Mind Full of Mindfulness

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

I’ve encountered people new to, or just curious about Buddhism who ask, “To be mindful, what is my mind supposed to be full of?” This is a clear indication of a prevalent Western mind-set. In the West so much of how a person sees themselves as is tied up in what they know . . . or, in some cases what they think they know. Look at the popular games show like Jeopardy that ties winning with what information a person holds in their memory, and how broad a range of subjects they have answers for. They exhibit a mind full of encompassing information. The persons who ask the question are seeing the word they are saying . . . mindful . . . as mind full. A mind full of what? A legitimate question considering the culture and time of the person asking.

The answer I give tends to cause confusion. “Actually your mind should be mostly empty.”

But how can an empty mind be mindful?”

And the reply is, “You’ve got it.”

In order for you to mindful you can’t let a whirlwind of thoughts and information dominate your head. The whistling in your ears and the swirling of letters and numbers in front of your eyes will blind you to whatever is going on in each moment. To be mindful you’ve got to be ‘mind mostly empty’. That isn’t to say a mind without thought because that isn’t possible. You are a human, a biological machine with a brain whose main function is to think and it is really difficult to make that thinking slow down . . . much less stop. And, you don’t want it to stop. That should only happen when you are dead. You want it to make better choices as to what to think about so that meaningless thoughts don’t arise . . . so that there is more space, some emptiness is there.

Think about the computer, pad or phone you’re sitting at right now. You don’t want it’s active memory full do you? You know that if that is full its “brain” won’t be able to process the stuff you want it to do in that moment. It’ll lag, slow down and maybe even crash. Its processor will be so busy you might get kicked out of Second Life and miss that moment. You only want to be running programs that have value in that moment.

The brain is biological computer, a fantastic one no doubt, but it has limitations. A mind too full doesn’t allow space for processing the moment, and for responding to the moment. It is more likely to react spontaneously based on past situations, rather than in a way that will encompass the unique moment you find yourself in that present moment. It’ll choose to rely on what was corrective for an old situation. It will miss the significance of the present moment.

There are three aspects of mindfulness that will lead you to an appropriate state of being. States of being that will allow you to be in the moment, and respond more appropriately in each moment.

Mindfulness of Bodymind is the key to the realization of mindfulness as a moment-to-moment mental state. It is mindfulness that begins with a meditation practice. Meditation leads you to uncovering how you are and how you want to be. Mindfulness of habits and dispositions, knowledge and ignorance will open avenues of improvement that will make you a more effective social self. You first come to recognize how your bodymind reacts to situation whether they are stressful, joyful, fearful or just ordinary. You learn to know through your breathing and posture whether anger or calm, fear or courage are arising in your bodymind. The breath is an honest indication of how the bodymind responds to situations and experiences. Heavy breathing may be the result of exertion passing the limits of the body or of the arising of anxiety or fear. Relaxed posture may indicate contentment or laziness; arms crossed over chest might indicate fear or mistrust. Communication, speaking and body language is directly influenced by how mindful we are of bodymind. This allows you to better choose an appropriate way to think and act.

Recognizing how the bodymind is (Mindfulness of Bodymind) you engage in Mindfulness of Practice to take the actions needed to realize positive change. To reach the goal of how we imagine ourselves and world could be takes action and that is what is expected in an engaged Buddhist practice. It empowers us with the truth that emotions are not feelings. Emotions like anger and joy we can find control over. Feelings like hot and cold you can learn to endure (to a point because a hot stove will still burn and dry ice will still do the same). You must be mindful that practice is a 24/7/365 commitment for lasting encompassing and corrective effects. Mindfulness of Practice is just as it sounds. Every moment is an opportunity for you to practice. You must be mindful of what can hinder your achievement and what practices will counter them – unnatural attachment/bodymind meditation, anger/compassion, laziness/posture and light, worry/breathing, doubt/study and ask. Making mistakes is also a factor in Mindfulness of Practice. They are opportunities to learn through experience. Practice is just that, you keep trying in order to become better.

The body and mind are meant to work as a holistic unit. Mindfulness of Bodymind develops mindfulness of how you are, Mindfulness of Practice is actions taken to make positive, lasting changes. Engaging in a regular committed meditation practice encompasses the bodymind and opens up the path to the corrective actions necessary to do, and be better. The calm and contentment the arises from understanding yourself is a powerful tool when practicing generosity, morals, tolerance and wisdom off the cushion.

The verification of the effectiveness of Mindfulness of Bodymind and Mindfulness of Practice can be experienced through engagement with Mindfulness of Karmic Causality. Awareness that everything you do matters, that what others do matters, and that what the Universe does matters leads logically to you maintaining mindfulness your actions, the only ones you can truly control. It is also crucial that you develop awareness that there are events, situations and experiences whose arising you can’t control and focus efforts on how you react to them, and in some cases how to subtract them from your life. You are just part of the causal process of the Universe. You learn that you can promote more positive occurrences through your own positive actions and you can choose to engage with those people and activities that seek to do the same. When, at the end of a sangha meeting I recite the sharing of merit: Showing our gratitude and generosity, practicing the way of awareness which gives rise to benefits without limit, we vow to share these benefits of our practice, service, and gifts with all beings. Let us be reminded that a life of engagement and compassion is supremely important. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to become aware of our connectedness to others, and not squander the gift of realizing the wisdom of engaging the Dharma, it is a call to be mindful of all actions taken. This is the most important consideration in engaging mindfulness.

In the beginning these states of mindfulness – Mindfulness of Bodymind, Practice and Karmic Causality – will seem to take up a lot of brain space. With the passage of time and with experience they become a natural part of how you think and act, spontaneous ways of being that arise from practice. Your mindfulness will encompass each moment and you’ll experience those moments as they are, not as the past or future might color them. Because the brain won’t be lagging with useless and meaningless thought you’ll experience the beauty and suffering of human existence more fully. How you are and how you choose to be will encompass your being, and you’ll become a corrective force in the causal Universe.


The Eightfold Path: Willingness and Experience

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

With the Four Ennobling Truths, Siddhartha set the groundwork for all Buddhists who would follow his teachings. In pragmatic Buddhism we use ennobling rather than the traditional translation of noble because like fertile ground the Truths are empty until used. Ennobling is an adjective, one that brings recognition that the Four Ennobling Truths are only furrows in a field. It isn’t until one is willing to plant the seeds, cultivate the ground, and experience what grows there is only emptiness.

Contemporary Buddhist scholars like Stephen Batchelor and David Kalupahana experience Siddhartha as presenting not a list of observations that if one believes their truth then that person can join the Buddhist club. Instead they experience the truths as a sequence of dependent origination or causality. The first Truth is, so the second is, the third is, the fourth is, and the fourth leads back to the first; and forms a causal loop. They are the truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.

Why do we think this is what the Buddha meant? By looking at each of the ennobling truths we can see the corresponding action it requires.

#1 Unsatisfactoriness exists for human beings.

You must become fully aware of all the types of suffering that plague mankind and the world he lives in. Only by fully knowing unsatisfactoriness can we recognize the causes. You must accept that all human beings will encounter moments of suffering.

#2 The cause of unsatisfactoriness is craving, unnatural attachments and dualistic thinking that neglect an understanding of dependent origination,

You must look within (rigorous self-honesty) and without for the causes. The realization that nothing arises from nothing is where we begin. Craving for permanence and fear of change, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Universe works, and an attachment to ego must be recognized as that cause.

#3 There is a path that leads to the cessation of craving and unnatural attachments of the mind, and thus there is a way to positively transform unsatisfactoriness.

The lessons of the Middle Path will lead us to the realization that suffering can be alleviated. You discover through experiential verification that the realities of the causal process of the Universe coupled with impermanence empower you to make the changes needed, to engage in positive transformation.

#4 This path is Eightfold.

In the Eightfold Path you find the dispositions of human beings that directly effect HOW you interact in an interconnected world. Like all Buddhist “lists” the Eightfold Path is not meant to stand alone but to be a dynamic and integral part of Buddhist practices, all which have an impact on HOW a Buddhist lives their life in relation to the causal Universe. The ideals of encompassing and corrective view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration when applied in conjunction with the Six Refinements become a “power tool” in the Buddhist toolbox.

The English Buddhist monk Novera said, “The four truths are not to be understood or known, they are injunctions in which we are directed to ACT!”

Wisdom, the sixth refinement is gradually developed as you practice generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and meditation, and acting with wisdom also helps us gradually develop those characteristics. For example the wise application of generosity takes more than just giving. You must learn to develop a clear and realistic view of the situation, what is needed as opposed to what is wanted. To start there will be a level of self-regard to your giving and that is a part of the gradual turning from that self-regard to selfless compassion. Your intent will undergo that change if you are mindful. The other aspects of the Eightfold Path – speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration – also have value in determining acts of generosity. Looking deeply into the Eightfold Path you’ll recognize the elements of the Six Refinements. View and intention are acts of wisdom. Speech, action and livelihood are acts of morals and ethics. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are acts of a meditative bodymind.

Like all Buddhist teachings meant to be useful and productive in the alleviation of suffering, their intent should lead us back to the ideals of the Four Ennobling Truths.



The Eightfold Path is the way to alleviation of suffering that has been part of Buddhist practice for a long, long time. Three of those pathways lead to ethical character and moral action: right speech, right action, right livelihood. Some skillful re-description reveals that something is missing.

Here is a jataka tale of the future Buddha. Find the lesson.

No Difference?: A Future Jataka Tale

Alex is angry. He applied for more than a dozen colleges and got accepted by none. Behind a desk his high school guidance counselor sits patiently and listens to the young man’s incredulous raving. The counselor reminds himself that this isn’t the first time a prospective college student held a fundamental misunderstanding of what a successful application process required.

Fourteen applications and not one acceptance. It isn’t fair.” Alex shoves forward a handful of papers crumpled in his fist. “I’ve got a great grade point average. I’ve played on the football and baseball team since I was a freshman. I’ve been active in student government. Why wasn’t I accepted into at least one? It just doesn’t make sense.”

The guidance counselor, Mr. Whitman listens.

My brother I couldn’t be more alike, we are twins after all. Wade got acceptance letters from ten of the eleven he applied to. It just isn’t fair. We both played sports, both have good grades, and both are in student government. I just don’t get it. Must’ve been that they didn’t liked my college application essay. You told me it was good.”

Mr. Whitman nods. “It was. I don’t think that was the issue. What do you think it might have been?”

Alex gets even more frustrated. He yanks a yellow folder from his backpack and flips it open. “I’ve checked my copies over and over for mistakes. Didn’t find any grammar, spelling or syntax errors. Answered all the questions fully. Looked over Wade’s but I didn’t see anything that should’ve made this much of a difference. Ten acceptance letters for him, zero for me.”

Mr. Whitman shakes his head. “No differences?”

Alex throws up his hands and exclaims, “Not that should’ve got me rejected.”

So, there were differences. Set aside the similarities between you and your brother. Focus on the differences.” Mr. Whitman sits back in his chair and waits.

Alex pulls what looks like a duplicate of his own set of application forms. He puts that set and the other set side-by-side on the desk. One is his, the other his brother’s. Page by page he flips through them. Coming to a particular page in each stack he stops. Leaning forward he reads them carefully. His comment when he looks up at Mr. Whitman is, “Really?”

What Alex sees is a page of questions about extracurricular and volunteer activities. The brothers participated in many of the same activities connected with the school; it is in the category of volunteer activities and interests outside of school that Wade’s application is much different. Wade had taken on two internships during junior and senior year. He’d volunteered on some weekends for organizations that helped the less fortunate such as a food bank and a nursing home. Alex gave Wade a hard time about not having much time for his friends, not much time to party. In school the brothers did engage in similar activities, it was when they were not at school that things were different.

Mr. Whitman nods and remember how many times in Alex’s sophomore and junior years he had highlighted the issue that Alex was just then coming to a full realization of.

The moral is: Right livelihood should be in equanimity with right life-lihood.

Livelihood as it is an aspect of the Eightfold Path is one of the ways, along with speech and action, to develop wholesome ethical character and engage in wholesome moral choices. Viewing high school as a metaphor for a job, then like a job it could reasonably be called a livelihood. With this view the college application process reveals that what a person does outside of work has equal value. To the traditional Buddhist philosophical ideal of appropriate livelihood the contemporary practitioner can add the ideal of life-lihood, what the practitioner does when they are not on the job. Live- and life-lihoods are both critical in developing wholesome ethical character and moral action.

Life-lihood is the time you aren’t working at your job or career. It is when you are engaging daily life with family and friends, pursuing a hobby, volunteering with an organization, or just relaxing. Life-lihood must also be appropriate.

Gaining an appropriate view of Life-lihood requires a practitioner to take a rigorously self-honest look at what activities they choose to pursue when not at work. Like how the extracurricular questions on a college acceptance application are answered result in a particular karmic consequence, so to does the answer to what a practitioner does when not at work have particular karmic consequences. This doesn’t mean that a life-lihood can’t be fun. Absence of fun is not a requisite for good karmic consequences. A life-lihood that promotes harmony, health and happiness (human flourishing) is a requisite for good karmic consequences.

What life-lihoods do you engage in? Now is the moment to engage in some rigorous self-honesty.

The Ideal Meets the Real: Buddhism and Reality

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Buddhist philosophy and practice is packed with high ideals. Generosity of spirit and ‘cease to do harm’; compassion is non-negotiable, mindfulness, serenity arising from meditation, Nirvana, bodhisattvas, co-dependent arising, selflessness and . . . it is a long list of noble ideals. Contemporary living provides moment-to-moment opportunities to put those ideals into practice. At each of those moments the ideal meets the real.

There are a host of reasons for recognizing a need for something more. For some they need to fill what they experience as an empty place in their being, emptiness that they want to give form. Others need to find a way to come to terms with the prospect of death that they may fear or welcome, and to contemplate what might be before or beyond life from birth to death. Illness, chronic or unexpected is known to precipitate the need for drastic changes in psycho-emotional health. There are the curious; some who come for the novelty of exotic cultures and stay for the ideals, other who come out of curiosity, don’t connect and go in search of a different path. This recognized need is given form in the first three verses of the Three Refuges Vow: I go for refuge to the Buddha, the teacher; I go for refuge to the Dhamma, the teaching; I go for refuge to the Sangha, the taught. One ‘goes’ in order to experience if the ideals offer what they are searching for. They continue to ‘go’ when value in the refuges is experienced.

There are a host of reasons for choosing to continue a Buddhist practice. For some it is the goal of Nirvana or Enlightenment for themselves, others pursue the Noble Path for purely selfless reasons. Someone with psychological issues might see a way out of depression, guilt or grief through meditation; those with physical issues a way to control pain and suffering through mindfulness meditation. There are the curious who seek purely knowledge, and the seeker who is curious what Buddhism has to offer. Some are attracted to what they see as a simpler existence, others to what they see as a strict spiritual discipline. Each of them see the ideals of Buddhist philosophy and practice as a path to their destination, choosing to put in the effort necessary to fully engage the Noble Path. Among these reasons some discover the value of choosing to commit to Buddhist philosophy and practice which are given form in the second set of verses: I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dhamma; I take refuge in the Sangha. They choose to ‘take’ the guidance and support offered by the Refuges and make it part of HOW they are.

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