PANDEMIC AND PRACTICE: IMPERMANENCE

This too will pass.

What makes you think it won’t? Everything else eventually does. Corona virus isn’t immune to the reality of impermanence.

This too will pass.

We must take the actions necessary to allow corona virus to fall away sooner rather than later.

 

I bow,

Wayne Ren Cheng

 

 

 

The Inseparable Link Between Motivation and Practice

Rule #81

(#81) The Rule of Actions: An action presupposes a motivation, and a motivation presupposes a goal. There are no random or unintended behaviors, but there are manyunacknowledged and/or unadmitted goals. -Fred Kennedy-from “The Rules” (compiled by the late Ryugen Fisher Sensei and Jim Eubanks Sensei)

Sometimes “motivation” is misunderstood in Buddhism, particularly Zen. We hear instead an emphasis on not desiring, not seeking, and not acting. This emphasis on what is perceived as non-action contributes to the misunderstanding of the link between motivation and practice. This is due to the important Buddhist teaching that overzealously desiring, seeking and acting leads to attachment, that a denial of the realities of impermanence and causal conditioning ultimately facilitates a cycle of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. A more appropriate view of motivation reveals a categorical difference between not doing something “too much” or “over doing” and not doing it at all. We do indeed need and must value desiring, seeking and acting in Buddhism because these attitudes generate motivation, which is a necessary part of developing both a consistent practice and an earnest practice, one that works toward alleviating unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. If we are appropriately motivated to achieve goals, we will recognize the value of the methods that will get us there. If we are not properly motivated, there is no imperative to make sure that what we do is efficient or successful. If I want to eliminate the “monkey mind” but work toward that goal only half-heartedly, or without any “real” desire to do so, there is no imperative to assess and reassess my practice to ensure that the goal of eliminating the monkey mind is being pursued appropriately.

The Buddha did not work in absolutes; he did not say “always do this” and “never do that.” Instead he advocated a balance based on the basic Buddhist teachings as they relate to the current situation, what we call “situational ethics.” It is pragmatic to set aside any sense of dogma and to act as a situation calls for rather than acting from a “script”. Likewise, even though most people in modern society tend towards excess as a compensation for unsatisfactoriness (like more money, more sex, more food), Buddhist teachings inform us to moderate our approach and not to eliminate it. The Buddha made clear in the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel that his paradigm was one of moderation between the extremes of excess and denial.

There is another critical aspect of motivation. A practitioner must ensure that an understanding of impermanence and causal conditioning informs what is desired, what is sought after, and how one acts to get there. In other words, as we develop goals and take concerted steps to cultivate various changes within ourselves, we must also remember–at each step along the way–that the path we are taking is subject to change. The path to any transformation take unexpected turns dependent on internal and external causal factors.

Taking this to heart, one can accept the reality of impermanence and causal conditioning and remain open to the many unforeseeable variables along the way without losing sight of the path. When we come across difficulties as we move towards our goals (like creating a daily practice), we must “go with the flow” instead of resisting those difficulties. We use the difficulties to facilitate our continued progress instead of fighting against them. Samuel Beckett saying, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” can act as a mantra to strengthen motivation.

The Passion: Motivation in Pragmatic Buddhism

What makes a person a Buddha, as distinct from other enlightened persons (called arahants), is that a Buddha discovers and teaches the path to enlightenment. What is crucially important about all Buddhas is that they began and ended life as human beings (what they are at this moment is an open debate). According to the early Buddhist tradition, the path blazed by the Buddha is a path available to all human beings who strive in each moment to attain the moral conduct (sila), mental culture (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) taught by the Buddha.

John J. Holder in his book Early Buddhist Discourses offers that Siddhartha Gautama was driven by motivation and goals. It is this “passion” that was a causal factor in him leaving his family to search out experiences that might lead to answers to his questions, it allowed him to study and master all of the major spiritual and philosophical schools of his day and meet or exceed their knowledge and level of practice. The Buddha had a clear purpose in mind throughout his studies which was to understand the origination and termination of human unsatisfactoriness (dukkha). Once he mastered the available worldviews and came to realize that a “middle way” was necessary to resolve unsatisfactoriness, he came to the realization that knowledge mandates responsibility. To the Buddha, one who truly understands the dharma shares that understanding selflessly and through all his or her attitudes and actions become an example to others that personal responsibility is a critical component when walking the middle path. In doing this, the Buddha also became a great source of inspiration for others. As Daniel Coyle states in his excellent book, The Talent Code: “Where deep practice is a cool, conscious act, ignition is a hot, mysterious burst, an awakening. Where deep practice is an incremental wrapping, ignition works through lightning flashes of image and emotion, evolution-built neural programs that tap into the mind’s vast reserves of energy and attention. Where deep practice is all about staggering-baby steps, ignition is about the set of signals and subconscious forces that create our identity; the moments that lead us to say that is who I want to be. We usually think of passion as an inner quality. But the more I visited hotbeds [of exceptionally talented groups of people], the more I saw it as something that came first from the outside world.”

We can see that Buddhism not only leaves room for an understanding of and appreciation forpassion/motivation/goal-oriented thinking and acting,” it requires it for success. While we remember that we must be open to change, we stay focused on our continued practice and development. The earnest cultivation of new behaviors, what Coyle and other Buddhists have called “deep practice,” is coupled with our positive intention to not only do it, but do it with excellence. We move through deep practice step-by-step and use our mistakes to inform our next step. Our motivation for practice is to make being a better human being a habit, to make excellence in our personal character a habit.

As Aristotle said, “Excellence is a habit.” Indeed it is.

Monkey Mind, Puppy Mind

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

At the Cherokee Buddhist Temple (Wat Buddhamanee Rattanaram) a couple of Sundays ago the topic was the Five Precepts. As part of that discussion Lorena talked about the ‘monkey mind’ except she used a different term, one that speaks more directly to a Western sensibility. She called it ‘puppy mind’. Wow. That metaphor made me smile then, and it still does. With some time to contemplate the concept of ‘puppy mind’ I’ve come to realize what a use of skillful means that is. Westerners have very little experience with monkeys while most have first-hand knowledge of puppies.

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Puppies are all over the place, unable to focus on one thing as they try to take in all the world has to offer their senses. A puppy must learn to set aside sense input in order to follow commands. A mind must be trained for much the same reason. A mind must learn to set aside sense input in order to follow the Middle Path.

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Practice of Acceptance

By Wayne Ren-Cheng

It is difficult to ignore or discount the image of the Buddhist who exhibits acceptance and patience in the midst of the most extreme situations, ones that would drive most human beings to distraction and anxiety. The ability to respond to experiences with equanimity that arises from the practices of acceptance and patience is a wholesome personal character trait. The importance of refining one’s ability to accept the realities of impermanence and causality is recognized to be as critical, in Mahayana training, to developing positive character traits as any other aspect of the Six Refinements. The traditional views of tolerance and it’s counterparts, endurance and patience need to be expanded to include acceptance as an element of personal character development in order to better deal with contemporary issues.

From the Khama Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya):

“And which is intolerant practice? There is the case where a certain individual doesn’t tolerate cold, heat, hunger, & thirst; the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; ill-spoken, unwelcome words; & bodily feelings that, when they arise, are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, displeasing, & menacing to life. This is called intolerant practice.

“And which is tolerant practice? There is the case where a certain individual tolerates cold, heat, hunger, & thirst; the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, & reptiles; ill-spoken, unwelcome words; & bodily feelings that, when they arise, are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, displeasing, & menacing to life. This is called tolerant practice.

There are questions that need to be asked: Do we tolerate everything and anything? Does patience and endurance have a limit? How do we decide when and if enough is enough? The practice of tolerance needs to be viewed through the same lens that is applied to generosity and moral/ethical concerns, a lens that acknowledges the unique situations we all encounter in life. A practitioner must develop an awareness of how they and the world around them really are by working to strip away the misperceptions found in each of us. Further one must learn to accept that change can happen with commitment and effort, and that change will happen that is the cause and effect of other human beings and of the causal universe. One is self-initiated . . . the other . . . not.

Yes, we must accept that there are wholesome and unwholesome phenomena. We must learn to differentiate between the wholesome and the unwholesome, and accept that we can grow the wholesome and weed out the unwholesome if we are willing to make the effort. Tolerance in any of its guises is not passive indifference, the idea that we are powerless or choose to set ourselves apart from situations. We must accept the responsibility to think and act in ways that have the potential to be the cause and effect of positive transformation. We must be passionate in our practice of acceptance so it becomes integral to achieving “enlightened moments”, in revealing the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena. There is no compassionate or logical reason to accept or tolerate murder, sexism, rape, homophobia, racism or any type of violence or acts of cruelty. To mindfully deal with situations that might involve intolerable acts we must practice the six refinements and the Four Ennobling Truths for the sake of the important goal of human flourishing and the alleviation of discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish.

Practicing acceptance does not allow one to take a neutral position (neutral is not the Middle Way . . . neutral is avoidance), it requires us to recognize the what, when and how to accept. Note here that we must remain nonjudgemental of the WHO because we are intolerant of the action while showing compassion and acceptance to the individual. In cases of acts of cruelty this may be difficult but as Buddhists we must not act out of anger, revenge or retaliation. This view of acceptance requires a deeper level of mindfulness be applied to each situation than is suggested in traditional Buddhist thought.

Practiced along with acceptance, wisdom and morality can provide us the skills to determine when to be accepting and how. Like the refinement of generosity, patience, acceptance must be situational in its application. Wisdom guides us to viewing the issue in its unique context and to an understanding of what about the situation troubles us and where an encompassing and corrective solution may be found. It gives realization that while the situation may be troubling at that time the ideal of impermanence reminds us that it is transient. Our moral/ethical character will help us view the issue from a place of compassion even when that is extremely difficult. It also will guide us toward a solution that maintains the humanity and dignity of all involved.

One must be mindful that compassion for all others, no matter their crime, situation or attitude is non-negotiable in a Buddhist practice. For the majority of human beings the idea that a person who has committed crimes of terrorism should be treated with compassion is ridiculous. They are criminals who should be severely punished and ostracized from a civilized society. While punishment is called for, acceptance that they are also human beings whose lives mirror our own in many ways must lead us to having true compassion for them.

The energy required to maintain intolerance can leave us with little energy to apply to positive dispositions and actions. It can lead us to resent the situation we find ourselves involved in and lead further to a dimming of awareness and the ability to find solutions. Rather than approaching an issue with a large mind of compassion and tolerance we’d find ourselves acting from a small mind mired in the misperceptions and ignorance of our own ego. Instead we must accept how things really are and use that as the starting point for being a positive agent of change. We must be patient in our resolve and be content to be in the moment we find ourselves in so that we may view it through a clear lens. Contentment though does not mean our effort weakens; we remain mindful of what stands in the way of a positive result and hold to our conviction to engage in thoughts and actions that promote wholesome, live affirming results.

The Refinement of Acceptance is a meditative practice that leads to becoming aware of everything that assaults us, makes us uneasy, and brings discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish into our lives. Through meditation we uncover the dispositions, habits and preferences that negatively affect us and develop strategies to deal with them effectively. We learn to accept the reality of the causal Universe and how we can take action to make things better. The skills we develop through meditation become the actions we take we faced with difficult and complex situations in our moment-to-moment experience.

Like so much of Buddhist practice acceptance begins as an individual effort that evolves into a community one so that the virtue of acting with acceptance, patience and endurance becomes an encompassing and corrective virtue practiced by all. In a contemporary context where democracy has its role in decision making, the practice of acceptance goes beyond the concept of “leaving others to do as they will,” beyond being indifferent to the cause and effect generated by others. It is coming together to promote human flourishing through institutions meant to help everyone in need.

Next week we’ll look at the ideal of patience as it relates to the Refinement of Acceptance.