Sunday, February 28, 2016


Hi Sangha and Friends,
Here is an exchange I had with a friend recently.

Q: When you say we are never the agents of change - do you mean ever?

A: What I propose is spoken from my understanding of Buddha-dharma (the teachings of the Buddhas) and it is not so present in the secular-psych approaches which remain married to the 20th century existentialist philosophy that emphasizes individual identity and personal choice. It is inconsistent with mainstream Christian thought too, which likewise emphasizes individual identity and will. The biggest differences are the doctrine of "karma" (cause and effect) and the initial "3 Stains" Buddhist teaching, which asserts :
1. "Anatta"- there is no separate eternal self or soul (yes, there are transient spirit-selves but none that survive death)
2. "Anicca" - there is nothing in the realm of time/space which possesses permanence, - everything is transient and changing, and
3. "Dukkha" - this realm of our normal experience can not provide us full satisfaction or fulfillment
The second point is the crucial one here for this discussion. It asserts that all there is is a causally interconnected net of continuously shifting and changing phenomena within which we we seem to experience ourselves as unique. In short, everything is already changing all the time. That is its nature. We do not cause the change, nor can we.

What we experience as our "self" is a temporary presentation that is causally linked with the momentum that precedes us. The causes that lead to "me" are not limited to what I have done, but are the results of previous karmic force which may include individuals like my parents and grandparents, but may also include higher level karma, such as social and cultural forces. 

I use that image of canoeing on a fast flowing river, but the more accurate Buddhist metaphor, which would scare off most people, is that we are not in a canoe but we are actually the peaks of those moving waves. We cannot change the ocean or the waves. We can only attend to the momentum and align ourselves with it. Our purpose is to recognize our true "wave-ness" and fulfill that as completely as we can. We experience "Dukkha" (existential lack) when we try to set ourselves against or separate ourselves out from the momentum of the wave and the ocean. 

The concept of "will" which so dominates Western thought is not much of an issue for Buddhist teaching. Instead we use the term "vedana" which roughly equates to intention. It is the directionality of our thoughts, desires and, ultimately our actions. When our thoughts, intentions and actions are "wholesome (Kusala, that is, directed at realizing our true nature) then we flow with the flow. When they are unwholesome (a-kusala, self-obsessed) then we experience that dissatisfaction that characterizes human life - ie. Dukkha. 

The challenge for us is not to cause change but to discover the flow of change and how to best align ourselves with it.We are more collaborators than agents. This remains a moral and positive purpose.If that's the case, why do we reflect, pay attention to our values, set our own intentions and facilitate our own attentive action? When we took your pups for the walk earlier this winter I really heard you when you talked about being aware of the already existing momentum. But do we not act as agents of change on some level? 
Only in a relative sense, that is, to the extent that we hold to the idea of a separate self. The value of meditation, value clarification and intention setting is that it permits us to see through the delusion of individual selfhood, at least momentarily, so we can release the self-obsession that drives our lives and suffering. They permit us to step outside of the narrowness of "my" experience, and allows enough perception of our location in the flow that we broaden or value system to encompass all beings. It promotes a larger, non-self-obsessed desire for the Awakening of all beings from their suffering. Meditative practices are one of the eight tools (Buddhist cal the the Eight-fold Path) recommended to us so we can grow beyond the compressed and sorrowful states of individual being.
This has lead to an accusation of determinism, fatalism and nihilism being targeted at Buddha-dharma by those whose understanding is immature. The teachings, practices and ethics of Buddhist teaching are not life-denying or passive. On the contrary, we are called in each moment to discover how we are ever the expression of universal wisdom and compassion. The question raised for us is how will we act to demonstrate or "realize" that.

in the Dharma, 
Innen, doshu

Saturday, February 20, 2016


We have been emphasizing the jodo or devotional tradition through our study of the Visualization Sutra.  (For more on this see this month's Dharma talk) This stresses a personal relationship that can exist between ordinary humans and a trans-human presence, such as Amitabha, Jizo Kwan Yin or many others.
Within the phenomenon of Western Buddhist culture there is a form of Buddhism called secular Buddhism or Buddhist atheism or a number of other things. Prominent proponents of this position are Stephen Batchelor and Rick Harris. The American Stephen Batchelor, author of  After Buddhism: Rethinking Dharma for A Secular Age ; Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of A Buddhist Atheist is a controversial figure who explores the ideas that bridge conventional Buddhist teaching and the views of modern atheism. Harris another American mindfulness teacher is author of Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy.
There is an excellent blog which acts as a base-camp for Secular Buddhism. It offers a distinction between traditional and secular Buddhism :

Much of secular Buddhist practice is the same as traditional, but there are some differences, which are noted where appropriate.The bottom line in Buddhism is to eliminate suffering for yourself and others. All the teachings strive to that end. The difference with secular Buddhism is that the focus is on this lifetime, in this world, whereas some traditions believe the practice takes many life times, and their goal is to end the cycle of rebirth. 
The Secular Buddhism site features some instruction in this approach. More valuably, it is full of book reviews and great podcasts with significant teachers in modern Dharma. One I especially enjoyed is the podcast interview with David McMahan. His book The Making of Buddhist Modernism is an excellent examination of the causes and conditions which have contributed to the overall landscape of contemporary Buddhism.  McMahan is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, having earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on Buddhism and modernity, South Asian Buddhism, and the effects of globalization. He has published a number of journal articles about these topics, and has presented lectures all over the world, most recently by invitation at Minzu University in Beijing, China. This hour-long interview explores his ideas from the Buddhist Modernism book.

in the Dharma, 
Innen, doshu

Saturday, February 06, 2016


This morning we recited the Eight Lay Precepts, as we do from time to time. This lead to a vigourous discussion about the repetitive use of the phrase “I vow..” What are vows? How responsible are we for them? What happens when we fail?
Precepts or vows refers to the shila components of Buddhist teaching. Shila is the third component of the three which also includes wisdom (prajna) and practice (samadhi). This term can mean morality, ethics or values. These represent behavioural standards, rather than some independent moral code, like the Ten Commandments. Traditionally, monks, priests and nuns take a more elaborated set of precepts, while laypeople or upasakas have a smaller and simpler set, such as the Eight referred to above.
There are forms of Buddhism which treat moral choices as “commandments” and, similar to Christian teaching ,depicts shila-violation as a punishable act, with the consequence being any number of terrible hell-realms. This view treats karma as a code-and-judgment phenomenon.
I prefer to view vows as personal statements of intention, motivated by the desire for Awakening (bodaishin). They are like flight plans we make, for ourselves and as proclamations before our peers. As with a pilot, we do not control the whole flight route and we may indeed fail or be required to alter our plans as circumstances arise. We are responsible for how we act on these intentions, but are never accountable for outcomes (because we do not control the wider context of our actions).
We make intentions to guide our efforts to serve the Dharma. We understand , as we make them, that we may fail. We further understand that vow-taking or intention-setting is a step taken on a path which leads beyond this immediate lifetime. Our actions have karmic value which will certainly impact beyond this present life, as well as impact on lives adjacent to ours in this context.
Finally, we also understand that the completion of any precept or vow is not the assignment of any act to ourselves alone. We make vows in awareness of the karmic momentum from other lives, other people and events. We recognize this life is interdependent on other lives, so we accept that we can only effect a small part of the momentum of any moment. We take a vow knowing our role is partial. Further, we incorporate in our vows and practice the resonance of our efforts with those of countless Buddhas and bodhisattvas who have made concurrent vows to contribute to our lives. The success of any vow is never ours alone, just as the failure cannot ever be ours alone.

Yours in the Dharma,
Innen, doshu
om namo amida butsu