A Squirrel and the Dharma: Pragmatism in Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Pragmatism is not a modern phenomena. It is a multi-layered philosophical concept with Charles Sandford Pierce and William James as its roots, and the growth of the Neo-pragmatist ideas of Richard Rorty as its branch into contemporary thought and action. There is thee realization that pragmatism did not begin with Pierce’s labeling it, that other philosophers and teachers practiced it before it was named. Big names like Socrates, Aristotle and Hume . . . and Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method. It was a method of thought without a label.

William James, an early American pragmatic philosopher used an anecdote to explain the pragmatic method. Some years before he had been on a camping trip with a group of friends. Returning from a solitary hike in the surrounding woods he found a hot dispute going on among the men gathered around the camp fire. At the center of the argument was a squirrel – a live squirrel clinging to a nearby tree trunk. A human trying to get a glimpse of the squirrel would move around the tree in a clockwise direction. With each step around the squirrel would also move keeping the trunk between it and its pursuer. No matter how fast the man moved, the squirrel moved in the same direction always keeping the trunk between them. The dispute involved this question, “Does the man go round the squirrel or not?”

It was agreed by all that the man does go round the tree. The squirrel is on the tree. Does the man go round the squirrel, or only around the tree? Opinions were equally split. His friends looked to him to break the tie.

James’ response began with, “Which party is right depends on what you practically mean by ‘going round’ the squirrel.” He went on to illustrate. One view is of the man moving north to east to south to west, and then north again as the squirrel circles the tree south to west to north to east, and then south again. In this the man is going around. A view that going around the squirrel means to first be in front of, to the right of, behind, to the left of, and finally in front again means that the man did not go round the animal because as it circles the tree it’s belly is always toward the man. The answer lies in the practical perception of the concept of going around.

This is James’ example of the pragmatic method. The pragmatic method, when applied to Buddhist philosophy and practice is to view each purposed thought through a lens of its probably causal consequences. James’ focus for the pragmatic method was its application to philosophical disputes. He experienced that those disputes became insignificant the moment they were subjected to the simple act of tracing the possible concrete consequences.

Siddhartha engaged the pragmatic method whenever he remained silent regarding metaphysical questions. The realization that any answer would be theoretical meant it would have no practical value in moment-to-moment engagement with the world.

Siddhartha practiced pragmatism. He set aside the habitual reactivities of the Hindu faith and beliefs of his culture. He set aside any metaphysical questions, dogmatic principles, the closed caste system, the concept of absolutes, and the search for how it all began. Instead he turned toward what thoughts and actions could make a positive concrete difference in how human beings engaged themselves and the world around them. He applied the pragmatic method to action, not only to thought.

The pragmatic method arises in the traditional parable of the “The Monks at the River”.

The Monks at the River”

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The senior monk was silent.

They continued on and soon the junior monk said, “But what will you tell the Master?”

The senior monk was silent.

It was against the rules.”

The senior monk said, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.” He engaged the pragmatic method. The senior monk set aside the dogma that declared “no touching women” and I can imagine the sequences of thoughts he processed. ‘The rule says no touching women’ but the Three Pure Precepts tell me to do good. Leaving the woman in fear on the bank of the river, with the possibility she might drown trying to cross on her own would do nothing to alleviate suffering. Assisting her in crossing will have the consequence of alleviating some of her suffering and will become a lesson for the younger monk. Considering the possible karmic consequences I choose to carry her across. I choose an appropriate view of the situation, a view that reveals the probable concrete consequences. I choose practical application of the ‘rule’ rather than a dogmatic one.

The aspect of pragmatism that arises in the parable is making practical decisions and taking practical actions in a unique situation. This requires a practitioner to set aside any dogma that declares “there is only one way” and respond to each unique situation in whatever manner will result in positive karmic consequences. To put it simply acting pragmatically is doing what is useful and productive in each moment.

Buddhist philosophy and American Pragmatic philosophy places a high degree of importance on direct experience (experiential verification) rather than on theory, and it focuses is “what we can do right now to make things better”. In the West it is important that prevalent worldviews such as pragmatism be brought to the foreground of Buddhist philosophy so that parallels in approach can be recognized. At the core of the American psyche is the drive to “do what is best”. In Buddhism the same is true. The American psyche readily applies this to the self, “do what is best” . . . for me”. Most Americans, either through family, school or friends, arrive at the worldview that all things they do must benefit themselves in some way . . . even those actions taken to help others. This is why donors get their names in the paper, and gold medals for outstanding non-profit work are given out. In Buddhism this idea of positive self-development is the first steps on the Noble Path, later to become selfless acts performed for the benefit of all beings. This is pragmatism in action and thought.

 

The story of the Buddha, and the teachings that followed his Awakening shows that the Buddha was pragmatist, he used skillful means, whatever practical method a situation called for to present the dharma and guide others on the Middle Path.

The Eightfold Path is an example of the Buddha’s use of pragmatism. The Eightfold Path isn’t a dogmatic blueprint of what we must do in given situations, instead each of the eight are guidelines that we must engage as part of how we are, be mindful of our experiences when doing so, and then use that knowledge to determine if those actions were useful and practically valuable. What works in one situation may not work in a similar situation. Each time this is done a practitioner comes closer and closer to the arising of wisdom. Such is the challenge that a Universe of co-dependent arising presents us with.

 

Whether a Buddhist practitioner looks to View, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness, Concentration . . . it is the responsibility of the individual to make an honest assessment of the situation and determine the most practical response. We want to take the most useful and productive course that leads to human flourishing. This is skillful pragmatism.

 

Does this mean we always make the right decision? Being human beings, no! And here is where pragmatism in the form of skillful means arises again. We shouldn’t berate ourselves for making the wrong choice . . . there is no sin, gilt or shame involved . . . instead we make another honest assessment of our actions and thoughts and DO BETTER NEXT TIME.

 

The pragmatic method, both in thought or action requires a practitioner to be situational. There is practical value in developing an appropriate view of each situation and taking actions appropriate to the promotion of human flourishing. Whether one is ‘going around a squirrel’ or ‘carrying a woman across a river’ a Buddhist practitioner must always strive to take whatever action will have the most practical value, whatever action leads to the most positive causal consequences.

Why Am I A Buddhist . . . Why Are You A Buddhist?

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In St. Louis, Missouri a common question gets asked whenever strangers meet, “What high school did you graduate from?” The answer can make or break a possible friendship if one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day. The answer is important. Get more than one Buddhist in a room and the question, “What brought you to Buddhism?” will probably be asked. It isn’t the answer that is really important . . . it is the willingness to answer that is. I’ll venture to say that not one of you reading this would reject the friendship of another person because they didn’t come to Buddhism the same you did. Why we came to Buddhism really isn’t that important; why we choose to continue to pursue the Middle Path is. It is what defines practice.

Recently someone asked me, “Why are you a Buddhist?” Granted I’ve been asked this question before but it suddenly occurred to me that the reply that starts, “I found Buddhism because . . . your story goes here”, isn’t answering the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. Legitimate question, but having a legitimate answer requires me to listen deeply to myself, to be honest about why am I a Buddhist.

My response begins, “I practice Buddhism because . . .” and within those four words is a major reason why I am a Buddhist. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being and Buddhism offers me that opportunity through the guide offered by the Four Ennobling Truths and through how I choose to engage that guide in practice. I’m not expected to be perfect or to have all the answers but I am expected to keep practicing. Yeah, I know the saying “practice makes perfect” but honestly I’ve never seen any proof of that. In my experience I get better at being Buddhist but being “perfect” isn’t ever part of the agenda. In my experience “practice makes more practice” and I am good with that. For me it is in the doing, not in the done.

My response finishes with, “ . . . what we do matters.” Four words that encapsulate for me the whole of Buddhist psychology, philosophy and spiritualism as I have come to realize it. The Four Ennobling Truths are all about how our actions are the cause and effect of suffering – and that what we do matters. The Three Characteristics of Existence that include suffering and add impermanence and not-self are rooted in the ideal that we are each a unique part of dependent origination – what we do matters – we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale. I haven’t read a sutra or legacy teaching that wasn’t sending the message “go do it”. The ideal that what we do matters renews my intent to be the best human being I can be. I want to cease to do harm because it matters. I want to do good because it matters. I want to do good for others because it matters.

“I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.” I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders personal and social positive effects. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters and that is a force for positive transformation that can’t be equalled. There is a dark side to the “what we do matters” that a Buddhist must view realistically. The negative actions of others also matter and we, Buddhist or not must not hesitate to act appropriately and decisively whenever we can to mitigate the negative karmic consequences that can arise. We can control what we do and how we react to the results of the actions of others. This is all about karmic consequences.

Acting pluralistically is the I and We. It makes no difference to me what faith, religion or tradition another person is . . . they are part of the We. Our commitments may differ but it is the goal of alleviating suffering that matters. It is engaging in thought and action that promote human flourishing that matters. What we do matters.

Taking action is highlighted in the words practice and do. Am I a Buddhist because I take action or do I take action to be a Buddhist . . . doesn’t matter as both are more likely to result in positive karmic consequences. Buddhism is all about action. The psychology, philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism has roots, beginning with the Four Ennobling Truths, in action. It takes personal action to recognize the reality of suffering and it takes engaged action to realize the alleviation of suffering. The Eightfold Path guides me to actions that will improve how I am and how I can be an agent of positive transition in the world.

The two words in the middle have their significance. I am a unique factor in dependent origination, and ‘because’ is causality, think ‘be causal’ . . . in a positive way. This happened because that happened. I practice to “be cause” of more positive than negative ingredients in the karmic stew. Each moment, each experience and situation are also unique factors so I’m mindful of the WHAT. What is the reality of the situation and what would be the most harmonious action to take NOW.

The eight word sentence is a mirror of what keeps me on the path. Action and responsibility, being the cause of good, the I and We of pluralism, do something, actions have karmic consequences so each action matters. My personal mantra, and you are welcome to make it yours – I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.

Ask yourself the “Why am I a Buddhist?” question before someone else asks “Why are you a Buddhist?”. Without the ability to be honest with yourself about the answer your chance of having a deep and engaged Buddhist practice is slim. Curiosity, desire, life experience, or wanting to be cool might have caused you to look into Buddhism but why you continue when it takes such effort and commitment is what is more important. It is there you will find the depth of your practice and what you can do to enhance it.

I picture Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree after his awakening and thinking, “Man, what I just awakened to will really matter. Acting like that is going to take some practice.”

ENLIGHTENED SELF-INTEREST TO ENLIGHTENED SELFLESSNESS

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

What’s in it for me is not the question a bodhisattva-in-training asks before taking action. Actions to promote human flourishing are meant to be taken without any expectations of reward. No atta-boys, pats on the back, raise on your paycheck, or new car. The ideals of nirvana and enlightenment are dangled as possibilities, not as rewards but as destinations that may, or may not be at the finish line. There is a commitment to putting in a lot of selfless effort to be a better human being without any expectation of how that will benefit you.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a notion of enlightened self-interest in the choices one makes. Not enlightened as in the Buddhist philosophical sense of the term, but in the Western view of performing acts with the understanding and knowledge that personal gain of some sort will be one effect. There is a wide difference between expecting something in return and the knowledge gained through experience that there are selfish reasons to be a better human being. The Buddha knew that the Noble Path, given the effort and commitment needed to walk it, would initially be walked for reasons of self development, of self betterment, of enlightened self-interest. He accepted this dharma and so should we all.

It takes commitment to walk the path of a bodhisattva-in-training. Whether it is walked as a lay person or as a monk there is a lot to be mindful of, and a lot of practices to be mindful of as the causal world is engaged. However many people are on the planet . . . you vow to lead them all to liberation through the example you set with your own life. However many delusions you hold about yourself and the world around you . . . you vow to extinguish, to make fall away each and every one of them. However many Dharma teachings there are . . . and there a bunch . . . you vow to learn about them and practice them . . . all. However far the Noble Path stretches . . . you vow to walk it to the end. It is a huge commitment. And, to top it all off you are supposed to commit to it without any expectation . . . at least once Buddhist practice and knowledge of causal consequences matures.

In the Saddha Sutra the Buddha taught that there were rewards for the committed practitioner. There were five rewards that truly good people would “give”. The sutra was originally written for the monastic disciples to spark their self-interest so that they would pursue positive self-transformation. The Buddha knew from his own experience that through time and mindfulness that self-interest would fall away and selfless loving-kindness would arise in its place.

Saddha Sutra

NOTE: Know that I’ve taken the liberty to put this sutra into contemporary language and have used the buzz-words of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. Venerable David and myself have often discussed if any of sutras re-worded (or creatively re-described) in such a way could offer the same intent as the those translated directly from the Pali, and holding to the symbology and textual references of that time 2600 years ago. In this instance I’ve replaced monk (bhikkhu) with lay person so that lay practitioners can gain the appropriate view that this teachings is of equal value to them. The sutra re-described was initially translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “Saddha Sutta: Conviction” (AN 5.38), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.038.than.html .

“For a lay person, there are these five rewards of commitment. Which five?

When the truly good people in the world show compassion, they will naturally first show compassion to people of commitment, and not to people without commitment.

When visiting, they naturally first visit people of commitment, and not people without commitment.

When accepting gifts, they will naturally first accept those from people with commitment, and not from people without commitment.

When teaching the Dhamma, they will naturally first teach those with commitment, and not those without commitment.

A person of commitment, on death, will leave behind a legacy of positive thought and action. For a lay person, these are the five rewards of commitment.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of commitment is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.”

The commitment spoken of in the sutra is the commitment to ideals like the Three Pure Precepts: cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. The karmic causal process of the universe clearly reveals that a person looking to do good is more apt to offer their skills, gifts and practice to those people striving to do good themselves. So, in the name of enlightened self-interest it is better to be seen as doing good so positive causal effects can be experienced.

When the truly good people in the world show compassion, they will naturally first show compassion to people of commitment, and not to people without commitment.

It is not an expectation that because you act with compassion that others will show you compassion; it is knowledge that can be experientially verified through your own actions. You freely offer compassion to a person volunteering their time and skills in a nursing home. You naturally find it more difficult to offer that same compassion to a child molester.

When visiting, they naturally first visit people of commitment, and not people without commitment.

It is in a person’s self-interest to first visit someone with whom they have a shared commitment, or at least a parallel commitment. It is with those people that positive personal development will strengthen. Later, when visiting those without commitment that gained strength can be put to use building new commitments.

When accepting gifts, they will naturally first accept those from people with commitment, and not from people without commitment.

A bodhisattva-in-training must practice skillful generosity. Offering skills, gifts and practices to those people and organizations that will pass along that generosity doesn’t take a lot of conscious thinking. Offering the same to those who may not appreciate or acknowledge it is a more difficult practice. Engaging with those with similar commitments allows one to experience the feelings of acceptance and gratitude that future acts of generosity may not generate.

When teaching the Dharma, they will naturally first teach those with commitment, and not those without commitment.

There is an ideal in Buddhism that the student will come to the teacher. The teacher commits to teaching someone is showed the commitment to find a teacher. A layperson offers the dharma through their actions, so someone already committed, at some level to becoming a better human being is more likely to aware of the lesson and mindful of its value.

A person of commitment, on death, will leave behind a legacy of positive thought and action. For a lay person, these are the five rewards of commitment.

Many people regret their actions as they lay dying. They winge and complain about what they could have, or should have done with their lives. They regret not committing to something positive. This is part of the foundation for the traditional Buddhist philosophy behind rebirth and karma. There are many people who come to practice Buddhism as a way of expunging their past negative choices (stealing, sexual misconduct, killing, etc.) or past negative experiences (loss, illness, pain, depression) in order to pave the path for a better next life. This is an ultimate form of enlightened self-interest. In Engaged Dharma there is a more pragmatic, and selfless way of viewing this. A person committed to, and acting with the knowledge that what they do matters now, and after they die, will endeavor to always cease to do harm, do only good, and do good for others. In this way they live a life of enlightened self-interest that is also enlightened selflessness.

Just as a large banyan tree, on level ground where four roads meet, is a haven for the birds all around, even so a lay person of commitment is a haven for many people: monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers.”

The actions of a sincere and committed bodhisattva-in-training are clearly evident to those people with, or seeking the same commitment to human flourishing, and to positive personal transformation. Siddhartha is our example of the reality of this phenomena of karmic causality. Others, of all castes, were drawn toward the cool abiding shade of his wisdom and compassion. Enlightened self-interest arose as a need to figure out the human condition. After his awakening he questioned whether he should, or could offer what he discovered about the realities of human existence, and choose to allow enlightened self-interest to transform into enlightened selflessness.