Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part V

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.

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.”

We’ll continue now with the seventh theses: The community of practitioners is formed of autonomous persons who mutually support each other in the cultivation of their paths. In this network of like-minded individuals, members respect the equality of all members while honoring the specific knowledge and expertise each person brings.

The first sentence is the definition of a sangha (community), religious or secular. All members are equal and their knowledge and expertise honored while accepting the role of the teacher as mentor and monitor. A danger here is that a strictly secular view of equality may lead to everyone trying to be the teacher. In non-denominational Buddhist groups, like the Engaged Dharma (EDIG) sangha at the Buddha Center in the virtual world of Second Life (SL), the desire for some members to make truth claims about their chosen tradition arises. It is the responsibility of the individual on the teacher’s cushion to guide members away from what they think they know, to learning and accepting the value of lessons and ideals from other traditions.

The eighth theses: A practitioner is committed to an ethics of care, founded on empathy, compassion, and love for all creatures who have evolved on this earth.

This is the proper attitude whether from a religious or secular view. (Note: I guess Mr. Batchelor doesn’t believe in life on other planets 🙂 )

The ninth theses: Practitioners seek to understand and diminish the structural violence of societies and institutions as well as the roots of violence that are present in themselves.

This is proper thought and action whether from a religious or secular view.

Bathelor’s theses seven through nine are pragmatic ways of being whether a practitioner views their path as secular or religiously oriented. These views are instrumental in the forming of ethical ideals that lead to taking morally appropriate actions in a given situation.

It is theses ten where the religious and the secular find the broadest divide: A practitioner of the dharma aspires to nurture a culture of awakening that finds its inspiration in Buddhist and non-Buddhist, religious and secular sources alike.

Mr. Batchelor is swiping a broad brush over “religion” based Buddhist practices. He is inferring that Buddhist practitioners who commit to a traditional path hesitate to look outside those teachings and texts to strengthen their practice. Admittedly there are instances where this is true. There are those who choose the Mahayana path and vehemently will defend that path while denigrating the path chosen by others. There does arise the statement that, ‘this Buddhism is the True Buddhism’. This statement is a direct view into the immature practice of the speaker. This is not a new development in Buddhism, it has been happening since the Buddha’s death.

The practice of Buddhism now, in the West is encountering a culture and social system new to its experience. It has found itself in a society that favors individualism in its most selfish form over awareness of societal impact, and a society that favors consumerism over altruism. What is needed to counter these aspects of Western society is a pragmatic path that accepts that the ‘walls’ between traditions will have to be pulled down. The Buddhism that will eventually arise will have components of all the Buddhist traditions, humanism, naturalism, pluralism and science. It will be a Pragmatic Buddhism.

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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.

Sokei-An and Realizing Buddhism

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.