Mahakasyapa, Ananda and Enlightenment

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a seeming paradox that centers around the attaining of Nirvana. There is a view that it is a gradual process, while another view is of sudden attainment (satori). In truth it is a Middle Way that accepts that there can’t be the sudden without the gradual. Gradual and sudden attainment can be experienced in the story of Ananda’s quest for enlightenment

Ananda was one of the earliest disciples of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Some scholars say he was Siddhartha’s cousin. It is known for certain that he was the Awakened One’s right hand man up until Parinirvanna, the moment of the Buddha’s death. Ananda’s story didn’t end there though. What occurred offers insight into meditation practice from a Ch’an perspective.

One of the original disciples of the Buddha, Ananda had a intellectual mind endowed with what today we might term a ‘photographic memory’ that included remembering word-for-word what he heard. With all of his gifts, skills and effort he was unable to reach enlightenment during the Buddha’s lifetime. Ananda thought that the Awakened One would reward him with enlightenment as a result of his intelligence, actions and devotion. Ananda stood by the Buddha as he passed into Nirvana and possibly wondered if his chance for enlightenment had also passed.

Ananda then turned to the man who had stepped into the Buddha’s sandals, asking Mahakasyapa to help him achieve the goal of enlightenment. After the Buddha’s death, Mahakasyapa, set out to gather together 500 enlightened disciples to continue to offer the dharma, and legend says he could only find 499. Many of the gathered said, “Go to Ananda.” Mahakasyapa’s reply was that Ananda was unqualified because he wasn’t an arhat. He went further to state that he’d sooner disband the entire assembly then allow Ananda entrance.

Ananda returned to Mahakasyapa three more times only to be turned away. He beseeched him, “The Buddha entered Nirvana and now only you can help me to reach enlightenment!” Mahakasyapa replied, “I am too busy and cannot help you. You are on your own.” Only then did Ananda become mindful of an enlightened moment, he realized then that only through his own efforts would he attain his goal.

It is said that Ananda went to a quiet, secluded place. He prepared himself to sit in meditation and as he was about to sit, he attained enlightenment. At that moment he ceased to rely on others, letting go of his attachments and dispositions through his own efforts.

The two main characters in this tale reveal two aspects of meditation and enlightenment in Ch’an philosophy and practice, the gradual arising of sudden enlightenment. Mayakasyapa seems to have achieved sudden enlightenment; Ananda’s was a gradual achievement. Seeing the interconnection and interdependence of sudden and gradual requires a seeming duality in viewing meditation practice, and how it can become an integral part of a lay-persons’ practice in contrast to that of a monastic practice. For one committed to a traditional monastic practice it is meditation with the goal of reaching enlightenment and the ceasing of the cycle of rebirth; for the traditional lay-person a meditation practice is engaged in order to come to terms with dispositions and habits, gain control over negative emotional states, and to prepare themselves for an advanced rebirth. The seeming duality falls away when the realization arises that both a monastic and lay practice begins with personal development and matures into a socially engaged practice; the practices just develop at different levels and have different effects on the individual practitioner’s worldview. The paths are not the same but the intent surely is.

In the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition, the core of Engaged Dharma Insight Group, as monastics we live and practice with the ideal that “life is our monastery”. A deeply focused meditation practice is engaged on the cushion, but equally important is that we extend that meditative state to all aspects of how we interact within the causal Universe. It is the experiences and situations encountered throughout each day, and each moment that practice matures and becomes more useful and productive. For a contemporary lay-person the focus for meditation practice is similar to the traditional in that rigorous self-honesty is applied to dispositions and habits, and negative emotional states so that Buddha-nature can be recognized. Rebirth is set-aside and practice is directed toward HOW one is between birth and death. The recognition of not-self leads directly to the realization of the value of being a social engaged person, Buddhist or not.

From this arises what is critical in either worldview, sudden or gradual . . . be a better human being. A regular, focused meditation practice is a powerful tool for becoming that better human being you imagine you can be.

Back to the two characters:

Traditionally it is said that Mahakasyapa achieved enlightenment by viewing a white lotus flower held aloft by the Buddha. In the Silent Sermon given on Vulture Peak, the Buddha held up a white flower, its roots dripping with water and mire. He slowly turned so that all the assembled disciples could view it. Only one, Kasyapa, “got it”. At that moment it is said he attained enlightenment and stood ready to lead the Buddha’s disciples after the Awakened One’s parinirvana. Ch’an Buddhism’s foundation in mysticism is said to arise from this event, Mahakasyapa’s “sudden enlightenment” (Jp., satori).

Ananda spent his adult life as the Awakened One’s main attendant. He traveled across India with the Buddha, learned from him through word and example, performed daily duties that enabled the Buddha to teach, and with all that, engaged his own practice with the goal of reaching enlightment. Then, with the death of the Buddha he finds himself on a plateau of practice and learning. No teacher, no direction, but still with his goal not reached he beseeches Mahakasyapa to help him. His enlightenment, in contrast to Mahakasyapa is an example of “gradual enlightenment”.

In accord with the Buddha’s teaching in the Uposatha Sutta, gradual learning occurs in all situations, even when phenomena seems sudden.

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch; in the same way this Dhamma & Vinaya has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual practice, with a penetration to gnosis (knowledge and wisdom) only after a long stretch.

Neither Mayaskayapa or Ananda experienced “sudden” or “gradual” enlightenment. In Ch’an the acceptance of ‘sudden enlightenment preceding gradual cultivation’ comes with understanding. One gradually cultivates a spiritual/religious life after sudden realization of need, gradually developing wisdom refined through practice and experience.

Both Mahakasyapa and Ananda spent many hours with the Awakened One, hearing the teachings and practicing the ideals of the dharma before one experienced a flower, the other experienced death. In any instance, for any person enlightenment will seem sudden when it happens because one moment it is not there, the next it is. No matter how sudden an experience seems there is always a gradual chain of causal factors that contribute to any experience. This is the Middle Way of understanding. There can be no sudden enlightenment without gradual training in the dharma.

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Upajjhatthana Sutta: Contemplating the Realities

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Walking the Noble Path requires one to not just accept certain realities but to contemplate how those realities affect their lives so that acceptance transforms into wisdom. This wisdom allows one to set aside the fear and anxiety that can arise with the realizations of aging, illness, death, change and responsibility. In the Upajjhatthana Sutra the Buddha offers insight into how one must come to understand these realities.

“There are five realities that you must contemplate whether you are a woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.

I am going to grow older, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am going to get ill at some time, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am going to die, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I will constantly change and seem to separate from all that I care about, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whether my choices are good or bad, the karmic consequences will not be only mine, others will be affected . . .
These are the five realities that you must contemplate often, whether woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I will grow older?’ Some people are so desirous of the ideal of youth that they make bad decisions, take negative paths meant to achieve eternal youth. But, when you contemplate the reality of growing older that ideal of youth will fall away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I am going to get ill at some time’? There are people that cling so fiercely to the ideal of health that they make bad decisions, take paths meant to shield themselves completely from illness. But, when you contemplate the reality of illness that ideal of permanent health will fall away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I am going to die’? There are people who so fear death that they make bad decisions, take paths meant to deny and postpone (even indefinitely) death. But, when you contemplate the reality of death that fear of morality falls away . . .
Now, why must you contemplate that . . . that ‘I am constantly undergoing change, and will lose some things that I feel desire and passion for’? There are people who so fear change and loss that they make bad decisions, take paths meant to cling fiercely to permanence. But, when you contemplate the reality of impermanence that fear of change and loss falls away . . .

Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences.’ There are people who, out of ignorance and fear deny responsibility for their actions, take paths meant to avoid the consequences of their actions. But, when you contemplate the reality that what you do matters beyond the consequences you experience that denial and avoidance falls away . . .
A disciple on the Noble Path realizes fully: ‘I do not grow old alone, everyone grows old . . I am not alone in illness, everyone, at some time is ill . . . I am not alone in death, everyone dies . . . I am not alone in change, everyone changes . . . I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, will matter.’ When these things are contemplated the appropriate path arises. The disciple will stick with that path, develop it, cultivate it. As they stick with that path, develop it and cultivate it, the fears fall away and the delusions fade in clear light of an awakened moment.”
NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this important sutra into contemporary language and have used the buzz-words of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. Venerable David and myself have often discussed if any of sutras re-worded (or creatively re-described) in such a way could offer the same intent as the those translated directly from the Pali, and holding to the symbology and textual references of that time 2600 years ago. Using the sutra as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – (“Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation” (AN 5.57), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 30 November 2013 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.057.than.htmlI’ve attempted to do just that, present the sutra in a contemporary way and be true to the intent of the Buddha.

 

The Buddha taught the realities of the Four Ennobling Truths. Suffering is a reality of human existence. There is a root cause of suffering. There is a path out of that suffering. That path is Eightfold. At the top of the Eightfold Path is developing an appropriate view. In the Upajjhatthana Sutra he offers what views need to change so that the Noble Path can be better realized. Everyone ages, gets sick, and dies . . . and along the way they undergo changes . . . changes which lead to aging, illness and death . . . among other changes such as personality, job, car, favorite books . . . you get the picture. Traditional translations say that those are four of the five things that should be contemplated. I changed should to must because should doesn’t reveal the commitment is necessary for these views to have the appropriate impact on how a practitioner engages the ideal. How much homework would you have done if your high school teacher had said, “You should do this homework”? .
To find contentment and calm in the hectic world of today the realities the Buddha taught that we must contemplate relate now as they did in his time and culture. Accepting that aging, death, illness and change . . . like taxes . . . are inevitably parts of human existence leaves you with more energy to deal with the situations you can affect. That isn’t to say you should ignore those realities, just don’t be stressed out by them. Engaging in activities certain to ease the transitions as you become older like exercising regularly will help to ward off some illnesses that could lead to an early death, and engaging in life-long learning so you experience the changes of the past and experience the changes of the moment make you more open to transformations that are inevitable. Aging, death, illness and change will happen. It isn’t useful to stress over them.
Number five in the Buddha’s Contemplation Countdown is the kicker. It is the “must view” that gets missed by so many people. The Buddha is offering the ideal, he didn’t once offer to hold anyone’s hand on the way to that ideal. He offered the reality and the ideal view . . . all of the effort, mindfulness and concentration — the Noble Path to bodymind discipline – was an individual responsibility with effects that encompass the whole of human existence. We are responsible for the “must do”. Whatever we do, whatever choices we make are our own. Yes . . . I can hear the voices . . . but causal conditioning means other factors, known and unknown affect my decision . . . that is true . . . still, the final decision, the action taken is the responsibility of the practicing Buddhist . . . there is no deity or God that we can point to and say, “He made me do it” . . . “It was part of the plan”. Time taken to blame. Time taken to defend. It is time subtracted from how long it’ll take to affect positive transformation.
I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whether my choices are good or bad, the karmic consequences will not be only mine, others will be affected . . . You are the cause of your actions, actions that arise as a result of your intent, intent that is affected by what goes on in the world around you. With this firmly in mind it is your responsibility to maintain an appropriate view of that world so that delusion and personal preference are allowed to fall away in favor of reality. The reality of any situation coupled with a commitment to the ideals of Buddhist practice and philosophy is most likely to lead to wholesome consequences.
A Buddhist is not a puppet. There is no one pulling strings making us choose wholesome or unwholesome thoughts and actions. The causal Universe presents us with options. The Noble Path offers a way to liberation from the suffering each of us encounters in this life. It is up to each of us to re-view those options and take the appropriate action. What we do matters and we are responsible for what we do.

COURAGE: A TOOL OF TRANSITION

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Courage is not something many people credit themselves with. It is a disposition that most people find difficult to recognize in themselves. We each face challenges and the need to make hard decisions in our lives and doing those things takes courage, courage as a tool of transition from how things are to how you imagine they could be. You look at the definition of courage and it says that courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. Looking at courage more pragmatically will show that it is facing difficulty, danger, pain, etc. while setting aside fear. The fear is there, it is just not allowed to play a damaging role. Fear manifests in the form of procrastination, of avoidance, and of denial when we face challenges and difficult decisions. The arising of courage is also a transition to action. Courage arises and fear falls away as a result of challenges and decisions being faced and actions taken.

The ability to face fear, to respond with courage is a fundamental part of the Buddhist refinement of energy. Courage is not only needed to face some of the moment-to-moment aspects of daily life, but it is critical when faced with “spiritual weakness”. When, in practice we come to the “Plateau of Great Doubt” it is easy to quit, to let spiritual weakness have its way. Applying the energy of courage we can see past that doubt to a continuing path. We can employ courage to delve deeper into study, to find new commitment to practice, and to ask those questions we’ve may have hesitated to ask before. It takes courage to set-aside what we think we know in order to learn. Courage is a positive character trait. To risk our current status and stability in order to pursue a greater purpose or goal, to expose ourself self to risk, humiliation and even physical danger takes courage. Courage allows us to met challenges head-on and make appropriate decisions even when they are difficult ones.

The life and actions of Mahatma Ghandi offer one example, from many, of courage in the face of challenge. Ghandhi said about courage, “Who acts courageously and for what purpose? One could be courageous for the sake of a woman and, even for the sake of wealth. However, all this is like being courageous in order to jump into a well. Courage should be shown for the purpose of swimming across to the other shore. The supreme effort should be made for the sake of self-realization.” Ghandi’s courage in promoting and acting with non-violence changed the face of India and of the world. You might say, “I am no Ghandi.” That is true, but then Ghandi was no you either. As Ghandi applied his own unique expression of courage to the issues of his day and culture, so too can each of us apply a unique expression of courage to the challenges we face in our moment-to-moment experience.

Who acts courageously? Anyone who is faced with a challenge and strives to overcome it does so with courage. For what purpose? That depends entirely on the situation one is in. It ranges from soldiers deployed in Afghanistan facing hostile forces and an unforgiving terrain in order to protect themselves and others, to someone who has made the decision to enact real positive changes to how they are. We can also employ courage for reasons of self-regard and self-aggrandizement, for selfish pursuits. This can be a waste of a powerful tool for engaging in positive thoughts and actions. Courage is an act of energy and of intent that is better performed when the outcome of a situation will add to human flourishing of both the practitioner and the world around us.

There are individuals in our society who perform jobs that automatically credit them with possessing courage: law enforcement, military (especially those in direct combat situations), and firemen are examples. These career paths involve the moment-to-moment possibilities of death or bodily injury while protecting the lives and property of others. To choose dangerous lines of work takes courage and then courage is further developed through training and practice. Such vocations involve spontaneous acts of bravery arising from a strengthened disposition and habit derived from continuous practice. Then there are courageous individuals who, in one particular moment they set aside regard for personal injury or death in order to save a life or defend another from being harmed. These are the ones we rightly call heroes.

Nyanaponika Thera

The ancient teachers of the Buddhist doctrine were well aware that courage is an essential feature of true faith. They therefore compared faith to a strong and courageous hero who plunges ahead into the turbulent waters of a stream to lead safely across the weaker people who timidly stop at the shore, or, excitedly and in vain, run up and down the bank engaged in useless arguments about the proper place to cross. This simile can be applied to the social as well as to the inner life. In the case of social life, the “weaker people” are those who are willing to follow and support a leader but who cannot make a start by themselves. In the case of the inner life, the “weaker people” are those qualities necessary for spiritual progress which are either undeveloped or isolated from their supplementary virtues.

Such a powerful tool as courage should be used to achieve positive objectives. Buddhist practice is not easy but when we recognize the value of the lessons of the Four Ennobling Truths, and the values of acting with compassion and altruism we come to realize that reaching the “other shore”, that by living the noble life of the Middle Path we will contribute positively to our lives and the lives of others.

It takes courage to engage in a meaningful Buddhist practice. It takes courage to ‘go first’. Too act with compassion when no one else is . . . to act with patience when no one else is . . . to offer respect and trust when no one else does . . . these are acts of courageous faith in our experience with the Way. An Engaged Buddhist goes first, we openly offer respect and trust, and approach the commitments of others with the ideal of pluralism. It takes courage to set aside the fear that respect may not be returned, that trust may be broken and abused, or that our own commitments might be attacked or ridiculed. We know that what we do matters and by acting and thinking positively we will have an encompassing and corrective effect . . . the causal nature of Universe offers us proof through our own experiences. Courage is a Tool of Transition for a practicing Buddhist.

Developing an rigorously honest awareness of how we really are and how the world around us really is takes courage. It isn’t easy to be honest about our negative dispositions and habits, nor is it easy to change them. These are the first challenges anyone faces in their Buddhist practice. Negative dispositions like fear, hatred, anger, ignorance and others may have been part of one’s modality for so long that they are comfortable ways of being. We may even have realized that they aren’t “good” ways of being but we haven’t had the courage to face the difficulty of changing them. In the face of inevitable mistakes it takes courage to really practice generosity, situational ethics, and tolerance . . . to engage in deep meditative practice and to act with wisdom. In the face of fear it takes courage to apply rigorous self-honesty to ourselves, revealing weaknesses of character; then to have the courage to work toward a real and honest change to a stronger more compassionate character. This is the supreme effort that Ghandi referred to. It takes that kind of effort to achieve the self-realization that allows the whole of Buddhist practice to encompass how we are in relation to the causal Universe.

Learning to engage our courage comes with experience. Like any other aspect of practice we come to recognize the value of an action by the causal effects generated. With each application of courage to overcome thoughts of procrastination, avoidance or fear, and experiencing the positive outcomes both to ourselves and others, then wisdom will dictate that acting with courage is useful and productive.

I often say, “Is Buddhist practice easy? No. Is Buddhist practice worth it? Yes.” To put effort into a practice that isn’t easy, that may bring up negative emotions and memories, and that requires commitment also takes courage. Whenever we stand firm to our commitments to positive self-development, to compassion, to human flourishing, and to the alleviation of suffering even when our experience shows us that others don’t understand it or accept it . . . we do so courageously.

Cat in a Box – Engaging Form and Emptiness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Buddhist philosophical ideal that “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form” found most famously in the Heart Sutra can be a difficult concept to wrap the mind around. Emptiness is well . . . empty, and form has substance so how can they have the same properties, at the same time. To achieve some realization of this dharma requires a thought experiment followed by a way to engage that ideal in moment-to-moment practice. There is both an ancient ideal and a contemporary thought experiment that can bring about a clearer understanding of form and emptiness.

In Buddhist philosophy everything, all dharma is causally conditioned. It becomes what it is in a particular moment as a result of the causal process of the Universe. This would not possible if all dharma had inherent and permanent form. The philosopher and scholar Nagarjuna is arguably at the top echelon of Buddhist philosophers whose original ideas continue to shape Mahayana thought and practice to this day. His most revered text is the Mulamadhamakakarika text in which he maintained, “Since there is no dharma whatever which is not causally conditioned (not relative to whatever experience or situation it finds itself connected with), no dharma whatever exists which is not empty.” Phenomena have no form until acted upon physically and/or mentally by another phenomena, human being or otherwise. Until the moment of interaction it has only potential (emptiness) to take on form, a form dependent on whatever acts upon it. Causal conditioning, the who, what, when, where, why and how of the causal process enacts the transformation from emptiness to form. For Westerners caught up in concrete definitions and concrete descriptions it isn’t an easy concept but one that can be engaged with a little creative re-description. Let’s look to a contemporary science model for some help with that.

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