Mahakasyapa, Ananda and Enlightenment

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a seeming paradox that centers around the attaining of Nirvana. There is a view that it is a gradual process, while another view is of sudden attainment (satori). In truth it is a Middle Way that accepts that there can’t be the sudden without the gradual. Gradual and sudden attainment can be experienced in the story of Ananda’s quest for enlightenment

Ananda was one of the earliest disciples of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Some scholars say he was Siddhartha’s cousin. It is known for certain that he was the Awakened One’s right hand man up until Parinirvanna, the moment of the Buddha’s death. Ananda’s story didn’t end there though. What occurred offers insight into meditation practice from a Ch’an perspective.

One of the original disciples of the Buddha, Ananda had a intellectual mind endowed with what today we might term a ‘photographic memory’ that included remembering word-for-word what he heard. With all of his gifts, skills and effort he was unable to reach enlightenment during the Buddha’s lifetime. Ananda thought that the Awakened One would reward him with enlightenment as a result of his intelligence, actions and devotion. Ananda stood by the Buddha as he passed into Nirvana and possibly wondered if his chance for enlightenment had also passed.

Ananda then turned to the man who had stepped into the Buddha’s sandals, asking Mahakasyapa to help him achieve the goal of enlightenment. After the Buddha’s death, Mahakasyapa, set out to gather together 500 enlightened disciples to continue to offer the dharma, and legend says he could only find 499. Many of the gathered said, “Go to Ananda.” Mahakasyapa’s reply was that Ananda was unqualified because he wasn’t an arhat. He went further to state that he’d sooner disband the entire assembly then allow Ananda entrance.

Ananda returned to Mahakasyapa three more times only to be turned away. He beseeched him, “The Buddha entered Nirvana and now only you can help me to reach enlightenment!” Mahakasyapa replied, “I am too busy and cannot help you. You are on your own.” Only then did Ananda become mindful of an enlightened moment, he realized then that only through his own efforts would he attain his goal.

It is said that Ananda went to a quiet, secluded place. He prepared himself to sit in meditation and as he was about to sit, he attained enlightenment. At that moment he ceased to rely on others, letting go of his attachments and dispositions through his own efforts.

The two main characters in this tale reveal two aspects of meditation and enlightenment in Ch’an philosophy and practice, the gradual arising of sudden enlightenment. Mayakasyapa seems to have achieved sudden enlightenment; Ananda’s was a gradual achievement. Seeing the interconnection and interdependence of sudden and gradual requires a seeming duality in viewing meditation practice, and how it can become an integral part of a lay-persons’ practice in contrast to that of a monastic practice. For one committed to a traditional monastic practice it is meditation with the goal of reaching enlightenment and the ceasing of the cycle of rebirth; for the traditional lay-person a meditation practice is engaged in order to come to terms with dispositions and habits, gain control over negative emotional states, and to prepare themselves for an advanced rebirth. The seeming duality falls away when the realization arises that both a monastic and lay practice begins with personal development and matures into a socially engaged practice; the practices just develop at different levels and have different effects on the individual practitioner’s worldview. The paths are not the same but the intent surely is.

In the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition, the core of Engaged Dharma Insight Group, as monastics we live and practice with the ideal that “life is our monastery”. A deeply focused meditation practice is engaged on the cushion, but equally important is that we extend that meditative state to all aspects of how we interact within the causal Universe. It is the experiences and situations encountered throughout each day, and each moment that practice matures and becomes more useful and productive. For a contemporary lay-person the focus for meditation practice is similar to the traditional in that rigorous self-honesty is applied to dispositions and habits, and negative emotional states so that Buddha-nature can be recognized. Rebirth is set-aside and practice is directed toward HOW one is between birth and death. The recognition of not-self leads directly to the realization of the value of being a social engaged person, Buddhist or not.

From this arises what is critical in either worldview, sudden or gradual . . . be a better human being. A regular, focused meditation practice is a powerful tool for becoming that better human being you imagine you can be.

Back to the two characters:

Traditionally it is said that Mahakasyapa achieved enlightenment by viewing a white lotus flower held aloft by the Buddha. In the Silent Sermon given on Vulture Peak, the Buddha held up a white flower, its roots dripping with water and mire. He slowly turned so that all the assembled disciples could view it. Only one, Kasyapa, “got it”. At that moment it is said he attained enlightenment and stood ready to lead the Buddha’s disciples after the Awakened One’s parinirvana. Ch’an Buddhism’s foundation in mysticism is said to arise from this event, Mahakasyapa’s “sudden enlightenment” (Jp., satori).

Ananda spent his adult life as the Awakened One’s main attendant. He traveled across India with the Buddha, learned from him through word and example, performed daily duties that enabled the Buddha to teach, and with all that, engaged his own practice with the goal of reaching enlightment. Then, with the death of the Buddha he finds himself on a plateau of practice and learning. No teacher, no direction, but still with his goal not reached he beseeches Mahakasyapa to help him. His enlightenment, in contrast to Mahakasyapa is an example of “gradual enlightenment”.

In accord with the Buddha’s teaching in the Uposatha Sutta, gradual learning occurs in all situations, even when phenomena seems sudden.

Just as the ocean has a gradual shelf, a gradual slope, a gradual inclination, with a sudden drop-off only after a long stretch; in the same way this Dhamma & Vinaya has a gradual training, a gradual performance, a gradual practice, with a penetration to gnosis (knowledge and wisdom) only after a long stretch.

Neither Mayaskayapa or Ananda experienced “sudden” or “gradual” enlightenment. In Ch’an the acceptance of ‘sudden enlightenment preceding gradual cultivation’ comes with understanding. One gradually cultivates a spiritual/religious life after sudden realization of need, gradually developing wisdom refined through practice and experience.

Both Mahakasyapa and Ananda spent many hours with the Awakened One, hearing the teachings and practicing the ideals of the dharma before one experienced a flower, the other experienced death. In any instance, for any person enlightenment will seem sudden when it happens because one moment it is not there, the next it is. No matter how sudden an experience seems there is always a gradual chain of causal factors that contribute to any experience. This is the Middle Way of understanding. There can be no sudden enlightenment without gradual training in the dharma.


Pebbles and Ghee: Realities of Karma

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Talk given at Buddha Center, Second Life, 011918


The law of nature is the dharma in action; it is karma. It is a reality that once an action is taken the karmic consequences happen. How to view this appropriately is the subject of this parable told by S. N. Goenka (great Vipassana teacher).

The Pebbles and the Ghee (story told by S. N. Goenka)

One day a young man came to the Buddha crying and crying; he could not stop. The Buddha asked him, What is wrong, young man?

Sir, yesterday my old father died.

Well, what can be done? If he has died, crying will not bring him back.

Yes, sir, that I understand; crying will not bring back my father. But I have come to you, sir, with a special request: please do something for my dead father!

Eh? What can I do for your dead father?

Sir, please do something. You are such a powerful person, certainly you can do it. Look, these priestlings, pardoners, and almsgatherers perform all sorts of rites and rituals to help the dead. And as soon as the ritual is performed here, the gateway of the kingdom of heaven is breached and the dead person receives entry there; he gets an entry visa. You, sir, are so powerful! If you perform a ritual for my dead father, he will not just receive an entry visa, he’ll be granted a permanent stay, a Green Card! Please sir, do something for him!

The poor fellow was so overwhelmed by grief that he could not follow any rational argument. The Buddha had to use another way to help him understand. So he said to him, All right. Go to the market and buy two earthen pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha had agreed to perform a ritual for his father. He ran to the market and returned with two pots. All right, the Buddha Said, fill one pot with gee, with butter. The young man did it. Fill the other with pebbles. He did that too. Now close their mouths; seal them properly. He did it. Now place them in the pond over there. The young man did so, and both of the pots sank to the bottom. Now, said the Buddha, bring a big stick; strike and break open the pots. The young man was very happy, thinking that the Buddha was performing a wonderful ritual for his father.

According to ancient Indian custom, when a man dies, his on takes the dead body to the cremation ground, puts it on the funeral pyre, and burns it. When the body is half burned, the son takes a thick stick and cracks open the skull. And according to the old belief, as soon as the skull is opened in this world, the gateway to the kingdom of heaven is opened above. So now the young man thought to himself, The body of my father was burned to ashes yesterday. As a symbol, the Buddha now wants me to break open these pots! He was very happy with the ritual. Taking a stick as the Buddha said, the young man struck hard and broke open both the pots. At once the butter contained in one pot came up and started floating on the surface of the water. The pebbles in the other pot spilled out and remained at the bottom. Then the Buddha said, Well, young man, this much I have done. Now call all your priestlings, and miracle workers and tell them to start chanting and praying: Oh pebbles, come up, come up! Oh butter, go down, go down! Let me see how it happens.

Oh sir, you have started joking! How is it possible, sir? The pebbles are heavier than water they are bound to stay at the bottom. The can’t come up, sir; this is the law of nature! The butter is lighter than water, it is bound to remain on the surface. It can’t go down, sir; this is the law of nature!

Young man, you know so much about the law of nature, but you have not understood this natural law; if all his life you father performed deeds that were heavy like pebbles, he bound to go down; who can bring him up? And if all his actions were light like this butter, he is bound to go up; who can pull him down?

The key question in the parable is, “What can I do for your dead father?” In that question the Buddha is opening up the son to his misunderstanding of karma, of human physics in action and its interconnection with death and rebirth. Some view karma as a sort of balance sheet. They hold the notion that one can balance the ledger by engaging in a wholesome act in order to negate the effect of an unwholesome act. Also, that certain rituals can be performed to alter the past of the dead in order to gain them entry into a place of ease and comfort after death or, that through prayer or merit offered that the circumstances of the dead can be eased and the dead will be reborn in better circumstances. That is not how karma, the law of nature works.

Rites and rituals performed by the various Hindi holy men were done with the intent that the dead could enter a heavenly realm, there to be judged according to their karmic condition. The young man beseeched the Buddha to use his power to allow his father permanent residence there, to bypass the law of nature.

The answer to the question of what can be done for the dead is the living can honor them, but the living cannot assist their journey any further. What was done in life, wholesome and unwholesome determines their destination and path to rebirth. The energy of each of their deeds transmigrates into the next birth. From the perspective of rebirth that is why one’s energy during a current life should be spent performing intentional wholesome actions and avoiding the intentionally unwholesome actions.

Having an appropriate view of karma and rebirth will strengthen Buddhist practice. The past is the past and cannot be changed. Whatever the dead did in life, the living cannot change. Whatever the dead are experiencing cannot be altered by the living. No merit ritual or ceremony (puja) can affect their rebirth or their place in any other realm. Their karma is a product of their lives. Their rebirth is on them.

A person commits the murder of another human being. This engenders the very worst of karma. That person chooses to spend the remainder of their life performing only wholesome deeds. That engenders good karma. Do these combined actions balance out the karmic sheet? No. A human life was still taken. While the good done is a factor, so too the negative is a factor in rebirth.

A practitioner might come to the conclusion then that if wrong is done during a life then why try to atone for it by doing good if it isn’t going to have an effect on rebirth? Engaging the bodymind in a transformation from unwholesome thought and action to one of wholesome thought and action results in energy that carries forward into the next rebirth. The idea is do better in the next rebirth.

From an appropriate view of practice there is a critical point to make here concerning karma and rebirth. Focusing on performing wholesome acts in order to ensure a good rebirth misses entirely the intent of the Four Noble Truths. We do good because it is the path to the alleviation of discontentment, anguish and unsatisfactoriness (suffering) in ourselves and others. The possibility of a better rebirth is a bonus. The possibility of a worse rebirth is a warning.



During this session one of the sangha asked what my own view on rebirth is, do I believe or disbelieve.  For any of us walking the Noble Path this is an important consideration because it points to our view and intent.

Trained in the contemporary Pragmatic Buddhist tradition my view of rebirth is not belief or disbelief.  I’ve never experienced undeniable, unassailable evidence of the reality of this concept so I am, well let’s call it an agnostic when it comes to rebirth.

I choose to perform wholesome acts with wholesome intent in order to alleviate the suffering of myself and others, not with the idea of procuring a better ‘next life’.  Focusing on doing acts of intentional good in this life does act as a sort of spiritual insurance I will admit.  If rebirth is a reality then I am covered.  If it is not then I will leave a legacy of wholesome thought and action as an example for others in their lives.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate Speech: Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is the path of moral discipline (sila) one walks on the Eightfold Path. Together they make up the visible components of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). Ethical voice arises in speech driven by wholesome intent, in speech grounded in the realities of karma and causal conditioning. There are four aspects speech that arise in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions. We must always be mindful because what we do matters.

Aphorisms are phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery. They come in handy tools as for memorization and for teaching ethical ideals and moral behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” and it’s meaning can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its intent. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice the dharma.

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In Buddhist philosophy there are Three Characteristics of Existence realized by the Buddha. These characteristics arise from the realities of causality and causally conditioned phenomena, and fall away due to the same realities. These characteristics are impermanence, suffering, and not-self. You cannot practice the three characteristics, yet your practice is interdependent on your realization of these philosophical concepts.

A passage in many discourses reads: “Impermanent indeed are the compounded (the conditioned) things; they are of the nature of arising and falling away. Having come into being, they cease to exist.” Things are characterized as impermanent because they are subject to three stages of being: arising (uppada), falling away (vaya), and decay or change (thitassa annathatta). Impermanence is a synonym for the Buddhist ideal of ‘arising and falling away’ or ‘birth and death’. Birth in the human sense, birth of an idea, also in the sense of the combining of material phenomena from constituent parts into what is viewed as an object fit into this concept. Death as applied to living beings is readily understood; death of inanimate phenomena is sometimes termed destruction even though nothing is every truly destroyed. Inanimate death is experienced as the breaking down of its present form.

Impermanence is causality and it causally conditions all phenomena, and the same is true for suffering and not-self. Things are impermanent due to the causal nature of the Universe and human beings suffer and exist as not-self due to that same nature. All phenomena from the material to the immaterial, from rocks to emotions act as both cause and effect as they arise and fall away. A rock striking you on the head can be a cause of pain; emotional pain can be a cause for you to throw a rock. All things are causally conditioned due to the causal nature of the Universe. You were not in pain until the rock hit you on the head; you reacted with emotion when you threw the rock. Experiences are causally conditioned by internal and external factors.

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