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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reciting the Three Refuges as Intentional Practice

Engaging the Three Refuges

by Wayne Ren-Cheng for a talk at the Buddha Center, Second Life – 030317

Across Buddhist traditions the Three Refuges (P., tritratna) is the initial step for all on the Noble Path. In the Chinese Ch’an tradition reciting the Three Refuges (also known as the Three Treasures or Three Jewels of Buddhism) is how a person “becomes” a Buddhist, it is known as Taking Refuge (P., sarana). It is a recognition that at any time, when needed a Buddhist can return to, or find sanctuary in the Three Refuges. It is not an act of conversion. It is a choice. We can choose approach the Noble Path with the knowledge that Siddhartha was a human being like ourselves, one whose example we can follow. We can approach the Noble Path with the realization that the dharma is a dynamic reality. We can approach the Noble Path alongside others who have similar goals and are searching for similar experiences.

The precise meanings of each of jewels, their interconnectedness, and how to honor each differs between traditions, while the intent remains steadfast. The intent being that once on the Noble Path the practitioner can return to the ideals of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha whenever needed to reinforce and strengthen practice needed to deal with the realities of human existence.

In the Buddhavagga Sutra is found these verses about refuge:

They go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to park and tree shrines: people threatened with danger.

That’s not the secure refuge, not the supreme refuge, that’s not the refuge, having gone to which,

you gain release from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone to the Buddha, Dhamma, & Sangha for refuge, you see with right discernment the four noble truths —

stress,the cause of stress, the transcending of stress, & the noble eightfold path, the way to the stilling of stress:

that’s the secure refuge, that, the supreme refuge, that is the refuge, having gone to which, you gain release

from all suffering & stress.

Buddhavagga Sutra

In Engaged Dharma the Three Refuges are recited before any session, whether at home in front of a personal altar or with the sangha.

THE THREE REFUGES

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.

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dhamma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

I have taken refuge in the Buddha.
I have taken refuge in the Dhamma.
I have taken refuge in the Sangha.

SVA HA!

Sutta Pitaka, Khuddaka Nikaya, Saranagamana Sutta

The three repetitions follow the traditional Ch’an ritual of intent. The first recitation is to remind us that we made the choice to walk the Noble Path by going to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for shelter. The second, that we accept the Refuges as moment-to-moment ideals that must be engaged in the reality of the world we live in. The third, that we realize that refuge, serenity and equanimity can always be returned to. Once the recitation ceremony is completed then the intent of the Three Refuges becomes part of our consciousness, and with repetition the Three Refuges become firm in our unconscious mind and become a foundational cause of HOW we are. It is a simple act of intentional recitation, deep listening, and solemn reminder of a chosen path. It is a ritual done with the intent to transform how we are.

The Buddha – The Physical Body

At times in life we may become disillusioned or be assailed by doubt that one human being can have an appreciable effect on the unsatisfactoriness and suffering we recognize around, and within us. We can feel ourselves stepping back from our commitment.

Siddhartha Guatama, the historical Buddha lived and died as a human being. He encountered the same experiences as any other person of his place and time. He was simply a man who wanted to find a way to relieve unsatisfactoriness and suffering and committed himself to finding a way. He is the personal, human component in Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Siddhartha didn’t come to realize a path out of unsatisfactoriness and suffering by hiding out in a cave or sequestering himself in a monastery. He sat under a bodhi tree in full view of anyone walking by and meditated until he awakened with the realization of the Four Ennobling Truths. Then came Siddhartha’s moment of doubt . . . was this realization too much for others to understand? . . . do I have the skills necessary to get the message to others? . . . he ultimately decided that it would be selfish to keep this knowledge to himself because with the knowledge came the responsibility to tell others.

Each of us have moments of doubt. Can we do it . . . whatever it is? We can look to Siddhartha as our example, and go on to be an example to others. Then we take refuge in the Buddha.

The Dharma – The Teaching Body

Traditionally the dharma (P., dhamma) in Buddhist philosophy has three manifestations. The Dharma recorded as the words of the Buddha in the Nikayan texts are scriptural dharma. Realized Dharma arises when the practitioner puts information into practice and comprehends its positive transformational effects. Third is the dharma that is the reality of the world we live in. It is the realities of causality, the not-self, and of impermanence. We take refuge in all the manifestations of dharma. Through the Dharma the Buddha presented us with ways to live in harmony with the world around us, ways to live in harmony with the people around us, and to live in harmony with ourselves.

To take refuge in the Dharma has other interpretations as well. It can mean to take refuge in the truths that have been revealed by our everyday experiences, the laws of nature, or the principles that govern our individual and communal lives. Beth Ross, Tricycle Magazine Website, Family Dharma: Taking Refuge (On the Wings of Angels)

As Ms. Ross writes, we have to look to everyday, moment-to-moment experiences and learn from them. We have to learn to be aware and accept the causal process of the Universe and take action within it to create and maintain human flourishing. While we have individual lives we must realize they are never separated from the communal living that goes on around us, what we do has its effect.

When faced with situations we can take refuge in the Dharma to direct us toward positive transformation.

The Sangha – The Community Body

In the Mahayana tradition there is less of a distinction between the monastic and the lay people; all are considered the sangha. The sangha is important because Buddhist philosophy and practice isn’t meant to be only an individual pursuit, it is meant to have a strong socially engaged aspect. From the earliest incarnations of the Noble Path the Buddha made it clear to his disciples that they must travel around and spread the Dharma through example.

The EDIG sangha at the Buddha Center in Second Life is a support network that offers friendship and the shared experiences of members. A sangha provides a fertilizer to help each practitioner grow into a socially engaged, socially relevant Buddhist. All sanghas allow the brain to think on a more encompassing scale as connections between members reveal that each are representative of the whole sangha. As a representative each practitioner becomes more than themselves, they realize themselves as a piece of everyone. This does not mean a loss of personal identity, only that there is no duality between individual and member.

It is through interactions and personal connections developed within the sangha that social selves arise. We discuss relevant issues and the effect of applying the teachings of the Buddha to them. Through social consensus decisions are made on the value of actions we have taken, and how we can better react to situations that didn’t turn out so well.

The sangha is a place we must be able to “air our views” without fear of judgement. We grow to trust the members of the sangha and this trust is a refuge.

Engaging the Three Refuges

Buddhist practice is all about re-wiring the bodymind, strengthening the positive practices we already engage in, and discarding or transforming the negative ones. This isn’t mind control or brain washing. No one, deity or otherwise is coercing you or can force you to change; it is up to you to choose your path.

Reciting the Three Refuges is a reminder that no matter what situations we face there are places of sanctuary. We can go to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha to refresh our awareness that we must accept the world as it is, and that we can take actions necessary to make it better on a personal and societal level.

Sokei-An and Realizing Buddhism

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Looking through the Dewey Decimal 294.93s in library catalog I cam across a book titled “Cat’s Yawn”. Finding it listed under Zen I was intrigued by the title and had it brought out from the stacks where all the old books are shelved. The cover, with the line drawing of a yawning cat made me smile and what I found inside opened my bodymind to a Zen Legacy Master I’d never heard of but was very happy to discover. Sokei-An Soshin Taiko Choro Zenji (1882 – 1945) was the first Zen Master to make his home in the Western world. In 1916 he emigrated to the U.S. under the direction of his teacher to bring Zen to the West. He founded the First Zen Institute of America which is still active today. Sokei-An died in 1945 leaving behind a legacy of Buddhist thought that mirrors what many Buddhist teachers today, myself included, think of as contemporary to our culture, context and time. Sokei-An was way ahead of us.

In 1940 the First Zen Institute began publishing a newsletter . . . yeah, they had newsletters in the 40s . . . in which he offered Zen in a way he felt would open the bodyminds of Westerners to Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cat’s Yawn was first published in 1947 and is still being distributed today. After spending time reading and pondering Sokei-An’s words I came to the realization of their value now. In Volume 1, No. 1 of Cat’s Yawn, Sokei-An revealed his view of Zen as a religion and his intent in teaching it. It is titled: “The Man Who Is Not a Sky-Dweller”.

He begins by speaking about Chinese calligraphy’s three recognized styles of writing: rigid, less rigid and flowing style, then moves to three styles of deportment (behavior and manners): formal, semi-formal and informal. These serve to describe Sokei-An’s view of religious practices.

He goes on to say, “In religion also there are three styles: ritualistic sermons, preaching from the altar and discussion at the dinner-table when the priest is invited to a lay-house. In addition there is religious discussion among the monks in their own cells, when this is permitted. I am weary of talking about Buddhism in a formal attitude, as I perform the ritual under the candle lights, and burn incense in air vibrant with the sound of the gong. Since a man is a Buddha it is majestic and beautiful to discourse upon religion in a rigid, formal attitude. But since a man is also merely a man, and nothing more, he prefers to talk about his own faith in a less formal or informal attitude, or in no attitude at all.

I wish to talk about my faith in a very disheveled attitude, just as a cat vomits the breath from its mouth in yawning. In this western world Buddhism has been studied for about two hundred years, so I understand. First it was investigated by Englishmen in Ceylon in order to gain control over the natives. In the second period this religion was studied by Christians whose purpose was to disparage it in the Orient. In the third period it was studied as an odd Oriental philosophy, and in the present day, in what is its fourth period, western people are attempting to discover whether there is any element of truth in Buddhism. But in my opinion they have failed. They are merely talking about what Buddhism is; but this “What is Buddhism?” is a great question!

I was initiated into Buddhism when I was still a boy. My age is now three score years. It was only yesterday that I came to understand what Buddhism is. Let me speak, lying on the floor with my yawning cat at my side, about the Buddhism which is my very self.”

These words have given me much to think about. Sokei-An’s three styles of religious practice are parallel to my own view of the Three Refuges. The Buddha offers teachings from the altar (or cushion), the Dharma offers the intentional rituals that guide practitioners; the discussion at the dinner-table is the sangha . . . each with its own value depending on the audience and the situation. At times these practices swirl together, seeming dualities coming together as a holistic experience. When I preach from the altar it is to communicate the dharma as I comprehend it from the Buddha’s sermons presented in a ritualistic way through the Pali Nikayas and other Buddhist scriptures. Talking one-on-one with family, friends and sangha members tends to take on the flavor of a casual dinner conversation. Discussions between myself and my dharma brother, David Sensei, for example, definitely have the character of all three . . . preaching, ritual, and casual.

Sokei-An writes of being weary of the formal attitude, an attitude I feel certain was demanded of him during his years in a Japanese monastery. Coming to the West must have felt liberating in some sense to him, freeing him from those expectations. His writing shows a sense of opening up and allowing the man who is a Buddhist to be more informal yet firm in his faith.

I believe we in the West are still in, and are likely to remain in Sokei-An’s described fourth period for some time trying to decide if there are elements of truth in Buddhism. We are trying to decide if the rituals are necessary. We are trying to decide if we want to be Buddhists in America acting like Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan, or American Buddhists letting a Western way of practice evolve naturally out of the teachings of the Buddha, and the experiences of cultures before us. The proliferation of Buddhist traditions and platforms in the West offer choices of elements leaving it up to each of us to experience them as truths in our own lives. During his own time he viewed that search for truth as a failed endeavor. Still he recognized that some people were talking about what Buddhism “is” and he thought that the question “What is Buddhism” was a good start.

Sokei-An died in 1945 and since then that question, “What is Buddhism?” can be viewed as the core of the Western approach. Most of us weren’t raised in Buddhist culture so that needs to be the initial question. In nearly six decades of living it has been only in the last eighteen years have I been asking that question and striving through practice, study and experience to discover the answer that uniquely applies to me.

Each of us who currently practice or are exploring the possibilities of Buddhist practice are hoping to find out what Buddhism is to us. In time, like Sokei-An, the realization that Buddhism is our very self can arise with the falling away of our delusions.