Category Archives: Engaged Dharma
by Wayne Ren-Cheng, Shi
There in front of the sangha is an empty cushion. It is empty, waiting for its potential to be utilized. It is empty of form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. To be a cushion it must be occupied so right now it is only a possibility of elements and effort. Once occupied it fulfills the potential to be a cushion. That particular cushion is made of pixels and electronic impulses in a virutal reality but the point remains the same; it is form and emptiness. In your own meditation space is a cushion fulfilling that same reality.
I carry a mental duplicate of the cushion in my personal meditation area in my consciousness. It is a symbol of emptiness and form, a placeholder for the potential my Buddhist practice has to help me be a better human being. That mental formation of a cushion is a symbol of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and the wisdom that I have realized as part of my moment-to-moment existence. The cushion is empty until my consciousness sits on it to engage serenity, compassion, selflessness or knowledge of the dharma. It’s impermanence is recognized in that it doesn’t always work. Sometimes what is needed is accessible, sometimes it is not. The cushion is an expression of my consciousness, a consciousness continuously in a process of refinement.
Conditions For Buddhism’s Transforming Into A Western Contemporary Tradition
By David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei
“The survival of Buddhism depends upon the experiential rediscovery of its innermost spark, and the articulation of that experience in a language that speaks directly to the deepest hopes and fears of present-day man.” 1
The overwhelming reality that I hope emerges from the study of Buddhism from a pragmatic perspective is what does our contemporary worldview require to be cultivated from what the Buddha taught over 2500 years ago. The major intensive result of walking the Buddhist path is toward cultivating awakening to how the Universe is and how we are in it. In our 21st century we are challenged to understand what elements of Buddhist thought is of vital importance for our attention, study, acceptance, and engagement that promotes the survival of a dharma practice that is not obscured by ancient visions of how the world looked to medieval minds. A good example of this would be the turning away from the metaphysical concepts of reincarnation, and what is the true meaning of karma that moves away from the notion of determinism producing an attitude of fatalism. Considering the modern advancements of science that inform us of how the Universe expresses itself, any conclusion of what is a truth is still at risk of being wrong. Yet, we work to improve our perspective of each situation we encounter recognizing our responsibility for the choices we make that have real consequences for ourselves and others.
Not only is this awakening a human endeavor, but a cultural one as well. This cultural transformation is reflected in acts of social justice, spiritual and religious practices, situational ethic guidelines, artistic expressions, as well as how the culture interacts with others on this very diverse planet of ours. As Buddhism has an opportunity to merge into the mainstream of a human-enriching practice both here in America and the West in general, it will assume features of our contemporary language and cultural moral and ethical norms that will vitalize specific dimensions of it’s traditional practice that will allow it to assume a perspective of legitimatize. How this will happen is yet to be seen. But the transformation has begun. The concern we must be consciousness of is that it not become a marginalized subculture that would be at risk of losing it’s inner vitality. This is a crucial period of Buddhism’s cultural transformation in the West, in which the traditional schools of Buddhism are being uprooted from their ancient Eastern environments and directly confronting the realities of modern science, communication technology, and social unrest. It is unrealistic to assume that as Buddhism develops roots in the West, that it will remain unchanged. It is up to those in the West that study and teach the dharma to define the best path up the mountain as Buddhism struggles to find its voice in a new language. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is to emphasize Siddhartha’s humanity.
Awaken to the Awe of Everyday Living: Practical Tools to Expand our Sense of the Spirit
By David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei
Human consciousness is constantly evolving, and with it, our spiritual awareness expands also. Yet we still tend to look to the past for the “real” spirituality of the mystics. To experience mystery in our lives, we need to use the practical tools of faith, vision, and focus.
Where have all the mystics gone?
As absorbed as we are in seeking spiritual answers to secular living, we still tend to look to the past for real wisdom from the “mystics.” We read the latest bestselling guru, but reserve our greatest respect for a Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, or Buddha. We also revere more recent mystical messengers, such as Emerson, Thomas Teasdale, the Dalai Lama, or Thomas Merton, as their works age and become part of our spiritual culture.
This phenomenon reveals two underlying beliefs. First, we feel humanity is regressing in some way, and we are no longer as wise as we used to be, Second, we think we no longer have the tools to access the highest levels of consciousness we once could. So are these beliefs founded in reality? Certainly there are some qualities from the past we would do well to respect. These qualities are simplicity, humility, and non-attachment. They echo a time when we were less distracted by materialism, less controlling, and more in awe of the unknown Universe and our role in it. To become more aware of the spiritual in modern life, we must recapture a sense of the sacredness of everyday living. To do this, we need to find tools we can apply to ensure our understanding, knowledge, and wisdom continues to evolve. We may not have five years to spend sitting under the bodhi tree as the Buddha did, or even forty days to spend in the wilderness as Jesus did. We must find creative ways to incorporate introspection and spiritual contemplation into our everyday lives. To do so, we have the very practical tools of personal experience, vision, and focus. It also takes a degree of faith that we are treading on one of the validating spiritual paths up the mountain. How we interpret what faith means, however, may different among us.
I will define “faith” to mean a belief that the Universe is bigger than what we can experience when our view is filtered through dualistic lenses. Faith is directed toward the unknown. Otherwise it would be a “certainty.” Our modern culture does not support acceptance of the unknown, outside of having faith that there is “something” we don’t know. And that something we give certainty to. We want to know everything — how does it work, where did it come from, what will it do next? In the same vein, the spiritual sometimes is thought to relate to the supernatural which implies the presence of something beyond our mundane, human understanding. To practice modern-day spirituality, we must develop, with some faith, a robust relationship with what we are studying and our experiences, in order to add a spiritual aspect to our practice. In every day moments we have a chance to encounter the wonder of this vast world of ours.
by Ven. Wayne (Ren Cheng)
Dependent origination, the arising and falling away of all phenomena is the potential in the karmic causal process. What we do, good, bad or indifferent has consequences. We are the cause and effect on what goes in our lives and on the world we are so interconnected with. It seems easier for many people to understand the process of karmic consequences when they relate it to the concept of rebirth. In this life a person suffers greatly because of the negative actions they took in a previous life . . . or, a person achieves great wealth, power and happiness because they took positive, affirming actions in a previous life. Hindsight, and a touch of imagination can give this concept a aura of reality, without being actually experienced. What can get overlooked is how the karmic process is a factor in day-to-day life. This realization brings about a deep awareness of the value of ethical behavior driven by positive moral character. The holiday season offers two paths to recognizing the moment-to-moment klausal process that the Universe operates under at all times of the year.
You have been dealing with the concept of karma since your earliest childhood memories of Christmas. It just wasn’t recognized as karmic; it was recognized as ‘if I am good . . . I get good things’. This is because Santa Claus is all about karmic consequences. “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So, be good for goodness sake.” I remember as a kid thinking this had everything to do with getting gifts . . . G.I. Joe, Big Wheel, or a microscope kit. Santa was watching me all the time and he was the decision maker when it came to what I’d find under the tree.
Now, as an adult and a Buddhist I realize a far different intent to the lyrics of the song. Sure . . . the whole ‘he sees and knows’ is still a little creepy but there’s no mention of gifts or presents. Santa’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, and he’s aware who’s naughty and nice . . . but no mention of consequences, yet I knew what those consequences could be. A more socially engaged intent is in the “Klausal Process” revealed in the the lyric, ‘So, be good for goodness sake.‘ We should just do good because it is the right thing to do, not because we’ll get a reward. Mr. Klaus wants our actions to be selfless because he knows how the Klasual Process really works in our moment-to-moment to living. Santa Klaus has some serious buddha-nature. Sounds like the Buddha in a red suit and white beard doesn’t it?
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 young child came before the Buddha. She was in a state of intense grieving, refusing to believe her child was dead. 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 that to do as she asked he would need a mustard seed from a house in which there had been no death. 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 realized that death is a part of everyone’s life, that she is not alone in her pain and grief, loss comes to everyone. Kisa gains an understanding that she is not alone in her suffering, that she suffers along with many others. All life on this planet will transition from emptiness to form and back again.
How does understanding that you aren’t the only one to suffer affect your own grieving process? For some, knowing there are others in similar situations helps ease their own pain. Pain shared is pain reduced. For some though, the same understanding can add to their own suffering as the pain of others becomes part of their own grieving process. The pain of another is my pain too. Which are you more likely to experience? That it happens to everyone can bring about an enlightened moment but isn’t all that is needed to come to terms with grief.
Grief is an emotional red balloon. Anger, pain, denial, sadness and fear is the breath that fills the balloon until it is near bursting. With the understanding that suffering is universal a little air is released. More air squeaks out when impermanence is realized. That everything arises and falls away can ease the pressure of grief. Coming to the realization that death follows birth for everyone you can get past anger and fear . . . and a little more air leaves the balloon.
Do you honestly think you are “grieving for them”? You are grieving for the loss you are experiencing. This person was supposed to stay around and be available when you needed them. Now how can they be there for you? Grief, like funerals and wakes are for the living. You grieve for you. Understanding the unique personal quality of your grieving allows more air to escape the balloon.
Grief over the loss of someone close isn’t shown the same way by all people. Some rant and rave, some cry silently or hysterically, some quietly mourn, and some seem to show no emotion at all. It isn’t in the how you grieve as much as it is in how long the grieving continues. Just like you can get comfortable with negative habits you can delude yourself into thinking you find comfort in grief. Grief encompasses the dispositions of anger, fear, denial, sadness that lead to psychoemotional pain if you hold on to them. You practice non-attachment when you let grief run it’s course. That letting go drains the rest of the air from the balloon. Continue reading
Hello to all,
On September 17th this year Venerable David posted “When My Practice Is Clear You Can See Right Through Me”. Late in the month of October he received an email from the editor of Buddhadharma magazine asking if they could publish excerpts from that posting in their Winter 2012 issue. Well . . . the Winter issue of Buddhadharma, which is dedicated to Buddhist meditation practice has just hit the stands and in the First Thoughts section and titled “Concerto in Ego Minor” you’ll find it. Ven. David and myself both highly respect this publication for it’s Many Buddhists, One Buddhadharma direction. Please go out and pick up a copy of Buddhadharma, Winter issue 2012. You can also read the entire posting below.
Thanks to everyone who supports our efforts to engage the dharma on an international scale.
Ven. Wayne (Ren Cheng)
When My Practice Is Clear, You Can See Right Through Me
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯
I was watching a documentary of the late pianist Glenn Gould, perhaps the greatest Bach interpreter of any generation, and was struck by how he seemed to transform from his human form and disappear behind the work he was performing, especially when he played J. S. Bach. It was as if he removed himself completely and let the music come through him. This encompassed his entire body, and you could tell his mind was in another space. This reminds me of the Zen poem: The Barn’s Burned Down, Now I can see the moon.
I mention to my students that it is important to learn to get out of the way of what you are doing, and just let your practice shine through. It takes a lot of practice, and is not easy to do with a lot of grace in the beginning. It seems that there are two aspects within each of us, the functional being that learns to master the technique required for excellence, and the ego that wants to control the process, and is hard to get out of the way. In other words, there is a part of me that is a conduit for energy, the reservoir of knowledge, the muscle memory, and the overall life experience that influences and coordinates how I act. Then there is the self-centered egotist that wants to critique, take credit for my accomplishments, and accept the appreciation of others; the ego wants to take the bow. The lesson I take way from watching this video is that like Glenn Gould who let his ego fall away so he became a conduit for the music, when I let my conditioned ego fall away I let my experience, honed by my practice, connect with how I conduct the activities of the moment so I can maximize the karmic results for promoting good.
Getting out of the way means that we are aware of the intent of our actions before we act. We think before we act so we can perform our duties without undo thinking or making judgments. Our body-mind is in the flow of the experience and we are responding and reacting based on wisdom we know works for useful and practical outcomes. This is prajna in practice.
Consider these words by Suzuki from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.
“Having a beginners mind” is one of those Zen paradoxes. It is not the mind of a beginner after all, unless we want to consider a new born baby. It takes a great deal of practice to arrive “at the beginning”. A beginners mind means there is no agenda for the outcome. We are just following something deep inside. Our interactions will have a freshness to them. This contrasts with what our ego-self is seeking and is only energized by reward, admiration and praise. A beginner’s mind is a sleeping giant within each of us. Once awakened it can reflect the whole Universe. The energy that comes from the field of a beginner’s mind flows from letting go of all the personal preferences, the attachments, and the distorted worldview we come to think is reality, and instead plugs into the energy that comes from an egoless self, an empty self, that brings happiness, health, and harmony into a world full of awakened potential when we learn to touch the spiritual element of our being. Prajna paramita.
by Ven. Wayne (Ren Cheng)
The essential difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism is in the doctrine of the bodhisattva, who, in Mahayana, becomes a divine savior, and whose example the believer is urged to follow. It must be remembered that all good Buddhists, from the Mahayana point of view, are bodhisattvas in the making, and the many descriptions of bodhisattvas in Mahayana texts provide ideals for the guidance of monks and layman alike. One of the chief qualities of the bodhisattva is his immense compassion for the world of mortals.
From: Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita – Sources of Indian Tradition, Vol. 1, Theodore de Bary
The second Buddhist council held in Vesali around 300 BCE was dominated by discussions of the Vinaya, Rules of Monastic Conduct and the reluctance of some disciples to accept them and the sutras written during the first council as the final authority of the Buddha. This opened the schism that resulted in the formal formation of the Mahayana tradition or school early in the 3rd century of the Common Era. Buddhist scriptures claimed by this tradition were said to be the final lessons that were offered to the most advanced of practitioners, and promoted a more socially oriented philosophy. The early Mahayana traditions in India held to a pantheon of god-like buddhas and had deep metaphysical beliefs that paralleled long held Vedic beliefs. There were stark differences between the Theravada and Mahayana philosophies and practices but the latter platform, Mahayana, can be viewed as completing the spiritual journey of Buddhist philosophy, arriving at a more socially engaged practice.
In the Indian religious practices of the time the Buddha was probably worshipped as a god even in his lifetime. There was not the division of divinity and mortality experienced in the other religions of the time. Christianity, Judaism and Islam put their diety above mankind while Vedic gods and avatars were seen as taking human form and being part of the human experience. Theism developed in Buddhism with the arising of the ideal of the bodhisattva, ‘Being of Wisdom’. These were offered as the human link between the Buddha’s past lives and the state of human spiritual progress. The stories of the Buddha’s previous lives were called the Jataka Tales or Birth Stories. Myths and folk tales that had been part of Indian culture were re-imagined as the succession of lives leading up to Siddhartha’s awakening. It was accepted that the Buddha had had previous lives in which he acted with compassion and wisdom, though not always with selflessness. The tale of Prince Vessantara being a Jataka Tale in which Vessantara pursues ultimate wisdom but shows compassion only when it advances that goal, the actions of an arhant, not a bodhisattva.
There are three types of ‘perfected beings’ recognized in Buddhism: Buddhas who have realized awakening and offer that knowledge to others, Pratyekabuddhas, “Private Buddhas” who realize but hold that knowledge to themselves, and Arhants, “Worthies” who learn from others but come to personal realization. Earlier schools guided believers to the goal of arhant, permanent Nirvana after death that is reached through countless lives of virtue and personal sacrifice. With no mention of guiding others to the same this goal, regardless of any self-sacrifice along the way is ultimately a selfish act. Realizing such grand levels of compassion and altruism a person could be of great assistance in guiding others. The bodhisattva chooses to do so, putting the welfare of all beings above their own. In all the world’s religious literature this passionate compassion is most clear in Mahayana scriptures.