SUPERPOWER

SUPERPOWER

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

You have a superpower. You can’t fly like Superman or snikt out adamantium claws like Wolverine. You aren’t bulletproof like Luke Cage or as fast as the Flash . . . your superpower is much greater. It is so much greater that it must always be used with compassion, wisdom and appropriate intent. In fact all human beings have this amazing superpower yet yours is unique to you.

Siddhartha, the historical Buddha realized that all human beings have this power. He offered his own superpower skillfully so as not to misuse it. It was like he had his own Uncle Ben whispering in his ear that with great power comes great responsibility.

This is a superpower that can illuminate the minds of men, or lay over them a cloud of delusion. It can be the cause of peace or of conflict. It can connect or it can divide. The Buddha realized the complexity of this power; its ability to shift the moral and ethical equanimity of human beings.

Each of you have the responsibility to use your unique superpower wisely. Every moment you engage it there is the potential for wholesome or unwholesome effects. The causal strength of this ability goes far beyond any other superpower.

The Buddha realized that this superpower is interconnected and interdependent with all other thought and action in the alleviation of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish, suffering, and he offered it as a moral and ethical component of the Eightfold Path. Later, all Buddhist traditions made it an important factor in the precept vows taken by laypeople and monastics.

The contemporary author Thomas Wolfe says this superpower is not just one of man’s several unique attributes, it is the attribute of all attributes!

This superpower is speech. It is the unique ability that human beings have to create, define and engage each with words. These combinations of words that express how you are, this is your superpower.

So, how best can you engage this superpower known as speech? You do so appropriately.

Siddhartha realized the power of the spoken and written word, speech, as means of communication that can equally improve a situation or create a dispute. Diplomats would not be needed, lawyers would be unnecessary, and all radio disc jockeys would do is spin records if words didn’t have such profound effects on the human psyche. The Buddha knew the value of skillful speech and so made Right Speech an ideal of the moral and ethical component of the Eightfold Path. From his talk with Sigala chronicled in the Sigalovada Sutra, to his conversation with King Pasenadi and Anguilimala , Siddhartha realized that speech should be used wisely in the offering of the dharma, given whatever appropriate form was needed. In the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw the Buddha offers a guide to appropriate speech.

Thus I have heard

There are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or un-beneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They address you in a beneficial way or an un-beneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate.

In any event, you should train yourselves: Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. we will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. we will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will. That’s how you should train yourselves.

In the Buddha’s culture and time speech came in the forms of voice, body language, or through the iconography of Hindu faiths and the arising philosophy we now call Buddhism. Today we have the same three forms of speech: voice, writing and body language coming at us in-person and through a vast landscape of electronic media. Along with religious iconography we recognize the ‘voices’ of other modes of artistic expression such as secular paintings, sculpture and drawing. The modes of speech may have undergone additions and changes but the aspects of speech the Buddha teaches of still apply. He went into some detail of the various intents behind human communication. What he didn’t do was divide speech into “good” and “bad” categories thus revealing that there is no dualism because the mirror of beneficial speech is un-beneficial speech, and each aspect has its own reflection.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Well, experience proves that speech can hurt. An awareness of your own experiences will reveal the harm that words can do. Siddhartha’s experiences revealed the discontent and anguish endured by human beings that arises from using speech as a weapon, from speaking a lot but not saying anything, from using speech to create truth, and from speaking when silence is more appropriate. The way we communicate with ourselves and others has a great impact on how the world is as a whole. Threaded throughout the sutras there is evidence of the importance of speech in Buddhist practice. Call it Right Speech, Encompassing and Corrective Speech, Skillful Speech or Appropriate Speech it is action and thought that grounds ethical ideals and moral character. Speech is a tool of communication and of connection; a tool that must be used to promote human flourishing, not weaken it.

The Precept Vows taken in Engaged Dharma mirror the importance of speech in our contemporary, richly interconnected world.

 

I undertake the training of verbal empowerment; I will abstain from meaningless speech.

I undertake the training of kind speech; I will abstain from harsh speech.

I undertake the training of meaningful speech; I will abstain from frivolous speech.

I undertake the training of harmonious speech; I will abstain from slanderous speech.

Speech takes many forms, some wholesome, some not. Kind, meaningful and harmonious speech have the power to create compassion, altruism, wisdom, loving-kindness and generosity of spirit. Harsh, frivolous and slanderous speech have the power to create hatred, envy, ignorance and fear. For a Buddhist there is clearly the more appropriate choice. Speech is a superpower possessed and engaged by human beings. You must verbally empower yourself with speech that promotes happiness, health and harmony.

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Buddhists Wear Clothes

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a long running post titled “Buddhists Eat Meat” on this site. It has been read by hundreds and commented on by some. The comments are generally directed toward defending the commenter’s point of view and lots of talk is about compassion, specifically compassion for animals. The need to defend is not helpful; the talk about compassion is. In fact the comments present cogent defenses of a variety of views on the subject. There are also moments of critically judging the views, knowledge and decisions of others.

Two statements are made often, seemingly with the intent to shame an omnivorous Buddhist. One is that in this contemporary society it is easier to be a vegan or vegetarian because there are more choices and access to information. The other that animals suffer greatly on factory farms with the subtext being that one who is omnivorous is less compassionate. Neither is a ‘truth’ in all situations.

The intent of the lesson “Buddhists Eat Meat” was not so readers would question the choices of other Buddhists. It was offered so that readers would question their own practice, their own choices, and their own reactions to difficult subjects. There is a need to engage rigorous self-honesty rather than engage in judging the views and actions of others.

There are other aspects of human existence that require the same level of scrutiny given to dietary choices. Choosing what clothes to buy and wear for example. Others include what car to drive and how much to drive it, limiting carbon footprint, and what livelihood to engage in. Every choice made has cause and effect, wholesome and unwholesome. Every Buddhist practitioner must apply rigorous self-honesty in order to make pragmatic choices.

BUDDHISTS WEAR CLOTHES

How aware are you of the clothes you wear? From the underwear to the hat there are choices to be made. Ask yourself these questions.

Where were my clothes manufactured?

How were the raw materials sourced?

Who are the people and other sentient beings involved in the manufacturing, delivery and selling process?

What are the conditions those people live and work in?

What are they being paid?

What impact does the purchasing of your clothes have on the suffering of others?

How much energy, effort and awareness do you apply to your choice of clothes?

How compassionate is your choice?

My intent is not to single out omnivores or herbivores in the Buddhist community. The intent is to use the issue to offer that wholesome intentions and acts of compassion arise in different ways and that equanimity or balance should always be in favor of promoting compassion and human flourishing.

Every item we purchase and consume has its wholesome and unwholesome aspects. Many American companies out-source their manufacturing to places where wages can be well below subsistence level, where working conditions can be way below American standards, and child labor is legal. The items are sold by companies that engage in dubious personnel, pricing and social activities here in America. Not to focus on only the unwholesome, there are many American companies that strive to do what is right to the extent they are able. There are choices between low cost products manufactured under conditions of suffering and higher cost products that meet certain “standards” like a Made in the USA tag or are imported through organizations that promote fair trade.

A Buddhist practitioner has flaws and strengths like any other human being. The goal for a Buddhist is to have equanimity in practice; a balance that is always tipped more to the wholesome than the unwholesome. No matter the choice a practitioner must always honor life in some way.

All Phenomena is Causally Conditioned . . . Even You

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Causality, co-dependent arising, the causal chain, the arising and falling away of phenomena, causal conditioning, these are all labels for the causes and effects brought about by the reality of impermanence. Due to the dynamism of the Universe we inhabit there is always change, always room for change, always the potential for change. The reality of the arising and falling away of phenomena adds vitality to the Noble Path, the path of positive transformation. Impermanence is a dharma ideal. Causal conditioning is the reality that arises from that ideal.

In the Paccaya Sutta the Buddha says:

When this is present, that comes to be:

from the arising of this, that arises.

When this is absent, that does not come to be:

on the cessation of this, that ceases.

In causal conditioning there can be no ONE cause or ONE effect. All phenomena arise from a variety of causes and effects. No matter whether it is a thought, action, philosophy, material, food, theories, emotions, or ideas they are all subject to the actions of other phenomena though every causal event that contributed may be beyond our ability to comprehend or discover. This does not negate the reality of causal conditions, just our ability as human beings to recognize all the nuances of the causal Universe.

There is an aphorism that says you are the author of your own story. That is true given that you choose how you respond to each situation, still you are responding to causes and effects you are mindful and aware of . . . and not to those causes you have no awareness of. Your intent must be to engage with causal factors more likely to cause the arising of wholesome consequences, and to allow the falling away of those causal factors likely to cause unwholesome consequences. You must seek to take control of the causal conditions you can so that those you can’t control will have a lesser impact on your wholesome personal transformation.

In the Majjhima Nikayas, the Maha-hatthipadopama-sutta (36) the Buddha teaches that “He who sees causality (dependent origination, co-dependent arising) sees the dharma, and he who sees the dharma sees causality.” Without an understanding and recognition of dependent origination following the Eightfold Path or engaging in any other Buddhist practice can be an empty exercise. The potential is there but the realization of possibilities will not be. In another teaching (Itivuttaka, from the Kuddhaka Nikaya) the Buddha said, “A disciple sees the dharma, and seeing the dharma sees me.” The Buddha was speaking directly to a gathering of monks but the same holds true for anyone. Causality is the core of understanding the dharma, and of realizing how Buddhist practice can be effective in transforming our personal character and the world around us. Realizing the ideal of causality empowers us with the knowledge that we can make a difference through our engaged actions, whether they be within ourselves, or with others, or with the world around us. This is a powerful and liberating realization.

The Buddha talked about four characteristics of causal relationships:

  1. Objectivity: Dependent origination or causal conditioning is a fact no matter what angle it is viewed from. Metaphysics or science, human or animal, seen or not seen, there are causal results of actions taken, or not taken, recognized or not.

  1. Necessity: Nothing happens from “thin air”. The cause may not be discernible but there is a cause, and often a chain, or web of causes.

  1. Invariability: Even events that appear to have no cause, have a cause. While an action/result may have been unintentional, it wasn’t accidental, there was a cause. One may not have intended a particular outcome of their actions, yet they bear at least some responsibility for that outcome. This is why intent is critical in how we interact with the world around us. Whether we recognize it or not our actions are going to have consequences so we engage the world in such a way as to engender positive outcomes, positive karmic consequences.

  1. Conditionality: Events are situational due to the conditions under which they happen. Unconditional would imply determinism, that an event was pre-destined or was an arbitrary occurrence. All phenomena are causally conditioned; they arise, fall, change and interact as a result of being influenced by some other action or thought. In RL when the ching bell is struck the sound follows. That is its causally conditioned action. In SL that is not always so. I can ring the ching bell here by aligning the hand symbol on it and tapping the keyboard but it doesn’t always lead to the sound. In SL the ching bell might not ring due to a glitch in programming or in the transmission of my physical action to the virtual action. This is virtual causal conditioning.

All causal relationships are dependent on all four of the factors above. It is one of the Three Characteristics of Existence, along with not-self and impermanence, that the Buddha awakened to.

In the Paccaya Sutta (Discourse on Causal Relations – SN), the Buddha tells his disciples that the dharma is subject to causality and so would undergo changes in accordance with causal factors like environment, culture, context and level of need; the reality of causally conditioned phenomena. He offered that a realization of causal conditioning explains the existence of all phenomena and the complex interactions between them. A realization of causality empowers one with the knowledge that you can make a difference through your intentional actions, but also you make a difference through unintentional ones. It brings with the knowledge that internal and external phenomena mold HOW you are so effort and commitment made to be more mindful of those influences is valuable on the Noble Path or any other positively oriented path. It is a liberating realization.

Viewing how you interact with the Universe through a causal lens can change your perceptions, intent and actions. When you realize that every move, thought and word WILL become part of the web of causal conditioning the need and value of mindfulness and awareness becomes crystal clear.

Think before you speak or act is an age-old aphorism. What about think before you think? How you think leads to a causal chain of how you’ll continue to think unless you become the cause of your own transformation. How we think naturally leads to how we act. Through practice and study we may come to realize that some patterns of thought are negative and they are leading us to make even more bad decisions. Causality allows the opportunity to make positive changes along with the knowledge that intentional thought leads to good decisions and positively directed actions.

Viewing issues and problems through a causal lens improves your ability to enact lasting positive solutions. We are less likely to place blame on one individual or one vent as a cause by looking for weak strands in the causal web that connects cause to effect to cause to effect . . . Fixing or adjusting more than one strand of the web will enable you to spin more corrective and encompassing solutions to the unique situations you experience each moment.

Picture a spider’s web, yourself at the center. Whatever happens to, or on that web affects you. When the web “vibrates” then something caused it, and that vibration will effect something else. A strand of web doesn’t just snap . . . like your friend doesn’t get angry for nothing. Dew doesn’t just appear on the web . . . like that twenty dollar bill didn’t just appear on the sidewalk. It might have been the wind, an unusually strong moth, it hadn’t been properly attached, or a cause that can’t be clearly viewed that snapped the strand. No matter how you view a phenomena it has undergone its own unique set of circumstances; nothing arises “out of thin air”. You are responsible for developing mindfulness of self-caused effects, as well awareness of possible of outside causes. You are responsible for your intent and your actions because the center of your web is interlinked with all other webs.

Dharma of the Individual

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhism in the West must find a way to skillfully harness the power of the individualistic view and action of those who choose the Noble Path. 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. Their attitude might begin with the ideal of what’s in it for me. What does Buddhist philosophy and practice offer that will improve my situation? Each 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.

There are practitioners who view Judeo/Christian beliefs as the cultural aspect of the West that Buddhism must come to terms with. In the West it is the dominant religious and social framework, especially in America. However, there is a prevailing psychological phenomena endemic to the majority of Americans regardless of religious or secular identity. Individualism. Finding skillful means of transforming perceptions of “what’s in it for me” to “what’s in it for all beings” is a major challenge for Western Buddhists.

We must first come to an understanding of individualism as a moral view and a social view common in the West. People who hold this worldview believe that the interests, wants and needs of the individual should come before that of any government or group. They resist all attempts by society or groups to interfere with their individual goals. The results of their individual actions might have some benefit to others but it is not their intention. Means of transforming individualism to an individual aware of the discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish of others and themselves equally, transforming individualism to an individual mindful of their own discontent, unsatisfactoriness and anguish.

In the Raga-vinaya Sutta: The Subduing of Passion (Anguttara Nikaya), the Buddha describes four types of individuals. There is one who practices only for their own benefit, one who practices only for the benefit of others, one who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others, and one who practice for both their own benefit and that of others. The individualist tendency in the West is the first one described. That tendency is often what brings a Westerner to the practice of Buddhism, some want or need they hope that Buddhism can provide for them. The Buddha was clear that a Buddhist practice begins with development of the individual. He was equally clear that it must not end there. Skillful means must be found to lead the practitioner along a path to the fourth type of individual, one who practices for the benefit of self and others.

The lesson in the Lekha Sutta: Inscriptions (Anguttara Nikaya) offers a glimpse of that path. It describes three types of individuals based on their perceptions of their ability to transform. There is the individual that is like an inscription on rock, one that is like an inscription in soil, and one like an inscription in water. Each can be viewed as metaphor for the stages of bodymind in Buddhist practice.

An individualistic worldview combines the first type of person in each sutta. They will practice for only for their own benefit believing that like an inscription in rock their worldview is permanent. They hold to the ‘what’s in it for me’ mode of thinking and acting. Initially Buddhist practice can seem to verify this view. Emphasis is on personal transformation that begins with how that practice can improve the state of the individual bodymind. One learns to sit in meditation among a sangha, yet the bulk of that practice is done at home, alone, individually. One learns that emotions and habitual reactivities that plague the bodymind are transient phenomena, a view that the individual must come to realize. For a ‘what’s in it for me’ state of bodymind the serenity, the equanimity and the sense of personal accomplishment are enough, just what they were looking for. It is written in stone.

Siddhartha began his journey of personal spiritual transformation with the goal of understanding the forms of suffering he witnessed but never experienced. Prior to his achieving awareness of the plight of some human beings he was like an inscription in stone. In accordance with Hindu beliefs his personal and social actions were taken that would positively affect his rebirth. When he chose to leave his wife and child behind, to seek answers, he did so for his own benefit.

The next two types of individual present a danger to the bodymind and the view of an inscription in soil is a skillful way of getting beyond that danger. The view and action of one who practices only for the benefit of others misses entirely a critical aspect of Buddhism. The Buddha teaches that only with equanimity of focus on self and others can the value of the dharma be experienced. The person who practices neither for their own benefit or the benefit of others is going through the motions of being a Buddhist without any intent to engage the dharma in themselves or the world around them.

My nephew is an example of an individual who practices neither for himself or for others. He labels himself a Buddhist on forms for the United States Military because it allows him avoid particular requirements put on people of other faiths.

These views can seem to written in stone. In time and with effort any stone can be turned into soil. Buddhists are farmers and soil is where the unwholesome views and actions are weeded out and wholesome seeds planted and nurtured. Unwholesome views that are inscribed in a bodymind of soil can be transformed as the wind and water of the dharma wear them away allowing the planted seeds of appropriate view and intent to grow.

The fourth type of individual offered in the Raga-vinaya Sutta is the bodhisattva-in-training ideal, one who practices for the benefit of self and others. An individual that is like an inscription on water is most capable of reaching this view and intent, and taking the actions that arise as a result. They experience the current of the dharma from individualistic intent, to social intent, flow around the obstruction of neither self or social intent, to the realization that the dharma, when applied equally to self and other has its greatest value in the promotion of human flourishing.

Siddhartha transformed from one who practiced for their own benefit to one who practiced for the benefit of self and other. He awakened and stood up under the branches of the bodhi tree it is said he doubted his ability to teach others what he had come to realize as a Middle Path that could relieve the suffering of human beings. Siddhartha hesitated, and for that moment he was still practicing for himself. In the next moment he made the decision to try and transformed into one who would practice for self and others.

It takes skillful means to guide an individualistic Westerner along a path that not only accepts the benefit of the dharma to the individual but encourages it . . . in the beginning of practice, to the realization that practice of dharma is most valuable when equally engaged in service of the individual and society as that practice matures. This skillful means cannot just be the efforts and mentoring of a teacher. It must also arise in the thoughts and actions of the practitioner. To develop a mature Buddhist practice it takes both external and internal skillful means or one may find themselves inscribed in rock and fail to engaged the opportunities of soil and water to grow wholesome dispositions and habits.