by Wayne Ren-Cheng
In St. Louis, Missouri a common question gets asked whenever strangers meet, “What high school did you graduate from?” The answer can make or break a possible friendship if one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day. The answer is important. Get more than one Buddhist in a room and the question, “What brought you to Buddhism?” will probably be asked. It isn’t the answer that is really important . . . it is the willingness to answer that is. I’ll venture to say that not one of you reading this would reject the friendship of another person because they didn’t come to Buddhism the same you did. Why we came to Buddhism really isn’t that important; why we choose to continue to pursue the Middle Path is. It is what defines practice.
Recently someone asked me, “Why are you a Buddhist?” Granted I’ve been asked this question before but it suddenly occurred to me that the reply that starts, “I found Buddhism because . . . your story goes here”, isn’t answering the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. Legitimate question, but having a legitimate answer requires me to listen deeply to myself, to be honest about why am I a Buddhist.
My response begins, “I practice Buddhism because . . .” and within those four words is a major reason why I am a Buddhist. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being and Buddhism offers me that opportunity through the guide offered by the Four Ennobling Truths and through how I choose to engage that guide in practice. I’m not expected to be perfect or to have all the answers but I am expected to keep practicing. Yeah, I know the saying “practice makes perfect” but honestly I’ve never seen any proof of that. In my experience I get better at being Buddhist but being “perfect” isn’t ever part of the agenda. In my experience “practice makes more practice” and I am good with that. For me it is in the doing, not in the done.
My response finishes with, “ . . . what we do matters.” Four words that encapsulate for me the whole of Buddhist psychology, philosophy and spiritualism as I have come to realize it. The Four Ennobling Truths are all about how our actions are the cause and effect of suffering – and that what we do matters. The Three Characteristics of Existence that include suffering and add impermanence and not-self are rooted in the ideal that we are each a unique part of dependent origination – what we do matters – we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale. I haven’t read a sutra or legacy teaching that wasn’t sending the message “go do it”. The ideal that what we do matters renews my intent to be the best human being I can be. I want to cease to do harm because it matters. I want to do good because it matters. I want to do good for others because it matters.
“I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.” I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders personal and social positive effects. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters and that is a force for positive transformation that can’t be equalled. There is a dark side to the “what we do matters” that a Buddhist must view realistically. The negative actions of others also matter and we, Buddhist or not must not hesitate to act appropriately and decisively whenever we can to mitigate the negative karmic consequences that can arise. We can control what we do and how we react to the results of the actions of others. This is all about karmic consequences.
Acting pluralistically is the I and We. It makes no difference to me what faith, religion or tradition another person is . . . they are part of the We. Our commitments may differ but it is the goal of alleviating suffering that matters. It is engaging in thought and action that promote human flourishing that matters. What we do matters.
Taking action is highlighted in the words practice and do. Am I a Buddhist because I take action or do I take action to be a Buddhist . . . doesn’t matter as both are more likely to result in positive karmic consequences. Buddhism is all about action. The psychology, philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism has roots, beginning with the Four Ennobling Truths, in action. It takes personal action to recognize the reality of suffering and it takes engaged action to realize the alleviation of suffering. The Eightfold Path guides me to actions that will improve how I am and how I can be an agent of positive transition in the world.
The two words in the middle have their significance. I am a unique factor in dependent origination, and ‘because’ is causality, think ‘be causal’ . . . in a positive way. This happened because that happened. I practice to “be cause” of more positive than negative ingredients in the karmic stew. Each moment, each experience and situation are also unique factors so I’m mindful of the WHAT. What is the reality of the situation and what would be the most harmonious action to take NOW.
The eight word sentence is a mirror of what keeps me on the path. Action and responsibility, being the cause of good, the I and We of pluralism, do something, actions have karmic consequences so each action matters. My personal mantra, and you are welcome to make it yours – I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.
Ask yourself the “Why am I a Buddhist?” question before someone else asks “Why are you a Buddhist?”. Without the ability to be honest with yourself about the answer your chance of having a deep and engaged Buddhist practice is slim. Curiosity, desire, life experience, or wanting to be cool might have caused you to look into Buddhism but why you continue when it takes such effort and commitment is what is more important. It is there you will find the depth of your practice and what you can do to enhance it.
I picture Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree after his awakening and thinking, “Man, what I just awakened to will really matter. Acting like that is going to take some practice.”