Unique Expressions: Buddhism from the Garden

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Awareness of the world we engage each moment, coupled with mindfulness of our own perceptions that lead to our thoughts and actions allows Buddhist lessons to arise even in the most mundane of activities or experiences. We are part of a community gardening project. In two 4′ X 8′ spaces we grow all manner of vegetables . . . but I must admit to being partial to the tomatoes. Each morning I tour them, check the progress of all the plants, water when needed, weed when necessary, and always marvel at the joy of being a farmer, even an urban one. This morning the realization that a lesson was being offered arose and I listened deeply to it. Tomato plants were the muse of realization this morning.

PG_TT_2

There is a sort of mantra in Engaged Dharma that connects to an important ideal. It is meant to act as an intentional reminder that while there are always differences, those differences don’t separate us. The mantra is ‘We are each unique expressions of the Universe . . . we are not each unique in the Universe.’ At each end of the eight foot garden space are tomato plants . . . 2 Big Boys, 2 Lemon Boys, 1 yellow cherry, 1 red cherry. The six plants on the left are growing and maturing significantly faster than the right side. They were planted at the same time; the soil is the same; they get watered with the same frequency; yet there is a clear difference in their development. The ones on the left flowered first, and have the most flowers. The ones on the right haven’t grown as tall or as bushy. They are unique expressions of tomato plants . . . but not unique in the garden. PG_TT1      PG_ST1

Each of us are like those tomato plants. There are factors that make each human being unique. Even those that ‘grow in the same soil’ have characters, skills, goals, thoughts and dispositions that make them unique expressions of the universe, that make them unique human beings. Each of us are like those tomato plants. There are factors that make each human being not unique in the universe. The Buddha teaches of the Four Ennobling Truths. Every human being in the known universe encounters moments of suffering during their lives, suffering that arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the causal universe works. For those human beings there is a path, a way to minimize and ultimately alleviate suffering. That way is the Middle Path, the Eightfold Path. In this era and culture there is a lot of time and effort put into proving and reveling in whatever unique expression someone may be. So many human beings are focused on what makes them separate from others that they deny or ignore what makes each human being similar. Focus on differences weakens compassion, weakens interdependence, and weakens interconnectedness. Focus on similarities strengthens compassion, strengthens interdependence, and strengthens interconnectedness. Tomato plants don’t care whose is taller, more bushy, or who has the most flowers . . . it the fruit of their actions that is important. It must be the same for human beings. PG_TT4       PG_ST4

‘We are each unique expressions of the Universe . . . we are not each unique in the Universe.’

Engaging Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Three ethical ideals are the foundation of an Engaged Buddhist practice. They are pragmatism that arises from the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition of my teacher, the Venerable Shi Yong Xiang, and his teacher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long; pluralism as it arises from its value in connecting with others in a respectful and productive way; and in a commitment to practice as practice is the only way to experience the teachings of the Buddha as they can be positively applied to contemporary life. From these three ideals arises the moral actions that are most likely to have positive karmic consequences for the individual and for society.

Pragmatism is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. In Engaged Dharma those ideals can be trimmed down to the importance of language, because it is how ideas and concepts are recognized; as well as the importance of going beyond language to experience the realization of the value of a teaching when it is put into practice.

In the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River” the language teaches a lesson on attachment, while the experience teaches one of the value of pragmatism.

The Monks at the River”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk was silent.

They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”

The senior monk was silent.

It was against the rules.”

The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.
In Buddhist philosophy and in American Pragmatic philosophy importance is placed on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it’s focus is on “what we can do right now to make things better” strengthens an engaged practice. The Buddhist worldview underwent changes, and affected changes in the worldviews it encountered as it spread from India across the continents. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews, such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

In the parable of the “Monks at the River” a pragmatic lesson is one of detachment. It is a valuable skill to know when to detach from the letter of a rule, and instead act with the intent of an entire body of teaching. The senior monk knew the rules, but he used them as a guide to taking the most appropriate action dependent on each unique situation. Pragmatically this is known as thinking and acting situationally. The junior monk was dogmatically focused on the rule, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” His lack of experience wasn’t allowing him to realize that the senior monk’s decision was based on the Three Pure Precepts and the ideal of skillful action as taught by the Awakened One.

The senior monk, seeing a human being in need set aside dogmatism and achieved an appropriate view of the situation. That led him to take appropriate action to alleviate suffering.
Cease to do harm – If he left the woman stranded she would undergo the suffering of anxiety and fear and possibly drown or be injured.

Do only good – Ignoring the woman’s plight, causing suffering is not a good action.

Do good for others – Note here that this precept doesn’t add “if it isn’t against the rules”.
The senior monk did not create the situation of the woman at the river. It was a causally conditioned phenomenon that he had to choose how to react to. As human beings we don’t create the nature of the event; we have the choice of responding negatively or positively. The senior monk recognized a need and chose to act altruistically. The senior monk not only does good for a fellow citizen; he also does good for the junior monk. His actions allow the junior monk to learn the lessons of detachment and pragmatism.

Pragmatism in the Buddha’s teachings

Reading the story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening it is clear that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.

We can use the Eightfold Path as an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must engage the teachings as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and productive. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.
Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most encompassing response. We want to take the most useful and productive course that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.
Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

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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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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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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Pragmatic Buddhism: A Common Sense Approach To The Path Of Awakening

Pragmatic Buddhism: A Common Sense Approach To The Path Of Awakening
By David Xi-Ken Astor

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 primary result of walking the Buddhist path is toward cultivating awakening to how the Universe is and how we are in it.  In the 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 legitimatization.  How this will happen is yet to be seen, but the transformation has begun.  The concern we must be conscious of is that it must not become a marginalized subculture 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 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 a Western orientated 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.

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Do Not Leave Your Baggage Unattended: The Art Of Skillful Detachment

Do Not Leave Your Baggage Unattended: The Art of Skillful Detachment
Ven. Dr. Jim Eubanks, Sensei

The following Dharma talk was given by our root teacher, Ven. Eubanks, Sensei, on February 18, 2010 in St. Louis at the CPB Meditation Center.

Acculturation and Attachment: What It Is and What It Is Not
No matter how much we seek absolute personal sovereignty (what is traditionally called “free will”), a deep and honest look at the human condition reveals that existential baggage is unavoidable because we live in a causal world.   The key is to make sure that the baggage we carry is on our terms to the extent it can be, and that it contains expressions of ourselves that we can be proud of and use skillfully.  No matter how long I sit in the silence of a secluded forest, the causal conditions that converge to make me the kind of human being I am, do not go away.  The Zen master who develops Alzheimer’s will not enlighten himself out of his condition.  I am a causally-conditioned “expression of the Universe,” and there are many causal conditions that are not up to my wants OR non-wants.  No amount of philosophy cuts me off from those conditions which create me, no matter who I am or how long I’ve been sitting.  Instead, it is the goal of the reflective and considerate person to understand the major sources of influence in his or her life, to “attend” to the baggage that he or she does and must carry.  There is a term for this existential baggage: acculturation.

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From the Master’s Cushion: Being Buddhist

Engaged Dharma is honored to have our root teacher Dr. Jim Eubanks Sensei (Yong Xiang Shi) offer his wisdom on the meaning and practice of contemporary Buddhism. The pragmatic view and intent, and application of Buddhist practice, as taught to him by Rugen Fisher Sensei (Shen Leng Shi) and passed to Venerable David and I is at the core of what Engaged Dharma promotes through our website and teachings at the Buddha Center in the virtual world of Second Life, through one-on-one teaching via Skype, and how we approach the experiences and situations we encounter moment-to-moment.

Dr. Jim Eubanks Sensei (Yong Xiang Shi)

From the Master’s Cushion: Being Buddhist

by Dr. Jim Eubanks Sensei (Yong Xiang Shi)

When we talk about being “Buddhist” we mean two things. The first is that we are a member of a global group of people who ascribe to the elemental teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha. Teachings which, in all their myriad forms, come back to the central role of causality, change, impermanence, selflessness and resolving the issue of unsatisfactoriness.

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