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.


by Wayne Ren-Cheng

See Right View: Individuality Paradox Part One

The Buddha awakened to unnatural craving being at the core of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish experienced by human beings. That was true then and it is true now. In the contemporary Western culture there is an aspect of societal interaction that is a major causal factor for feelings of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish. Human beings crave associations based on group, interest and worldview, etc. Current and possible interactions and interconnections are decided upon based on those associations. This way of determining interconnections can, and often does, result in the arising of violence, hatred, envy and mistrust. Associations are natural expressions of individuality, and are causal factors in how a person is, but they should not be the determining factors in how a person connects and responds to the others.

In the sutras, legacy texts or teachings there are no teachings that delve into the propensity for human beings to crave an individual identity tied into a self, or societally defined group of people. The Buddha found it necessary to separate his disciples by gender, and after his death there is historical evidence that Buddhists sects divided themselves into traditions on the grounds of belief, of ritual, and of practice. Yet, this is never addressed as directly opposing the Buddhist doctrines of interdependence and interconnectivity. Sounds paradoxical but in Buddhist philosophy there are many paradoxes that one must find their Way to an understanding and acceptance of.

People crave being the individual . . . the whole unique expression of the universe ideal, but that craving is also connected to being an individual within a group of like-minded and/or physically similar individuals. People crave the company of others that they view have the same qualities that they have, or think they have. Identifying too strongly with any social group leads to an Us-vs-Them mentality. The recognition that they aren’t like I view myself and my group as being, so they are wrong, bad, dangerous, immoral, illegal or alien leads to conflict. Since primitive man realized that there were primitive women the divisions began to arise. It likely started with gender within the species, but it expanded quickly to include all those emotions and concepts that the ego revels in . . . territory, sex, money, material possessions, intelligence, faith, race, political choices, etc. It only takes a modicum of mindfulness and awareness to realize the unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish this view has caused.

I have listened to Americans speak eloquently about the dangers and inequality of the caste system in India, or the cultural divisions in other countries; then in the next sentence proclaim their own ‘caste’ through their words or actions. Their proclamation might arises as one based on political affiliation, sexual preference, education, race . . . and the list is a long one.


In the Venn diagram above is a representation of the layers of association that many people surround their Buddha-element, the essence of ‘how you are’ with. While these are shown in a specific order, the order will be different for each individual dependent on which cultural division they deem most important. This way of defining ones’ self makes it extremely difficult to experience interconnection with all but those people who can pierce each layer. White, black, brown, yellow, red . . . ? Gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, asexual . . . ? Humanist, racist, nudist, revolutionist, pacifist . . . ? Vegan, omnivore, carnivore or vegetarian . . . ? Republican, Democrat, Independent, Green . . . ? Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Wiccan, Buddhist . . . ? High school, college, MBA, PhD, none . . . ? Geek, Millennial, intellectual, hippie . . . ? 10, 20, 30, 40 . . . ? Cancer survivor, alcoholic, ADHD, gym member . . . ? Each of the categories define an aspect of what, who, when, why and where a person is. At the center will be found ‘how you are’ . . . if that center can be reached.

There is a Venn diagram that illustrates what Professor Thomas P. Kasulis, in his book “Intimacy and Integrity,” termed an intimate relationship (see Right View: Individuality Paradox Part One). It is two circles that overlap depicting the shared experiences and connections of two people. If the initial layer can’t be breached due to a difference than an intimate relationship of any level is impossible to achieve. Professor Kasulis also offers an illustration of an integral relationship. Two circles that instead of overlapping have a line depicting a temporary or sporadic connection that benefits both without leading to actual shared experiences. While the interdependent nature of a relationship can be achieved given this diagram, there will be little chance of any deeper relationship developing.


The above Venn diagram offers a different way of viewing layers of associations. Instead of layers they take on the look of a cluster of Intimate Venn diagrams within a circle, one that is indicative of influences rather than associations. Note that the categories all overlap and have varying degrees of interdependence. They are not separate aspects of an individual. They combine, each as causal factors that are interconnected and interdependent, to have an effect on how one is. It is the choices one makes interdependent on those factors, and others that determine how one interacts with themselves and the world around them. In this illustration the core of ‘how you are’ is at the center leaving the possibility of intimate and integral relationships wide open. There is space to interconnect without the preconceptions and judgments that come with social categories.

That race, sexual orientation, worldview, diet, politics, health issues, age, social group, education, religion, and other categories are factors in causal conditioning, they shouldn’t be used to limit interconnection. They must be factors in developing and strengthening encompassing interconnections. Race needn’t make one a racist and politics needn’t make one a staunch partisan. Education needn’t make one judgmental and religion needn’t make one a fundamentalist. How one chooses to be must be based in knowledge and wisdom, not in an attachment to any category.

Causal conditioning does arise as a result of the associations one accepts. Some, like race and sexual orientation are genetic factors that come with the individual; others, like politics and religion are choices. Whether genetic or choice they shouldn’t become dispositions or habits that inhibit positive personal transformation. These associations are interconnected and interdependent parts of how you are and of how you choose to be. In the case of genetic factors, while they are permanent in that you can’t alter them, they don’t have to dictate how you interact with world. Some people let race for example hinder their interactions with people of other races . . . becoming the disposition of racism. That is a choice that is causally conditioned and can re-conditioned with a more appropriate view of the similarities between all human beings. Choices can also hinder interactions when they are allowed to dictate thought and action. Whether one is chooses to be a vegetarian, a carnivore, or an omnivore doesn’t make them better or worse than the other. None of these associations should limit connections between people.


The above diagram illustrates the near impossibility of achieving deep interconnections when presented with a bodymind dominated by a Layered Associations. As an example, someone whose religion and education are the same can penetrate those layers, but connection ceases at social group; one may be a Millenial, the other a Mason. There is little chance that either will experience how the other person really is. ‘How you are’ is too deeply protected the layers of ego, so an intimate relationship is difficult to achieve and to maintain.


This diagram illustrates an individual whose sense of ‘how you are’ is the entirety of their being. Note the circles depicting others are unlabeled. It isn’t the label that is important, it is how those individuals interact with others. There can be different levels of intimate relationships that respect the associations while cherishing the similarities.

Associations must not become mechanisms of judgement. I am Republican . . . you are not. I am a geek . . . you are not. I am a particular Buddhist tradition . . . you are not. This is dualistic thinking. Judging others based on these divisions is dualistic action.

It must be accepted that no one will be just like us . . . we are each unique expressions of the universe. Each individual is the product of different experiences, different associations, and different external factors. It must equally be accepted that everyone is a human being who encounters suffering and joy, gain and loss, fear and courage, all the ups and downs of existence . . . we are not unique in the universe. Accepting this reality will lead to thoughts of enlightenment, awakened moments when interconnection and interdependence are fully realized and become a deep part of how we are. It will cause the arising of the knowledge that what we do matters on an encompassing scale, so we must engage in thoughts and actions that promote positive individual and societal transformation. It is a matter of choice.




There is a paradox in the human bodymind that causes suffering, discontent and anguish. There is a craving for individuality, to stand out from all other human beings, to be unique. There is also the need, admitted to or not, to be part of a group, to have a circle of other human beings to be accepted by and who hold similar worldviews. Therein is the paradox of individuality.

It is a truth that you are each unique expressions of the universe; and it is equally a truth that you are each not unique in the universe. Realizing this appropriate view of human existence by coming to terms with this individuality paradox will open up your bodymind to the knowledge that it isn’t what, who, when, why, or what you are is not as important as how you are. How you are in relation to other human beings is what determines how effective a social self you can be. How you view and act upon relationships is key.

Relationships begin as the result of a variety of stimuli – family, love, respect, friendship, mutual goal, locality, hardship, need, want and . . . I’m certain you can think of others. Relationships thrive when those same stimuli are nurtured where appropriate, creatively re-described when needed, and accepted for what they are. Most often the questions concerning relationships arise from within those involving family and loved ones because these are the folks we likely have intimate relationships with, relationships in which loss and pain can arise when they are broken. Relationships with co-workers, acquaintances and people outside your circle tend to be integrity based relationships, relationships that are temporarily engaged in due to want or need.

Your circle is composed of beings, beings because pets and service animals are included, with whom you have a deep sense of sharing your life. This type of relationship is an intimate one, one of experiences shared, situations endured. Intimacy involves a sharing composed of many connections, connections that are missed when there is a loss of personal contact. In his book, “Intimacy and Integrity”, Professor Thomas Kasulis defines the concepts of intimate and integral relationships across many spectrums of human relationships.

Intimate relationships develop as the result of shared experiences, while integral relationships arise with individuals who supply wants or needs, but whose relationships ends with the immediate transaction. Intimate relationships arise between parent and child, close friends, domestic partners and in the bond that can develop between students and teachers. These are the bonds that can have dramatic effects on how one views themselves and the world around them. Integral relationships develop with friends who part ways as a result of time or distance and consistently arise in the connection between employer and employee. The relationship dynamic that can define whether it is one based in intimacy or integrity is the sharing without expectation.


To visualize an intimate relationship start with two circles. One is you and your experiences; the other is a close friend or family member and their experiences. Bring them together and overlap them. The section that overlaps is experiences shared in each moment (a+b) — talking about problems and successes, seeing the same movie or reading the same book, taking vacations together, it is where your lives intersect in intimate ways. Pull the two circles apart and the sharing of experiences is lost to both; the memories remain but the state of active involvement is gone. In an intimate relationship this loss of active involvement can cause suffering and unsatisfactoriness, depression and sadness. You lose what has become part of yourself, a sharing of experience and building of memories.

Intimate relationships are not always the result of positive interactions. Human beings look for connection, even if that connection is a negative one it can be viewed as ‘better than nothing’ for someone craving closeness. The Stockholm Syndrome experienced by hostages is one example, a co-dependent abusive one example. Response to captivity can change from rebellion and fear to acceptance and understanding, albeit a deluded understanding as the relationships become more intimate. Hostage totally dependent on their captors for survival; the captors dependent on the hostages as tools needed to accomplish their goals. There are documented examples of hostages that feel a loss after being rescued or released. The loss of active involvement causes the arising of suffering and discontent. A co-dependent abusive relationship is similar in the fact that one, or both individuals remain over fear of losing connection.


Integrity based relationships can also be illustrated with two circles; ‘a’ and ‘d’. Instead of an overlap there is a temporary line between them that represents an interaction. A relationship built on integrity is based solely on an individual-to-individual connection and it is often a singular interaction meant to benefit both. Think about the cashier at your local grocery store. You connect with them when you need food, they take your money, and when you leave neither person loses anything; these are shared moments, not shared experiences. Once the interaction is completed the line fades without a feeling of loss. The relationship with the cashier is renewed when you return to the store but it tends to toward the same dynamics each time.

Interaction complete the relationship dissolves. Some integral relationships repeat frequently; dentist, doctor, librarian, bus driver. Others may have little chance of repeating; person you meet on vacation, classmate, police officer. Individuals ‘a’ and ‘d’ have the potential of reconnecting. There is the chance of a repeated encounter that could lead to a more meaningful relationship, possibly an intimate one. Equally an intimate relationship can transform to an integral as interactions change, though residue of the intimate connection is likely to persist. Divorced parents fit this model.

Intimate and integral relationships aren’t limited only to person-to-person connections. We have links with possessions, ideas and delusions that can seem just as strong and just as important. In “Intimacy and Integrity”, Professor Kasulis gives an example of just such a individual-to-possession relationship. “Someone steals your wallet. Both the money and the treasured family pictures – negatives lost long ago – are gone. The money belonged to you; it was your money. But the pictures belonged with you not to you. In taking the photos, the thief stole part of your self, not merely something external like the money over which you held temporary title.” Cash is the integral relationship; the photos, the intimate.

We view these two aspects of relationships separately as a skillful way to understand them. In practice though there is no dualism when it comes to how we act as Buddhists whether it is an intimate or integral relationship . . . they are all relationships that require the same level of mindfulness, compassion and ethical behavior.

There is another ideal that affects how a relationship begins and develops. Along with the desire to be an individual, is the desire to be part of a group. These social divisions can weaken or strengthen relationships dependent on how the individual manifests them in their bodymind. Is your relationship circle one that excludes, or includes others?

More to come in PART TWO.