Mind Full of Mindfulness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

I’ve encountered people new to, or just curious about Buddhism who ask, “To be mindful, what is my mind supposed to be full of?” This is a clear indication of a prevalent Western mind-set. In the West so much of how a person sees themselves as is tied up in what they know . . . or, in some cases what they think they know. Look at the popular games show like Jeopardy that ties winning with what information a person holds in their memory, and how broad a range of subjects they have answers for. They exhibit a mind full of encompassing information. The persons who ask the question are seeing the word they are saying . . . mindful . . . as mind full. A mind full of what? A legitimate question considering the culture and time of the person asking.

The answer I give tends to cause confusion. “Actually your mind should be mostly empty.”

But how can an empty mind be mindful?”

And the reply is, “You’ve got it.”

In order for you to mindful you can’t let a whirlwind of thoughts and information dominate your head. The whistling in your ears and the swirling of letters and numbers in front of your eyes will blind you to whatever is going on in each moment. To be mindful you’ve got to be ‘mind mostly empty’. That isn’t to say a mind without thought because that isn’t possible. You are a human, a biological machine with a brain whose main function is to think and it is really difficult to make that thinking slow down . . . much less stop. And, you don’t want it to stop. That should only happen when you are dead. You want it to make better choices as to what to think about so that meaningless thoughts don’t arise . . . so that there is more space, some emptiness is there.

Think about the computer, pad or phone you’re sitting at right now. You don’t want it’s active memory full do you? You know that if that is full its “brain” won’t be able to process the stuff you want it to do in that moment. It’ll lag, slow down and maybe even crash. Its processor will be so busy you might get kicked out of Second Life and miss that moment. You only want to be running programs that have value in that moment.

The brain is biological computer, a fantastic one no doubt, but it has limitations. A mind too full doesn’t allow space for processing the moment, and for responding to the moment. It is more likely to react spontaneously based on past situations, rather than in a way that will encompass the unique moment you find yourself in that present moment. It’ll choose to rely on what was corrective for an old situation. It will miss the significance of the present moment.

There are three aspects of mindfulness that will lead you to an appropriate state of being. States of being that will allow you to be in the moment, and respond more appropriately in each moment.

Mindfulness of Bodymind is the key to the realization of mindfulness as a moment-to-moment mental state. It is mindfulness that begins with a meditation practice. Meditation leads you to uncovering how you are and how you want to be. Mindfulness of habits and dispositions, knowledge and ignorance will open avenues of improvement that will make you a more effective social self. You first come to recognize how your bodymind reacts to situation whether they are stressful, joyful, fearful or just ordinary. You learn to know through your breathing and posture whether anger or calm, fear or courage are arising in your bodymind. The breath is an honest indication of how the bodymind responds to situations and experiences. Heavy breathing may be the result of exertion passing the limits of the body or of the arising of anxiety or fear. Relaxed posture may indicate contentment or laziness; arms crossed over chest might indicate fear or mistrust. Communication, speaking and body language is directly influenced by how mindful we are of bodymind. This allows you to better choose an appropriate way to think and act.

Recognizing how the bodymind is (Mindfulness of Bodymind) you engage in Mindfulness of Practice to take the actions needed to realize positive change. To reach the goal of how we imagine ourselves and world could be takes action and that is what is expected in an engaged Buddhist practice. It empowers us with the truth that emotions are not feelings. Emotions like anger and joy we can find control over. Feelings like hot and cold you can learn to endure (to a point because a hot stove will still burn and dry ice will still do the same). You must be mindful that practice is a 24/7/365 commitment for lasting encompassing and corrective effects. Mindfulness of Practice is just as it sounds. Every moment is an opportunity for you to practice. You must be mindful of what can hinder your achievement and what practices will counter them – unnatural attachment/bodymind meditation, anger/compassion, laziness/posture and light, worry/breathing, doubt/study and ask. Making mistakes is also a factor in Mindfulness of Practice. They are opportunities to learn through experience. Practice is just that, you keep trying in order to become better.

The body and mind are meant to work as a holistic unit. Mindfulness of Bodymind develops mindfulness of how you are, Mindfulness of Practice is actions taken to make positive, lasting changes. Engaging in a regular committed meditation practice encompasses the bodymind and opens up the path to the corrective actions necessary to do, and be better. The calm and contentment the arises from understanding yourself is a powerful tool when practicing generosity, morals, tolerance and wisdom off the cushion.

The verification of the effectiveness of Mindfulness of Bodymind and Mindfulness of Practice can be experienced through engagement with Mindfulness of Karmic Causality. Awareness that everything you do matters, that what others do matters, and that what the Universe does matters leads logically to you maintaining mindfulness your actions, the only ones you can truly control. It is also crucial that you develop awareness that there are events, situations and experiences whose arising you can’t control and focus efforts on how you react to them, and in some cases how to subtract them from your life. You are just part of the causal process of the Universe. You learn that you can promote more positive occurrences through your own positive actions and you can choose to engage with those people and activities that seek to do the same. When, at the end of a sangha meeting I recite the sharing of merit: Showing our gratitude and generosity, practicing the way of awareness which gives rise to benefits without limit, we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings. Let us be reminded that a life of engagement and compassion is supremely important. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to become aware of our connectedness to others, and not squander the gift of realizing the wisdom of engaging the Dharma, it is a call to be mindful of all actions taken. This is the most important consideration in engaging mindfulness.

In the beginning these states of mindfulness – Mindfulness of Bodymind, Practice and Karmic Causality – will seem to take up a lot of brain space. With the passage of time and with experience they become a natural part of how you think and act, spontaneous ways of being that arise from practice. Your mindfulness will encompass each moment and you’ll experience those moments as they are, not as the past or future might color them. Because the brain won’t be lagging with useless and meaningless thought you’ll experience the beauty and suffering of human existence more fully. How you are and how you choose to be will encompass your being, and you’ll become a corrective force in the causal Universe.


Pebbles and Ghee: Realities of Karma

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Talk given at Buddha Center, Second Life, 011918


The law of nature is the dharma in action; it is karma. It is a reality that once an action is taken the karmic consequences happen. How to view this appropriately is the subject of this parable told by S. N. Goenka (great Vipassana teacher).

The Pebbles and the Ghee (story told by S. N. Goenka)

One day a young man came to the Buddha crying and crying; he could not stop. The Buddha asked him, What is wrong, young man?

Sir, yesterday my old father died.

Well, what can be done? If he has died, crying will not bring him back.

Yes, sir, that I understand; crying will not bring back my father. But I have come to you, sir, with a special request: please do something for my dead father!

Eh? What can I do for your dead father?

Sir, please do something. You are such a powerful person, certainly you can do it. Look, these priestlings, pardoners, and almsgatherers perform all sorts of rites and rituals to help the dead. And as soon as the ritual is performed here, the gateway of the kingdom of heaven is breached and the dead person receives entry there; he gets an entry visa. You, sir, are so powerful! If you perform a ritual for my dead father, he will not just receive an entry visa, he’ll be granted a permanent stay, a Green Card! Please sir, do something for him!

The poor fellow was so overwhelmed by grief that he could not follow any rational argument. The Buddha had to use another way to help him understand. So he said to him, All right. Go to the market and buy two earthen pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha had agreed to perform a ritual for his father. He ran to the market and returned with two pots. All right, the Buddha Said, fill one pot with gee, with butter. The young man did it. Fill the other with pebbles. He did that too. Now close their mouths; seal them properly. He did it. Now place them in the pond over there. The young man did so, and both of the pots sank to the bottom. Now, said the Buddha, bring a big stick; strike and break open the pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha was performing a wonderful ritual for his father.

According to ancient Indian custom, when a man dies, his on takes the dead body to the cremation ground, puts it on the funeral pyre, and burns it. When the body is half burned, the son takes a thick stick and cracks open the skull. And according to the old belief, as soon as the skull is opened in this world, the gateway to the kingdom of heaven is opened above. So now the young man thought to himself, The body of my father was burned to ashes yesterday. As a symbol, the Buddha now wants me to break open these pots! He was very happy with the ritual. Taking a stick as the Buddha said, the young man struck hard and broke open both the pots. At once the butter contained in one pot came up and started floating on the surface of the water. The pebbles in the other pot spilled out and remained at the bottom. Then the Buddha said, Well, young man, this much I have done. Now call all your priestlings, and miracle workers and tell them to start chanting and praying: Oh pebbles, come up, come up! Oh butter, go down, go down! Let me see how it happens.

Oh sir, you have started joking! How is it possible, sir? The pebbles are heavier than water they are bound to stay at the bottom. The can’t come up, sir; this is the law of nature! The butter is lighter than water, it is bound to remain on the surface. It can’t go down, sir; this is the law of nature!

Young man, you know so much about the law of nature, but you have not understood this natural law; if all his life you father performed deeds that were heavy like pebbles, he bound to go down; who can bring him up? And if all his actions were light like this butter, he is bound to go up; who can pull him down?

The key question in the parable is, “What can I do for your dead father?” In that question the Buddha is opening up the son to his misunderstanding of karma, of human physics in action and its interconnection with death and rebirth. Some view karma as a sort of balance sheet. They hold the notion that one can balance the ledger by engaging in a wholesome act in order to negate the effect of an unwholesome act. Also, that certain rituals can be performed to alter the past of the dead in order to gain them entry into a place of ease and comfort after death or, that through prayer or merit offered that the circumstances of the dead can be eased and the dead will be reborn in better circumstances. That is not how karma, the law of nature works.

Rites and rituals performed by the various Hindi holy men were done with the intent that the dead could enter a heavenly realm, there to be judged according to their karmic condition. The young man beseeched the Buddha to use his power to allow his father permanent residence there, to bypass the law of nature.

The answer to the question of what can be done for the dead is the living can honor them, but the living cannot assist their journey any further. What was done in life, wholesome and unwholesome determines their destination and path to rebirth. The energy of each of their deeds transmigrates into the next birth. From the perspective of rebirth that is why one’s energy during a current life should be spent performing intentional wholesome actions and avoiding the intentionally unwholesome actions.

Having an appropriate view of karma and rebirth will strengthen Buddhist practice. The past is the past and cannot be changed. Whatever the dead did in life, the living cannot change. Whatever the dead are experiencing cannot be altered by the living. No merit ritual or ceremony (puja) can affect their rebirth or their place in any other realm. Their karma is a product of their lives. Their rebirth is on them.

A person commits the murder of another human being. This engenders the very worst of karma. That person chooses to spend the remainder of their life performing only wholesome deeds. That engenders good karma. Do these combined actions balance out the karmic sheet? No. A human life was still taken. While the good done is a factor, so too the negative is a factor in rebirth.

A practitioner might come to the conclusion then that if wrong is done during a life then why try to atone for it by doing good if it isn’t going to have an effect on rebirth? Engaging the bodymind in a transformation from unwholesome thought and action to one of wholesome thought and action results in energy that carries forward into the next rebirth. The idea is do better in the next rebirth.

From an appropriate view of practice there is a critical point to make here concerning karma and rebirth. Focusing on performing wholesome acts in order to ensure a good rebirth misses entirely the intent of the Four Noble Truths. We do good because it is the path to the alleviation of discontentment, anguish and unsatisfactoriness (suffering) in ourselves and others. The possibility of a better rebirth is a bonus. The possibility of a worse rebirth is a warning.



During this session one of the sangha asked what my own view on rebirth is, do I believe or disbelieve.  For any of us walking the Noble Path this is an important consideration because it points to our view and intent.

Trained in the contemporary Pragmatic Buddhist tradition my view of rebirth is not belief or disbelief.  I’ve never experienced undeniable, unassailable evidence of the reality of this concept so I am, well let’s call it an agnostic when it comes to rebirth.

I choose to perform wholesome acts with wholesome intent in order to alleviate the suffering of myself and others, not with the idea of procuring a better ‘next life’.  Focusing on doing acts of intentional good in this life does act as a sort of spiritual insurance I will admit.  If rebirth is a reality then I am covered.  If it is not then I will leave a legacy of wholesome thought and action as an example for others in their lives.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate Speech: Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is the path of moral discipline (sila) one walks on the Eightfold Path. Together they make up the visible components of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). Ethical voice arises in speech driven by wholesome intent, in speech grounded in the realities of karma and causal conditioning. There are four aspects speech that arise in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions. We must always be mindful because what we do matters.

Aphorisms are phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery. They come in handy tools as for memorization and for teaching ethical ideals and moral behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” and it’s meaning can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its intent. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice the dharma.

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The Eightfold Path: Willingness and Experience

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

With the Four Ennobling Truths, Siddhartha set the groundwork for all Buddhists who would follow his teachings. In pragmatic Buddhism we use ennobling rather than the traditional translation of noble because like fertile ground the Truths are empty until used. Ennobling is an adjective, one that brings recognition that the Four Ennobling Truths are only furrows in a field. It isn’t until one is willing to plant the seeds, cultivate the ground, and experience what grows there is only emptiness.

Contemporary Buddhist scholars like Stephen Batchelor and David Kalupahana experience Siddhartha as presenting not a list of observations that if one believes their truth then that person can join the Buddhist club. Instead they experience the truths as a sequence of dependent origination or causality. The first Truth is, so the second is, the third is, the fourth is, and the fourth leads back to the first; and forms a causal loop. They are the truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.

Why do we think this is what the Buddha meant? By looking at each of the ennobling truths we can see the corresponding action it requires.

#1 Unsatisfactoriness exists for human beings.

You must become fully aware of all the types of suffering that plague mankind and the world he lives in. Only by fully knowing unsatisfactoriness can we recognize the causes. You must accept that all human beings will encounter moments of suffering.

#2 The cause of unsatisfactoriness is craving, unnatural attachments and dualistic thinking that neglect an understanding of dependent origination,

You must look within (rigorous self-honesty) and without for the causes. The realization that nothing arises from nothing is where we begin. Craving for permanence and fear of change, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Universe works, and an attachment to ego must be recognized as that cause.

#3 There is a path that leads to the cessation of craving and unnatural attachments of the mind, and thus there is a way to positively transform unsatisfactoriness.

The lessons of the Middle Path will lead us to the realization that suffering can be alleviated. You discover through experiential verification that the realities of the causal process of the Universe coupled with impermanence empower you to make the changes needed, to engage in positive transformation.

#4 This path is Eightfold.

In the Eightfold Path you find the dispositions of human beings that directly effect HOW you interact in an interconnected world. Like all Buddhist “lists” the Eightfold Path is not meant to stand alone but to be a dynamic and integral part of Buddhist practices, all which have an impact on HOW a Buddhist lives their life in relation to the causal Universe. The ideals of encompassing and corrective view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration when applied in conjunction with the Six Refinements become a “power tool” in the Buddhist toolbox.

The English Buddhist monk Novera said, “The four truths are not to be understood or known, they are injunctions in which we are directed to ACT!”

Wisdom, the sixth refinement is gradually developed as you practice generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and meditation, and acting with wisdom also helps us gradually develop those characteristics. For example the wise application of generosity takes more than just giving. You must learn to develop a clear and realistic view of the situation, what is needed as opposed to what is wanted. To start there will be a level of self-regard to your giving and that is a part of the gradual turning from that self-regard to selfless compassion. Your intent will undergo that change if you are mindful. The other aspects of the Eightfold Path – speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration – also have value in determining acts of generosity. Looking deeply into the Eightfold Path you’ll recognize the elements of the Six Refinements. View and intention are acts of wisdom. Speech, action and livelihood are acts of morals and ethics. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are acts of a meditative bodymind.

Like all Buddhist teachings meant to be useful and productive in the alleviation of suffering, their intent should lead us back to the ideals of the Four Ennobling Truths.