by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Looking through the Dewey Decimal 294.93s in library catalog I cam across a book titled “Cat’s Yawn”. Finding it listed under Zen I was intrigued by the title and had it brought out from the stacks where all the old books are shelved. The cover, with the line drawing of a yawning cat made me smile and what I found inside opened my bodymind to a Zen Legacy Master I’d never heard of but was very happy to discover. Sokei-An Soshin Taiko Choro Zenji (1882 – 1945) was the first Zen Master to make his home in the Western world. In 1916 he emigrated to the U.S. under the direction of his teacher to bring Zen to the West. He founded the First Zen Institute of America which is still active today. Sokei-An died in 1945 leaving behind a legacy of Buddhist thought that mirrors what many Buddhist teachers today, myself included, think of as contemporary to our culture, context and time. Sokei-An was way ahead of us.
In 1940 the First Zen Institute began publishing a newsletter . . . yeah, they had newsletters in the 40s . . . in which he offered Zen in a way he felt would open the bodyminds of Westerners to Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Cat’s Yawn was first published in 1947 and is still being distributed today. After spending time reading and pondering Sokei-An’s words I came to the realization of their value now. In Volume 1, No. 1 of Cat’s Yawn, Sokei-An revealed his view of Zen as a religion and his intent in teaching it. It is titled: “The Man Who Is Not a Sky-Dweller”.
He begins by speaking about Chinese calligraphy’s three recognized styles of writing: rigid, less rigid and flowing style, then moves to three styles of deportment (behavior and manners): formal, semi-formal and informal. These serve to describe Sokei-An’s view of religious practices.
He goes on to say, “In religion also there are three styles: ritualistic sermons, preaching from the altar and discussion at the dinner-table when the priest is invited to a lay-house. In addition there is religious discussion among the monks in their own cells, when this is permitted. I am weary of talking about Buddhism in a formal attitude, as I perform the ritual under the candle lights, and burn incense in air vibrant with the sound of the gong. Since a man is a Buddha it is majestic and beautiful to discourse upon religion in a rigid, formal attitude. But since a man is also merely a man, and nothing more, he prefers to talk about his own faith in a less formal or informal attitude, or in no attitude at all.
I wish to talk about my faith in a very disheveled attitude, just as a cat vomits the breath from its mouth in yawning. In this western world Buddhism has been studied for about two hundred years, so I understand. First it was investigated by Englishmen in Ceylon in order to gain control over the natives. In the second period this religion was studied by Christians whose purpose was to disparage it in the Orient. In the third period it was studied as an odd Oriental philosophy, and in the present day, in what is its fourth period, western people are attempting to discover whether there is any element of truth in Buddhism. But in my opinion they have failed. They are merely talking about what Buddhism is; but this “What is Buddhism?” is a great question!
I was initiated into Buddhism when I was still a boy. My age is now three score years. It was only yesterday that I came to understand what Buddhism is. Let me speak, lying on the floor with my yawning cat at my side, about the Buddhism which is my very self.”
These words have given me much to think about. Sokei-An’s three styles of religious practice are parallel to my own view of the Three Refuges. The Buddha offers teachings from the altar (or cushion), the Dharma offers the intentional rituals that guide practitioners; the discussion at the dinner-table is the sangha . . . each with its own value depending on the audience and the situation. At times these practices swirl together, seeming dualities coming together as a holistic experience. When I preach from the altar it is to communicate the dharma as I comprehend it from the Buddha’s sermons presented in a ritualistic way through the Pali Nikayas and other Buddhist scriptures. Talking one-on-one with family, friends and sangha members tends to take on the flavor of a casual dinner conversation. Discussions between myself and my dharma brother, David Sensei, for example, definitely have the character of all three . . . preaching, ritual, and casual.
Sokei-An writes of being weary of the formal attitude, an attitude I feel certain was demanded of him during his years in a Japanese monastery. Coming to the West must have felt liberating in some sense to him, freeing him from those expectations. His writing shows a sense of opening up and allowing the man who is a Buddhist to be more informal yet firm in his faith.
I believe we in the West are still in, and are likely to remain in Sokei-An’s described fourth period for some time trying to decide if there are elements of truth in Buddhism. We are trying to decide if the rituals are necessary. We are trying to decide if we want to be Buddhists in America acting like Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan, or American Buddhists letting a Western way of practice evolve naturally out of the teachings of the Buddha, and the experiences of cultures before us. The proliferation of Buddhist traditions and platforms in the West offer choices of elements leaving it up to each of us to experience them as truths in our own lives. During his own time he viewed that search for truth as a failed endeavor. Still he recognized that some people were talking about what Buddhism “is” and he thought that the question “What is Buddhism” was a good start.
Sokei-An died in 1945 and since then that question, “What is Buddhism?” can be viewed as the core of the Western approach. Most of us weren’t raised in Buddhist culture so that needs to be the initial question. In nearly six decades of living it has been only in the last eighteen years have I been asking that question and striving through practice, study and experience to discover the answer that uniquely applies to me.
Each of us who currently practice or are exploring the possibilities of Buddhist practice are hoping to find out what Buddhism is to us. In time, like Sokei-An, the realization that Buddhism is our very self can arise with the falling away of our delusions.
by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The Universe is not wise, it is not compassionate, and it is certainly not fair. The Universe only acts from the causal conditions that occur within it. You only have to view the Universe through a lens that strips away delusion and personal perceptions to recognize these truths. This not only leads to the realization that bad things happen to good people, but that good things happen to bad people. You can be the best Buddhist you can possibly be and you will still encounter moments of suffering in life the Awakened One fully realized in the Four Ennobling Truths. You can be the worst type of human being possible and still encounter moments of joy and wonder that doesn’t seem deserved. This too is an aspect of the first of the Four Ennobling Truths. Doesn’t hardly seem fair . . . does it?
Ryugen Fisher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long, over his lifetime (and this continues today with his students and their students) created a list of Life Lessons that arose from his own experiences, or the experiences of others. I often refer to the list for insight, inspiration and a dose of spiritual humor. Rule #11, The Rule of Expectations, offers a view of fairness: Expecting life to treat you “fairly” because you’re a good person is like expecting the bull NOT to charge at you because you’re a vegetarian. Like the bull the Universe doesn’t care WHAT you are, it responds only to HOW you are.
Not sure where this perception of a fair Universe arose but it is believed by many who’ve been acculturated to the notion that the world is supposed to be inherently fair. You only have to look around to prove this belief is a delusion. Students struggle for high GPAs in high school and college only to find themselves without job opportunities. Some business people engage in illegal and immoral activities and become unimaginable wealthy. People live lives of exemplary compassion only to be struck down by genetic diseases. Innocent children are abused and abandoned. The Universe rolls along with human beings evolving within it, but we aren’t steering it. We have our role as part of its motive power but it also needs the bad weather, steep hills and earthquakes because they are just as important to the workings of the machine. So what if those things make our lives difficult, the machine is just the machine. This means from our perspective that the ideal of fairness is a delusion.
There is no compassion, wisdom or fairness inherent in the Universe. There is also no vengeance, ignorance, or bad intent inherent in the Universe. The perception of the Universe meting out cosmic justice or punishment is the result of a misunderstanding of the reality of HOW it works. What happens is causally conditioned by all the phenomena taking place each moment. There is no doubt you can take actions that lead to unwholesome consequences . . . which is why a Buddhist looks to the Three Pure Precepts (cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others) to guide us way from such actions. You don’t have any control over unwholesome decisions made by others, the arising of new diseases, or what the rest of the causal process of the Universe is doing. When bad things do happen you must avoid attaching to them the perception that it was because of something you did, and focus on practicing ways to make situations better. By realizing that the “fair Universe” concept is a delusion, and that you are not 100% of the karmic consequences, you will come to realize . . . and here comes the good part . . . that you have the ability to engage in wholesome transformation of your self and the global society you are interconnected with, and interdependent on.
You are not 100% of the karmic consequences . . . still, what you do matters. Life’s circumstances can sneak up on you. When you develop an awareness of the conditions under which difficulties arise, and that chances are there was no intent to directly harm you, though is may feel so, you become better prepared to accept them and take appropriate actions. Your actions do play a significant role in future experiences but your’s are a part of them, not the whole of them. Not only what you do matters, but what you control over what you do.
You are part of a causal web and the rest of the Universe is too. The concept of “personal karma”, while it has its validity, is an ideal not encompassing enough to recognize the broader reality of karmic influence. Causality, what makes karma a reality, is how the Universe reveals its neutrality. The Universe doesn’t add a view, an intent, an action, or any effort to make things happen. You are not a target of it. It is egoistic for you to believe things happen TO us, or that they happen FOR us. They happen as a result of nonlinear consequences of causality and you just happen to have a role in a particular experience.
The realization that you are part, but not the whole of the karmic web is actually empowering. It is why you engage in becoming the best possible you, the best possible example of a wise and compassionate human being. The “small” role as one thread interdependent on the threads of others whose intent and actions mesh with your own is how incremental wholesome transformations happen. The web becomes larger and the probability of snaring positive consequences increases exponentially. Things may not happen TO us, or FOR us, but they do happen BECAUSE of us. We are each unique expressions of the Universe and our actions within it have unique consequences.
With the knowledge that you play a role, no matter how small, comes the responsibility for your actions. What you do matters . . . negative, positive or neutral . . . how you act, how you respond is what makes personal practice so important. It is through intent and action that a sense of fairness will arise. Fairness arises as a result of awareness, compassion, generosity and acceptance.
You occupy a part of the karmic web and so have a responsibility to the strand you control. You must develop both mindfulness and awareness so you can overlay the “personal” with the “global” karma and find ways to improve both. You accept that there will be situations that you can, and can’t control. You learn to take wise actions to be the cause and effect of positive transformation whenever, and where ever the causal Universe offers you the opportunity.
Greetings to all,
In Engaged Dharma the ideal of creative re-description often meets reality. This particular reality is that images of the Buddha are used to sell material goods, in this case it is Lucky Buddha Beer.
I engaged in some skillful re-description turning intoxicant containers into bottles of dharma. Paint the image of the Buddha, put a mixture of lemon balm and mint, grown in my own herb garden, dried and mixed by me into the bottle.
Then glue a card to the back with this dharani on it: May this home bring peace and prosperity to all those who enter. May all who enter experience compassion, acceptance and generosity within. May this home be a refuge to family, friends and strangers alike. Sva Ha 🙂 Spray with polyurethane sealer and fit a cork into the neck.
It becomes a ‘home blessing bottle’. Take it home, pull the cork, sprinkle the herbs while reading aloud the dharani. They are each unique.
$20 plus shipping. Email email@example.com if interested.
I bow with respect,