By Wayne Shen-Cheng Shi
OEB Spring Retreat, 2022
The Buddha first speaks about the Four Ennobling Truths in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, but that is not the first thing he talks about. He begins with a short lesson in extremes.
“Monks, these two extremes should not be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ignoble people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.”
(translation by Piyadassi Thera, with a little editing from me, i.e., language)
Consider that the Buddha had experienced both extremes. He had been the pampered, sequestered son of a Lord, his father, Suddhodana, leader of the Sakya clan. All his needs had been filled, and his wants and desires had been fulfilled. He had experientially verified what an “indulgence of sense pleasures” was, and how, when not obtained could lead to suffering. Leaving home on his spiritual quest he got his first taste of the other extreme “self-mortification”. Removing his princely garments, Siddhartha gave them to his retainer, Channa. He then went into a charnel yard and clothed himself with cast-off fabrics. This was his initial step on the path to another type of extreme, self-mortification. It was a path that nearly led to Siddhartha’s death from fasting and other forms of self-harm.
The Buddha speaks of the dangers of either extreme, both being unworthy and unprofitable. Addiction to sense-pleasures (attachment, craving) is an ignoble path, and leads to both dishonesty and dishonor. Self-mortification is painful; not only can it be physically painful, but it is psychologically painful. The goal must be to avoid both extremes so that the Middle Path can be practiced.
“Avoiding both these extremes, the Awakened One has realized the Middle Path . . .” is the practice that enabled the Buddha to find the Middle Path, the Eightfold Path, and is the instruction for anyone else seeking that same path. He offers that his experience has revealed that the Middle Path will lead to vision (appropriate view and intent), knowledge (appropriate speech, action, livelihood), to insight (effort, mindfulness, concentration), and to a state of enlightenment and Nirvana (to being a better human being).
A fundamental misunderstanding of the Middle Path does arise. It really has nothing to do with balancing any aspect of life. It doesn’t mean that a practitioner can be compassionate 50% of the time, or ignorant, or generous. It isn’t some sort of spiritual scale. These are extreme views and practicing the Middle Path is one of avoiding extremes. The Middle Path requires practitioners to mindfully set-aside preconceptions, preferences, and opinions; they are hindrances to any full realization and effective practice of the Eightfold Path.
Earlier in May the abortion rights issue in America flared again, with the release of Supreme Court documents revealing a push to overturn the nearly 50-year law. This debate is one of extremes, us vs. them, right or wrong with both sides claiming the “right”. Is there a viable Middle Path in this debate? I think so, so did David Foster Wallace.
OPINION, CHOICE, COMMITMENT – The Middle Path
Human beings have opinions that decisions are based on. We accept, as Buddhists that these opinions may arise from delusions or misinformation we hold. Still, they are our opinions. We accept, as Buddhists that these opinions WILL change given internal and external causal influences, i.e., information, knowledge, and experience and still they might remain our opinions.
People have opinions across every topic. Some will defend their opinion by stating it is not opinion, it is fact, a truth. For many opinion and truth are synonymous terms. The most effort is put into defending morality-based opinions or truths. The concepts of moral truth, the obligation for our ethical thoughts and actions to parallel our voiced beliefs, and that of physical truth, that truth is dependent on experiential verification are pragmatic views, views mirrored in Buddhist philosophy. Arising from these views is the danger of speaking to create truth. A person can speak what they believe to be or want to be a ‘truth’ even as all around them is proof of the falsity of their speech. There are instances when someone may be speaking truthfully while in fact saying something you believe to be a lie or delusion. Both of you are engaged in your own truths. What you experience as truth . . . others experience as your opinion if it doesn’t agree with their truth (opinion). No opinion is inherently true or true to all people. Coming to terms with the fact that ‘truth’ is a product of everyone experiencing their ideals interacting with the realities of life is practicing the Middle Path.
From opinion we must move to making a choice. Opinion is largely based in habitual reactivity and perception. Choice must be based on knowledge and experience. Choice transforms to ‘truth’, a fully realized truth . . . for you after experiences happen that corroborate that choice. “Truth” transforms into commitment. All human beings hold commitments.
Reading “Consider the Lobster”, a book of essays by David Foster Wallace you’ll find one titled, ‘Authority and Usage: A Review’. In it, Wallace is doing a review for a new book on language and language arts. In this article is an argument about commitments, and how some try to force their commitments, particularly moral commitments on others. It skillfully describes the ideal of the Middle Path. There is recognition that we all have opinions and make choices; and realization that we can commit to two seemingly opposite positions without weakening either one.
Consider the Lobster
David Foster Wallace – Little, Brown – 2005
Authority and American Usage: A Review
Argument: As of 4 March 1999, the question of defining human life in utero is hopelessly vexed. That is, given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is not a way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life. At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.
This reviewer is thus, as a private citizen and an autonomous agent, both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. It is not an easy or comfortable position to maintain. Every time someone I know decides to terminate a pregnancy, I am required to believe simultaneously that she is doing the wrong thing and that she has every right to do it. Plus, of course, I have both to believe a Pro-Life + Pro-Choice stance is the only really coherent one and to restrain myself from trying to force that position on other people whose ideological or religious convictions seem (to me) to override reason and yield a (in my opinion) wacko dogmatic position. This restraint has to be maintained even when somebody’s (to me) wacko dogmatic position appears (to me) to reject the very Democratic tolerance that is keeping me from trying to force my position on him/her; it requires me not to press or argue or retaliate even when somebody calls me Satan’s Minion or Just Another Shithead Male, which forbearance represents the really outer and tooth-grinding limits of my own personal Democratic Spirit.”
Keep in mind that Mr. Wallace is not speaking of political democracy, he speaks of Democratic Spirit: A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others. This ideal has parallels to a foundational ideal in Engaged Dharma, pluralism.
The position Mr. Wallace came to regarding abortion mirrors is eerily similar one I have held for many years. We each must make moral choices based on our experiences and knowledge, choices that become commitments. We do not have a “human right” to denigrate the commitments of others, or to force our commitments on others. You might be thinking at this moment, ‘This seems like avoiding the issue. You either believe in abortion or you don’t’. This is not the case at all. I firmly believe that abortion is inappropriate, an unwholesome choice for me and I am committed to a more pragmatic middle path. And, I firmly assert that I do not have the ethical right to make that choice for others.
Let’s step back onto the Middle Path. We must each subtract opinions and add commitments. Those commitments, whether they are on Left or Right side of path are individual ones. We stay on the Middle Path by not allowing our commitments to affect how we interconnect and interact with others. There is no need for us to defend our commitments, or to attack the commitments of others.
Mr. Wallace’s definition of democratic spirit is that it combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus a sedulous, a dedicated and diligent respect for the convictions (commitments) of others (pluralism). He stands in good company with Siddhartha.
Siddhartha revealed his democratic spirit in how, and to whom he offered the dharma. There has long been a controversy concerning whether Siddhartha believed in rebirth. While the term and its implications arise in the Hindi scriptures and in many Buddhist sutras, Siddhartha chose not to answer the direct questions of his own commitment to it. He named it a metaphysical question, an unanswerable one given the knowledge present at that time. Why then is it referred to in the early sutras? Siddhartha realized his own commitment to belief or disbelief in the concept of rebirth wasn’t important. Skillfully offering the dharma in language and concepts that could be recognized and understood by his audience was important.
Walking the Middle Path is not easy, it is not black and white. We can hold a commitment to an ideal and still treat those that hold a different commitment with respect, loving-kindness, and generosity of ‘democratic’ spirit.
[This Dharma talk was given during the OEB’s 2022 Spring Retreat]
Current events as seen through the lens of the Four Nobel Truths
By Rev. David Astor Sensei (Shen-Xi)
As I prepared to consider this topic for this retreat, what I thought would be my typical approach turned into lines of thought that highlight the various dimensions that the Four Nobel Truths can reflect that can make it difficult to narrow down what one would expect a dharma teacher to speak on considering the complexity of todays events. If it could only be as easy as a single event. Todays global crises as it pertains to the war and human suffering in Ukraine is bad enough, but here at home we are facing a breakdown in our ability to govern effectively, in our ability to find middle ground in order to create critical legislation to deal with national interests for the common good as well as witnessing a continued march toward the unrealistic politicalization of the High Court. In addition, we can not overestimate the restructuring of how we engage the media and how the various social networks influence the changing landscape of how we process current events in the news. The effects of these situations may, and most likely will, have a lasting effect on world events for decades considering that no culture is an autonomous one any longer. Most likely longer then I have left on this planet. This is not how I envisioned I would be engaged during the remaining time I have left. Another example of when the ideal meets the real.
Yet, the lessons that emerge from the Four Nobel Truths when we use them to seek a path forward for ourselves based on our various life interests and healthy expectations can give us a perspective on how and where to focus our Buddhist practice. The lessons are not hard, but putting them into useful practice takes dedication and skillful means. Obviously.
Three words come easily to mind -suffering, anger and feelings of despair – as we process these events. Our feelings are normal and to be expected by anyone with a working moral compass. Absence of these feelings, however, is another aspect of the nature of failing to realize the significance of isolating ourselves from real world situational events. Todays news is a target rich environment it seems. It is easy to get stuck in the first two truths without a way to return to a practice supporting a mind focused on happiness, health and harmony. It’s not easy to turn off and then turn back on without a period of contemplation. Feeling lost and frustrated at times is what makes us human after all.
It’s important to understand that feelings of anger and despair that are not easily put aside creating moments of limited feelings of unsatisfactoriness do not automatically need to be elevated to the Second Truth. The First Truth is about the realities inherent in the normal course of “living human”. It is when these moments of unsatisfactoriness continue into cycling patterns of distorted perception and our response to it that results in suffering and no lasting happiness is where the Second Truth is manifested. It is important not to misinterpret the First Truth as a statement which denigrates the body/mind. It does not state that the body or the world around us in themselves are unsatisfactory, but that our experiences is characterized in that way through our own developed personal preferences, attachments, cravings, and unwholesome behaviors. We must recognize that the world is always in the process of change. Our practice is to find a path that recognizes the need to process change in healthy ways and not let current events drag us into the Second Truth without a way out.
When we speak about the language of suffering and unsatisfactoriness we often use words like uncontrolled desire, greed, and craving. What is more important I think to also recognize is the critical role human emotions play when we feel angry or moments of despair. We only need to bring to mind how our meditation model describes how we humans come to know something, recognize it’s relative importance to us, and create a response that moves us from thought to action as well as the energy our body/mind chooses in order to act. But before all that happens we are often stuck in our thought processes without a clear idea on how to feel.
Emotions claim our attention in two ways. We experience them, sometimes in a manner which overwhelms us, or we analyze them by defining and classifying them in human and/or cultural expectations. We seldom do both at once, for analysis requires emotional detachment, and feelings of frustration and momentary anger does not permit study or reflection. Emotions arise and we relate to them before we have the time to assimilate and act on them. This is why the Fourth Truth and the Eightfold Path within it’s framework, as well as our practice focusing on human flourishing, is so important. Though some degree of body/mind disturbance would seem to be an essential ingredient in all our emotional experiences, the intensity and extent of the physiological reverberation, or body/mind commotion, is not the same or equal in all the levels of emotions. This is where the results of our emotions, thoughts and actions either stay in the First Truth or are elevated to suffering as they become a Second Truth reality. As teachers we should remain aware that this fact is sometimes used to draw the line between what are true healthy emotional responses to events should be, and how our uncontrolled conscience state of body/mind reactions beyond the ordinary can lead to disabling life situations.
Even though human emotions may have instinctive origins, or a psycho-emotional automatic response (a gut reaction) we should not forget they are also subject to voluntary control so we are able to form or change our response to them determined on unfolding events. If this were not true our moral and ethical control center loses it’s relevance in a civilized society and the foundation of our Buddhist practice. Emotions like anger and despair are neither knowledge nor action but something intermediate between conflicting dual realities. Emotions that arise to passionate feelings are usually aroused by situations perceived, imagined, or remembered, and once aroused they in turn result in impulses to act in certain learned ways based on the filters we use to recognize them, or are retrieved from our stored “experience memory” bank. It is partly a result of what is known and what is done, and partly the cause of how things seem and how we have learned to behave toward them.
Our mindful meditation practice helps us put things in healthy perspective especially during times like we are currently experiencing. Our practice focus is critical especially now. We must learn to balance the conflicts in our lives. We must understand it is normal to be emotional and feel angry and anxious over the reality of these current events. But we must also take the time to return to the ideals our practice is based on.
We sit to activate the internal monitor.
We watch for triggers which are emotional drivers:
We work to find enablers based on our experiences:
How do I know how I am
Who I know I am
Be or return to be happy, healthy, and live in harmony
Stress is not an event, but is the view we take of events.
We study the self to know how we are in order to know how to effect positive and useful change.
We work to build insight.
Return to the basics in order to build insight. Put things in perspective.
Look at the common, uncommonly
When we are ready, the ordinary can become extra-ordinary
Discover the richness inside of us
Share them (show, don’t tell)
Rediscover our relationship with all things around us. Don’t forget the OTHER.
The puzzle of our lives is bigger then you may think. Work to discover new
When we consider the Four Noble Truths as it is reflected within the greater reality of Dependent Origination we are describing the world as it is NOW so we can develop an intelligent and successful strategy to neutralized its difficult and painful expressions as best we can. It is a description of the way the human world happens to be in this lifetime, on this planet, under the present circumstances. Describing the Universe today is not to also describe how the Universe might be in the future, or in another universe for that matter. When applying the pragmatic teachings of Buddhist thought and values in a socially engaging practice, with the intent to enable individuals to realize a free, useful and productive life, it is then possible to create a world free from unnecessary suffering in real terms. This will be a slow and challenging process only achieved over unknown time dimensions. But it starts by each of us renewing our commitment when we stepped on the path and found our way out of the woods and into clear awareness, then helping others on this life journey we all share together. And that can be achieved in this lifetime. Even when feelings of anger, frustration and despair are the motivators for positive actions embracing our emotions. Remember our emotions are also effected by the laws of mutual causality. Giving them a new meaning can give our practice the energy to find a new path forward. Even if it means we learn to adapt to necessary compromise and find how we can still hold the Three Pure Precepts above the fray.
“In that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things went not only through agony, but through doubt. There is only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
What Pope Benedict XVI taught about the last words of Christ.
By: Venerable Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna
Bob Ross is one of the most influential painter’s to ever put brush to canvas. But along with his magnificent artwork he is also remembered for what he said and how he said it. With his soothing voice, encouraging quotes, and mild mannerisms he inspired countless numbers of people to take up The Joy of Painting. Even now, years after his death, his advice on life offers confidence and reassurance that it’s OK to make mistakes because they’re just “happy little accidents.”
This exercise is devoted to setting aside one day to devote to Right Speech. We will commit to using speech in kind, harmonious & meaningful ways that empower others.
Begin your day a commitment to use speech in a way that promotes harmony, kindness and compassion. Really focus on what you say as well as how you say it, as inflection can be just as powerful as the words themselves. Try to discover ways to keep your words positive and encouraging, even if you yourself are not feeling that way. Remember what our precepts say about speech:
I undertake the training of verbal empowerment; I will abstain from meaningless speech.
I undertake the training of kind speech; I will abstain from harsh speech.
I undertake the training of meaningful speech; I will abstain from frivolous speech
I undertake the training of harmonious speech; I will abstain from slanderous speech.
Take note that 4 of our 10 Precepts deals directly with Right Speech. This is something we need to cultivate and work on in our practice. It’s not always easy, we get caught up in conversations that may not really be meaningful. We forget to let people finish their thoughts & sentences and interrupt to get out own points across. Discover how silence can speak volumes. These are all things we can incorporate into our practice daily.
At the end of the day reflect back on your Day of Right Speech, take some time to contemplate on what was positive and what were “happy little accidents.” Then tomorrow you can do it all over again. That’s the thing with the practice of Right Speech, is that it’s every day not just one.
By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB
I’ve been fortunate to have access to a complete library of Tricycle magazine from the premiere issue in 1991 featuring the Dalai Lama, up to 2016. It has been an informative and thought provoking journey through some contemporary Buddhist history. Informative because it is a journey that reveals the impact of causal conditioning on Western Buddhism; thought inspiring because of the transformations that were predicted, some which happened, others that didn’t. In this moment I am inspired to respond, or maybe to update an article by Tracy Cochran, in the Fall 1992 issue, titled Samsara Squared: Buddhism and Virtual Reality.
Since 2010 I’ve been offering the dharma in the virtual world known as Second Life (SL). While it is not the virtual reality that Tracy Cochran refers to in the article it is the closest thing to it that most people can experience in this moment. Virtual reality is the creation of 3D world. Virtual worlds are 2D environments that can accessed through most home computers. The author writes, “Within ten years, however, virtual reality is going to become sleek and cheap, and it’s going to be everywhere.” Nearly 30 years later that prediction hasn’t happened. Cochran goes on to say, “Soon you will be able to ‘telepresence’ anywhere in the world. Picture a virtual sangha flying to Mr. Kailas.” I have not experienced this in a 3D virtual reality sense, but I have experienced something similar in the 2D virtual world of Second Life. I have flown along the Great Wall of China, marveled at the architecture and iconography in Tibetan temples, and walked through intricate Zen gardens. Populating each area there are avatars that can be anything from someones idealized version of themselves to a full sized, in relation, elephant or a furry little bunny wearing a pink party dress. Human avatars might appear as ninjas, hippies, wearing suits or ball gowns, or wearing nothing at all. There are alien figures that come in a variety of appearances and even the occasional Star Trek crew member or black robed witch.
Hearing that I was sharing the dharma in the virtual world of SL someone once responded, “Seems like you’re just doing a radio show or a podcast.” It is more than that. On radio or through podcasts only two of the six senses realized in Buddhist practice are engaged by the listener. They hear and their conscious mind builds some sort of image of the speaker and of their message. There is no taste, touch or smell yet the conscious mind might create illusions of them given what is heard. With its limitations the challenge of what Cochran termed “being present” is possible in a virtual world with some skillful thought and action.
Being present in the virtual world means being mindful that whatever form an avatar presents, there is a human being at the other end of those pixels. Equally, as a Buddhist teacher or layperson to be aware that a virtual spiritual place must be treated the same as one in the real space. When an individual attends a Buddhist temple in real life there is a certain gravitas, an atmosphere that arises as a combination of place, people and ritual. Being present means taking advantage of those same factors in a virtual space in order to guide the attending avatars to being present also. This can be done by creating a sense of involvement and having clear rules that mirror those at a temple in real life for sangha members and curious attendees. I can best explain by describing the intentional ritual that is part of every Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) sangha session at the Buddha Center in SL. Lessons learned from my teacher, Eubanks Sensei, in my role as Guest Prefect for the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists, and the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism guide my thoughts and actions in the virtual world.
The entirety of an EDIG session at the Buddha Center is an intentional ritual. When I first enter the space I bow to the icon of the Buddha. Taking a seat on the teacher’s zafu (cushion) each individual already there is greeted by name, and the same for each that enters. At my request one of the founders of the BC, Yuri, created and placed a set of three candles, an incense pot, and a ching bell in front of the teacher’s zafu. The ching bell is sounded once to announce the beginning of the session. Candles are lighted left, right, center and I, in the form of my avatar bow three times from the seated position. Then the incense in lighted. Greetings are again extended to any late comers. A short period of bell meditation is done, 21 strikes. The Three Refuges, Three Pure Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Vow are recited ending with Sva Ha. Then a dharma talk is given followed by an opportunity for comments or questions. This is the opportunity for members of sangha to get clarification or to speak of personal experiences with the subject of the talk. In either instance I offer insight or inquiry meant to expand further the sangha’s knowledge and practice. Often I give the sangha “homework,” a practice connected with the subject for them to engage with. The ching bell is sounded and Sharing of the Merit is recited. The ching bell is sounded three times and the candles extinguished. I thank them for their attendance and attention, bow to the sangha and offer them wholesome thoughts for the week to come. Each step is a ritual intended to make the virtual experience a real experience.
The ears, the eyes and the mind can be effective modes of absorbing the dharma as long as right speech is used by the teacher, and visual aids are used when appropriate. In SL there is the opportunity to augment the spoken word with pictures, slideshows and videos. These visual aids add to the sense of being present and enhance the practitioner’s learning experience.
The biggest challenge in the virtual world is the inability to see and respond to body language and facial expressions, human signals important when mentoring and monitoring sangha members. There are physical movements called gestures in SL but think of them like emoticons. You put what you want someone to see, not always what is real. In true virtual reality the body of the avatar is being moved by the actions of the person wearing the gloves and boots so there is some discernable body language. In virtual worlds that movement is done by the directions keys on a keyboard. So, that leaves the question how can a teacher in a virtual setting really know if the offered dharma is having a wholesome effect?
Truth is the effect can’t be definitively known but it can, to a point be discerned. Discernment involves being aware of a variety of causal factors. How often do they attend sessions? What sort of questions do they ask? Where do they commonly sit in relation to the teacher? Do they interact with other sangha members? Do they offer their own experiences and knowledge? A combination of any or all of these offer insight into how they are engaging the dharma outside of the virtual environment. These are questions that must be asked where ever student and teacher interact. In a virtual world ears, eyes and mind input the information into the consciousness.
Cochran wrote, “The consensus seems to be that the proper and ethical use of virtual reality, from a human as well as a Buddhist standpoint, seems limited to a scientific instrument, as a means to extend intelligence and consciousness.” Cochran doesn’t say who came to this consensus but I would agree this is true for virtual worlds. For everyone who enters a virtual world like SL there is a factor of anonymity. They can appear as whoever or whatever they like and they can act in whatever manner they choose. There are individuals that use this anonymity to sow discord, to threaten, and to pass themselves off as someone they are not. Trolls inhabit SL in the same way they do Twitter, Facebook and the comment sections on Yahoo News. There is little doubt, given human nature that they would find a way to inhabit virtual reality too. This the main reason I chose to make my avatar look as much like the real me as possible, and that I urge those that attend EDIG sessions at the Buddha Center to go to the Engaged Dharma website and learn more. It is a way to give them an opportunity to engage in experiential verification and develop some trust in the information that is being offered, to take in step in authenticating their own experience.
Information is one of the three things, along with a sense of belonging to a sangha and mentoring of their practice that a Buddhist teacher can offer to practitioners in a virtual world. Virtual spaces can be tools of the dharma used to extend a practitioner’s knowledge of how they can choose to be. Information once put into practice and the value of it experienced transforms into knowledge, knowledge that once it becomes part of their consciousness transforms how they interact with themselves, others and the world around them. They learn to be better human beings who respond appropriately to the suffering of themselves and others. They become engaged Buddhists.
Offering the dharma in a virtual space can be an effective tool for explaining the dharma, teaching the history of it and of Buddhism in general, and for mentoring practice. These are proper and ethical ways of engaging this virtual tool. There is an important aspect of Buddhist practice that, in my experience cannot be effectively accomplished in a virtual space, meditation. Meditation, of all the Buddhist practices requires a physicality that cannot be effectively replicated in a virtual environment. The teacher and the student are present in the form of avatars that sit in pre-programmed positions that can be maintained as indefinitely as the power to the computer lasts. I say to students who attend Buddha Center sessions that an avatar can sit in meditation for years and not gain anything from the experience, only the person behind the avatar can benefit from a meditation practice. This is to remind them that they are present in the form of pixels, that these forms are delusions and only the human being they represent can benefit from any aspect of Buddhist practice. Meditation is as much a physical act and it is a mental one. Posture and breathing can be explained verbally and even with diagrams on a board however, without being able to see the physical form of the student a teacher cannot offer them the corrections to posture and breathing that will invariably arise in the early stages of practice. Then the question of whether meditation sitting sessions have value in a virtual setting.
Meditation sessions are popular events at the Buddha Center in SL. There are members of the BC staff who are meditation facilitators. These dedicated individuals schedule regular sessions for members and visitors to attend and engage in various meditation practices, metta and silent practices are popular ones. The avatars sit in meditative postures on pixellated zafus. The facilitators explain the practice, some light the candles, burn the incense, and ring the ching bell to begin meditation. The question is then what happens. The facilitators are offering the opportunity to sit with a sangha, albeit a virtual one. There are real people behind each avatar so there is some sense of community and shared experience and this is a positive thing. However, there is no way of knowing if the person behind the avatar is really meditating or are they web surfing, playing with the cat, or eating dinner. There is no way to monitor their practice, so mentoring is difficult. For those who attend and do actually engage in meditation wherever their physical form resides this isn’t really an issue. For those who attend and do not actually meditate there is an issue. It is a personal one. They are abdicating their individual responsibility to themselves and most likely setting an individual precedent of negative habitual behavior. Whether or not meditation practice in a virtual setting has value is entirely up to the attendee. So, where is the value in sitting with a virtual sangha?
For someone confined to their home for whatever reason and the person who doesn’t have access to a Buddhist temple in their area there is great value in being able to attend virtual Buddhist sessions. I have been told by multiple attendees at the Buddha Center how much the existence of Buddhist themed virtual destinations mean to the quality of their lives. For some it is the only avenue they have to learn about and practice the dharma with others. Over time the Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) sangha has grown and matured. They have developed a level of trust in each other that is indicated by their willingness to speak openly and honestly about their fears, their successes, and their practices. It is a real sangha in a virtual environment.
When I gave my first dharma talk in December of 2010 I had limited experience in sharing the dharma. Now, in my eleventh year at the Buddha Center I have given approximately 1100 dharma talks, lectures and pujas to a virtual international sangha. I share the dharma from a beautiful temple or from what is called “The Deer Park”. I share the dharma with Buddhists and non-Buddhists from across the world. I share real Dharma in a virtual world.
So, is sharing the Dharma in a virtual environment like Second Life the future of Buddhism in the West? No, but it is part of that future. Can it replace attending a physical temple? No, but it isn’t meant to. For some, who can’t attend a physical temple, for whatever the reason, the opportunity to attend a virtual temple gives them a similar experience. It offers them a place to come and learn Buddhist philosophy, history and practice, and to become a member of a sangha. And, I can only speak for the Buddha Center in Second Life, the setting might seem cartoonish, that there might be a cowboy sitting on a zafu next to a fairy princess, and that you are sitting in your comfortable office chair at home, it is real Dharma in that virtual environment.
By: Venerable Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna
There is a quote by Bishop Reginald Heber, “Spring unlocks the flowers to paint the laughing soil.” Spring is often the time of year when we begin to notice changes all around us. Spring brings with it a renewal as the sometimes harsh realities of winter are ending. Changes in the seasons are easy to take notice of and accept both externally and internally. But what about cultural change? Changes in the institutions and ideas that for many of us have existed before our time, but have been ingrained into us through family values, religion, and education. What happens when these things start changing? People often tend to see this impermanence as something external to them. It’s something outside, and they think they can “make it go away” just as we would close a window to a cold breeze. But one cannot stay locked in their home forever.
So how do we address this as Buddhists? How do we talk to others as Buddhist leaders in our communities about the cultural changes happening all around us? We teach about being agents for change, and what better time perhaps then now to be that agent. We have the opportunity to lend our voices to those who are trying to have a positive impact on our culture today. We have the opportunity to speak truthfully, with words that inspire and not tear down. But we also have a great teaching opportunity with those who are trying to close that window to the breeze. We can be aware of their suffering as well and use that as an opportunity to teach impermanence through loving speech and the ability to listen with intent to their stories as well.
Nothing stays the same, whether it be nature, our culture, our practice and ourselves. So as the seasons turn from winter to spring, let us use that as a reminder to slow down and observe all the continual change that is around us. To remember that we too are not separate from this impermanence and also never separate from our own true nature. True knowledge is not attained by thinking. It is what you are; it is what you become. – Sri Aurobindo
By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB
Whenever strangers meet In St. Louis, Missouri the first question many of them ask is, “What high school did you graduate from?” If one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day or if they didn’t, the answer is important. The answer can make or break a possible friendship. Get more than one Buddhist in a room and the question, “What brought you to Buddhism?” will probably be asked. It isn’t the answer that is really important . . . it is the willingness to answer that is. I’ll venture to say that not one of you would reject the friendship of another person because they didn’t come to Buddhism along the same path you did. Why we came to Buddhism really isn’t that important; why we choose to continue to pursue the Middle Path is. It is what defines practice.
I often get asked, “Why did you chose to be a Buddhist?” My reply of, “I found Buddhism because at a difficult time in my life Buddhism offered a different way of thinking and acting in relation to how I was in that moment.”, doesn’t really answer the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal to them what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. How can a Buddhist practice help them through life’s situations? It is a legitimate question, but having an honest answer requires me to listen deeply to myself and be honest about why I am a Buddhist.
A better answer begins with, “I practice Buddhism because . . .”, within those four words is a major reason why I chose the Noble Path. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being. Buddhism offers me that opportunity through my practice. I’m not expected to be perfect or to have all the answers but I am expected to keep practicing. Yeah, I know the saying “practice makes perfect” but honestly I’ve never seen any proof of that. In my experience I get better at being Buddhist but being “perfect” isn’t ever part of the agenda. Refining my character, refining how I am in relation to myself and the world around me is the agenda. In my experience “practice makes more practice” and I am good with that. For me it is in the doing, not in the done.
The response finishes with, “ . . . what we do matters.” Four words that encapsulate for me the whole of Buddhist psychology, philosophy and spiritualism as I have come to realize it. The Four Ennobling Truths are all about how our actions are the cause of suffering, and can be cause of the alleviation of suffering – what we do matters. The Three Characteristics of Existence that include suffering, and add impermanence and not-self, are rooted in the ideal that we are each a unique part of the causal process of the Universe; we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale if we choose to make the appropriate effort. I haven’t read a sutra or legacy teaching that wasn’t sending the message “go do it”. The ideal that what we do matters renews my intent to be the best human being I can be. I want to cease to do harm because it matters. I want to do good because it matters. I want to do good for others because it matters.
“I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.” Together the answer reveals the I and the We, the interconnection I realize between all phenomena. I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders positive effects both personal and social. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters is a force for positive transformation that can’t be equalled. There is a dark side to the “what we do matters” that a Buddhist must view realistically. The negative actions of others also matter and we, Buddhist or not, must not hesitate to act appropriately and decisively whenever we can to mitigate the negative karmic consequences that can arise. We can control what we do and how we react to the results of the actions of others.
Acting pluralistically is the I and We. The We in the equation may not always be a Buddhist. It makes no difference to me what faith, religion or tradition another person is . . . they are part of the We. Our commitments may differ but it is the goal of alleviating suffering that matters.
Taking action is highlighted in the words practice and do. Am I a Buddhist because I take action or do I take action to be a Buddhist . . . doesn’t matter as both are more likely to result in positive karmic consequences. Buddhism is all about action. The psychology, philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism has roots, beginning with the Four Ennobling Truths, in action. It takes personal action to recognize the reality of suffering and it takes engaged action to realize the alleviation of suffering. The Eightfold Path guides me to actions that will improve how I am and how I can be an agent of positive transformation. I practice Buddhism because . . . I am a unique factor in the causal process of the Universe, and ‘because’ is causality. This happened because that happened. I practice to “be cause” of more positive than negative ingredients in the karmic stew.
Action and responsibility, being the cause of good, the I and we of pluralism, do something, actions have karmic consequences so each action matters are reminders of intent in my personal mantra, and you are welcome to make it yours – I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.*
Ask yourself the “Why am I a Buddhist?” question before someone else asks “Why are you a Buddhist?”. Without the ability to be honest with yourself about the answer your chance of having a deep Buddhist practice is slim. Curiosity, desire, life experience, or wanting to be cool might have caused you to look into Buddhism but why you continue when it takes such effort and commitment is what is more important. It is there you will find the depth of your practice and what you can do to enhance it.
I picture Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree after his awakening and thinking, “Man, what I just awakened to will really matter. Acting like that is going to take some practice.”
*Over time the mantra has been pared down “What We Do Matters”.
By: David Shen-Xi Astor
As Buddhism adjusts to the realities of Western culture it encounters some of the barriers that have traditionally separated the various world religious. We are witnessing some of those collapsing as a new model is emerging creating an inter-spiritual paradigm that begins to permit people from various traditions to explore the spiritual dimensions of other beliefs within their community. More people find themselves rooted in one tradition while seriously exploring another. This often is driven by the leadership within these traditions seeking an open dialog.
While the world religions in their respective beliefs and practices have been generally isolated from one another, at their core they share a deeper underlying dimension beyond philosophical, theological or mystical foundations. This is the common ground of intent that inter-spirituality explores: the dimension of understanding what makes humans explore the relationship between themselves and the universe beyond ordinary understanding. Inter-spirituality is based on the existential, innate interdependence of all beings, the essential interconnectedness of all reality. One of the core principles of Buddhism is the understanding of interconnectedness/interdependence of all things that can be projected to the reality that various religions and belief systems are really depend on one another for maintaining our cultural moral and ethical foundations that promote social justice and individual wellbeing.
As these barriers begin to give way, an acceleration over the past few decades is noticeable. However, there doesn’t seem to be a loss of identity among the traditions but rather the freedom to experiment in our search for a common spiritual path of understanding. This might mean that religions are no longer cultures set apart, but open systems conversing with the world and with one another either directly or through the agency of the interfaith movement. While this has been done within the various Christian detonations in the beginning, it has now expanded to include outreach with all the world religions. There are notable exceptions of course especially among some of the evangelical faiths. However, there is much interest in the West now to understand Buddhist thought and values especially as the term “Zen” and “meditation” has entered into our common speech.
Inter-spirituality encompasses many traditions and projects ranging from the spread of Eastern meditation practices among Christians, Jews, and Sufis, to inter-spiritual centers such as Osage Monastery, a monastic community dedicated to bringing Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism together. There are Baptist and UCC churches that accept people of different traditions as well as Christian teachers who combine Zen mastery with the teachings of Christ. I would be amiss not to mention the extraordinary visionary Thomas Merton which has done much in his all to short life to champion the cause of understanding Buddhism for Christians, especially among Catholics.
Many efforts at inter-spiritual synthesis come in the form of meeting places where people of different traditions can come together to practice. My own experience as the Resident Teacher of the Epiphany Zen Center in Sebring, Florida, is that most come to learn and practice meditation and learn something about Buddhism, but they primarily attend a community Christian church or Jewish temple as their “faith of choice.” Curiosity brings them through our doors, but getting something meaningful, and even spiritual, keeps them coming back for a practice that is lacking, for now anyway, in their own religious community. While I opened Epiphany Zen Center as a Buddhist practice center, I learned quickly that 99% were more interested in mediation and some spiritual food for thought. So we switched focus and created a practice that honored Buddhist values but shared in a language that was more understandable to those attending. As a result they became comfortable in learning how Buddhism and their Christian/Jewish tradition had much in common. A win-win for our community and enriched my own Buddhist practice as well. I have even been invited several times to give the invocation at the County Commissioner Meeting as a Buddhist Cleric. A big step for a small town in Florida. What made this an easy transition for the Zen Center admittedly was my past experience as a past Christian religious monk, so I used that experience to share how Buddhism could be encountered using Christian/Jewish terms that did not alienate but promoted inclusivity and understanding.
Inter-spirituality is essentially an agent of a universal integral spirituality. We often walk the Inter-spiritual path in an intuitive attempt to reach a more complete truth even if we are not aware of our intent at the time. That final integration, a deep convergence, is an integral spirituality that I think resonates throughout the Four Noble Truths as it points to a deeper underlying truth that goes deep in order to gain moments of awakening. This brings together all the great systems of spiritual wisdom, practice, insight, reflection, experience, and science that provides a truly integral understanding of spirituality in its practical application, regardless of our chosen tradition of practice. Each spiritual tradition contributes insight to this human endeavor. All this spiritual wealth facilities our future work in transforming the human family. I am grateful that I live in a culture that has many spiritual traditions. But I admit that it would be easier as a Buddhist teacher if I did not have such an uphill climb. But because I don’t, my practice and sharing Buddhism with others is more rewarding. I can say without a doubt it has made my own spiritual journey stronger, one step at a time.
Transitioning Through The Process From Knowing, Understanding To Confidence In Our Buddhist Practice
By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor
The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said, “Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says that originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.” This statement which comes from his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind got my attention recently as I returned to this classical work of Zen. I have not thought of my practice in this way before. Not knowledge or understanding but confidence is what we should learn to cultivate is what Suzuki is stressing. Although having knowledge without understanding will undermine our ability to cultivate confidence I think. This emphases on confidence over understanding can be a strong agent for change. It asks the question, “Do we really believe what we have come to understand?” I speak often about how Buddhist practice and study can be viewed from a philosophical, psychological, and spiritual perspective. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very comprehensive and profound system of thought-processing. But traditional Zen practice is not taught or practiced with a great deal of philosophical explanations when addressing those in lay practice, especially from Japanese legacy Masters. Focusing rather on one’s personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, are considered more essential for coming to a realized state of awaking in the traditional sense.
I have not considered the term confidence before when expressing how one should consider their practice, I use other words. Although without confidence the student/teacher relationship is in jeopardy. What I like about incorporating the words ‘understanding’ and ‘confidence’ is that it places focus on acceptance of what we are learning as we practice. Not just on knowing by analyzing something about Buddhist thought. It is more about acceptance, assurance, and certainty that the path we are on can achieve insight. That insight may also awaken the body-mind to the bigger picture of how we are in this world. We can be aware, but the subject of this awareness must transition into acceptance. When that happens we have gained confidence of its value, and our practice is strengthened as a result.
There is a danger in relying on invalidated knowledge alone. The human system for acquiring new information is complicated and involves some degree of interpretation and filtering on our part as we go about the learning process. Sometimes we get out of the way and let another’s thoughts and ideas replace our own. This, of course, is not a bad thing because we always rely on another’s expertise for guidance. This in fact is very pragmatic. But without validating new knowledge with our own personal experiences, we are only taking what we are learning as a state of faith only. But when we have gained the experience of validating what we are learning, and thus acknowledging its reality, we gain the confidence that our worldview is on solid ground. This gets the ego out of the learning and acceptance process when it makes choices for us by using preconceived notions of what it thinks reality is.
Confidence should be the cornerstone of our practice then, and also it’s main human ingredient. When we truly believe in our way, the path becomes more clear. But when we have not developed unwavering confidence in the meaning of our practice, each moment presents the possibly of us walking around in the weeds confused and lost. The Buddha talked often about this possibility from his own experience both before and after enlightenment. He was not entirely free of causal-life consequences either, he was only human after all. But he continued to walk the path of liberation with absolute confidence. His view of life was not shaken as he continued to experience awakened moments, and watched what was happening around him. He observed with great intent and awakened body-mind state of awareness how the Universe is. He had a very scientific understanding of Universal reality for his day which contributed to his confidence-in-practice.
So our Buddhist practice is not just based on informative and intellectual understanding, metaphysical beliefs, or faith alone. It is through actual action-practice, not only by reading or contemplation of philosophical constructs that we reach awakening, and the confidence to know the difference. Master Suzuki put it this way, “Our understanding at the same time is its own expression, is the practice itself.” This practice stands on the very surface of our confidence, moment after each moment.