Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part Three

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In his new book, “After Buddhism”, Stephen Batchelor creatively re-describes the Four Noble Truths using what he views as a better translation; the truths become tasks . . . the four tasks. Rather than be a set of Truths to be believed they stand as interconnected and interdependent actions. Batchelor writes, “When seeing the dharma you do not behold an abstract principle. You understand how previous choices, acts and circumstances brought you to your current situation and which present choices and acts might lead to a less restricted and more flourishing future”. In a fully realized secular Buddhist practice the four tasks are calls to action.

His third in the Ten Theses of Secular Buddhism is Batchelor offering the ideal that anyone can practice the four tasks, that everyone has Buddha element to be discovered.

All human beings, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and religion, can practice these four tasks. Each person, in each moment, has the potential to be more awake, responsive, and free.

The Ten Theses are directed toward Buddhism so the use of the word religion here is likely directed toward those Buddhist traditions that he views as having a religious practice, as well as other non-Buddhist belief systems. It is fact that some Buddhist traditions believe that only those on the mendicant (monastic) path are capable of becoming awake, responsive and free, to use Batchelor’s terms, what those traditions would view as achieving Nirvana. Their view is that adherents (laypeople) are unable to think and act with the depth of compassion and wisdom necessary to fully let their habitual reactivity fall away. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, In principle, the practice of the path in all three stages is feasible for people in any walk of life. The Buddha taught it to laypeople as well as to monks, and many of his lay followers reached high stages of attainment. However, application to the development of the path becomes most fruitful for those who have relinquished all other concerns in order to devote themselves wholeheartedly to spiritual training, to living the “holy life” (brahmacariya).”

It doesn’t matter what form a human being takes, gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, nationality, and religion; in any form a human being can engage in the four tasks: Suffering is to be comprehended. The arising is to be let go of. The ceasing is to be beheld. The path is to be cultivated. None of these labels preclude one’s ability to recognize the tasks and with effort and commitment come to realize them as part of how they are.

Thousands of years of experience has shown that someone who relinquishes all other concerns in order to fully devote themselves to a Buddhist practice, a mendicant, engages the four tasks in a manner different than one who has a lay practice, an adherent. Different does not mean less valuable or effective. Think of the differences between a full-time farmer and a weekend gardener. Time and skill One will get a lot more tomatoes than the other yet, the quality of the individual tomatoes may be the same.

In each of us irrespective of the path that might be chosen, there is Buddha element (Buddha nature), the potential to awaken, to be free of habitual reactivity.

The fourth theses is: The practice of the dharma is as much concerned with how one speaks, acts, and works in the public realm as with how one performs spiritual exercises in private.

Mr. Batchelor reveals his bias concerning the spiritual in this theses by labeling ritual as spiritual exercise. They are spiritual exercises from the view that they are meant to elevate the human spirit. Is there a “religious” dharma teacher that would disagree with this statement? I would be surprised if one did. Any exercise, thought of as spiritual or not, done in private will alter the thinking and acting of the one performing it whether they view themselves as religious or secular.

The Sigalovada Sutra, when the Buddha speaks to the young householder Sigala is a text revered and studied in the Theravada tradition. It comes through a religious Buddhist tradition but is a secular teaching, one meant to elevate the human spirit of the practitioner and their family and friends. The Buddha encounters Sigala performing a private “spiritual exercise” in honor of his dead parents. Sigala, as is related in the sutra is not a follower of the Awakened One even though his parents had been. Sigala is a secular minded Hindu. The Buddha doesn’t offer Sigala private practices he should do. He teaches Sigala a more effective way of being interconnected and interdependent on the people in his life, a way of Being that will honor his parents. The Buddha guided the householder to ways more effective in elevating human spirit of himself and those around him through how he spoke to and acted with the people in his life and himself. It is a “spiritual teaching” with a secular focus. The Buddha was teaching Sigala a Middle Path between the religious and the secular.

These two theses show that in some instances what might be viewed as a secular way to practice is equally a “spiritual” way. There is no duality between how a religious or secular oriented Buddhist adherent should practice. All human beings have the potential to awaken and be free of habitual reactivity. Religious or secular . . . doesn’t matter. The goal of anyone on the Noble Path must be to first develop their personal realization of the dharma. With that realization comes a wholesome transformation in how one responds to situations in the public realm. Religious or secular . . . doesn’t matter.

Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part Two

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In his book ‘After Buddhism’ Stephen Batchelor offers Ten Theses of Secular Dharma. He prefaces the list with “In 2005 I started to formulate a series of theses to define the kind of secular Buddhist space in which I found myself then and continue to find myself today – the kind of space I have been writing about in this book. I offer a revised version of them here:”

Number one is “A secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone”. A secular Buddhist doesn’t contemplate on how what they did in a previous life has affected how they are in this life. In their experience it is the thoughts and actions of this life that are the cause of what happens in this life from birth to death, with the knowledge that there are also outside causal forces that are cause and effect. Effort isn’t given to trying to view the future. Instead, it is realized that there is no value in wondering what might happen in the future so effort is spent working on what can be done in this moment to ensure a future of human flourishing.

Number two is “The practice of the dharma consists of four tasks: to embrace suffering, to let go of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate an integrated way of life”.

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 conditioned arising. 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 truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.

Batchelor creatively re-describes the Four Noble Truths using what he views as a better translation; the truths become tasks . . . the four tasks. Rather than be a set of Truths to be believed they stand forth as interdependent actions. Batchelor writes, “When seeing the dharma you do not behold an abstract principle. You understand how previous choices, acts and circumstances brought you to your current situation and which present choices and acts might lead to a less restricted and more flourishing future”. In a fully realized Buddhist practice the four tasks are calls to action.

Traditionally the Four Noble Truths are: Truth of suffering (dukkha), Truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya), Truth of the End of Suffering (nirodha), Truth of the path (magga). Viewing them as tasks, and acting upon them from that perspective is what Batchelor offers as a secular way to a Buddhist practice. It is equally a spiritual way, a way to elevate the human spirit.

Batchelor presents the fourfold task in classic terms before distilling them into contemporary sound bites. Suffering is to be comprehended. The arising is to be let go of. The ceasing is to be beheld. The path is to be cultivated. As actionable instructions the fourfold tasks become: Embrace life., Let go of what arises., See its ceasing., Act!. The tasks are not separate ideals they are four facets of an interconnected and interdependent way of Being in the world.

Suffering is to be comprehended (embrace life). To comprehend suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness one must be an active part of their culture in order to truly discover mindfulness of personal suffering and awareness of the suffering of others.

The arising is to be let go of (Let go of what arises). Engaging life requires the practitioner to be mindful of what motivates a thought or action, of their reactivities. Greed, anger, envy, hatred or confusion may arise in reaction to situations and experiences in life. Equally love, joy or happiness may arise in reaction to situations and experiences in life. Whether positive seeming phenomena or negative, one must let go in order to set aside reaction (habitual reactivity) in favor of responding appropriately regardless of emotional phenomena, regardless of how one “feels”.

The ceasing is to be beheld (See it’s ceasing). One must be mindful of the ceasing, the falling away of habitual reactivity within their own bodymind. Comprehending the falling away of anger as a means to deal with life’s situations is also comprehending the suffering that anger can cause and choosing to set it aside. The same level of comprehension must be a factor in determining how to respond in any event. In this way one experiences the positive progress in their own practice.

The path is to be cultivated (Act!). Buddhists act as farmers sowing seeds that will enable them to grow into human beings that set aside reactivity in favor of choosing the appropriate response for each unique situation. The Eightfold Path must be cultivated. A practitioner cultivates the path of appropriate view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration as guides so that habitual reactivity can be recognized and the falling away of it realized.

Practice of the four tasks leads to an integrated life. The fourth component is evident in the other three tasks. In fact, each task is interconnected and interdependent on the other. To have an integrated life one must accept suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness as a reality. The practitioner must let go of reactivity so that they can appropriately respond to that suffering, a response cultivated by acceptance. Seeing through a clear lens the effects of acting without reactivity reveals how suffering can be lessened through engagement with the Eightfold Path.

That practice of the dharma requires one to embrace suffering, to let go of reactivity, to behold the ceasing of reactivity, and to cultivate an integrated way of life in order to follow the path of intent laid out by the Buddha. Doing this will have the effect of elevating the human spirit of the self and others whether or not is realized or accepted. Practitioners find more contentment and wisdom in their lives and everyone they come in contact with benefit in one form or another. It doesn’t matter if one views themselves as a religious or secular Buddhist. The causal Universe responds how it will dependent on thoughts and actions, not on any chosen belief system.

Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part One

Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part One

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Secular Buddhist groups are arising in the West, most notably in America. Overall mission statements for these groups vary with one constant; they walk the Middle Path without any religious or spiritual context. Groups like the Secular Buddhist Association and many individuals practice the dharma without any affiliation with a traditional Buddhist lineage or school. These practitioners look to the wide variety of Buddhist writings, podcasts and You Tube videos, along with in-person sessions with other avowed secular Buddhists for information and instruction. They view dogmatic beliefs, unquestioning devotion, and religious ritual as having no value, though many still find value in the facilities and training offered by traditional Buddhist groups.

Buddhism as a religious practice arose when the Buddha’s disciples began actively worshipping him, and guiding others to do the same after Siddhartha’s death. It flourished with more than 2500 years of Buddhism becoming interconnected and interdependent on the ethnic religions of other Asian cultures. For example, in sTibet it is Bon, China it is Tao and Confucianism, and Japan it is the Shinto religion that Buddhism merged with. Religious observances and worship of the Buddha(s) naturally arose as a causal consequence of the intersection of belief systems. At this moment in its history Buddhism is encountering a secular belief system for the first time. Secular is defined as any attitudes, activities or other phenomena in which religion or spirituality plays no role. Siddhartha’s own attitude had a touch of the secular. In the Parinibbana Sutra Siddhartha clearly stated that it wasn’t him as human being or teacher his disciples should honor upon his death; they must honor the dharma, the teachings. Combined with what the Buddha offered in other sutras he did not expect to be worshipped or thought of as anything but a human being.

My own experience is that Buddhism can be effectively practiced without religious dogma, worship and prostrations, and that no matter how one engages Buddhism in their moment-to-moment life there will be an elevation of human spirit. I base this ideal on the realization that the soul and human spirit are synonymous. The soul is what goes to heaven in the Judeo/Christian system. Human spirit can be experienced by anyone open to the wonder and mystery of the world we live in. Spirituality is the ideal . . . dharma is the real. No matter how one engages the intentional practices of Buddhism their thoughts and actions will relate to and affect in deep ways the human spirit of the practitioner and of their society. Elevation of human spirit is certain when equanimity, compassion, loving-kindness, generosity and acceptance are part of how one is when engages themselves and others. In his book ‘After Buddhism’ he offers Ten Theses of Secular Dharma. He prefaces the list with “In 2005 I started to formulate a series of theses to define the kind of secular Buddhist space in which I found myself then and continue to find myself today – the kind of space I have been writing about in this book. I offer a revised version of them here:”

We’ll explore Mr. Batchelor’s ten theses over the following weeks at the Buddha Center.

A secular Buddhist is one who is committed to the practice of the dharma for the sake of this world alone.

Practicing Buddhism as a religion requires that the disciple have faith in the metaphysical concepts of rebirth, of the karmic bank account for past and future lives, and nirvana as a transcendent realm independent of the material universe and beyond its physical laws. Mr. Batchelor offers that a secular Buddhist is one who commits to practicing the dharma for the sake of their own existence from birth to death, as well as the sake of their society and planet. This is a path readily walked by an agnostic Buddhist. They set aside the metaphysical possibilities and concentrate on what can be experienced. They rely on verified confidence by striving to be mindful and aware of the consequences of their thoughts and actions in their immediate existence.

A secular Buddhist doesn’t contemplate on how what they did in a previous life has affected how they are in this life. In their experience it is the thoughts and actions of this life that are the cause of what happens in this life from birth to death, with the knowledge that there are also outside causal forces that are cause and effect. Effort isn’t given to trying to view the future. Instead, it is realized that there is no value in wondering what might happen in the future so effort is spent working on what can be done in this moment to ensure a future of human flourishing.

A religiously oriented Buddhist connects situations and experiences of their current life with what may have been done in a previous life. Their job sucks because they did something wrong to their boss in another life. How can they know this to be the case? Dogmatic faith. A secular Buddhist realizes that their job sucks because of their own work habits or attitude. There isn’t anything that can be done to fix the actions in a previous life, but there is a lot that can be done to fix previous actions in this life.

There is no place in the sutras that the Buddha states unequivocally that his new paradigm is not meant to be a religion, nor does he ever unequivocally state that it is meant to be a religion. We can only carefully study the sutras and other legacy texts to get a window into Siddhartha’s thinking. The Buddhist canon abounds with mention of deities, divas, gods and other mythical entities that populated the Hindi religion of Siddhartha’s time and culture. In the texts these beings question, praise and honor the Buddha whose new approach to human existence was causally conditioned by the people whose religion created those mythical beings. The texts were written hundreds and thousands of years after Siddhartha’s death and so it is likely that the mythical beings were added in order to give Buddhism some amount of cultural authority so the populace would be able to first recognize the parallels, then realize the differences.

Spirituality is the ideal . . . dharma is the real. Can a practitioner engage in meditation, compassion and generosity without having any spiritual moments, moments when they are relating or affects the human spirit of themselves or another? My own experience says no.

Meditation is engaged in so that through practice one can gain insight into themselves and the world around them, and to develop a serene and balanced mind. Success elevates the human spirit.

Compassion is engaged in so that the concern for the suffering, discontent, anguish and unsatisfactoriness of human beings arises in the mind. The thoughts and actions of a compassionate person elevates the human spirit.

Generosity is engaged so that the practitioner fully realizes the causal consequences of wholesome deeds. Giving without expectation elevates the human spirit.

Mr. Batchelor’s ten theses of secular Buddhism point to one extreme, while Buddhism as a religion points to the other. By engaging them through discussion and practice the Middle Path can be discerned. Each time Buddhism migrated to a new country and culture there arose an ‘either/or’ situation. In the beginning people were expected to make a choice. In time, sometimes hundreds of years, a middle path that honored both belief systems arose. Over time the same will happen in the West.


by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhist philosophy and practice has long focused on the mind as a weak point for human beings. The mind can fool you with delusions, tell you lies you want to believe, and insist on thoughts and actions it is comfortable with rather than try something different. Strongly worded teachings to cleanse, to control, to pacify, and to know the mind are found across the sutras. This is a major reason why in Buddhism there are six senses not five: sight, sound, taste, touch, smell and consciousness . . . the mind. The mind, or consciousness doesn’t only process what the other senses gather it can create scenarios real and the contrived. The mind can offer distorted memories, wrong information and a deluded view of the future. To know the mind requires rigorous self-honesty in order to achieve insight into reality, internal and external. This is a point where the ideals of Buddhism meet the reality of human existence.

In the Anguttara Nikaya (The Further-factored Discourses) the Buddha uses a pool of water as metaphor for the mind.

Udakarahaka Sutta: A Pool of Water – AN 1.45-46

“Suppose there were a pool of water – clouded with mud and trash. A man with good eyesight standing there on the bank would not see shells, gravel, and pebbles, or shoals of fish swimming about and resting. Why is that? It is because of the spoiled nature of the water. In the same way a disciple cannot know his own benefit, the benefit of others, the benefit of both due to the spoiled nature of his mind; that he would not realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision: Such a thing would be impossible. Why is that? Because of the spoiled nature of his mind.”

“Suppose there were a pool of water — clear and free from trash. A man with good eyesight standing there on the bank would see shells, gravel, & pebbles, and also shoals of fish swimming about and resting. Why is that? It is because of the unspoiled nature of the water. In the same way a disciple would know his own benefit, the benefit of others, the benefit of both due to the unspoiled nature of his mind; that he would realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision: Such a thing is possible. Why is that? It is because of the unspoiled nature of his mind.”

“Udakarahaka Suttas: A Pool of Water” (AN 1.45-46), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 August 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an01/an01.045-046.than.html

A mind “spoiled” by vexations/hindrances – sensual desire, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt – and the arising of negative habitual reactions – anger, fear, envy, greed – is incapable of realizing the positive qualities of its own nature. The mud that clouds the water is from the mind’s reluctance to let go of habitual reactivity and hindrances. Mud is internal. The trash that clouds the water is the negative influences of society that you allow to be “thrown” into the pool. Trash is external.

In the same way a disciple cannot know his own benefit, the benefit of others, the benefit of both due to the spoiled nature of his mind; that he would not realize a superior human state, a truly noble distinction of knowledge & vision . . .’ It is impossible for you to get an appropriate view and realize how you can be the cause of wholesome transformations of the self, of others, and of the world unless the mud is made to settle and the trash disposed of properly. To make a distinction between what you think you know and what you need to know (knowledge) and between what you think you see and what is reality (vision) you must be viewing yourself and the causal universe through clear water or unobstructed mind.

The Buddha offers two ways to cleanse the mind. Let the mud settle by not engaging in sensual desire, ill-will, laziness, restlessness, and doubt; and remove the ‘trash’ of anger, fear, envy, greed. There is a third manner of clearing the water that is illustrated using the image of bathtub.

Let your consciousness create the image of a bathtub made of glass. The water in the tub is dark with mud. You can let the mud fall-away to the bottom but the mud will still be there waiting to arise into the clear water above it. You can scoop the mud out causing the water to become opaque, impossible to get a clear view through and then wait for it to settle again. In the first you might be engaging in denying the mud of vexations and hindrances, allowing it to remain in the tub. In the second you might be attempting to rid yourself of emotions, getting frustrated because some mud remains to swirl around in the water. Both of these methods have limited positive effects. What is missing?

You can’t focus exclusively on mindfully removing the unwholesome from the mind, on removing the mud and trash from the water. You must also engage in adding wholesome thoughts and ideals to the mind, putting drop after drop of clear, clean water into the tub. You cannot only subtract from the mind; you must also add to it. Interconnected these two actions are a path to a cleansed mind that will be able to realize personal and societal benefit, and to achieve knowledge and appropriate view of experiences and situations.

Mindfulness allows some of the mud to go down the drain. That same mindfulness allows drops of the clear waters of loving-kindness, compassion, generosity, morals, energy, awareness, acceptance, meditation and wisdom to be added to the tub. Slowly the level of mud diminishes and the water appears cleaner and clearer. It becomes easier to see the reality of self and the causal universe.

A sangha member once asked, “Why not just drain the tub, wash all the mud out and then refill it with the clean water?” This would make it easier. Drain out the vexations/hindrances and trash and start over. Unfortunately you cannot ‘drain’ you mind of all your experiences, attitudes, beliefs, habits and dispositions. This is the time to recall that Buddhism is the Middle Path between extremes.

For the great majority of us the ideal of a completely cleansed mind is a delusion. There will always be some arising, however minor of hindrances. There will always be the arising of mindfulness that stills habitual reactivity in favor of appropriate response. There will always be a certain amount of mud in the water. That is why mindfulness and awareness must always be present. The Middle Path realizes that one is never all mud, never all clear water. It must be a constant process of mindfulness of internal mud and awareness of external trash being processed through the mind so that the unwholesome influences are recognized. It must be a constant process of learning and practice so that drops of clear water are being continuously added so that a more wholesome personal character and societal direction can be realized.

We can’t change how our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch send information to the mind. We can change how the mind responds to those stimuli. We can continue to allow the mud of hindrances and vexations to thicken and choke out our wholesome qualities, or we can put in the effort needed to be mindful of the unwholesome and limit it’s arising. With awareness we can learn to recognize the defilements of the mind caused by what we allow to become part of our thinking and acting, our habitual reactivities, as well as recognize the wholesome thoughts and actions that will cleanse the mind. Then with mindfulness we can allow the unwholesome to fall away and the wholesome to arise. We can let the mud settle and let the mud drain as we add clear, clean water drop by drop.

Verified Confidence – Faith in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Religious belief relies, to varying levels, on faith, the initial acceptance that what is being taught is real. Some religions teach that a practitioner must continue to believe what is not, or cannot be proven . . . that they ‘take it on faith’. This can lead to an overzealous faith that suffocates intelligent exploration and questioning. People who believe without any attempt to prove will likely find themselves mired in dogma rather than accruing knowledge of themselves and the world around them. There is a great disservice to the individual and society if faith replaces the motivation to investigate and to experience personally the efficacy of any teaching or knowledge.

Buddhism in its many traditions is practiced as a religion and so faith plays a role, but with particular views not shared with other religions. To highlight the difference in intent Siddhartha used a synonym for faith; he used the word confidence. The same intent from a different arising. Faith, arises as the acceptance that what is being taught is reality without the expectation of or means of verification . . . or too often the desire to verify.

Confidence arises as a result of knowledge, practice and experience proving the effectiveness of tenets and practices . . . it is verifiable faith. Knowledge that Siddhartha was human and that each of us are human gives us confidence (faith) that we can experience awakened moments. Engaging in practices such as generosity of spirit we experience that the good we do matters for ourselves and our society. Buddhisms’ is a verified faith (confidence). In the Nandiya Sutra, Siddhartha teaches the ideal of ‘verified confidence’.

There is the case where a disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’ Content with that verified confidence in the Dhamma, he does not exert himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night.

“Furthermore, the disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well… who have practiced straight-forwardly… who have practiced methodically… who have practiced masterfully — in other words, the four types of noble disciples when taken as pairs, the eight when taken as individual types — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’ Content with that verified confidence in the Sangha, he does not exert himself further in solitude by day or seclusion by night.

Confidence in the Buddha doesn’t arise because HE IS THE BUDDHA. It arises due to the evidence of Siddhartha’s life, and the evidence of how his life affected others . . . including most importantly our own lives. It is verified confidence.

Confidence in the Dhamma doesn’t arise because they are texts of the WORDS OF THE BUDDHA. It arises due to the evidence of Siddhartha’s life, and the evidence that each practitioner gathers as they engage the Dhamma in life and experience the results. It is verified confidence.

Confidence in the Sangha doesn’t arise because the members are ALL ON THE SAME PATH. It arises due to the evidence of 2600+ years of Buddhists gathering together, and the evidence each of us experience when we sit together. It is verified confidence.

There is the concept of faith (sraddha) in Buddhist practice. Nagarjuna said, “When one’s mind is grounded in faith, one escapes doubt and regret. Then the power of faith is strong, one can seize and espouse the dharma; and this is called dharmaksanti: tolerance of the dharma, patient acceptance of the teachings about the nature of reality even though they are not yet within your grasp.” This also points to confidence. Though there are aspects of the dharma that aren’t immediately experienced the practitioner has ‘faith’ that they will eventual come to full realization.

The Buddha’s teachings do not begin with a leap of faith to affirm a metaphysical doctrine or theory but draw our attention to something we care deeply about: we don’t want to suffer. The Buddha’s teachings don’t ask us to solely believe, or have faith. Trust in the dharma, in the form of faith or confidence, is useful allowing the practitioners to continue practicing, studying, thinking and meditating even when one hasn’t yet realized how worthwhile the effort is. A mature practice goes beyond faith in the Buddha’s teachings to confidence in the practitioner’s own experience gained from mindful practice and awareness. Buddhist practice doesn’t ask you to just accept anything, even the reality of suffering. It offers teachings about the nature of reality while also offering ways that you can verify it for yourself.

Doubt and regret can arise at any level of Buddhist practice, the feeling that you just aren’t getting it; that you’re not seeing results. Meditation practice is where this is likely to first manifest. You meditate each day for twenty minutes and don’t recognize any benefit. You don’t feel more aware, it doesn’t feel like that part of your brain is getting bigger. You recognize the arising of emotions but still don’t seem able to control them. Everything else might be impermanent but you still feel like the same old you. There is doubt that what you are doing is of value and you develop a sense of regret that practice is wasted effort.

A sense of confidence enables you the patience necessary to come to the realization that ideals like impermanence, not-self and suffering are real. That those same realizations can lead to a more positive personal character. Acting with compassion and selflessness may not have immediate recognizable positive results, faith allows you the time to develop the encompassing awareness to realize them.

For some people the concept of faith in Buddhism is not complete with touching on the metaphysical ideals and practices in some Buddhist traditions. Faith in rebirth and karma as they relate to reincarnation, that some Zen Masters gain the ability to move instantaneously from one place to another, that a Vajrayana lama can control the weather, or the legendary birth stories of Siddhartha Guatama is up to the individual practitioner. For others an agnostic approach to the metaphysical may have more value. Setting those concepts aside they focus on those practices that have practical moment-to-moment value while remaining open to the possibility of altering their view through direct experience.

Will you choose to put your faith in the hands of others, or take confidence firmly in hand and turn it into a useful tool in your Life Toolbox? Actualizing confidence that allows the arising of patience and endurance works as a tool in the Life Toolbox. It can be the clamp that holds you together while the glue dries.

Meanings of Karma – Then to Now

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Buddha was not the first to speak about karma. This might come as a shock for those unfamiliar with the religious practices on the Indian continent before and during the life of Siddhartha. The concept, belief and practice of karma was first written about in the Upanishads around 500 bce, approximately 20 years after the birth of Siddhartha Guatama. Karma had been a factor in the many religious traditions of India for centuries before either event. Siddhartha, learned in the doctrines of karma from Hindu traditions creatively re-described the doctrine as a philosophical and practical ideal in Buddhism.

In Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ is a tracing of the layers of meaning in the Hindu concept and practice of karma (karma). The Upanishadic sages viewed death not as the end but as a beginning, a part of a cycle of beginning and ending that involved birth and rebirth. In the Upanishads the sage Yajnavalkya was asked by a pupil, “What happens to the person after death?” In answer the sage said, “A man becomes something good by good karma and something bad by bad karma”. Yajnavalkya was speaking of what form, good or bad, of rebirth could be expected dependent on that man’s good or bad karma, yet his answer has equal value with the acceptance of rebirth subtracted.

The most basic meaning of karma is action, whether physical or mental, doing or thinking. There are personal consequences (karmic consequences) attached to what is done, said or thought. A creative re-description of this meaning is that karma is human physics in action. Every action is affected by previous actions, every action is the cause of another action.

Karma is also ‘ritual action’ as it arises in the Rig Veda, the widely revered Hindu text. Offering a sacrifice, bathing in the Ganges or paying tribute to a holy man generates karma. In EDIG ‘rituals of intent’ are performed, rituals meant to be intentional reminders that what we do matters, a contemporary form of that ideal of ritual action. We want, in the words of Yajnavalkya to become something good by performing good actions.

In the Upanishads a third, new meaning arose for karma, the existence of a ‘karmic bank account’. Whenever one engaged in a morally charged action, an action based on good or bad objectives then the result would be deposited in that metaphysical account. This was the foundation for a fourth meaning, that morally charged actions would have direct consequences within each life and on future rebirths. In the Upanishad it was explained with the statement ‘you will become a sheep that people eat if you eat a sheep’. Yet, in the practice of animal sacrifice the same wasn’t a consequence.

With today’s actions affecting future lives a fifth meaning arose. Karma was not only the cause of future lives but must also be the guiding force for the present life. Actions taken in a previous life generated karma that affected how the present life was experienced. One was playing out a role dictated by what had been done rather than what was being done. In EDIG there is the realization that there are past causes of present circumstances and that what we know will affect the future, but this is only experienced between birth and death, not before and not after (at least as far as we can know now).

Given that karma was transferred from past, to present, to future lives the concept arose that good or bad karma might also transfer between people in particular situations. In the Vedic tradition this was already thought to happen between parent and child, and between sacrificial priest and believer. This sixth meaning added to that the possibility of karmic transfer in all human connections. The texts relate the example of a guest being allowed to depart a home unfed by their hosts. Whether this omission of courtesy was intentional or unintentional the guest would still leave with the host’s accumulated good karma and leave their own negative karma behind.

For some the concepts of karma and merit are synonymous. In EDIG these are understood to be linked but not interchangeable in language and meaning. Karma is action. Merit is what is learned from that action; the knowledge that develops into wisdom. This realization is offered at the end of each sangha session with the recitation of “Sharing the Merit” with the words ‘. . . we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings’. Merit is viewed as the benefits that arise for self and others through the actions we take. Merit increases in value when it is selflessly shared. Likewise in the Puja for the Release of Compassionate Energy is the words ‘. . . the merits of the gathered’s compassionate energy are being offered to . . .”. Whatever the gathered sangha’s compassion can do to transform unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish is selflessly offered to any in need.

Siddhartha, through his own experience would have learned of these views of karma and undoubtedly they would have played a role in how he saw himself and the world around him. These views would have been contemplated on as he sat beneath the bodhi tree, as he came to his full awakening of the realities of human existence and how man might best get beyond habitual reactivity and experience nirvanic moments. There is, and will likely continue to be debate as to whether the Buddha connected karma and rebirth from a position of belief or from seeing its value as a way to promote positive moral ideals and ethical responses. In EDIG we get beyond that metaphysical debate and see karma as one of the foundations for that same ideal in the time each human beings inhabits between birth and death because it is within the boundaries of what we know we experience.

In the Nibbedhika Sutra (Anguttara Nikaya 6:3) the Buddha speaks of karma. ‘Karma (action) should be known. The cause by which karma comes into play should be known. The diversity in karma should be known. The result of karma should be known. The cessation of karma should be known. The path of practice leading to the cessation of karma should be known.’ Thus it has been said. Why was it said?

Intention, I tell you, is karma. Intending, one does karma by way of body, speech, & intellect.’

We must be aware of our actions, must know why they were taken, whether better choices of action needed to be made, how actions impacted our self and others, and when actions must cease. The path of practice the Buddha speaks of is found in the Eightfold Path and is made clear in next verse . . . intention. With intent we reveal karma by taking physical, verbal and mental action.

Thinking good, wholesome thoughts leads to good, wholesome speech and action. Taking good, wholesome actions leads to good, wholesome speech and thought. Saying good, wholesome words leads to good, wholesome thoughts and actions. All of these scenarios are real and have been experienced, proven to be reality.

To practice Buddhism is this moment and the moments to follow until death let’s set aside the metaphysical concept of rebirth. The threat that if we don’t do good in this life that our next lives will suck shouldn’t be necessary for us to realize the value of doing good for self and others and the planet. Our moral ideals mustn’t be based on selfishness, on protecting the ego no matter past, present or future. Instead we must base moral ideals on our experiences. When we, or others do good then that good is realized far beyond the individual. That is the selfless reason to do good.

We can’t deny rebirth because we simply don’t know if it is a fact. So, instead of wasting precious moments arguing and debating it let’s set it aside and just make the effort to cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. Let’s act with compassion and generosity. Let’s offer trust, respect and loving-kindness to all. Doing these things will certainly make human lives from birth to death a more positive, wholesome experience . . . and . . . if rebirth is a fact then we are covered because we’ve been the best human beings we can be in this life . . . the only life we really know.

The Upanishads and the Rig Veda offered views of karma. Buddhist sutras and texts offer views of karma. You and I offer views of karma by how we respond to each unique situation we encounter.

T’was the Night Before Awakening


The traditional Christmas classic, T’was the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore (1779 – 1863) creatively re-described for the buddha-element in all of us.


Happy Holidays and a Peaceful Season

Wayne Ren-Cheng


T’was the Night Before Awakening

by Wayne Ren-Cheng, a deep bow to Mr. Moore

T’was the night before Awakening, when throughout every house
All creatures were connected, every man to every mouse.
Siddhartha was sitting under the Bodhi tree with care,
In hopes that the answers he sought would be there.

He considered the children all snug in their beds,
While visions of cravings danced in their heads.
And mother in her sari, and I in my dhoti,
Had just settled down and got comfy.

When up on the stupa there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the leaves of the holy tree
Gave the lustre of mid-day to the man I could see.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But four truths, and eight paths to hear.

With a little wisdom, so compassionate and intended,
I knew in a moment he must be Awakened.
More powerful than emotions his insights they came,
And he thought, and took action, and called them by name!

“Now View! Now, Intent! Now, Speech and Action!
On, Livelihood! On, Effort!, On Mindfulness and Concentration!
To ease the suffering! To walk the Middle Way!
Realize impermanence! Realize not-self! Realize awakened moments each day!”

As delusions that before self-honesty fly,
When they meet with a hindrance, the bodymind asks why.
So into that culture a new paradigm flew,
With a heart full of compassion, and the Buddha too.

And then, in a twinkling, I experienced proof
That these ideals were more than a goof.
As they were recognized in my head, and I was coming around,
I saw the Buddha still sitting on the ground.

He was bathed in pure light, from his head to his foot,
And his mind once clouded viewed clearly the route.
Four Truths and Eight Paths he offered us all,
From kings to householders, the large and the small.

His eyes they showed wisdom! His smile it was joyful!
His urna was glowing, his thoughts were mindful!
From his mouth there came knowledge,
Of the Middle Way and Hinduism to which he paid homage.

He held his tongue firmly against his top teeth,
And meditative calm encircled him like a wreath.
He was awakening to the experiences of man,
That made him wonder if man could realize something so grand!

He was aware that there was no self,
And I laughed when he told me I was not-self!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know there was truth in what he said.

He spoke a few words, and then went straight to work,
And filled my head with the path, then turned with a jerk.
And putting his hand together in gassho, he bowed deeply,
And giving a nod, he stood tall and humbly!

He sprang to his duty, to his commitments he gave direction,
And they were accepted as refinements not perfections.
And I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he set out to teach,
“Four Ennobling Truths to all, and to all the Eightfold Path is within reach!”

Holiday Practice – Making Cookies

Making Unique Cookies

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Everything is right in front of me . . . the tools . . . the recipe . . . the ingredients . . . it is up to me to put them together to create how I imagine they can be. Sweet or savory . . . chewy or crunchy . . . plain or frosted . . . many or few . . . the choice is mine . . . a choice dependent on many causal factors. What ingredients are around the house? What ingredients did I remember to buy? What cookies did people like the best last year? What are my favorite cookies? How many hours can I devote to cookie baking? How many? Who gets them?

Then it is a matter of flipping through all the recipes. For each type of cookie there is a recipe to follow that was created by someone else or by me . . . they each have been proven to work through experience, mine making them and the oohs . . . aahs . . . and the ‘I don’t like those’ comments. Each recipe has been tested, and continues to be tested with every batch that is made. It is a guide to what tools I’ll need, what ingredients are necessary, how to combine them, and how long it will take to reach the final product. So, I can depend on the experiences of others, or I can modify the recipes . . . or choose to create something totally new . . . whatever my choice it will be an experience unique to me, the cookies a unique experience to all who eat them. When making cookies ultimately it is what I do that matters.

Making my choice, recognizing what goal I am setting out for . . . in this case delicious cookies I decide what to make, take stock of what I have, what I need to know, and what I need to get. Together the bowls, measuring spoons and cups, mixer, flour, brown sugar, chile mango and pineapple, chocolate chips, walnuts, eggs, and vanilla have their self-identity that is destined undergo a transformation to a completely different form, and still impermanent form (somebody will eat them). The tools and ingredients seem separate but they are all part of the same phenomena . . . making cookies. Tools are ingredients and ingredients are tools, combined they are the potential for something delicious, something that can cause the arising of health (don’t eat too many), happiness and harmony. Making cookies is transforming emptiness to form, form to emptiness.

Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef, writer and traveler says, “To be a cook or to enjoy food you must be willing take chances.” Whether the recipe is a success or flop . . . whether the cookies are welcomed or rejected . . . whether they come out looking like the picture in the recipe book or not . . . my intent is to make something tasty. If a mistake is made in combining ingredients and the cookies aren’t perfect I can creatively re-describe them and go on and try again. Or, discover that a “mistake” led to an even more delicious cookies. On the plate it is intent that matters.

A recipe is a guide much like the Four Ennobling Realities, the Pure Precepts, and the lessons encountered in a mindful Buddhist practice. A recipe gives you the ingredients and the process necessary to reach a positive product. You’re a product. You’re a product of culture, context, effort, intent, action, thought, experience, history, and goals . . . so are cookies. It is HOW you are and HOW you imagine you could be that matters.

Each of us are a unique combination of tools and ingredients. An engaged Buddhist practice is the recipe for putting it all together to achieve positive transformation. It begins with an honest view of how you are and the development of an honest intent to work toward how you want to be. Personal attributes like your intelligence, steadfastness, mindfulness, physical and mental strength are the tools you already have . . . at least to some degree. They are tools that can be improved upon through knowledge, commitment and effort. Personal dispositions and habits like compassion, anger, patience, fear, procrastination and acceptance can promote or hinder your transition depending on the causal consequences they invoke. Dispositions and habits can be discarded if they don’t fit the “recipe” or can be improved and built upon if they can refine the “product” that is you. How you combine your unique ingredients matters.

The engaged Buddhist “recipe” combines the traditional lessons of Buddhism found in the Pali Nikayas and pragmatic teachings from other Buddhist platforms, along with the contemporary teachings of Pragmatic Buddhism, Western philosophy and science, and the knowledge that comes from experiencing the efficacy of a committed Buddhist practice. Siddhartha awakened to the realization of the Four Ennobling Realities as ideals to be engaged and dependent origination and impermanence as realities to be experienced. It is through the awareness of the facts, the mixing into your previous held worldview the reality that comes with an appropriate view of the causal Universe. Accepting the addition of the Dharma as an ingredient that enriches and benefits, and taking the action to use the tools and ingredients to their most beneficial effects will produce a compassionate agent of positive personal and social development is the process of blending what you have and what you need for a positive transition. It is a contemporary/traditionalist recipe that matters.

The engaged Buddhist “recipe” isn’t dogmatic so it leaves room for change as long as the core ideals are realized . . . much like a chocolate chip cookie can have nuts, peanut butter chips or coconut but still be a type of chocolate chip cookie. Depending on the unique situation encountered by an engaged Buddhist there may be a need for compassion or altruism . . . pluralism or pragmatism; just like sometimes we want a crunchy cookie, sometimes a chewy one.

Everything is right in front of you . . . the tools . . . the recipe . . . the ingredients . . . it is up to you to put them together to make you how you want to be. Compassionate or greedy . . . tolerant or impatient . . . selfless or angry . . . you get to make the choice. You learn the core “recipe”, acquire the ingredients, develop the skillful means to use the tools, then you can choose how you want to be and Sva Ha! . . . so be it.

The Habit of Distraction

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate Concentration is last on the list of the Eightfold Path, yet it arises in a committed practice of the other seven: view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness. At the beginning of a Buddhist practice, and in those instances when practice falters due to distractions or vexations it is a renewed focus on the goal that is needed. The modern world offers a multitude of distractions whether we are at home or at work. Email accounts, texting, devices that start with the letter ‘i’, Twitter, phones, magazines, and looking out the window to check the weather seem to actively seek to draw attention away from creating and maintaining an engaged, responsive and productive state of being. Discovering a new show on Netflix or seeing what funny-business Gwyneth Paltrow is up to can be an entertaining diversion, more enticing than whatever task currently needs to be accomplished. We can find ourselves reacting out of habit and allowing these diversions to sap concentration, or we can transform habitual reactivity into appropriate concentration.

Along with distractions, multi-tasking is a hindrance to appropriate concentration. Multi-tasking creates the opposite state of being from one that is focused on whatever the important task is necessary in that moment. Focus is safer . . . think of driving a car. Loss of awareness of traffic patterns, the actions of other motorists, road signs, and pedestrians will eventually lead to a crash that will cause discontent and anguish at the very least, death and injury at the very worst. Anyone who believes that multi-tasking by eating, texting or holding a phone to their ear while driving is an appropriate action is deluding themselves.

Focus is more effective . . . think of what you haven’t gotten done yet because of distractions.

Focus is more satisfying . . . think of how you felt the last time you fully completed a task.

Distraction arises in two forms. There are multiple tasks that are calling out to us to be done simultaneously, and the attraction of mental relaxation in the midst of concentrated tasks. In the first it is highly unlikely that simultaneous tasks will each be accomplished well; the other can be turned to our advantage.

The modern world is not only full of distractions but it is equally full of things that must be done. Chores, work assignments, scheduled activities for the kids, appointments of all kinds and the dreaded “this needs to done right now . . . not later . . . now” situations vie for attention alongside the entertaining and the diverting. With so much that needs to be done and the distractions in our contemporary society it is no wonder that the glories of multitasking are touted as an antidote to anxiety and confusion. Yet, more often than not multi-tasking results in the very bodymind conditions it purports to lessen.

Multitasking is touted as a positive aspect of the American work ethic. It is a misnomer and a major distraction when pursuing a complicated task or engaging a deep practice. In Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, Marc Lesser writes, “There are two primary types of distractions: those that draw us in multiple directions at once, resulting in confusion and an inability to complete a thought or action, and those that provide mental relaxation, offering small “breaks” that support intense focus and effort. Clearly we want less of the former and more of the latter.”

You might ask here, what is deep practice? There is an aspect of appropriate speech called Deep Listening, the action of sincerely giving over your whole attention to what is being said. Doing so allows you to hear what is really being said, as opposed to what you might want to, or think you hear. Deep practice has the same foundational ideal. You sincerely give over total concentration to the task at hand so you get done well what needs doing in a timely manner. This doesn’t mean no breaks . . . it does mean productive breaks.

Multi-tasking is the negative distraction that the author is referring to in the quote above. Multi-tasking might make us feel more important and more valuable in our jobs and private lives but it is an anathema to deep practice. The human brain and body is good but it never truly does two things at once. It bounces back and forth between actions/thoughts making excellence in any task nearly impossible to achieve. We might be 100% focused on multi-tasking but we won’t be 100% focused on either task because there isn’t a percentage higher than 100. Only 100% focus is appropriate concentration.

Mr. Lesser offers that a small break, five minutes of mindfulness meditation, standing and stretching, or just taking three deep cleansing breaths can help to maintain intense focus rather than diminish it. There is much value in Mr. Lesser’s idea. For example, during meditation retreats when periods of up to three hours are spent in silent meditation breaks are taken for meditators to rise and perform a short session of Qigong, a short walking meditation, or just stretch their muscles and breath deeply before continuing to sit. What works on the cushion works as well off.

Multiple tasks and distractions can be detrimental to whatever you are trying to accomplish. What if you turned those multiple tasks into distractions that would work for you in two ways . . . you take a break from a concentrated task and complete another task? Not trying to do both tasks at once, actually fully engaging one as a distraction from the other. Doing so we can remain in an engaged, responsive and productive state of being more of the day.

Whenever I have a time-consuming, brain-busting, thought and action heavy period of writing or studying to do I make sure there is also a necessary chore needing to be done, and that is what I use for a distraction. Not a distraction for fun . . . a productive distraction. I creatively re-describe what would be multi-tasking to deeply practicing one task and viewing another task as a distraction. I’ve been doing this for so long now that both tasks become distractions for the other and I get more done during the “work day” and have more time to relax when the “work day” is over.

For example, as I sit writing this very dharma talk I know I’m going to do some refresher reading, a little Internet searching, time for contemplation, and lots of typing. This is also the day I do laundry, washing clothes, drying, hanging up, folding and putting away. So, when my eyes are tiring and my focus slipping from reading and searching, my fingertips sore from tapping the keys I go put a load in, switch a load to the dryer, hang up clothes on the line or whatever needs doing. Any one of those ‘distractions’ take five or so minutes and then I am back to the computer and the books. Doing this I’ve come to look forward to doing laundry because it can be a welcome distraction and give my bodymind some downtime.

I don’t engage in frivolous activities during ‘breaks’. No email checking, no Twitter, no phone calls, or computer games. Whatever is the ‘distraction’ that day is a chore that must be done. It’ll be walking the dog or giving her a bath, weeding the herb or rose garden, washing the car, laundry, dishes, cleaning out the refrigerator . . . you get the point.

This isn’t really multitasking because total concentration is given to the ‘distraction’ for its time. I’m not thinking about the dharma talk while doing laundry . . . I’m doing laundry then. Distraction becomes a positive action rather than a hindrance to what needs to be done. You may be thinking that this sounds suspiciously like multitasking with a new name. I’d agree, except my experience has taught me otherwise. There is 100% concentration on the process, or deep practice. The task and the distraction are immersed in totally during their time.