by Wayne Ren-Cheng
There is a question that each of us eventually have to answer: “How am I going to be?” For better or worse you make decisions that affect ‘how you are’ and how people perceive you. You’ll have to decide what you want your life to be; then, you’ll have to go about building the life that you imagine. As a human being you are empowered with the freedom to engage in self-cultivation, to deliberately mold the way you live and interact with the world, acting as an agent of positive change. You have access to the knowledge and the tools to make good choices; and to actualize a social self using imagination, courage, and integrity. That social self, understanding deeply its unique role in the Universal causal process can then go on to cease doing harm, do only good, and do good for others. Deliberate positive self-cultivation opens the bodymind to realizing enlightening moments and engaging with the world.
Another contemporary parable:
Riding the Merry-Go-Round
“Constantly grasping and searching for enlightenment as a goal reminds me of riding a merry-go-round and trying to snatch the brass ring.
There is the person on the carousel horse that is totally focused on trying to reach out and grab the brass ring each time they go around. With each revolution they lean way out, stretch as far as they can and find it just out their reach. They are certain that that is the goal of riding the merry-go-round; that if they get that ring their ride will be successful. The ring in hand they can proudly hold it up and say, “I have it, you don’t.”
Then there is the person who rides the carousel horse with a different intent. They are aware of the motion of their horse going up and down, the bright music, the little girl in the pink dress riding the goofy looking bunny, the elderly couple in the sleigh still holding hands after 50 years of marriage, the breeze that carries the aroma of cotton candy, and the mirror in the center that reflects it all. They become part of the experience, connected to those around them through that shared experience.
The one grasping for the brass ring wants to be the person who starts and stops the ride. The other person wants to help others enjoy the ride.”
In Zen practice this ideal human state begins with “thoughts of enlightenment” that lead to a more constant state of awareness, of realizing enlightening moments. This is the gathering ground for Bodhisattvas.
The Mahayana Sutras, specifically the Prajnaparamita texts offer the six essential qualities of the ideal human state. These qualities are both the vehicle to reach “thought of enlightenment” as a mode of practice and the desired state of bodymind. The Six Refinements (Perfections) stated as these essential qualities are: generous, aware of ethical choices, accepting, energetic, meditative (calm), and possessing wisdom. These six dispositions are the pillars of positive personal character. The Six Refinements are the meditative and life-skill practices that are learned and realized gradually by practicing “thoughts of enlightenment”. Thinking about how you can be generous, the consequences of your ethical behaviors, how you view others, what can you do next, mindfulness of emotions, and how you can develop more wisdom, these are the practices of a bodhisattva in training.
“Character”, your own character is the identity you shape ourselves through the decisions that you make. Your identity is partially shaped by genetics, our family, our friends, the experiences you have, and all the other causal forces you encounter. Character is not given or found, it is developed and nurtured. You can choose to act and think generously or miserly. You can choose to allow dogma to guide your ethics, or you can choose to use skillful actions and act situationally. You can choose to accept the world as it is, or you can complain and bitch when it isn’t how you want it to be. You can choose to believe you are separate from the Universe, or you can engage the Universe as a unique aspect of it. Trust that even if you reject the Universe it can’t reject you . . . you are an expression of it.
The Six Refinements (Perfections) provide the image of the ideal of living with “thoughts of enlightenment”, of realizing “enlightening moments”. The Greeks called this “the ideal of a good life”. We all have times when we imagine doing something better and being something better. The trick is turning the daydream into a full blown reality by taking action.
In the beginning you may encounter one these hinderances to “character building 101”:
One is a lack of imagination about what you are capable of doing with your life. Don’t set the bar at average, set the bar at excellence. Let your “thoughts of enlightenment” provide a challenge and move you to aspire to it.
A “thought of enlightenment” based on a perceived entitlement, an ‘I deserve it syndrome’, or on a goal that no human being could reach is not useful or productive. What will happen when it isn’t reached? We want our concept to be attainable and worthy of our Buddhist ideals, not be a fantasy like ‘world peace in my lifetime’. It is fantastic to work toward ‘world peace in my lifetime’ as long as the reality that it won’t likely happen doesn’t deter us.
Authentic “thoughts of enlightenment” will take your potential and our actual abilities honestly in to account, and they will have the flexibility needed to meet changing situations. They exhibit the unmistakeable intent of positive development.
So, “thought of enlightenment” is partnered with the Engaged Dharma concept of “enlightening moments”; those moments, no matter how fleeting, when we realize our place in the Universe matters. It is that AH HA moment when we clearly recognize that we are both cause and effect, and as unique expressions of the Universe we are an integral part of it. Instead of this being a final goal for the Bodhisattva to attain, instead it is a “thought” that we can all get flashes of by developing our awareness of how the world is, accepting what we can and can’t do in given situations, and taking appropriate actions whenever we can. This is not only the realm of the Bodhisattva, it is the realm of all of us because we all have potential.
Enlightenment is not a destination. Enlightenment is the act of being awakened or to come to realization. Having enlightening moments is a mind mediated change in how we see and relate to the world. This is how “enlightenment” becomes “effectiveness.” In an enlightening moment the person recognizes through-and-through that what he or she does matters. We are not powerless, meaningless creatures navigating a hostile world; in a causal world, we are empowered, meaningful beings making our own paths. We are the creators of our world.
“Thoughts of enlightment” are practiced so they become habitual. Thoughts that will lead to actions deemed useful and productive in their unique situations, will lead us to have enlightening moments.
Enlightenment Casts Shadows
“Different Buddhist teachers in different Buddhist cultures at different times have conceived the “thought of enlightenment” in somewhat different ways; they engage in different practices and lead intriguingly different kinds of enlightened lives. Although initially troubling, this complexity and diversity in Buddhism is enormously beneficial, a gift to Buddhists and in the long run to the world.”
The Six Perfections, Dale S. Wright, page 5
Chogyam Trungpa, founder of Shambhalla, is venerated for living a enlightened life yet he smoked, drank and engaged in sexual activity with his disciples. His example went from traditional adherence to Buddhist ideals, to situational adherence, to seemingly no adherence, and finally back to strict adherence before his death. He often said that he acted the way he did to show others the way out of ego.
The late John Daido Loori, Zen Mountain Monastery is recognized as living an enlightened life. His efforts to teach Zen to an American audience while still pursuing his interests in art and writing make him an example for “thoughts of enlightenment”. One “thought” he offered to Precept Holders was that when they erred against their vows to accept it as part of being human and do better the next time.
You look around to find people that set the example of how you want to live. There are “thoughts of enlightenment” important to consider when you look to emulate the lives and actions of others. There is no perfect model of an encompassing and corrective life that you can copy because no one has had exactly the same situations or experiences you have had. You can see their lives as a guide but never as a blueprint for the entirety of your own life.
Be mindful that the causal process of the Universe is an “equal opportunity” state. Enlightening moments happen all the time, to all beings . . . it is just human beings that have the capacity to see the value in these experiences. Enlightening moments take on importance because you have a level of self-awareness that can recognize them and learn from them. BUT, “thoughts of enlightenment” or enlightening moments are a continuous process that has no end point, no destination, so you must continuously practice in order to realize them.
You exist in a impermanent Universe. Nothing is immutable and static, everything goes through change. “Thoughts of enlightenment” and enlightening moments are part of that same dynamic process. One acts as intent, the other is the event. Enlightenment can be a goal, as long as it is understood that the ideal of the goal will be subject to the reality of life. Enlightenment can be a moment (enlightening moment), here and gone but that strengthens your practice and your perception of your own potential. Enlightenment comes in a wide variety of experiences and your challenge is to learn to be aware of those enlightening moments when they happen.
Your life and character must be shaped from your circumstances and experiences. While we can draw on the examples of others it is through experiential verification that we decide how their “thoughts of enlightenment” work in the context of our own unique life.
This highlights what I see as a major reason that Siddhartha Guatama repeatedly reminded his disciples and followers that he WAS NOT A GOD. Siddhartha recognized that the alleviation of suffering would have to be accomplished by human beings, and they would need human examples of how to be in their own lives. A transcended being or a god was no longer human and so could not stand as a model of how human beings should act and think. It was Siddhartha’s humanity that serves as the brightest example.
“Thoughts of enlightenment” include when you take a moment to consider the Eightfold Path before acting, you find yourself mindful of your anger before it completely manifests, or perform an act of altruism (compassion) and never once think about what’s in it for you. These are examples of encompassing and corrective thoughts becoming actions. With practice and commitment positive lessons and experienes gradually becomes a part of your character.