COURAGE: A TOOL OF TRANSITION

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Courage is not something many people credit themselves with. It is a disposition that most people find difficult to recognize in themselves. We each face challenges and the need to make hard decisions in our lives and doing those things takes courage, courage as a tool of transition from how things are to how you imagine they could be. You look at the definition of courage and it says that courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. Looking at courage more pragmatically will show that it is facing difficulty, danger, pain, etc. while setting aside fear. The fear is there, it is just not allowed to play a damaging role. Fear manifests in the form of procrastination, of avoidance, and of denial when we face challenges and difficult decisions. The arising of courage is also a transition to action. Courage arises and fear falls away as a result of challenges and decisions being faced and actions taken.

The ability to face fear, to respond with courage is a fundamental part of the Buddhist refinement of energy. Courage is not only needed to face some of the moment-to-moment aspects of daily life, but it is critical when faced with “spiritual weakness”. When, in practice we come to the “Plateau of Great Doubt” it is easy to quit, to let spiritual weakness have its way. Applying the energy of courage we can see past that doubt to a continuing path. We can employ courage to delve deeper into study, to find new commitment to practice, and to ask those questions we’ve may have hesitated to ask before. It takes courage to set-aside what we think we know in order to learn. Courage is a positive character trait. To risk our current status and stability in order to pursue a greater purpose or goal, to expose ourself self to risk, humiliation and even physical danger takes courage. Courage allows us to met challenges head-on and make appropriate decisions even when they are difficult ones.

The life and actions of Mahatma Ghandi offer one example, from many, of courage in the face of challenge. Ghandhi said about courage, “Who acts courageously and for what purpose? One could be courageous for the sake of a woman and, even for the sake of wealth. However, all this is like being courageous in order to jump into a well. Courage should be shown for the purpose of swimming across to the other shore. The supreme effort should be made for the sake of self-realization.” Ghandi’s courage in promoting and acting with non-violence changed the face of India and of the world. You might say, “I am no Ghandi.” That is true, but then Ghandi was no you either. As Ghandi applied his own unique expression of courage to the issues of his day and culture, so too can each of us apply a unique expression of courage to the challenges we face in our moment-to-moment experience.

Who acts courageously? Anyone who is faced with a challenge and strives to overcome it does so with courage. For what purpose? That depends entirely on the situation one is in. It ranges from soldiers deployed in Afghanistan facing hostile forces and an unforgiving terrain in order to protect themselves and others, to someone who has made the decision to enact real positive changes to how they are. We can also employ courage for reasons of self-regard and self-aggrandizement, for selfish pursuits. This can be a waste of a powerful tool for engaging in positive thoughts and actions. Courage is an act of energy and of intent that is better performed when the outcome of a situation will add to human flourishing of both the practitioner and the world around us.

There are individuals in our society who perform jobs that automatically credit them with possessing courage: law enforcement, military (especially those in direct combat situations), and firemen are examples. These career paths involve the moment-to-moment possibilities of death or bodily injury while protecting the lives and property of others. To choose dangerous lines of work takes courage and then courage is further developed through training and practice. Such vocations involve spontaneous acts of bravery arising from a strengthened disposition and habit derived from continuous practice. Then there are courageous individuals who, in one particular moment they set aside regard for personal injury or death in order to save a life or defend another from being harmed. These are the ones we rightly call heroes.

Nyanaponika Thera

The ancient teachers of the Buddhist doctrine were well aware that courage is an essential feature of true faith. They therefore compared faith to a strong and courageous hero who plunges ahead into the turbulent waters of a stream to lead safely across the weaker people who timidly stop at the shore, or, excitedly and in vain, run up and down the bank engaged in useless arguments about the proper place to cross. This simile can be applied to the social as well as to the inner life. In the case of social life, the “weaker people” are those who are willing to follow and support a leader but who cannot make a start by themselves. In the case of the inner life, the “weaker people” are those qualities necessary for spiritual progress which are either undeveloped or isolated from their supplementary virtues.

Such a powerful tool as courage should be used to achieve positive objectives. Buddhist practice is not easy but when we recognize the value of the lessons of the Four Ennobling Truths, and the values of acting with compassion and altruism we come to realize that reaching the “other shore”, that by living the noble life of the Middle Path we will contribute positively to our lives and the lives of others.

It takes courage to engage in a meaningful Buddhist practice. It takes courage to ‘go first’. Too act with compassion when no one else is . . . to act with patience when no one else is . . . to offer respect and trust when no one else does . . . these are acts of courageous faith in our experience with the Way. An Engaged Buddhist goes first, we openly offer respect and trust, and approach the commitments of others with the ideal of pluralism. It takes courage to set aside the fear that respect may not be returned, that trust may be broken and abused, or that our own commitments might be attacked or ridiculed. We know that what we do matters and by acting and thinking positively we will have an encompassing and corrective effect . . . the causal nature of Universe offers us proof through our own experiences. Courage is a Tool of Transition for a practicing Buddhist.

Developing an rigorously honest awareness of how we really are and how the world around us really is takes courage. It isn’t easy to be honest about our negative dispositions and habits, nor is it easy to change them. These are the first challenges anyone faces in their Buddhist practice. Negative dispositions like fear, hatred, anger, ignorance and others may have been part of one’s modality for so long that they are comfortable ways of being. We may even have realized that they aren’t “good” ways of being but we haven’t had the courage to face the difficulty of changing them. In the face of inevitable mistakes it takes courage to really practice generosity, situational ethics, and tolerance . . . to engage in deep meditative practice and to act with wisdom. In the face of fear it takes courage to apply rigorous self-honesty to ourselves, revealing weaknesses of character; then to have the courage to work toward a real and honest change to a stronger more compassionate character. This is the supreme effort that Ghandi referred to. It takes that kind of effort to achieve the self-realization that allows the whole of Buddhist practice to encompass how we are in relation to the causal Universe.

Learning to engage our courage comes with experience. Like any other aspect of practice we come to recognize the value of an action by the causal effects generated. With each application of courage to overcome thoughts of procrastination, avoidance or fear, and experiencing the positive outcomes both to ourselves and others, then wisdom will dictate that acting with courage is useful and productive.

I often say, “Is Buddhist practice easy? No. Is Buddhist practice worth it? Yes.” To put effort into a practice that isn’t easy, that may bring up negative emotions and memories, and that requires commitment also takes courage. Whenever we stand firm to our commitments to positive self-development, to compassion, to human flourishing, and to the alleviation of suffering even when our experience shows us that others don’t understand it or accept it . . . we do so courageously.

Cat in a Box – Engaging Form and Emptiness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Buddhist philosophical ideal that “form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form” found most famously in the Heart Sutra can be a difficult concept to wrap the mind around. Emptiness is well . . . empty, and form has substance so how can they have the same properties, at the same time. To achieve some realization of this dharma requires a thought experiment followed by a way to engage that ideal in moment-to-moment practice. There is both an ancient ideal and a contemporary thought experiment that can bring about a clearer understanding of form and emptiness.

In Buddhist philosophy everything, all dharma is causally conditioned. It becomes what it is in a particular moment as a result of the causal process of the Universe. This would not possible if all dharma had inherent and permanent form. The philosopher and scholar Nagarjuna is arguably at the top echelon of Buddhist philosophers whose original ideas continue to shape Mahayana thought and practice to this day. His most revered text is the Mulamadhamakakarika text in which he maintained, “Since there is no dharma whatever which is not causally conditioned (not relative to whatever experience or situation it finds itself connected with), no dharma whatever exists which is not empty.” Phenomena have no form until acted upon physically and/or mentally by another phenomena, human being or otherwise. Until the moment of interaction it has only potential (emptiness) to take on form, a form dependent on whatever acts upon it. Causal conditioning, the who, what, when, where, why and how of the causal process enacts the transformation from emptiness to form. For Westerners caught up in concrete definitions and concrete descriptions it isn’t an easy concept but one that can be engaged with a little creative re-description. Let’s look to a contemporary science model for some help with that.

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SUFFERING FOUR WAYS – DUKKHA

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Siddhartha experienced suffering for the first time when Chana, his charioteer rode him through the streets of Kapilavatthu. He saw the sick, the aged, and the dead; views of the world outside his home that had been hidden from him since his birth. This experience was the catalyst for his journey both into his own bodymind, and out into the world of human beings. Six years later he sat under neath a bodhi-tree with a bodymind determined to fully understand the human condition. He awakened to four truths, the first being the reality that all human beings suffer in some moments in their lives. The Awakened One offered that suffering (P., dukkha) arises in three ways. A fourth view of dukkha is revealed with a deep view of contemporary living. There are physical phenomena that arise as the result from injury or disease, psycho-emotional phenomena that arise from unrealistic views, and conscious phenomena that arise as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the causal Universe. There is also suffering that arises from social and economic factors. The Four Ennobling Truths offer the realities of suffering and the Eightfold Path as the way to alleviate suffering; it is up to each of us to learn to recognize the unique situations that bring about the arising of suffering and the skillful methods needed to alleviate it.

Pain is dukkha. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has injured themselves. Pain is a type of suffering whether it arises when a child falls from a tree or the arthritis that debilitates the aged. Suffering caused by physical pain is dukkha-dukkha.

Some people enjoy growing roses. They invest time, effort and skill in order to reap the reward of beauty. Invariably during planting or pruning, even when harvesting beautiful flowers to put in a vase in the house they’ll get pricked by thorns or nick their finger with pruning shears. This is suffering caused by physical pain (dukkha-dukkha).

Craving for permanence or achievement is Viparinama-dukkha. All phenomena whether mental or physical will undergo change; that is the reality of impermanence. Attachment to, or craving for permanence is a path to suffering. Viparinama-dukkha also arises when a phenomena is craved for and never achieved.

There is enjoyment in the process of nurturing bare roots and canes through the first warm days of spring. Time and energy is invested in planting, fertilizing, pruning, taking care of plants through disease and infestation to finally seeing blossoms unfurl and smelling their perfumes. It is a labor of love and caring. All is done in anticipation of fragrant blossoms in vibrant colors. Some rose bushes die from known and unknown factors, some rose bushes don’t bloom every season, and pests can infest the rose bushes. This can cause psycho-emotional suffering that arises from attachment (vapriana-dukkha) and craving.

The type of suffering most difficult to recognize, and to alleviate arises as reactions to the delusions that can so easily become habits and dispositions is sankhara-dukkha. This suffering occurs frequently in reaction to the skandhas (aggregates) that can be wrongly perceived as “self” – form, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Sankhara-dukkha also arises due to pleasurable constructs that cause psycho-emotional pain even while they are being experienced; habits and dispositions that one continually acts on even as they are knowingly causing suffering. This type of dukkha is described as being as difficult to perceive as an eyelash laying in your palm, but it is a painful as that same eyelash stuck in your eye.

Some people grow roses because it helps them create an image of themselves. The thought of the work needed bothers them, the actions of kneeling in the soil and dealing with bugs and black mold sickens them, but they pursue the delusion of being a gardener of roses. The pleasure they find is in being able to say “I raise roses”, in becoming part of a tribe that values such activity. All during the process the subtle suffering is denied through the strength of the delusion (sankhara-dukkha).

The Four Ennobling Truths identify the source, the symptoms, the cure and the treatment for suffering. Starting with the practice of meditation the path to the alleviation of suffering is through the bodymind. Change the way one thinks, changes the way one acts – changing the way one acts, changes the way one thinks. What can be confusing is just what mode of thinking is critical to alter. In the Discourse on the All (Sabba Sutta) the Buddha teaches that one must “abandon the all”, that one must let go of their attachment to phenemona. What ever is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched and thought (the skandhas) whether pleasurable, painful or neutral must be abandoned. Knowing directly, through experience that all things, objects, feelings, emotions and formations are subject to arising and falling away that one can alleviate all three forms of suffering is an empowering realization.

These aspects of suffering – dukkha-dukkha, viparinama-dukkha and sankhara-dukkha – describe the types of discontentment and anguish we may struggle with internally and through discernment and the process of coming to terms with them one can begin to alleviate their impact. They are aspects of suffering that we can take control of because we have the knowledge and resources to do so. We can take deep and open look at contemporary life and realize there is another pervasive and encompassing suffering going on in the world. It is suffering that can only be addressed through social engagement.
Let’s name it mahajanika-dukkha, mahajanika is the Pali word for social so it is social-suffering. View this type of discontentment and anguish as arising from social and economic factors beyond the immediate control of those experiencing it. Think of peoples all over the world who don’t have the opportunities or resources to deal with issues such as poverty, famine, lack of clean water and violence. The peoples whose governments neglect or abuse them, whose religious and secular institutions control them without bringing benefit to their lives. They are experiencing mahajanika-dukkha. It isn’t that the people suffering don’t want a better life, it is that their present circumstances deny them the opportunity and resources to achieve it. It is the responsibility of those who have the resources and knowledge to engage these issues alongside the people and become a factor in combatting suffering.

The Buddha said, “This is that all which, by knowing it directly, by fully understanding it, by developing dispassion toward it, and by forsaking it, one will be able to destroy suffering.” We first have to accept and understand the reality of discontentment, suffering and anguish that we encounter. Compassion is the path to recognizing the need, dispassion (altruism) the path to realizing a solution. In each instance that there is lessening or reversing of the causes of suffering then those who live with discontentment and anguish can forsake it for an opportunity to participate in human flourishing.

Engaged Buddhism: A Practice

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Right now there is the beginning of an arising of protests, civil disobedience, and energetic social discourse due to repeated violence happening to children. In the recent past these same activities arose due to the Black Lives Matter movement over violence happening to young black men at the hands of police officers. The question many Western Buddhists ask is how much should I get involved in these social movements. Is it appropriate?

First let me say that this is why asking questions and opening up dialogue is so important in Buddhist practice, or any kind of social activity. This is one of the keys to being an effective social self and an agent of societal transformation even on a small scale. You might disregard something, or develop an opinion of something without enough knowledge to accurately do so if you fail to engage in communication. A good friend of mine always says, “We make the best decisions with the most information.” You may not always be able to get all the information, that just isn’t probable . . . but you can gather as much information as possible before making a decision. Then, you must remain open to changing that decision when new information is obtained.

In the Shambhala Sun magazine, July 2003, John Malkin interviewed Thich Naht Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master who is credited with coining the term and concept of Engaged Buddhism.

John Malkin: Will you describe the origins of Engaged Buddhism and how you became involved in compassion-based social change?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on-not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.

When I was a novice in Vietnam, we young monks witnessed the suffering caused by the war. So we were very eager to practice Buddhism in such a way that we could bring it into society. That was not easy because the tradition does not directly offer Engaged Buddhism. So we had to do it by ourselves. That was the birth of Engaged Buddhism.

In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You, John Malkin, Shambhala Sun, July 2003

The Engaged Buddhist movement had it’s genesis during a time when the Vietnam war was bringing about a lot of suffering and unsatisfactoriness in people around the world. And, war being a reaction to a political decision, Engaged Buddhism got the ‘political activist’ label. Master Hanh realized that the war and its effects were causing not only physical suffering in Southeast Asia, but was also causing psychoemotional suffering there and in other parts of the world. He came to realize the world encompassing effect of the war when he came to the U.S. in the mid-sixties and experienced the fervor, the energy, and the impatience of the anti-war movement. Today the Engaged Buddhist movement and Master Hahn’s Order of Interbeing are promoting peace and compassion around the world through societal engagement.

I encounter people who express that being involved with politics is unseemly or even plain wrong for a Buddhist. It is like they don’t believe that Buddhists are citizens of whatever country they live in. Politics is a human endeavor that has the power to create and/or alleviate human suffering and unsatisfactoriness. Buddhists are human, the goal of Buddhist practice is the alleviation of suffering, so politics and/or social engagement are viable and logical pursuits for some.

One only has to study history to realize the connections between Buddhism and politics. When the Buddha offered teachings to King Pasenada, when King Ashoka altered the direction of his leadership as a result of his encounter with the dharma, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, up to the current time Buddhists, mendicants and adherents, have played a role in politics. Politics is a component of human interaction, interdependence and interconnectedness across the globe . . . but it is not the only avenue for positive social change.

In the above interview Master Hanh alluded to the broader implications and responsibilities inherent in the practice of Engaged Buddhism, “Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. You should not allow yourself to get lost in action. Action should be meditation at the same time.” While Master Hanh isn’t involved in Engaged Dharma, the intent of our study and practice has parallels to Engaged Buddhism and expands that ideal beyond the realm of the political.

The moral/ethical and social concepts of Engaged Buddhism arise from in ideals of:

Pluralism – recognizing that there is more than one path to achieving the goals the Buddha set forth in the Four Ennobling Truths.

As pluralists it is important to accept the commitments of others while maintaining the commitments to our own platform and traditions. We practice acceptance and talk openly and honestly with people that have differing world views but whose goal is one directed toward positive personal development and human flourishing.

Pragmatism – the core teachings and concepts of Buddhist philosophy have relevance and value in the West the manner of applying them may need to differ. In looking for ways to effectively deal with suffering it isn’t the where a practice originates, or sometimes whether it is Buddhist or not, what is important is IS IT USEFUL AND PRODUCTIVE in promoting positive change.

As pragmatists we engage daily in the pursuit of knowledge and practices that will lead to positive personal development of a social self; a social self that fully realizes that what they do matters in the causal Universe.

And, Practice – that Buddhism is an action philosophy not a bunch of theories to be endlessly debated resonates as one of the foundations of practicing Engaged Dharma.

Practice, practice, practice. Reading about Buddhism and studying the Dharma will teach you about Buddhism. Reading about, or watching a DVD will teach you about meditation. Listening to a teacher will teach about practice. Only taking action practicing the Dharma, practicing meditation, practicing the Eightfold Path, practicing compassion, practicing generosity, and practicing acceptance will result in your “being” a Buddhist.

For a Buddhist that practice may lead them to joining in a protest that they view as having an impact on suffering, discontent and unsatisfactoriness. It may lead them to seeking public office in order to work within the system to do the same. Commit . . . take your belief in the ideals of Buddhism and apply them in whatever endeavor you pursue. This a teaching and direction taken directly from the lessons of the Buddha. Only through our own experience can we develop an appropriate worldview committed to compassion and promotion of human flourishing. This is what engaging the dharma is all about. It is much more than political activism; it is social activism.

Like a big ‘ole Enso, the Zen Circle, we’re back to politics. In Engaged Buddhism politics is just one of the myriad of ways you can engage your community using the knowledge and practice of Buddhism. Buddhist traditions begin with a regular meditation practice to develop awareness/mindfulness of your own dispositions and habits. Then we begin developing compassion and altruism through the practice of generosity leading to the other five refinements – Situational Ethics, Acceptance, Vigor, Meditation and Wisdom. All of these skills have great value in the social and political arenas where societal transformation take shape.

The practice of generosity takes many forms and is a step in developing compassion and to acting selflessly. Whenever you offer your skills and time to help a person, or volunteer in an organization you are practicing generosity of spirit. Selflessly helping a neighbor carry in groceries or mowing the yard of an elderly neighbor is practicing generosity of spirit. Donating money to a worthy cause or offering dana to a teacher or temple is practicing generosity of spirit. Generosity is one example of engaging the dharma, no doubt you can think of many more that arise from the practice of Buddhist philosophy. Finding a way to engage your community by doing something you enjoy, are good at, and that can have a positive causal effect is one way to develop a positive, compassionate character.

So, in Engaged Buddhism it isn’t the Buddhist tradition one practices, it is what one DOES with the teachings of that tradition. Engaged Buddhism is seeing a need and taking action based on your character and skills.