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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Art of Renewing Vows

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a tendency for people to misunderstand the purpose and value of the vows taken when one first accepts the Noble Path, and on through lay and monastic Buddhist practice. This fundamental misunderstanding likely arises as the word and concept of promise is given as a synonym for vow. The ideal of promise carries the heavy emotional weight of ‘a promise cannot be broken’, and ‘a promise is forever’, giving promise an aura of permanence. This view is one of clinging that will lead to unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish when some causal factor arises that necessitates the promise being broken. Such situations lead to anger or guilt depending on which side of the promise a person is on. Often, promises broken lead to an abandonment of the target of that promise. Vows are meant to renewed whenever the need arises.

In Japanese art there is a practice known as kin-tsugi, “golden joinery”. Ander Monson, in his book ‘Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found In Libraries’ is this note found in a returned library book – Kin-tsugi is the art . . . in which a broken bowl is fixed and seamed with glow, cracks to the forefront, filled in by gold, rendering the repaired thing more remarkable, honoring its shatter. The result is neither broken nor unbroken, but both at once, shadow, object, corona around an eclipsed sun. Rather than discard a broken item of beauty and usefulness the Japanese artisan sees the object with a different intent. There is an emptiness to viewed in the shattered pieces, neither broken nor unbroken. There is a form to be viewed in the shattered pieces, both at once. A vow is both emptiness and form. Emptiness of potential and the form of thought and action.

A vow taken in Buddhism should be viewed as a commitment; a commitment to being willing to return to the intent of the vow as many times as needed without recrimination or guilt. Each return to a vow strengthens it with the gold of intent, the silver of mindfulness, and the copper of compassion.

Like the kin-tsugi artisan honors shatter, so can the practitioner honor themselves and their vows. Rather than deny and hide the ‘cracks’ . . . view them clearly and seam them with better intentions, with stronger practice, make them more remarkable by honoring them.