COURAGE: A TOOL OF TRANSITION

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Courage is not something many people credit themselves with. It is a disposition that most people find difficult to recognize in themselves. We each face challenges and the need to make hard decisions in our lives and doing those things takes courage, courage as a tool of transition from how things are to how you imagine they could be. You look at the definition of courage and it says that courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. Looking at courage more pragmatically will show that it is facing difficulty, danger, pain, etc. while setting aside fear. The fear is there, it is just not allowed to play a damaging role. Fear manifests in the form of procrastination, of avoidance, and of denial when we face challenges and difficult decisions. The arising of courage is also a transition to action. Courage arises and fear falls away as a result of challenges and decisions being faced and actions taken.

The ability to face fear, to respond with courage is a fundamental part of the Buddhist refinement of energy. Courage is not only needed to face some of the moment-to-moment aspects of daily life, but it is critical when faced with “spiritual weakness”. When, in practice we come to the “Plateau of Great Doubt” it is easy to quit, to let spiritual weakness have its way. Applying the energy of courage we can see past that doubt to a continuing path. We can employ courage to delve deeper into study, to find new commitment to practice, and to ask those questions we’ve may have hesitated to ask before. It takes courage to set-aside what we think we know in order to learn. Courage is a positive character trait. To risk our current status and stability in order to pursue a greater purpose or goal, to expose ourself self to risk, humiliation and even physical danger takes courage. Courage allows us to met challenges head-on and make appropriate decisions even when they are difficult ones.

The life and actions of Mahatma Ghandi offer one example, from many, of courage in the face of challenge. Ghandhi said about courage, “Who acts courageously and for what purpose? One could be courageous for the sake of a woman and, even for the sake of wealth. However, all this is like being courageous in order to jump into a well. Courage should be shown for the purpose of swimming across to the other shore. The supreme effort should be made for the sake of self-realization.” Ghandi’s courage in promoting and acting with non-violence changed the face of India and of the world. You might say, “I am no Ghandi.” That is true, but then Ghandi was no you either. As Ghandi applied his own unique expression of courage to the issues of his day and culture, so too can each of us apply a unique expression of courage to the challenges we face in our moment-to-moment experience.

Who acts courageously? Anyone who is faced with a challenge and strives to overcome it does so with courage. For what purpose? That depends entirely on the situation one is in. It ranges from soldiers deployed in Afghanistan facing hostile forces and an unforgiving terrain in order to protect themselves and others, to someone who has made the decision to enact real positive changes to how they are. We can also employ courage for reasons of self-regard and self-aggrandizement, for selfish pursuits. This can be a waste of a powerful tool for engaging in positive thoughts and actions. Courage is an act of energy and of intent that is better performed when the outcome of a situation will add to human flourishing of both the practitioner and the world around us.

There are individuals in our society who perform jobs that automatically credit them with possessing courage: law enforcement, military (especially those in direct combat situations), and firemen are examples. These career paths involve the moment-to-moment possibilities of death or bodily injury while protecting the lives and property of others. To choose dangerous lines of work takes courage and then courage is further developed through training and practice. Such vocations involve spontaneous acts of bravery arising from a strengthened disposition and habit derived from continuous practice. Then there are courageous individuals who, in one particular moment they set aside regard for personal injury or death in order to save a life or defend another from being harmed. These are the ones we rightly call heroes.

Nyanaponika Thera

The ancient teachers of the Buddhist doctrine were well aware that courage is an essential feature of true faith. They therefore compared faith to a strong and courageous hero who plunges ahead into the turbulent waters of a stream to lead safely across the weaker people who timidly stop at the shore, or, excitedly and in vain, run up and down the bank engaged in useless arguments about the proper place to cross. This simile can be applied to the social as well as to the inner life. In the case of social life, the “weaker people” are those who are willing to follow and support a leader but who cannot make a start by themselves. In the case of the inner life, the “weaker people” are those qualities necessary for spiritual progress which are either undeveloped or isolated from their supplementary virtues.

Such a powerful tool as courage should be used to achieve positive objectives. Buddhist practice is not easy but when we recognize the value of the lessons of the Four Ennobling Truths, and the values of acting with compassion and altruism we come to realize that reaching the “other shore”, that by living the noble life of the Middle Path we will contribute positively to our lives and the lives of others.

It takes courage to engage in a meaningful Buddhist practice. It takes courage to ‘go first’. Too act with compassion when no one else is . . . to act with patience when no one else is . . . to offer respect and trust when no one else does . . . these are acts of courageous faith in our experience with the Way. An Engaged Buddhist goes first, we openly offer respect and trust, and approach the commitments of others with the ideal of pluralism. It takes courage to set aside the fear that respect may not be returned, that trust may be broken and abused, or that our own commitments might be attacked or ridiculed. We know that what we do matters and by acting and thinking positively we will have an encompassing and corrective effect . . . the causal nature of Universe offers us proof through our own experiences. Courage is a Tool of Transition for a practicing Buddhist.

Developing an rigorously honest awareness of how we really are and how the world around us really is takes courage. It isn’t easy to be honest about our negative dispositions and habits, nor is it easy to change them. These are the first challenges anyone faces in their Buddhist practice. Negative dispositions like fear, hatred, anger, ignorance and others may have been part of one’s modality for so long that they are comfortable ways of being. We may even have realized that they aren’t “good” ways of being but we haven’t had the courage to face the difficulty of changing them. In the face of inevitable mistakes it takes courage to really practice generosity, situational ethics, and tolerance . . . to engage in deep meditative practice and to act with wisdom. In the face of fear it takes courage to apply rigorous self-honesty to ourselves, revealing weaknesses of character; then to have the courage to work toward a real and honest change to a stronger more compassionate character. This is the supreme effort that Ghandi referred to. It takes that kind of effort to achieve the self-realization that allows the whole of Buddhist practice to encompass how we are in relation to the causal Universe.

Learning to engage our courage comes with experience. Like any other aspect of practice we come to recognize the value of an action by the causal effects generated. With each application of courage to overcome thoughts of procrastination, avoidance or fear, and experiencing the positive outcomes both to ourselves and others, then wisdom will dictate that acting with courage is useful and productive.

I often say, “Is Buddhist practice easy? No. Is Buddhist practice worth it? Yes.” To put effort into a practice that isn’t easy, that may bring up negative emotions and memories, and that requires commitment also takes courage. Whenever we stand firm to our commitments to positive self-development, to compassion, to human flourishing, and to the alleviation of suffering even when our experience shows us that others don’t understand it or accept it . . . we do so courageously.

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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.

Patience is a Virtue – Perfection of Acceptance

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

In the traditional teaching of the Six Refinements in Mahayana Buddhism there is the ideal of tolerance, sometimes translated as acceptance, and in the Edward Conze translation of the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines text the ideal is named patience. “Maxima omnium virtutum est patientia”, or “Patience is the greatest of all virtues,” first appeared in an ancient Latin. In 1377, the poet William Langland wrote the phrase as ‘patience is a virtue’ and it still resonates as an aphorism of wisdom today. In Western language means the ability and intent to wait without anger or expectation for something or someone, and this view has value in a Buddhist practice. Patience, for some, takes on a religious dimension when one is told to be patient while waiting on deliverance, ascension or a land of virgins. On a path of transformative social engagement patience allows the thought and action of its Western meaning, as well as the bodymind practice of tolerance.

Chapter 30 of the Perfection of Wisdom text offers The Perfection of Patience as a practice necessary for all bodhisattva-in-training:

When he hears someone else speaking to him harshly and offensively

The wise bodhisattva (in-training) remains quite at ease and contented.

He thinks; ‘Who speaks? Who hears? How, to whom, by whom?’

The discerning is devoted to the foremost perfection of patience.

In these two verses can be experienced situations centering on the ideals of patience and tolerance.

Speech is the dominant way the human beings communicate their pleasure and displeasure in the midst of experiences. There will be instances when you are spoken to in less than respectful and gentle manner. Some may resort to yelling and screaming, calling you rude and offensive names, questioning your knowledge or truthfulness . . . each of which might result in the arising of negative thoughts like anger, fear or hatred, or might result in you reacting with violence or aversion, each of which are bad choices for a bodhisattva-in-training. These are opportunities to engage in the practice of patience, to practice making better choices. Before you respond, the bodhisattva-in-training whose goal is to thing and act wisely asks themselves questions.

Asking yourself the question, ‘Who speaks?’ offers an appropriate view of the speaker. Your experience may be that this is the person’s usual way of communicating with others, and as such they intend no harm even as they might cause it. Also the appropriate view that the state of mind they are in, and the situation they find themselves in causally condition how they speak must be considered.

‘Who hears?’ If the person hearing allows emotion to dictate their response then the experience will only get worse; while if the person hearing responds from a foundation of loving-kindness and acceptance the result has a greater opportunity to be one of harmony and contentment.

Engaging moments of discernment allows you to practice patience, to accept the reality of the situation without emotional context, and without preconceptions. This is practice that leads to a refinement of patience, and eventually to wise thought and action in the midst of subsequent experiences. The appropriate action and intent of waiting without anger or expectation before responding in a situation is the practice of patience, and of acceptance.

When I was in the military ‘Be Patient’ was an order that a soldier was trained to follow. Waiting was often the only option so one either succumbed to anxiety and anger, or found contentment and value in the wait. There is much truth in the military saying, ‘Hurry up . . . and wait’. You sometimes hurry to arrive at a destination only to find that the destination isn’t ready for you yet. Then how do you react? A bodhisattva-in-training accepts the reality of waiting and finds equanimity in the act of patience.

For bird watchers, nature photographers, and kindergarten teachers patience is a necessity. These are vocations where patience is part of the job description: watchers have to watch, photographers want certain light and particular subjects, and kindergarten teachers guide the development of active bodyminds. There is no way to hurry the outcome so the ability to wait is an appropriate part of their livelihood.

In his book “Born in Tibet”, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche relates a parable about patience, told to him by one of his venerated teachers, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Parable of the White Hat (my title)

Once there was a great teacher called Patrul Rinpoche. He did not belong to any monastery, but traveled everywhere about the country, without any attendants or baggage. One day he went to visit a certain hermit who had been living alone in a hut for many years: In fact he had become quite famous and many people came to see him there. Some came for advice and some to test how advanced he was in spiritual knowledge. Paltrul Rinpoche entered the hut unknown and unannounced.

“Where have you come from,’ said the hermit, ‘and where are you going?”

“I came from behind my back and am going in the direction I am facing.”

The hermit was taken aback, but he asked, “Where were you born?”

“On earth” was the reply.

“Which school do you follow?”

“The Buddha.”

The hermit was now feeling rather put out, and seeing that his visitor was wearing a white lambskin hat, he asked him, “If you are a monk, why are you wearing that hat?”

“Now I see your sort”, said Paltrul Rinpoche. “Look here. If I wear a red hat, the Gelukpas will be looking down their noses, and if I wear a yellow one, the others will at me. So I have a white one; it saves trouble.” He was referring jocularly to the fact that the Geluk order of monks wear a yellow what and all the remaining orders a red one. This was a little joke about intermonastic rivalries!

The hermit did not understand what he was saying, so Paltrul Rinpoche began asking him why on earth he had come to live in such a remote and wild part of the country. He knew the answer to that one, and explained that he had been there for twenty years meditating. “At the moment”, he said, “I am meditating on the perfection of patience.”

“That’s a good one”, said his visitor, and leaned forward as if confiding something to him. “A couple of frauds like us could never manage anything like that.”

The hermit rose from his seat — “You’re the liar,” he said. “What made you come here? Why couldn’t you leave a poor hermit like me to practice meditation in peace?”

“And now,” said Paltrul Rinpoche, “where is your perfection of patience?”

Patrul Rinpoche is skillfully guiding the hermit to recognize his own pomposity and pride so he could then re-realize the value of the ideal of patience he thought he was practicing. Much like the wounded man in the Parable of the Arrow who demanded the unknown before dealing with known, the hermit was attached to what he didn’t know and this hindered what he had the opportunity to learn. Patience allows . . . deep listening. Deep listening isn’t possible without the level of intent that patience allows.

Patience is not inaction, it is part of contemplating action. At the core of patience is equanimity and the acquiring of an appropriate view of a situation. Time is a precious commodity, each moment has value, so we don’t choose to ‘spend time waiting’; instead waiting is an opportunity to spend time being how we are. It takes showing yourself some patience during your early steps on the Noble Path. It takes time and energy to recognize the value of the Eightfold Path, and to realize the practices of appropriate intent, view, speech, action, livelihood, effort, meditation, concentration as part of HOW one is. Patience allows . . . the Noble Path.

Impatience is the action of a monkey-mind, a mind that is so undisciplined that it can’t be in-the-moment. It causes the arising of a bodymind that is focused on some nebulous, unknowable future instead of being mindful of the present in each moment. Impatience is marked by anxiety (am I in the right line?), anger (I don’t have time for this), envy (I should be first), ego (I shouldn’t have to wait), and other negative dispositions. Patience is the action of owl-mind — if owls are as wise as they say :), a mind disciplined to recognize the opportunities that each unique moment can bring. It causes the arising of a bodymind that is focused on the moment, able to realize those opportunities and engage them in a positive way.