Buddhism’s Pragmatic Transformation

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism in the West has a schizophrenic quality to it. There are a host of voices and streams of images clamoring for attention. It isn’t a stretch to say that through the amazing and sometimes intimidating media choices that a person can access nearly a 100% of the Buddhist traditions worldwide. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Thai and others may have temples nearby or their teachings can be found on-line via websites, You Tube and Twitter. Confusion arises as one tries to listen to all the voices and to process all the images. Along the way decisions need to be made as to whose voice is offering what is perceived as needed, and which image the viewer connects with. Choosing a Buddhist tradition to follow is not easy.

Unlimited and unrestrained access can be a cause of confusion. There are Western practitioners who choose the Theravada path for example, but find themselves chanting the Heart Sutra and engaging in Vajrayana meditation techniques as elements of their individual practice. The effect of this can be a Buddhist practice without a deep level of commitment . . . or it may be leading to an even deeper commitment when effectiveness of practice is the focus and not tradition.

Most in the West begin walking the Noble Path using the strictures of a particular tradition, commonly a tradition that is exotic to Western bodyminds. Time and effort is spent trying to engage practices and ideals that are foreign, ideals that might come into conflict with contemporary Western life. This conflict can be the cause of renewed spiritual searching and the realization that practices arising in other Buddhist traditions are engaged and experienced, at times found to have value in how the practitioner engages the world. Rather than reject them because they are not of the chosen tradition, they become a component of practice.

Is this unique? Even a cursory study of Buddhist history and philosophy will reveal that pragmatism played a role in how all Buddhist traditions have arisen. Siddhartha began his own spiritual quest from the perspective of a Hindu practitioner, and after leaving home he studied and practiced with a number of religious and spiritual masters in order to learn how those practices interconnected with human existence. Ideals of the Four Ennobling Realities, impermanence and dependent origination arose from existing religious and spiritual values and the insight Siddhartha gained through experience and introspection. After his death there was a schism resulting in two groups taking Siddhartha’s teachings and adding what they experienced as more effective for their practices, with this came the arising of the Theravada and Mahayana platforms. From King Ashoka sending his children to Sri Lanka as Buddhist emissaries, to Buddhism finding its place in other countries and cultures pragmatism lay behind the choices made.

We may love the grass in our pasture but will still stick our head through the fence to nibble other grass. Siddhartha fed on the rich grass of the Hindu beliefs and practices of his culture before he came to experience the grass outside the fence created by the walls, physical, mental and metaphorical that surrounded him. He then experienced the grasses in the pastures of brahmin, ascetics, yogis and Jains. From each of his pastures, as well as the fertile soil of his own bodymind, Siddhartha wove a net of philosophy and practice that he experienced as valuable in the alleviation of suffering, discontent and unsatisfactoriness.

Siddhartha realized the value in elements of the practices and philosophies in the existing religious and spiritual systems incorporating them into his newly arising paradigm. It is known that in Siddhartha’s time he, and his teachings were viewed as heretical and dangerous by other religious leaders and that there is no historical or scriptural evidence that Siddhartha held a reverse view. Siddhartha accepted the commitments of others and was offering a new intent that others could experience and then decide whether to engage his new paradigm. This pragmatic approach accepting the value of the commitments of others can lessen the us vs. them attitude that is endemic today, not only in Buddhism.

A passage in the Heart Sutra speaks eloquently of the pragmatism of Buddhist philosophy, ‘Oh Sariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness.’ The capital D Dharma, the teachings of Siddhartha are only potential until their ideals meet the realities of each human existence. The little d dharma is the realities that shape that potential in each human existence. Each, D and d, causally condition the other across the interconnected and interdependent web of possibilities. Too much focus on the capital D of respective traditions weakens the possibilities that can be realized with a broader view of the dharma as it presents itself during each moment of life.

Engaged Dharma is rooted firmly in the soil of the Pragmatic Buddhist teachings of the Venerable Dr. Jim Eubanks (Yong Xiang Shi) who interconnected American Pragmatic philosophy with what he learned from his two major influences, the Venerable Ryugen Fisher (Shen Long Shi) and Professor David Shaner Sensei at Furman University in South Carolina. From Shen Long Shi came the Chan teachings learned from the Venerable Dr. Holmes Welch (Mo Hua Shi) and the Soto Zen practices from Matsuoko Roshi. Professor Shaner Sensei of Furman University offered a deep respect for Japanese cultural and religious practices, along with lessons on pragmatist philosophy. These seeming disparate sources of knowledge and wisdom came together to form the foundation of the Pragmatic Buddhist tradition. It is a ‘tradition’ made up of traditions.

Venerable Dr. Eubanks Sensei often told his students and sangha that they must make a choice of Buddhist traditions and commit fully to the one chosen. He offered that time must be taken to experience those traditions in order to make that choice, but that there was an inherent danger in spending too much time and effort at the “Buddhist buffet”. I have come to the honest realization that Pragmatic Buddhism was, and is causally conditioned by that very buffet. Western Buddhism might come to rely on that very buffet.

Spoonfuls of Chan, Soto Zen, Nikayan Buddhism, Mahayana, and Vajrayana meditation practices make up the plate that is Pragmatic Buddhism. Theravada claimed teachings that arise in the Sigalovada Sutra and the Jataka Tale of Prince Vessantara are added as a result of my own experiential verification of their value in a contemporary Western Buddhist practice. The lessons from these scriptural sources and others do not necessarily arise as intended by the claiming tradition. The setting aside of the perceptions that come with tradition can reveal unrealized lessons. Here, along with pragmatism arises the practice of pluralism as offered by Diane Eck and the Harvard Pluralism Project. Add to that the secular practices of Pragmatic and neo-Pragmatic philosophy, humanism, naturalism and mindfulness meditation for the spiritual meal known as Pragmatic Buddhism.

Pluralism in intent and action is revealed throughout the history of Buddhism. In its journey it has had, and continues to have profound effects on cultures and peoples while remaining firm in its commitments. This is done without expecting the long held commitments of others to fall away. Siddhartha energetically encountered the commitments of kings, brahmins, yogis, thieves, common people and Jains. He did not offer a philosophy and practice meant to supplant their commitments, instead to enhance them. While later iterations of Buddhism did transition into dogmatic, bordering on evangelistic traditions, in Pragmatic Buddhism this is not viewed as Siddhartha’s intent. His intent was to make people aware of their interconnection and interdependence on all phenomena, not to create divisions.

In the West Buddhism is encountering the commitments of the religious beliefs and practices of Christianity, Islam and Judaism most prominently, as well as that of a secular community of avowed atheists and agnostics. Buddhism has had encounters such as these for thousands of years across thousands of miles. What it hasn’t encountered in its past is the deep level of individualism found in the West, particularly in America.

What’s in it for me? This is the question a sangha member asked when offered the opportunity to take a class on the precepts to prepare to take those vows. It prompted the response, “Nothing”. Years of study and practice and I now realize the dharma in that answer. Intent is clear in the question, the danger of craving in the reply. There was a lesson in that one word . . . nothing; a lesson for every student and a lesson for every teacher.

The question reveals a cultural disposition of individualism. Asked out loud or silently it shows an intent toward self gratification. That intent will lead to discontent and unsatisfactoriness because lasting gratification can never be attained. There will always be something to grasp at just beyond reach. Feelings of gratification will fall away. It is the impermanent nature of the causal universe.

There are two ‘mantras’ in Engaged Dharma (EDIG) meant to highlight the means necessary to harness the power of the individual. One mantra illustrates an acceptance of individualism in Western Buddhist thought and an awareness that what is individual effort is naturally societal effort. “We are each unique expressions of the universe. We are not unique in the universe.” In human beings there is difference that is causally conditioned by similarity, and similarity causally conditioned by differences.

The other ‘mantra’ is an intentional reminder that whatever action one chooses to make, “What we do matters”. Actions taken for purely individual benefit will have effect beyond the individual, known and unknown. Whatever one does, with or without intent has ripples of effect that go beyond the individual performing the act, this is karma as human physics in action The ideal of ultimate personal transformation meets the reality of the causal process.

Put the two mantras together, “We are each unique expressions of the universe. We are not unique in the universe. What we do matters”. There is acceptance of individuality, awareness that the individual is a part of something larger, and the actions we take have effect on a broad scale. There is the path of arhat seeking individual knowledge and transformation, and the path of the bodhisattva seeking transformative social engagement. It is a pragmatic way of viewing human existence.

Initial steps on the Noble Path are taken by an individual. The reason for those steps is unique to each person yet that reason can be related to by all other human beings. Regardless of whether it is illness, loss, confusion, joy, curiosity or spiritual seeking, there will be others whose journey arose from similar circumstances.

Siddhartha did not ask for blind faith. He offered that the value of his teachings should be verified through experience engaging them as how one interacts with the universe. In this way Siddhartha harnessed the power of the individual to achieve positive transformation and to engage the causal universe in wholesome ways. He accepted the value of the individual, and of their potential for social impact.

Buddhism in the West must also harness the power of the individual. In each person is a reservoir of imagination, skills, gifts, compassion and the Buddha-element. These are reservoirs that can be tapped for the benefit of all. It might begin with the ideal of what’s in it for me. What does Buddhist philosophy and practice offer that will improve my situation? A unique expression will require a unique response dependent on what need is perceived. Gradually like the ocean floor slopes into the depths a practitioner must be guided to the gradual realization that while expression is unique, suffering in some form is not. Awareness of the effects of the practitioners intent and action beyond themselves must be developed and nurtured so the realization that whatever the thought or action there are causal consequences.

In a culture where individual choice is experienced as a human right the host of voices and streams of images available has value. Westerners, and particularly Americans need to develop the ability to sift through the choices so that productive and effective philosophies and practices can be discovered and engaged in. Western Buddhism must harness the power of the individual to enact positive social transformation. There is value in a commitment to a particular Buddhist tradition as long as one maintains an open-heart and open-mind. Not all the philosophies and practices of any one tradition may be effective for a contemporary Western practitioner, while all traditions have philosophies and practices that can be effective. Awareness of them requires that labels and judgements be set aside so that experience, not perception is how commitments develop. There are voices in the West that proclaim the value of a religiously oriented Buddhism and voices that proclaim the value of a secular approach. Perhaps if those voices went silent for a moment the realization that the Western Buddhist model that arises will be a pragmatic combination of those two ideals, and more. In Engaged Dharma, a Pragmatic Buddhist practice there is already that silence.

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.

Upajjhatthana Sutta: Contemplating the Realities

Upajjhatthana Sutta: Contemplating the Realities

Creatively Re-described by Wayne Ren-Cheng

“There are five realities that you must contemplate whether you are a woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.

I am going to grow older, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am going to get ill at some time, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am going to die, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I will constantly change and seem to separate from all that I care about, I cannot avoid that reality . . .

I am cause of my actions, actions born of me and causally conditioned by other phenomena, my actions are my examples and I must learn from those experiences. Whether my choices are good or bad, the karmic consequences will not be only mine, others will be affected . . .

These are the five realities that you must contemplate often, whether woman or a man, lay-Buddhist or ordained monk.

Now, why must you contemplate that . . . ‘I will grow older?’ Some people are so desirous of the ideal of youth that they make bad decisions, take negative paths meant to achieve eternal youth. But, when you contemplate the reality of growing older that ideal of youth will fall away . . .

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Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – An Awakened Mind – Part 1

First Turning of the Dharma Wheel

by Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi

Talk presented in the Deer Park at the Buddha Center, Second Life – First in a series offering a way to think differently about Buddhist ideals meeting the realities of contemporary life.

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Siddhartha traveled over a thousand miles from his birthplace and home at Lumbini to the shade of a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya where he attained awakening. He had abandoned a life of wealth and ease as a prince destined for greatness in order to pursue knowledge and wisdom. Along the way he studied with eminent teachers like Yogic-Master Alara Kamala and he experienced the life of an ascetic living in the forest submitting himself to excessive deprivations in pursuit of his goal to understand human suffering. Finally, after just sitting in meditation under a bodhi tree and gaining the knowledge of a Noble Path out of suffering he set out toward home, searching as he went for someone that might also understand the depth of compassion and wisdom that arose with Siddhartha’s awakening. In the city of Sarnath, 200 miles closer to his home, Siddhartha encountered the five ascetic monks he had once practiced with. They had previously abandoned Siddhartha because of his change in worldview from one of the power of deprivation to help one achieve spiritual liberation to moderation in all things is a more pragmatic path. Realizing that these were five men most likely to be capable of understanding what Siddhartha had awakened to he sat with them in the Deer Park at Isipatana in Varanasi and began to teach.

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel is the text of that first teaching, a teaching personally experienced by the Buddha’s disciple who related it, as evidenced by the words that begin the sutra – Thus have I heard. Siddhartha speaks first of the Middle Way that is realized through mindfulness avoidance of the two extremes of deprivation and gluttony. Then the Four Ennobling Truths that he had awakened to were spoken aloud to the five ascetics, truths that would come to reshape their worldview as it had Siddhartha’s if those realizations were viewed as actions. In the final verses of the sutra Siddhartha says, “This is the last birth. There is no more re-becoming.” Seen by many to be a confirmation of Siddhartha’s acceptance of the Hindu ideal of rebirth there is another lens to view those words through . . . a lens we’ll look through in a future talk. The Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta offers these important teachings in a traditional manner. Viewing it through a “contemporary lens” the lessons that the Buddha imparted can help guide a contemporary Noble Life, just as the view through a “traditional lens” still guides practitioners today.

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