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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CATEGORIZE THE MIND

 

Reading Carla Hayden’s fascinating book, “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures” I came across some information about how Thomas Jefferson categorized his library and was struck by the similarity to how a Buddhist practitioner might categorize the mind. She wrote, “Jefferson adapted his cataloging scheme from Sir Francis Bacon’s classification system that started with three main categories: Memory, Reason, and Imagination . . .” Later this system was changed to History, Philosophy and Fine Arts but the original system is reminiscent of the activities of the mind.

Memory is the history of our experiences, some that were built on truth while others are built on delusion. Memories are potent forces in your conscious and unconscious mind, forces that we can harness to improve how you see yourself and the world around you, or forces that can hamper your becoming how you imagine you can be.

Episodic memory arranges the separate sensory inputs the brain receives during an experience so that the incident later replays like a video in the mind. There must always be the acceptance that the video in the mind is not always an accurate one as it is causally conditioned by context and time. Semantic memory allows the recall of general information that can be engaged when needed. Repeated engagement of information that is experienced to have value in dealing with situations is what transforms to wisdom in a mature Buddhist practice. Emotional memory arises as the intense personal memories that can cause unwholesome reactions to phenomena without deep mindfulness of the danger of allowing the emotional context to dominate the mind.

Reason is the mind transforming knowledge and experience into worldview and into how you interact with the world around you. For a Buddhist reason arises from the dharma. The Three Refuges are the first step on the path to that reason. The Buddha, the teacher, the example of what a human being can do to transform themselves into beings capable of bringing compassion and liberation into existence. The Dharma, the Four Ennobling Truths that guide you on the path of appropriate view, intent, speech, action, livelihood, mindfulness, effort and concentration; these are the first guides to reason. Wholesome intent arises from reason that fully realizes the power of ceasing to do harm, doing only good, and doing good for others, the Pure Precepts; the power to transform the mind into one where the unwholesome cannot root, where the unwholesome growing there withers and falls away, where the unwholesome becomes only a memory.

Imagination is the mind constructing possibilities. The Sangha is a reservoir of like-minded individuals who imagine as you do. Imagination is the mind realizing the potential of human existence to not only walking the noble path of morality, generosity and acceptance but to achieving a mind of compassion, loving-kindness and finally of liberation. The appropriate view that you can be a better human being. Not a better human being than the person next to you. Imagination can open the heart and mind to the better human being you can be in the moment following the present moment.

The dharma is the realities of life. The ideals of the dharma are not only found in the words of the Buddha, the words of the many legacy teachers that followed him, or in the words of the dharma teachers from the many Buddhist traditions. It is also found in the wisdom of all those who came before you, and those among you right now. Listen deeply and allow a mind of memory, reason and imagination to flourish.

I bow with respect,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, Carla Hayden, Chronicle Books, 2017, ISBN  1452145407

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buddhists Wear Clothes

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

There is a long running post titled “Buddhists Eat Meat” on this site. It has been read by hundreds and commented on by some. The comments are generally directed toward defending the commenter’s point of view and lots of talk is about compassion, specifically compassion for animals. The need to defend is not helpful; the talk about compassion is. In fact the comments present cogent defenses of a variety of views on the subject. There are also moments of critically judging the views, knowledge and decisions of others.

Two statements are made often, seemingly with the intent to shame an omnivorous Buddhist. One is that in this contemporary society it is easier to be a vegan or vegetarian because there are more choices and access to information. The other that animals suffer greatly on factory farms with the subtext being that one who is omnivorous is less compassionate. Neither is a ‘truth’ in all situations.

The intent of the lesson “Buddhists Eat Meat” was not so readers would question the choices of other Buddhists. It was offered so that readers would question their own practice, their own choices, and their own reactions to difficult subjects. There is a need to engage rigorous self-honesty rather than engage in judging the views and actions of others.

There are other aspects of human existence that require the same level of scrutiny given to dietary choices. Choosing what clothes to buy and wear for example. Others include what car to drive and how much to drive it, limiting carbon footprint, and what livelihood to engage in. Every choice made has cause and effect, wholesome and unwholesome. Every Buddhist practitioner must apply rigorous self-honesty in order to make pragmatic choices.

BUDDHISTS WEAR CLOTHES

How aware are you of the clothes you wear? From the underwear to the hat there are choices to be made. Ask yourself these questions.

Where were my clothes manufactured?

How were the raw materials sourced?

Who are the people and other sentient beings involved in the manufacturing, delivery and selling process?

What are the conditions those people live and work in?

What are they being paid?

What impact does the purchasing of your clothes have on the suffering of others?

How much energy, effort and awareness do you apply to your choice of clothes?

How compassionate is your choice?

My intent is not to single out omnivores or herbivores in the Buddhist community. The intent is to use the issue to offer that wholesome intentions and acts of compassion arise in different ways and that equanimity or balance should always be in favor of promoting compassion and human flourishing.

Every item we purchase and consume has its wholesome and unwholesome aspects. Many American companies out-source their manufacturing to places where wages can be well below subsistence level, where working conditions can be way below American standards, and child labor is legal. The items are sold by companies that engage in dubious personnel, pricing and social activities here in America. Not to focus on only the unwholesome, there are many American companies that strive to do what is right to the extent they are able. There are choices between low cost products manufactured under conditions of suffering and higher cost products that meet certain “standards” like a Made in the USA tag or are imported through organizations that promote fair trade.

A Buddhist practitioner has flaws and strengths like any other human being. The goal for a Buddhist is to have equanimity in practice; a balance that is always tipped more to the wholesome than the unwholesome. No matter the choice a practitioner must always honor life in some way.

FAIRNESS IS A DELUSION

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

The Universe is not wise, it is not compassionate, and it is certainly not fair. The Universe only acts from the causal conditions that occur within it. You only have to view the Universe through a lens that strips away delusion and personal perceptions to recognize these truths. This not only leads to the realization that bad things happen to good people, but that good things happen to bad people. You can be the best Buddhist you can possibly be and you will still encounter moments of suffering in life the Awakened One fully realized in the Four Ennobling Truths. You can be the worst type of human being possible and still encounter moments of joy and wonder that doesn’t seem deserved. This too is an aspect of the first of the Four Ennobling Truths. Doesn’t hardly seem fair . . . does it?

Ryugen Fisher, the Venerable Shi Shen Long, over his lifetime (and this continues today with his students and their students) created a list of Life Lessons that arose from his own experiences, or the experiences of others. I often refer to the list for insight, inspiration and a dose of spiritual humor. Rule #11, The Rule of Expectations, offers a view of fairness: Expecting life to treat you “fairly” because you’re a good person is like expecting the bull NOT to charge at you because you’re a vegetarian. Like the bull the Universe doesn’t care WHAT you are, it responds only to HOW you are.

RYUGEN1

Not sure where this perception of a fair Universe arose but it is believed by many who’ve been acculturated to the notion that the world is supposed to be inherently fair. You only have to look around to prove this belief is a delusion. Students struggle for high GPAs in high school and college only to find themselves without job opportunities. Some business people engage in illegal and immoral activities and become unimaginable wealthy. People live lives of exemplary compassion only to be struck down by genetic diseases. Innocent children are abused and abandoned. The Universe rolls along with human beings evolving within it, but we aren’t steering it. We have our role as part of its motive power but it also needs the bad weather, steep hills and earthquakes because they are just as important to the workings of the machine. So what if those things make our lives difficult, the machine is just the machine. This means from our perspective that the ideal of fairness is a delusion.

There is no compassion, wisdom or fairness inherent in the Universe. There is also no vengeance, ignorance, or bad intent inherent in the Universe. The perception of the Universe meting out cosmic justice or punishment is the result of a misunderstanding of the reality of HOW it works. What happens is causally conditioned by all the phenomena taking place each moment. There is no doubt you can take actions that lead to unwholesome consequences . . . which is why a Buddhist looks to the Three Pure Precepts (cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others) to guide us way from such actions. You don’t have any control over unwholesome decisions made by others, the arising of new diseases, or what the rest of the causal process of the Universe is doing. When bad things do happen you must avoid attaching to them the perception that it was because of something you did, and focus on practicing ways to make situations better. By realizing that the “fair Universe” concept is a delusion, and that you are not 100% of the karmic consequences, you will come to realize . . . and here comes the good part . . . that you have the ability to engage in wholesome transformation of your self and the global society you are interconnected with, and interdependent on.

You are not 100% of the karmic consequences . . . still, what you do matters. Life’s circumstances can sneak up on you. When you develop an awareness of the conditions under which difficulties arise, and that chances are there was no intent to directly harm you, though is may feel so, you become better prepared to accept them and take appropriate actions. Your actions do play a significant role in future experiences but your’s are a part of them, not the whole of them. Not only what you do matters, but what you control over what you do.

You are part of a causal web and the rest of the Universe is too. The concept of “personal karma”, while it has its validity, is an ideal not encompassing enough to recognize the broader reality of karmic influence. Causality, what makes karma a reality, is how the Universe reveals its neutrality. The Universe doesn’t add a view, an intent, an action, or any effort to make things happen. You are not a target of it. It is egoistic for you to believe things happen TO us, or that they happen FOR us. They happen as a result of nonlinear consequences of causality and you just happen to have a role in a particular experience.

The realization that you are part, but not the whole of the karmic web is actually empowering. It is why you engage in becoming the best possible you, the best possible example of a wise and compassionate human being. The “small” role as one thread interdependent on the threads of others whose intent and actions mesh with your own is how incremental wholesome transformations happen. The web becomes larger and the probability of snaring positive consequences increases exponentially. Things may not happen TO us, or FOR us, but they do happen BECAUSE of us. We are each unique expressions of the Universe and our actions within it have unique consequences.

With the knowledge that you play a role, no matter how small, comes the responsibility for your actions. What you do matters . . . negative, positive or neutral . . . how you act, how you respond is what makes personal practice so important. It is through intent and action that a sense of fairness will arise. Fairness arises as a result of awareness, compassion, generosity and acceptance.

You occupy a part of the karmic web and so have a responsibility to the strand you control. You must develop both mindfulness and awareness so you can overlay the “personal” with the “global” karma and find ways to improve both. You accept that there will be situations that you can, and can’t control. You learn to take wise actions to be the cause and effect of positive transformation whenever, and where ever the causal Universe offers you the opportunity.