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.
The Mahayana texts, specifically the Prajnaparamita texts offer the six essential qualities of an ideal human state. These qualities are both the vehicle to reach “thoughts of enlightenment” as a mode of practice and the desired state of bodymind. The Six Refinements (Perfections) are: generosity, mindfulness of ethical choices, acceptance, energy/vitality, meditative calm (equanimity), and wisdom. The cultivation of a character that encompasses all these ideals is the goal of practice. The Six Refinements are meditative and life-skill practices that are learned and realized gradually by engaging “thoughts of enlightenment”, those realizations of individual potential, societal potential, and the potential of the causal Universe. These six dispositions are the pillars of positive personal character.
“Character” . . . your own character is the identity you shape through the decisions that you make. Your identity is partially shaped by genetics, our family, our friends, the experiences you have, and all the other causal forces you encounter. Character is not given or found, it is developed and nurtured. You can choose to act and think generously or miserly. You can choose to allow dogma to guide your moral actions, or you can choose to use skillful means and act situationally. You can choose to accept the world as it is, or you can complain and bitch when it isn’t how you want it to be. You can choose to believe you are separate from the Universe, or you can engage the Universe as a unique aspect of it. Trust that even if you reject the Universe it can’t reject you . . . you are an expression of it.
The Six Refinements (Perfections) provide the image of the ideal of living with “thoughts of enlightenment”. The Greeks called this “the ideal of a good life”. We all have times when we imagine doing something better and being something better. The trick is to turning the daydream into a full blown reality by taking appropriate actions.
You may encounter one these hinderances to “character building 101”:
One is a lack of imagination about what you are capable of doing with your life. Don’t set the bar at average, set the bar at excellence. Let your “thoughts of enlightenment” provide a challenge and move you to aspire to it. Imagination + goals + action = thoughts of enlightment.
A “thought of enlightenment” based on a perceived entitlement, an ‘I deserve it syndrome’; or on a goal that no human being could reach is not useful or productive. What will happen when it isn’t reached? You want your goal to be attainable and worthy of your Buddhist ideals, not be a fantasy like ‘world peace in my lifetime’. It is fantastic to work toward ‘world peace in my lifetime’ as long as the reality that it isn’t likely happen doesn’t deter us.
Authentic “thoughts of enlightenment” will take your potential and your actual abilities honestly in to account, and they will have the flexibility needed to meet changing situations. They exhibit the unmistakeable appropriate intent of positive development of individual character and positive societal transformation.
So, “thought of enlightenment” is partnered with the Engaged Dharma concept of “enlightening moments”; those moments, no matter how fleeting, when we realize our place in the Universe matters. It is that AH HA moment when we clearly recognize that we are each both cause and effect, and as unique expressions of the Universe we are an integral part of it. Instead of this being a final goal it is a “thought” that we can all get flashes of by developing our awareness of how the world is, accepting what we can and can’t do in given situations, and taking appropriate actions whenever we can.
Enlightenment is not a destination. Enlightenment is the act of being awakened or of coming to realization. Having enlightening moments is a mind mediated change, requiring a continuous commitment, in how we see and relate to the world. This is how “enlightenment” becomes “effectiveness.” In an enlightened moment the person recognizes through-and-through that what he or she does counts. We are not powerless, meaningless creatures navigating a hostile world; in a causal world, we are empowered, meaningful beings making our own paths. We are the creators of our world.
Enlightenment Casts Shadows
“Different Buddhist teachers in different Buddhist cultures at different times have conceived the “thought of enlightenment” in somewhat different ways; they engage in different practices and lead intriguingly different kinds of enlightened lives. Although initially troubling, this complexity and diversity in Buddhism is enormously beneficial, a gift to Buddhists and in the long run to the world.”
The Six Perfections, Dale S. Wright, page 5
Chogyam Trungpa, Naropa school and founder of Shambhalla, is venerated for living an enlightened life yet he smoked, drank and engaged in sexual activity with his disciples. His example went from traditional adherence to Buddhist ideals, to situational adherence, to seemingly no adherence, and finally back to strict adherence before his death. He often said that he acted the way he did to show others the way out of an ego bound existence. His later talks reveal the ‘thoughts of enlightenment’ his actions led him to realize.
The late John Daido Loori, Zen Mountain Monastery is recognized as living an enlightened life. His efforts to teach Zen to an American audience while still pursuing his interests in art and writing make him an example for “thoughts of enlightenment”.
There are mountain monks who practice as virtual hermits. They too live with “thoughts of enlightenment”.
You look around to find people that set the example of how you want to live. There are “thoughts of enlightenment” important to consider when you look to emulate the lives and actions of others. There is no perfect model of an encompassing and corrective life that you can copy because no one has had exactly the same situations or experiences you have had. You can see their lives as a guide but never as a blueprint for the entirety of your own life.
Be mindful that the causal process of the Universe is an “equal opportunity” state. Enlightened moments happen all the time, to all sentient beings . . . it is just human beings that have the capacity to realize the value in these experiences. Enlightened moments take on importance because humans have a level of self-awareness that enables them to recognize those moments and to learn from them . . . if they choose to do so. “Thoughts of enlightenment” or enlightening moments are continuous processes that have no end point, no destination, so it requires continuous mindfulness of practice in order to realize them.
Engaging “thoughts of enlightenment”
In the sutras the Buddha doesn’t describe or explain enlightenment. It wasn’t until after his death that his disciples began writing and commenting on their varying views of enlightenment.
In much Buddhist literature enlightenment is presented as a goal that is reached through practice, study and meditation. Enlightenment and nirvana are what some Buddhists strive for, accrue merit for, and see as the destination of their journey on the path. That doesn’t make the concept very practical in contemporary daily living.
You exist in an impermanent Universe. Nothing is immutable and static, everything goes through change. “Thoughts of enlightenment” and enlightened moments are part of that same dynamic process. The first act as appropriate intent, the other is a transitory event to be experienced. Enlightenment can be a goal, as long as it is understood that the ideal of the goal will change. Enlightenment can be a moment (enlightening moment), here and gone, a moment that strengthens your practice and your perception of your own potential. Enlightenment comes in a wide variety of experiences and your challenge is to learn to be aware of those enlightening moments when they happen.
Your life and character must be shaped from your circumstances and experiences. While you can draw on the examples of others it is through experiential verification that you come to decide how “thoughts of enlightenment” work in the context of your own unique life.
Siddhartha Guatama repeatedly reminded his disciples and followers that he WAS NOT A GOD. Siddhartha recognized that the alleviation of suffering and discontent would have to be accomplished by human beings, and they would need human examples of how to be in their own lives. A transcended being, a god was no longer human and so could not stand as a model of how human beings thoughts and actions can promote positive transformation.
“Thoughts of enlightenment” include when you take a moment to consider the Eightfold Path before acting, you find yourself mindful of your anger before it completely manifests, or perform an act of altruism (compassion) and never once think about what’s in it for you. These are examples of encompassing and corrective thoughts becoming actions. With practice and commitment positive lessons and experiences gradually becomes a part of your character.