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.

 

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.

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.

Buddhism and a Secular Path – Part 4

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The fifth of the Ten Theses that Stephen Batchelor offers in his book, “After Buddhism” speaks to the dynamism of the dharma, a dharma that can effectively respond to any contingency. In Batchelor’s experience when the dharma is viewed as being stifled by religious dogmatism and metaphysical expectations its value is lessened. The dharma is dynamic because, like all phenomena it is impermanent and subject to causal conditioning. This is the reality of the dharma.

Batchelor’s fifth theses is: The dharma serves the needs of people at specific times and places. Each form the dharma assumes is a transient human creation, contingent upon the historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions that generated it.

In Batchelor’s secular vision for Buddhism the dharma is a phenomena a practitioner can access in order to respond appropriately to situations in a given moment, in a given location. When one sees a homeless person with a handwritten sign saying, ‘I am hungry’, they can allow the arising of generosity with the knowledge that such acts are wholesome and beneficial to all. Generosity arose because of need. A rude driver cuts in front of a practitioner nearly causing a crash. Anger begins to arise as visions of chasing down that driver and . . .. Anger falls away as the dharma of serenity and balance arises. Serenity arose because of need. The dharma serves the practitioner.

In 2600 years of Buddhism the dharma has assumed many forms. At the start it was a fresh paradigm built upon a foundation of Hinduism and the knowledge and wisdom developed by Siddhartha as he traveled and studied throughout the Indian continent. After the Buddha’s death four different councils were held to write down the words of the Buddha and to make changes those that then guided the sangha thought necessary. From them came the schism that brought about the Mahayana and Theravada schools, changes to the Vinaya Pitaka (Monastic Rules), and the Buddhist canon. From there and then the form of the dharma underwent transformation when King Ashoka sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka to teach the dharma. Early Buddhist mendicants traveled the Silk Road to China bringing the dharma to the Chinese people, people whose religion was centered on the Tao and Confucious. When Buddhism found its way to Tibet it was conditioned by animistic Bon practices as well as the unique environment, both physical and sociological there. In Japan the Shinto rituals meant to connect the present with Japan’s past had their effect on the dharma. Now, in the West the dharma will take another form, or multiple forms.

Each form the dharma assumes is a transient human creation, contingent upon the historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions that generated it. Mahayana, Theravada, Vajrayana, Abhidharma, Pure Land, Nichiren, and all other forms have arisen as a result of those contingencies.

What forms the dharma takes in the West will be causally conditioned by factors unique to this time and place. Note that I say forms. In the West there isn’t only one dominant religion or belief system to be encountered, there are many that will have their effect on the dharma. The dharma will also be causally conditioned by such influences as the cultural differences between East and West, the history of other influences such as Mormonism and Mindfulness Meditation practices, economic and education disparities, and a broad range of social groups and ideals. These known factors and many as of yet unknown factors will have their cause and effect on practice of the dharma in the West.

There is a tendency with some Western Buddhists to believe that if Buddhism isn’t practiced in the same way it was in Tibet, China, Japan or where ever it is not true Buddhism. This shows a fundamental lack of information about the journey and transformations that have already had contingent effects on this 2600 year old philosophy.

The sixth theses is: The practitioner honors the dharma teachings that have been passed down through different traditions while seeking to enact them creatively in ways appropriate to the world as it is now. This is an acceptance of the dharmas of pluralism and pragmatism.

A mature practitioner does not disparage the rituals and dharma teachings of other traditions, Buddhist or otherwise as long as they are on a path devoted to the elevation of the human spirit, human flourishing. Batchelor offers that a secular practitioner is one that not only honors other traditions; they also actively engage particular practices in order to determine their value in a Buddhist practice in the West, in this era. This is both pluralistic and pragmatic.

The dharma I experience is causally conditioned by the Mahayana based lessons of my teacher and his teacher, and the open-mindedness and open-heartedness they expected from anyone on the Pragmatic Buddhist path. It is equally contingent on the Sigalovada Sutra, a Theravada text. In the Sigalovada Sutra I found practices that have improved my relationships with others, practices not found in any Mahayana texts. I experientially verified that teachings from “outside” my tradition have positive transformative effects equal to many of the practices learned from my teacher.

This theses teases about what Western Buddhism may grown to be. It may take the best, or at least the practices proven most individually and socially effective for this time and culture. From that a unique form of Western Buddhism may arise.

Sutra of Eight Realizations – Part Three – Practice, Study, Generosity

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Fourth Realization:
Indolence leads to degradation.
Always practice with diligence,
Vanquish all vexations,
Subdue the four maras,
And escape the prison of the skandhas.

The Fifth Realization:
Ignorance leads to birth and death.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should always be mindful
To study and learn extensively,
To increase their wisdom
And refine their eloquence,
So they can teach and enlighten all beings,
And impart great joy to all.

The Sixth Realization:
Poverty and hardship breed resentment,
Creating harm and discord.
Bodhisattvas, and all others should practice dana,
Beholding the friendly and hostile equally;
They neither harbor grudges
Nor despise malicious people.

The 4th and 5th Realizations are calls to realize that a commitment to practice and one to life-long learning are the most effective ways to achieve and maintain a noble life, one of positive personal development and of positive social development. Siddhartha was a human being . . . he did it . . . any of us can do it. It was the human-ness of Siddhartha that is the mirror of the human-ness in each of us.

The 6th is a call to develop and practice generosity of spirit and action. The Buddhist ideal of dana, contributing through material goods and wealth, time, and skills in order to alleviate suffering and to contribute to those working toward the same is how one shows compassion and their realization of their interconnectedness with all beings.

The goal of Buddhism as expressed in the Four Ennobling Truths is the cessation of suffering, unsatisfactoriness and discontentment or the achieving of liberation, for all sentient beings. That can only be accomplished through the actions of human beings because we are the ones (as far as we know right now) with the capacity to realize, and to act upon the profound truths the Buddha offered. I want to take a moment to talk about the concept of “the Buddha offered”. He wasn’t forcing the Middle Path on anyone. He offered it as a path that in his experience worked. It was up to whomever heard his teachings to put them into practice and prove their value to themselves.

Fourth Realization:

The Fourth Realization presents the dangers to our continuing practice of the Dharma and meditation. Laziness and procrastination can arise as major hindrances to a practice. My root teacher, Eubanks Sensei says, “It is when no one is watching that we must practice the hardest.” It is a reminder that sometimes we must be our own mentor and monitor.

Like the bodymind is one, so are meditation/practice. Beware of falling into thinking that you can practice Buddhism without having a committed mediation practice. Meditation is foundation where we begin to be mindful, where we begin to be aware of our wholesome and unwholesome habits and dispositions (skandhas), and begin to develop serenity and equanimity. Meditation is the beginning but it can’t end there. All of the ideals of Buddhist practice must be taken out into our everyday lives where it can be useful and productive.

It isn’t called practice because once you think, “I’ve got it,” you can abandon the “practice mind”.

It isn’t called practice because when you’ve slipped up, didn’t meditate, got angry, ignored an obligation, or craved a cheeseburger you can say, “Alright I’m a terrible Buddhist, I’m gonna quit”.

Writers, actors and painters, anyone in a creative field would sum this stanza up with these words. “Tell your inner editor/critic/procrastinator to shut the hell up.”

Hindrances come in many forms, but they are empty of power unless we allow them to have effect. Others can be finding the time to meditate and dealing with difficult people at home/work/play. Our inner editor may say “You don’t have time to listen deeply to . . .” – Our inner critic might say, “You really don’t do that well.” – Our inner procrastinator may say, “Tomorrow, we’ll do it tomorrow.” This is where creative re-description comes in. What some would view as vexations, we can turn around and make opportunities to practice. We can take the time to listen, try again, and do today.

The four maras are negative dispositions given legendary form. The mara of the aggregates: grasping/clinging to a permanent self – mara of disturbing emotions: habitual patterns of emotions – mara of death: death/fear – mara of the son of the gods: craving. Singly or in any combination they can impede our engagement of Buddhist practice. Meditation can lead us to the realization of these “maras” so through meditation we become aware of them before they impede our Buddhist practice in everyday life.

In short the Fourth Realization is all about commitment to practice. Practice on the cushion and practice off the cushion; Buddhist practice is a holistic endeavor.

Fifth Realization:

Engaged Dharma promotes attitudes and actions directed toward “life-long learning” and that is what the 5th Realization is all about. Simply put this means be open-minded and open-hearted to any and all new information, new experiences, and new opportunities. Learning begins with gathering information. Then we transform information into knowledge by putting it through the filter of experiential verification and then decide if it works. If it does we continue to make it a part of our approach to life; if not we discard it. In this way we transform knowledge into wisdom.

Ignorance is the condition of being unaware, uneducated or uninformed. This can result from cultural conditions that don’t offer to opportunity, or allow one to learn; or, it can be a product of not being interested in learning. Birth of bad decisions, and death of opportunities result from ignorance.

Learning extensively, increasing wisdom and refining eloquence is a very Daoist goal that fits well into Buddhist philosophy. The individual who does these things develops skillful ways to connect with others. Having some knowledge of the history and teachings of other Buddhist traditions, or other faiths will help us develop connections and relationships with others whose goal is human flourishing and the alleviation of suffering. When we have committed to a tradition we learn all we can, we practice diligently and become a positive example to others.

Sixth Realization:

In the Mahayana tradition the bodhisattva-in-training practices an encompassing compassion that is offered equally to all. The well-being of others is of equal importance as that of their self. This may seem contradictory unless one recalls that the Buddha made it clear that without caring for ourselves we would not be able to extend that care and compassion to others. It is through the practice of “generosity of the spirit” that practitioners develop this skill, the ability to give of ones self in a variety of ways – material goods, wealth, time, skills.

Hunger, poverty, and disease can block or slow the realization of the dharma so material generosity is the initial step. The sutra says, “Do give gifts! For poverty is a painful thing. One is unable, when poor, to accomplish one’s own welfare, much less that of others.” (Large Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, Edward Conze translator) Material gifts includes: food, drink, clothing, shelter, land; all of these are needed to sustain life.

INTENT is a critical aspect of generosity. The intent/attitude of the giver, the intent/spirit of the gift are essential, and the knowledge that the giving will need to end must be taken into account in any situation. The donor should be prompted by the need while being mindful of the encompassing effect their generosity may have. They should not be influenced by the possible rewards, material or otherwise that may come . . . this is selflessness. Any hope/expectation/self congratulation diminishes the act and demonstrates the immaturity of the giver’s practice.

Realization of Action:

Each stanza of the Eight Realizations are calls to action.

#1 – Realize the impermanence of the self.

#2 – Realize that craving is the root cause of suffering.

#3 – Recognize our own cravings and realize their alleviation.

#4 – Practice, practice, practice.

#5 – Engage in life-long learning.

#6 – Refine generosity of spirit and action.

Sokei-An and Realizing Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Looking through the Dewey Decimal 294.93s in library catalog I cam across a book titled “Cat’s Yawn”. Finding it listed under Zen I was intrigued by the title and had it brought out from the stacks where all the old books are shelved. The cover, with the line drawing of a yawning cat made me smile and what I found inside opened my bodymind to a Zen Legacy Master I’d never heard of but was very happy to discover. Sokei-An Soshin Taiko Choro Zenji (1882 – 1945) was the first Zen Master to make his home in the Western world. In 1916 he emigrated to the U.S. under the direction of his teacher to bring Zen to the West. He founded the First Zen Institute of America which is still active today. Sokei-An died in 1945 leaving behind a legacy of Buddhist thought that mirrors what many Buddhist teachers today, myself included, think of as contemporary to our culture, context and time. Sokei-An was way ahead of us.

In 1940 the First Zen Institute began publishing a newsletter . . . yeah, they had newsletters in the 40s . . . in which he offered Zen in a way he felt would open the bodyminds of Westerners to Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cat’s Yawn was first published in 1947 and is still being distributed today. After spending time reading and pondering Sokei-An’s words I came to the realization of their value now. In Volume 1, No. 1 of Cat’s Yawn, Sokei-An revealed his view of Zen as a religion and his intent in teaching it. It is titled: “The Man Who Is Not a Sky-Dweller”.

He begins by speaking about Chinese calligraphy’s three recognized styles of writing: rigid, less rigid and flowing style, then moves to three styles of deportment (behavior and manners): formal, semi-formal and informal. These serve to describe Sokei-An’s view of religious practices.

He goes on to say, “In religion also there are three styles: ritualistic sermons, preaching from the altar and discussion at the dinner-table when the priest is invited to a lay-house. In addition there is religious discussion among the monks in their own cells, when this is permitted. I am weary of talking about Buddhism in a formal attitude, as I perform the ritual under the candle lights, and burn incense in air vibrant with the sound of the gong. Since a man is a Buddha it is majestic and beautiful to discourse upon religion in a rigid, formal attitude. But since a man is also merely a man, and nothing more, he prefers to talk about his own faith in a less formal or informal attitude, or in no attitude at all.

I wish to talk about my faith in a very disheveled attitude, just as a cat vomits the breath from its mouth in yawning. In this western world Buddhism has been studied for about two hundred years, so I understand. First it was investigated by Englishmen in Ceylon in order to gain control over the natives. In the second period this religion was studied by Christians whose purpose was to disparage it in the Orient. In the third period it was studied as an odd Oriental philosophy, and in the present day, in what is its fourth period, western people are attempting to discover whether there is any element of truth in Buddhism. But in my opinion they have failed. They are merely talking about what Buddhism is; but this “What is Buddhism?” is a great question!

I was initiated into Buddhism when I was still a boy. My age is now three score years. It was only yesterday that I came to understand what Buddhism is. Let me speak, lying on the floor with my yawning cat at my side, about the Buddhism which is my very self.”

These words have given me much to think about. Sokei-An’s three styles of religious practice are parallel to my own view of the Three Refuges. The Buddha offers teachings from the altar (or cushion), the Dharma offers the intentional rituals that guide practitioners; the discussion at the dinner-table is the sangha . . . each with its own value depending on the audience and the situation. At times these practices swirl together, seeming dualities coming together as a holistic experience. When I preach from the altar it is to communicate the dharma as I comprehend it from the Buddha’s sermons presented in a ritualistic way through the Pali Nikayas and other Buddhist scriptures. Talking one-on-one with family, friends and sangha members tends to take on the flavor of a casual dinner conversation. Discussions between myself and my dharma brother, David Sensei, for example, definitely have the character of all three . . . preaching, ritual, and casual.

Sokei-An writes of being weary of the formal attitude, an attitude I feel certain was demanded of him during his years in a Japanese monastery. Coming to the West must have felt liberating in some sense to him, freeing him from those expectations. His writing shows a sense of opening up and allowing the man who is a Buddhist to be more informal yet firm in his faith.

I believe we in the West are still in, and are likely to remain in Sokei-An’s described fourth period for some time trying to decide if there are elements of truth in Buddhism. We are trying to decide if the rituals are necessary. We are trying to decide if we want to be Buddhists in America acting like Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan, or American Buddhists letting a Western way of practice evolve naturally out of the teachings of the Buddha, and the experiences of cultures before us. The proliferation of Buddhist traditions and platforms in the West offer choices of elements leaving it up to each of us to experience them as truths in our own lives. During his own time he viewed that search for truth as a failed endeavor. Still he recognized that some people were talking about what Buddhism “is” and he thought that the question “What is Buddhism” was a good start.

Sokei-An died in 1945 and since then that question, “What is Buddhism?” can be viewed as the core of the Western approach. Most of us weren’t raised in Buddhist culture so that needs to be the initial question. In nearly six decades of living it has been only in the last eighteen years have I been asking that question and striving through practice, study and experience to discover the answer that uniquely applies to me.

Each of us who currently practice or are exploring the possibilities of Buddhist practice are hoping to find out what Buddhism is to us. In time, like Sokei-An, the realization that Buddhism is our very self can arise with the falling away of our delusions.