks to Sigala about the six key relationships he realized as important to human existence. The child/parent, student/secular teacher, domestic partners, friends, employer/employee, and student/spiritual teacher relationships, as well as that of material goods are offered in the sutra. Considering the social aspects of Siddhartha’s time and culture these were the relationships that had direct impact of each person’s life. Today, considering the global nature of society there is another relationship that has tremendous impact, moment-to-moment in each person’s life . . . that of strangers.

The dharma of strangers is that they hold the place of both form and emptiness in each of our lives. For some, strangers are to be feared and avoided; for others, strangers are possible friends or at the very least probable acquaintances. There are people viewed as strangers whom little is known about such as the sales clerk in the store where you buy your shoes, and those viewed as strangers who contribute greatly to your life but who you know absolutely nothing about such as the coders who make the virtual world of Second Life possible. There is in an emptiness of knowledge and contact while they take on a form by how they impact your life.

Strangers are people that we categorize by gender, race, profession and physical characteristics. That is often the full extent of our knowledge of them and so it is how we can come to judge them. Becoming aware of the consequential aspect of those we see as strangers offers a wholly different perspective. Most of us probably intuit that there is a strata of people between stranger and friend. We recognize that there are people we are connected with beyond family and friend but that connection is so subtle its value can go unnoticed. Often the term acquaintance is used as the bridge between friend and stranger. They might earn the description, “my friend the . . . (hairdresser, bank teller, car mechanic)” but in reality they are acquaintances. In their book “Consequential Strangers”, Melinda Blau and Karen Fingerman creatively re-describe this category of strangers and acquaintances in our lives. They give the people we once classified as strangers and acquaintances stronger connections to HOW we are.

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Engaging the Three Refuges

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Across Buddhist traditions the Three Refuges (P., tritratna) is the initial step for all on the Noble Path. In the Chinese Ch’an tradition reciting the Three Refuges (also known as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism) is how a person “becomes” a Buddhist, it is known as Taking Refuge (P., sarana). It is a recognition that at any time, when needed a Buddhist can return to, or find sanctuary in the Three Refuges. It is not an act of conversion. It is a choice. We can choose approach the Noble Path with the knowledge that Siddhartha was a human being like ourselves, one whose example we can follow. We can approach the Noble Path with the realization that the dharma is a dynamic reality. We can approach the Noble Path alongside others who have similar goals and are searching for similar experiences.

The precise meanings of each of jewels, their interconnectedness, and how to honor each differs between traditions, while the intent remains steadfast. The intent being that once on the Noble Path the practitioner can return to the ideals of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha whenever needed to reinforce and strengthen practice.

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Appropriate Questions

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

You need tools in your Buddhist Toolbox that allow you to gain knowledge and experience so you respond more appropriately to all situations. The main tool to accomplish this with is the willingness to be aware of what you don’t know and then ask the appropriate questions so that you can arrive at an appropriate answer. The Buddha asked a BIG question, “Is suffering an integral part of how human beings are?” He found the answer to that question to be an emphatic . . . YES.

From the moment you are born, until that moment when you die you ask questions as a way to learn what you can do, what needs to be done, and how you can do it. Your very first cry upon birth is an articulation of the question, ‘Whose here to take care of me?’, and your final question might be, ‘Who’ll be there to take care of me?’ In between, it is questions that drive you to knowledge, to skills, and to how you choose to be in life. The majority are silent questions, ones you ask in the midst of your experiences – ‘Did I do that right?’, ‘Could I have done that better?’, ‘Will anyone notice?’. There are the questions you ask of others, ones you ask so that your knowledge and experience can expand – ‘What is the best way to . . .?’, ‘How can I reach Nirvana?’, ‘I am doing this right?’. You also ask questions of the Universe when you, and those you trust don’t seem to have the answers. The Universe is often asked, ‘Why me?’, for example. In all of these instances questions are critically important because without the questions the answers would never be found.

An important question for a practicing Buddhist to ask moment-to-moment is ‘Am I making a good choice?’, and each must answer with rigorous self-honesty so that the answer has value. The Eightfold Path can be used as a guide to finding that answer because it requires you to ask questions. To practice the Eightfold Path that can lead you out of suffering you must constantly be asking questions: ‘Do I have a view appropriate to this situation?’ – ‘Is my intent to gather information or practice knowledge?’ – ‘Is the effort I am putting into my practice enough?’. Without asking these sorts of questions of yourself, your teachers, and . . . yes . . . sometimes the Universe, there will be no progress in your practice.

You should ask questions of people you trust, and verify through your own experience that their answer has value. Asking questions of the Universe has been the path to some of the greatest answers in human history. Isaac Newton questioned gravity. Albert Einstein questioned the constancy of the Universe. Many theologians have questioned the existence of God. Without the questions no answers will ever be found. In some instances questions are asked that can’t be fully answered with the knowledge of that time, but must be asked again-and-again before the answer is realized. That is the nature of questions.

Siddhartha realized the importance of questions. In the Awakened One’s final talk (Maha-parinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya) he spoke directly to the assembled.

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