A Pragmatic View Of Rebirth

By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

The notion of rebirth is a tricky topic these days in the West. It depends on many factors and points of view. And from a Buddhist perspective too. What was perhaps once thought as a core principle is seriously being re-evaluated from a more contemporary pragmatic position. Even in some legacy traditions the reality of rebirth was never considered essential for understanding the Buddha’s core teaching of the Four Noble Truths. As a contemporary Western Ch’an(Zen) teacher, my understanding of rebirth has evolved over the years that I have encountered this topic in my study and research. When I teach about rebirth now, I ask people to consider what happens to the physical elements of the body after they die. I ask them, if we buried you in the ground with no preservatives and dug you up in a week, would we recognize you? Yes. If we dug you up in a year, would we recognize you? Maybe. If we dug you up in ten years, would we recognize you? No. So what happened to the elements that made up the body? They all dispersed and became other things.

If you die angry, what happens to that energy of anger?

Appreciating this, people begin to understand that on the physical level there is an endless chain of energy that passes through a series of changes. Then if you apply the same principle to our mental and emotional energy, you can also ask where does it goes. That energy is also not destroyed, though the energy that was “you” will transform.

Karma is a wonderfully exact force in our lives. If you die angry, what happens to that energy of anger? Where does it go? When you walk into a room where people have been angry, you can sense it—the energy is palpable. So is that the kind of energy you would like to pass on, to be picked up by other  lives? One can also look back at what energies have been passed down to you—perhaps by your family or the people who influenced you—and that helps you understand that energy doesn’t die but rather continues on in some form.

I don’t worry too much about questions like, “Am I going to remember that I was Queen Victoria or her servant?” People get caught up in that sort of approach to karma and rebirth, but it’s almost irrelevant. The continuity of the energy is what’s important. What do you want to pass on—suffering or happiness?

🙏🏼

©️ OEB 2019

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Spiritual Practice As A Path For Inner Change

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

All over the world engaged individuals are actively living an intentional spiritual practice. In some areas of the world, dedicated monastic’s are living the spiritual life some in secret, while others are directly engaging their spiritual or religious beliefs for the selfless benefit of others. Spiritual practice assumes many forms. In my own Order, for example, we say that the world is our monastery, as we have taken vows to engage the dharma outside the walls of a traditional temple, yet live under a monastic rule. Many Buddhist and Christians monks and nuns rise at 3am every morning to begin their day. Trappist Christian monks are completely dedicated to the inner experience, pursued through community prayer in the chapel, and private contemplation in their monastic cells. Jewish contemplatives keep aware of their god on the Sabbath and daily acts of engagement in remembrance of and conversation with him. The Dalai Lama wakes every day between 3:30 and 4 am to meditate and perform his prostrations. Stephen Batchelor told me once that he often wakes at 4 am to meditate for two hours, exercise, eat breakfast, and then write for the next six hours on subjects that are awakened in his mind during those early morning periods of contemplation. It is not just those that have dedicated their lives to a full-time traditional practice that develop spiritual-based lives, but many lay people have also found ways to engage their beliefs and practice too. And in doing so, they have enriched not only their own quality of life, but those of others as well. But it does start with an awakening that you also can do this. It is not just Buddhist or Christian monks or nuns that have found this particular path of commitment. The common thread of all these diverse practices is the inner work that is slowly changing them from within. Each has embarked on the journey to the place of realization that promotes human flourishing. All are exploring who they really are beyond mere social identities and roles assigned by society, family, or even their faith. The vast majority of them will not give up the struggle but will press on until they are freed from within and set loose from this world of illusion. Set loose even from the need of a structured traditional platform, which only acts as a supporting frame until the spiritual structure is established. As for myself, I have been on this journey for a long time, in fits and starts. Constantly seeking the path even if it was not in the forefront of my consciousness. And after years of searching and study, I have found the answer I have been looking for, and have taken the step onto the path up the mountain, a mountain with many paths. And in the end, for me, it was a natural step, and an easy one at that. My Buddhist practice, and the various ministries I pursue, is as natural as breathing. You do not need to take vows to have a spiritual life, but you do need to have a clear vision of your inner landscape that awakens you to action. This is the task for each one of us. We are all challenged by the call to plunge into seeking the ultimate roots of our identity in the great mystery which is sometimes called “our true natures.”

The core of the spiritual life, the enduring substance of the journey, is the refinement of this inner landscape — humility, egolessness, selflessness — that occurs through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is how we develop the wisdom that guides the inner self to confront the world and relate to others as well as nature. Spiritual practice is the cutting edge of radical interior change and the basis for profound self-knowledge to emerge in our lives, that results in a positive, useful and productive worldview.

The spiritual life is impossible without the insight of humility and a cultivated selfless view of our social roles. What we call the social-self. It saves us from superficiality, and compels us to always be true to ourselves and mindful of others. Humility of purpose forces us to stand on the platform of what we come to know as Universal reality. It is my sad experience that for many Americans, humility is not only undesirable, it is virtually incomprehensible. Those who do not know its nature, view humility as weakness. But humility of character is not about displays of weakness, it is about honesty and self-confidence. It includes modesty about self, but it is essentially a virtue related to giving us power to act compassionately. No other accomplishment in life may compare to this attainment. Humility is closely related to egolessness which is to live out of the depths of the spirit of kindness, mercy, love and compassion. It is really a state of body-mind and a fundamental element in the spiritual journey, and is required for the spiritual life to awaken and prosper. This form of wisdom is summed up by the Tao Te Ching: “The sage has no mind of his own. He is aware of the needs of others.”

Spiritual practice, the work of our transformation, is the means of inner growth and change toward human maturity seen in the best of moral excellence, as we try to live a decent life. This is especially critical in the authentic practice of a spiritual life as we try to relate to multi-faith approaches to spirituality or what Brother Wayne Teasdale called inter-spirituality. Through this habit of relating to the nature of what it means to be human, the transformative nature of how we live our life begins to change how we see the world around us. Without a spiritual practice of some kind, spirituality is a hollow affair; it has no substance and is reduced to the formality of religiosity.

A genuine spiritual practice is only strengthened by periods of contemplation, devotional practice alone is not it. Only such periods of intense practice, as in meditation for example, will lead to interior breakthroughs that provide real progress in the awakening to the dharma. This insight is found in all the spiritual traditions, and marks the difference between a genuine practice as apposed to one of occasional displays of piety. All spiritual practices are transformative, be they various forms of meditation, contemplative thought, prayer, or sacred reading. Even activities as performing liturgy and ritual with intent, music, chanting, yoga, Qigong and certain martial arts, even hiking and walking can all lead to spiritual transformation. They change us from within and make this inner change consistent with our actions in the world. Seekers of every tradition (Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and many others) have cultivated a spiritual practice and have thus cultivated profound knowledge of our Universe. The platforms upon which we choose to stand may influence how we interpret this experience, but the spiritual awakening, as a process, is the same. The common thread is what makes us human, the driving force for seeking the spirit and wonder of our Universe. This is true when cave men looked up at the stars, as it is true today when we study the images of the Hubble telescope.

Spiritual practice shapes our understanding, character, will, personality, attitudes, and actions by enlarging their scope through the light of compassion and love. Thomas Merton, the Christian Trappist monk and Buddhist explorer, became a great teacher to millions because he embraced the daily observance of a contemplative discipline. He did not just talk and write about contemplation, he WAS a contemplative. But he was also a man of the world. And as a result he influenced others profoundly. He counted among his friends, Popes, the Dalia Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, many of the leading Buddhist scholars of his day, as well as the common man. His worldview was truly immense, and made many in the power-elite of the Catholic Church unconformable. His world view was both pragmatic and pluralistic. He often said that faith and theology often got in the way of man’s ability to contemplate his true nature. Contemplative thought was his spiritual practice, and he was always trying to communicate its transformative nature to others. This is a critical aspect of a spiritual practice, engaging others. Thomas Merton was a true bodhisattva, although he was not a Buddhist. It is not important what you are, but how you are.

Spiritual practice is to the contemplative life what food and water is to the body-mind. Just as we can not survive very long without food and water, we can not survive on the spiritual journey without a rigorous meditation practice of some sort. It is the inner source of nourishment and growth. There are as many forms of spiritual practice as there are individuals. As you see, a spiritual practice is unique to the individual. Forms may differ, but the goal is the same: integration and transformation. To achieve authentic spirituality, we must adopt some form of a spiritual practice.

Brother Teasdale identified seven levels of transformation as it relates to development of a spiritual practice: consciousness, the will, the emotions, the character, the imagination, memory, and action. Let me take each of these and try to express in short form my understanding of them from a Buddhist perspective.

First, lets look at consciousness. Our consciousness affects our understanding of life and reality. Through the practice of the spiritual life, our awareness grows and expands allowing us to “take-in” moment to moment what is real around us. The more we are aware of our body-mind interactions, the greater becomes our capacity to understand, to change, and to actualize our potential for human flourishing. As this understanding increases, ignorance dissipates and we can then modify or change the intent of our actions. Enhanced consciousness allows us to make connections, with self and other.

Next our will then responds to this inner change that effects an expanding transformation in our character and behavior. The will becomes stable in the pursuit for common good, in transcending self-centered preferences, so we can respond to others with selfless understanding.

Our controlled emotions achieve a greater stability and order. They no longer operate on their own, but are brought into harmony with the integrated body-mind. With the help of a strong meditation practice, our emotions now serve the spiritual journey, and they no longer are a source of distraction.

The change in consciousness, will, and the emotions gradually habituates our character to be reshaped in and by the moral and ethical values our inner journey engenders. Our character then makes the shift from self-centered preoccupation, from ignorance to wisdom, from human limitation to the liberating power of recognizing the nature of a social-self. Our character takes on the form and substance of virtue. Our person then takes on the character of wisdom, compassion, and kindness. What is interesting about this transformation is that we start to project a type of attraction that others relate to in a positive and constructive way.

Our imagination, like our emotions and feelings, is tied to our understanding, will, character, memory, and actions to form an integral and effective center for our willing, knowing, acting, and being in the moment. Our imagination is not performing in its own field ignoring what is happening in our inner life. It is in harmony with our will and intention. Our imagination is no longer roaming free, but has a purpose and focus inline with our spiritual practice.  Memory is at the service of our inner growth. It no longer sits in isolation, wallowing in what it thinks as its hurts or injustices, but becomes completely present to the NOW experience (to use a Zen phrase).

A mature integrated spiritual practice transforms our actions and behavior to be in harmony with compassion and practical wisdom, and allows us to be aware of the suffering of others and the appropriate responses to that suffering. Our actions become consistent with our virtues, and we can not longer act in isolation from what we have realized. We must act from our inner life and from wisdom. This is the life of a bodhisattva.

All the great examples of lives lived out of compassion throughout history, in all traditions, attest to the relationship between inner transformation and outer action. If they are not in harmony, if they are not consistent, then the relationship and the transformation are either inauthentic or incomplete.

All spiritual practice is ultimately about this inner development that reaches fruition in selfless compassion, mercy and kindness. All spiritual practices — numerous forms of meditation, spiritual reading, reflection, affective prayer, music, art, dance, walking, yoga, the martial arts, contemplation, or chanting the names of god — are directly related to self-knowledge and inner transformation. We can not ignore the overwhelming evidence that these practices bring to inner change, and over the ages they stand as a witness to their value and efficacy to lead us to a complete reversal of the old self, addicted to selfishness and the notion of the false-self. Following this path is not easy, but no better way to lasting happiness and tranquility of peace of body-mind exists, from my experience. All spiritual paths lead finally to this place that transcends all we thought we knew before.

🙏🏼

©️ OEB 2019

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How Universal Realities Are To Be Experienced

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

I often think how wonderful it would be to be one of those persons that truths are communicated directly to them with little effort without the means of symbols or words, but by their very nature. These types of truths, or what I prefer to call realities, often seem to me to be more like shadows that take a lot of time to study and consider in order to make manifest to an awakened mind. But for some, they seem to consider recognizing realities to be a simple process. This should be a warning to the rest of us to be cautious of those that give little considerations to what is real or not real. The Universe is a complex place to live in, not to mention the complexity of the very world around us. By taking the short route in the thinking process is putting us at risk in getting stuck in the weeds. A strong practice is working to guide us away from the swamp of clouded views.

In my teaching experience I often engage students that try to split hairs about all sorts of mysterious problems which do not concern us greatly, especially in the beginning of confronting Buddhist thought and the core principles. It is not our job to solve the bigger philosophical problems before we can clear away our mind’s filters that distort how we see the world around us in this very moment. We humans are so easily distracted we forget the questions which should really matter to us in our search for personal and social flourishing, but instead concentrate on what is mere curiosity and often a waste of time.

We should avoid the busy work of dividing up things of curiosity or interest trying to find the “right classification” in which to place them, and just open our mind to how the Dharma is speaking to us in each moment when we work to clear the mind of these unnecessary thoughts, and just listen in silence. Just sit in silence and really listen. All Universal expressions our interconnected and interdependent and have one voice for us if we can only practice to hear. Without this, understanding that helps to approach wisdom beyond wisdom is next to impossible. Until all things become one, it is tricky to deal with the two. In a way, it is about one act of vision, seeing with the mind’s eye through all kinds of individual forms so we can see the unity of all things. When that is possible, the clouds of illusion are lifted and we can experience the unity of realities that are shining all around us, in their individual forms. Not just things.

So I would say to those that want to expound on what truths are without the profound process of a dedicated practice to the study of dharma, not just from a Buddhist perspective or the metaphysical, hold your tongues you learned folks. I honor science greatly, but science alone is only good for answering the how and what, but not the why. Once we can integrate our disciplined practice with the study and validated experiences of the external realities will our inner life become simplified and richer in the deeper knowledge of knowing. This in turn will simplify our intentions in seeing Dharma beyond the use of language to gain understanding. We move away from the distractions of the intellectual process alone. We need more then just thinking we know realities, we must experience them, and thinking alone is not it. But there is also a danger here to be aware of. There is no worse enemy to our understanding of realities as they are revealed to us than the undisciplined affections of our own heart. Humans love to fall in love, and falling in love with the notion of Dharma is dangerous. It may lead to one of the most critical of delusions, and thus, suffering. We must learn to craft the skill of right reason. This is one of the critical skillful-means skills a student of Buddhism must learn. It is a skill that is encompassing and corrective in it’s very nature.

In our causal world where all things are subject to change, there is no such thing as “the perfect.” Perfecting, yes, but the notion of perfect suggests something is above change, no. We find no absolute perfection in this world, always realities are subject to change. So our guesses at the truth can never be more than light obscured by shadow. There is no reason why we should quarrel with learning or with any straightforward pursuit of knowledge. It is all good as far as it goes, but remember Dharma is about change. Realities are true until further understanding changes their parameters. We should approach learning and teaching about realities with a clear conscience that recognizes “how the Universe is” is ultimately beyond absolute knowing. Humans have limitations no matter how enriched our awareness is. 

How often the worldly pursuit of less important knowledge has brought man to ruin by distracting others from actual awakened understanding. The only educated man is one who has learned to abandon his own self-nature in order to awaken to Universal-nature. And that is not an easy process.

Remember, in the Universe everything changes, everything is connected, pay attention!

🙏🏼

©️OEB 2019

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Merging of Differences: A Single But Shared Experience

By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

One of the most fundamental and central core Buddhist teaching is that of interdependence and interconnectiveness. They are the major threads that help weave the fabric for understanding the principle of Dependent Origination (mutual-causality). In the Mahayana Buddhist traditions we might also say Inter-dependent Origination. The other two additional treads for consideration would be the core principle of impermanence and anatman (nonself). The Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, uses the words “inter-being” to represent this connectiveness we share with all other Universal expressions. All methods aiming at our realization of an awakened bodymind has its origin in our understanding these Buddhist philosophical principles. This takes all our effort at skillful means to achieve the wisdom necessary to see both our independent-self, and our inter-shared-being that is what we call our Buddha nature. As we begin to merge how we see the world around us with what we see as difference, we also awaken to the reality that this Buddha nature is also Dharma. No making distinction.

We must, therefore, learn to see reality as merging these differences and unite them in a seamless fashion that makes their independent form vanish. It is then that we begin to see the “big picture”. Think of it like solving a picture puzzle. All the individual pieces are arrayed in front of us, and each has a different shape, no two are alike. That is the nature of a picture puzzle after all. But the true “nature” of the puzzle is when all the pieces are put together in order to give it meaning. When we fit the pieces together, all those next to the piece being merged fit the way they were meant to be. And when that happens, we no longer see the form of each piece. The form, while having its usefulness, comes into its own when it works with all the other pieces to create a functioning whole. This is what I mean when I say it is empty of form, or beyond form. Even better stated: empty of its individual forms. The individual pieces do not go away, but just become “one” with the puzzle. But for it to be a picture puzzle, the individual pieces have great value too. In other words, we need to see one reality in two ways, which is the origin of how Siddhartha came to realize difference and unity.

In Zen, when we use the terms “Buddha Nature” or “one mind” we are speaking about the oneness of the Universe. Or about the puzzle, not its peaces. But this one-mind is a collection of many different things, and yet the reality is that it is simply one. We awaken to seeing no distinction or separation within this one reality. We stop seeing the individual pieces of a puzzle, and only see the greater image it shows back to us. But you see, individuality does not disappear, either with each of us humans, or the pieces of the puzzle for that matter. It just means that we do not discriminate between individual form, which is also necessary for us to get through our day. 

A meaning of the puzzle does not exist outside it’s individual pieces. When understanding interconnectiveness and interdependence it is important to realize that we too are a combination of difference AND unity. So, from one perspective we are an individual self, and on the other hand, we are completely interdependent with all other phenomena for our very existence. As Buddhists we work to understand this contradiction by seeing it from both directions simultaneously as a single reality.

From the very beginning of our existence we experience aloneness, we must go through the birthing process alone. Yes, we have company and share the experience with our mother, but we do not know that yet. While it might “take a village” to raise a child, we live alone and must find out how to manage our connections with others in useful and productive ways, living a life is something that requires our own energy, focus, and determination. No one can do it for us. And when we die we are really alone too. But yet, we can never be completely alone either. There are two aspects of our lives: independence and interdepdendence. It is not a matter of separate aspects of our lives. Our whole life is individual and yet is completely dependent on others for our well being. When we do not learn the value of this lesson, we open ourselves up to much suffering. If we don’t understand and awaken to this reality, we become mentally and physically unhealthy. This is especially a problem in Western cultures, as we place much emphasis on individualism and the notion of a false sense of freedom.

There is a danger interwoven into the potential of a rigorous Zen practice. For some, they try to go beyond seeing the value of their individuality. They work to “become one with the Universe”, because they still have not seen that they have never been separated from it. There is nothing to subtract. Merging with differences and trying to achieve unity IS NOT IT. This is not enlightenment. When we see our individual self we are not enlightened. When we see we are united with all things, we are not enlightened either. Even when we have enlightened moments we must be cautions in understanding what is happening. An ordinary life (samsara) or a liberated life (nirvana) are not two separate realities. With form, or without form, living in delusion or being awakened, is not different as this is the teaching of emptiness. All of this is still thinking. We can not think our way to enlightenment. When we sit zazen we are both an individual and universal. The trick is not to let our egos tell us differently. When Dogen said, “Practice and enlightenment is one,” he is saying that our practice is our own and enlightenment is universal. There is no separation between my awakened state of mind and another’s, but my practice is my own. I can not practice for someone else. My practice is a very personal intentional action, which when done with a clear mind, is manifestation of how the Universe is. So zazen is the merging of difference and unity. When we sit and let go of all thought, we are expressing our own unity with all things. We use the experience of our meditation practice to inform us of how to act “off the cushion.” Meditation is the act in which we realize our universal unity as well as work to realize how we can promote our personal well being, and take both lessons into everyday life situations.  After all, that is what being human is all about.  

🙏🏼

©️OEB 2019

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Let The Botton Fall Out Of The Bucket

By: Rev. Jim Kearse, OEB

There is an old story that goes something like this: 

Chiyono was a worker in a convent. She wanted to gain enlightenment so she struggled hard, night and day, with her mind set only on the sight of liberation. All she practised, all she thought about, was to reach the source of mind before all thought. She struggled hard.

One night under a full moon, she went to get a bucket of water. On her way back she was watching the reflection of the moon on the water in the bucket. Suddenly the bottom of the bucket broke open. All of the water spilled out onto the ground and disappeared. The reflection of the moon was gone.

 Chiyono was suddenly enlightened. She wrote a poem to describe her experience:

This way and that way
I tried to keep the pail together
Hoping the weak bamboo
Would never break.
Suddenly the bottom fell out:
No more water:
No more moon in the water:
Emptiness in my hand!

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The story of Chiyono and her bucket is a good example of what we do frequently in daily life. The bucket is a representation of our mind and the reflection of the moon is a representation of what we imagine things to be like and what we imagine is the reflection in a bucket that we carry back and forth along the path of our life. When the bucket broke, this was Chiyono’s mind letting go of her pre-conceived ideas. Chiyono suddenly understood; we don’t need to hold on to our ideas, we simply need to observe what is actually around us in real life.

Just like Chiyono, when we strive to get something, we imagine what it must be like and we strive to achieve it. We make up the criteria and struggle to meet it. But since we’ve invented the end goal and made up what we think it should look like, we can never reach the goal because reality seldom matches our imagination! We spend our time looking at the reflection of the moon in the bucket rather than looking up at the real moon in the sky!

So we need to allow our bucket to break open, to allow our minds to simply let go of the ideas we are holding onto. We hold onto our ideas so tightly that we are blinded to anything else except our fabricated views of reality. Take a deep breath, calm down. Allow life to be what it is rather than what we want it to be.

©️ OEB 2019

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Reflecting The Buddha Within

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

When our practice has cultivated a deep sense of connectiveness with how we think and behave, we are positioned to understand the importance of experiencing each situation we encounter as being interpreted by our dispositions (how we are). It is therefore vital that we develop trains of thought that define our worldview in order to be ready when situations arise demanding our involvement and perfected insight. This is why we study and train our body-mind in meditation. While we go through our daily routines, we practice in order to be open for accepting whatever situation arises conditioned by universal realities. The reality of the human condition is such that we react from established conditional expectations, and not from nowhere.

When we observe Zen masters it is easy to consider that their responsive actions are spontaneous, but what we are really observing is a highly cultivated and mature set of dispositions that have been honed over decades of practice and keen observance of the world around them. Their training has been internalized and embodies the “Buddha within.” When it appears that someone’s actions seem to be spontaneous, we know from contemporary scientific research and controlled observation that genuine spontaneity is a result of dedicated training and internalized skillful means that is being reflected in their actions.

Each situation is unique and arises from its own historical causal-chain. There is no cookie cutter aspect to how we should engage with the world around us. This is the foundation to Buddhist ethics. Each situation should be considered and responded to situationally. My root teacher, Dr. Eubanks Sensei, reflected on this reality and said, “As contingently arisen human beings, we have a specific biopsychosocial blueprint from which we must work, and effective engagement with our world arises from an acute recognition of how we are.” We can not escape this reality of what it means to be human. This is why it is vital for us to understand why we react the way we do, and refine our behavior to align with productive actions that promotes positive change. If we don’t learn this important lesson we will continually fall short of our intentional expectation. 

An authentic real-life Buddha is someone who values the reality of their causal Universe and applies these lessons in every day life situations that reflects a strong recognition of what the social-self is all about. This recognition values the connection of the self with others and fuels a life of altruistic positive engagement. When we become aware of how causality is interwoven throughout each situation we encounter, we begin to know what drives our daily success. This daily success arises from a routine of thoughtful preparedness. In order to achieve this state of being it is important to cultivate a practice of readiness, and this can be best achieved by using the elements in the “Buddhist toolbox” as my dharma brother, Wayne Hughes Sensei, would say. We learn to develop dispositions for daily success. Like those Zen masters, we too can become relaxed as we engage the world around us as we trod our daily routines. When our normal disposition is calm and mindful we get things done without creating anxiety and unsatisfactoriness. Buddhism is all about subtraction, not addition. We work to subtract all those characteristics that work against liberation from suffering that we have adopted over a lifetime of adding on to what we think we want and need, to a life driven by a more simple way of engaging those around us. It is easy when we get our self out of the way. And when we achieve this state of practice, we reflect the Buddha within.

🙏🏼

©️ OEB 2019

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I/We, One or Many?

By: Rev. Shi Shen-Jin

Years ago the US Army ran an ad campaign to recruit new comers with the slogan ”Be an Army of One”  This always struck me as a little odd, because what if all those armies of one just decide to do their own thing?   Sounds a lot like a bit of chaos.  What they were trying to say was join the Army, keep your individuality.  But can that really work?  What about in our own Sangha’s?  Can we be a Buddhist of One or do we need something more?

In historical times and even today in the East the Sangha is mostly monastics.  They wear the same clothes, live together, work together and pretty much live in uniformity.  But here in the West we don’t really have much of that.   First off most practitioners are not monks or clerics at all, but simply lay persons.  Secondly many Buddhist teachers are not living behind the walls of temple or monastery.  It brings a unique set of circumstances and challenges as we seek to practice here in the West.    

The “modern day” Sangha is less a group of monastics than a group or community of practitioners. So as clerical leaders how can we be successful in spreading the Dharma just as Siddhartha did in his day?  Most of us in OEB all lead a local Sangha of our own.  So the first thing is we must start with the general public.  We must constantly remind ourselves that we are of service to them, caring for them and enabling them to realize human flourishing from the Buddha’s teaching according to their own needs and places in life.   Since the days when Siddhartha left his palace Buddhism has relied on the public.  He might have come from privilege and royalty and wealth.  But the people he encountered were ordinary people, just as we will encounter in our own Sangha’s.  

As we seek to be “Agents for Change” in our communities and beyond it has to start with the individuals in our Sangha’s.  While we are not resident monastics, and the majority of the make-up of students is lay followers, we can all interact closely and move in the same practiced direction.  Buddhism practiced in a unified manner is the essence of Buddhist values.  As we move forward in this New Year let me challenge you to embrace individuals in a way that acts to enable them toward human flourishing in new and constructive ways beyond their ordinary experiences.  There is an old saying attributed to the Buddha “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  May we all stand at the ready with open hearts and open doors for all who need to enter.

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Contemplative vs. Meditative Life Practices

 

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

The term meditation is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the perfected practice of contemplation.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic contemplative traditions either than a kind of common understanding that attempts to elevate such a practice above the ordinary Buddhist practitioner by initiating him into a realm of esoteric knowledge and  experience.  And tries to deliver him from the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevating him to the privileged state among the “spiritually pure,” as if he were almost an enlightened ox, untouched by matters and passion alien to the realities of the Four Noble Truths and no longer familiar with the controlled-conscious state of mind that drives everyday human activities.  

While it is often common to find meditation sessions within a Sangha or public space, especially among lay practitioners, the state of practice of a contemplative is more often accomplished in solitude during moments of self-searching where the uncontrolled-conscious state has found a place of refuge within a mind perfected during mindful meditation practices.  The way of genuine contemplation brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the contemplative moment for its own purpose.  This is why it is most important to prepare for our contemplative practice by way of mindful meditation in order to quite the ego-mind state so we can be free from the stresses of the false self.  This kind of false self is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in self imposed unsatisfactoriness. 

This is why a dedicated life of contemplation has generally been done in a monastic community. However, my root teacher often would say that our Buddhist practice, our meditative life in this modern era, is often done outside the walls of a monastery, thus the “world becomes our  monastery.”  This kind of worldly life in its own way promotes an illusory distance to ordinary distractions when our contemplative practice establishes some kind of barrier for us to utilize in our moments of solitude.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more bearable because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes, and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine self forgetfulness that can also promote spiritual energy that sustains a contemplative practiced life.  

Underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life.  This self questioning can never be without a certain existential dread, a sense of insecurity that if we are not careful can divide our spiritual being away from the reality that we are all struggling with how to be human at the same time.  In more advanced practices of meditation and contemplation we must become aware not to be distracted with thoughts that we are being untrue not so much to abstract moral or cultural norms but to one’s own inmost truths as everyday common experiences seep into our contemplating thoughts.  This can promote thinking that we are living a lie, that we are only pretending to live up to the ideals of what a contemplative life should be, not what we are doing is.  

True embrace of moments of silence is the answer to thoughts we are living a lie.  Within silence we will find the energy to move toward wisdom beyond wisdom.  As we move closer to this reality, we do so by being more empty of what we thought the world required of us.  This reinforces that Buddhism is a practice of subtraction not addition.  Therefore those of us that have adopted the contemplative practiced life enters into communion with this silence that moves through us into our world for the benefit of all beings.  

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Confidence Trumps Knowledge In Our Practice

By: David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

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 form his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind got my attention. I have not thought of my practice in this way before. Not knowledge, but confidence is what we should cultivate is what Suzuki is stressing. This emphases on confidence over knowledge can be a strong agent for change. It asks the question, “Do we really believe what we know?“ 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. Focusing rather on our personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, as well as the personal practice toward human flourishing are considered more essential for coming to a realized state of body-mind.

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 exchanging the word ‘understanding’ to ‘confidence’ is that it places focus on the importance of acceptance of what we are learning as we practice. Not just on knowing by analysis 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 uncontrolled conscious state 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. 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, 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 and foundation of our practice, each moment presents the possibly of us walking around with a monkey-mind in the weeds. The Buddha talked often about this possibility from his own experience both before and after awakening. 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 confidence-in-practice.

So our Buddhist practice is not just based on informative and intellectual understanding and study, metaphysical beliefs, or faith alone. It is through actual action-practice, not by reading or contemplation of philosophical constructs alone 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.

©️OEB 2019 First posted on March 2014

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Sacredness of Work

By: David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

I would like to speak to you today about one of the lessons in the Buddha’s teachings on the Eightfold Path. And that one is on right livelihood. In fact I would like to modify the description by changing the word “right” with encompassing and corrective. By doing so I am being both pragmatic and also modernizing the language. “Right” becomes two words, encompassing reminds us that our actions will have wide ranging effects, positive, negative or neutral, and corrective reminds us that these are the actions necessary to make positive changes necessary in order to move away from unsatisfactoriness and discontentment.

When we consider livelihood, or the major activity we engage in to sustain our own and our family’s welfare, as individuals on a spiritual path, we must also think of it as the sacredness of work. Just as time orders and measures our life’s activities, work orders our life’s purpose and the resources we require. Our work contains an innate dignity when it is truly connected to self — when our creativity finds concrete expression in what we do, how we shape our environment, in the fruits of our efforts. Work is sacred and uplifting when it springs from who we are, when it bears a relationship to our unfolding journey. For work to be sacred, it must be connected to our spiritual awareness. Our work has to represent our passion, our desire to contribute to our culture, especially to the development of others. By passion I mean the talents we have to share with others, the talents that shape our destiny and allow us to be of real service to others in our community.

It is this balance that enhances the sacredness of work, because it allows our talents, our innate creative passions to express themselves positively for the benefits of others. The root of this balance is purity of INTENTION: the state of the heart itself, that point within the depths of our subjectivity from where motivation springs. It is a noble aspiration to contribute to the improvement of the world in some meaningful way. It’s simply not enough to be successful economically; our lives have to possess meaning and value in relation to our community. I will repeat what you have heard me say before, we our social-selves first and foremost. This goes to the lesson on interdependence and connection with others that is how we can see ourselves as expressions of the Universe.

For someone walking a spiritual path and practice, work plays a central role, as our work should be, or nearly always will be, meaningful. All our activities require regular, creative effort — the real key to meaningful work. As long as what we do is good for the world, the important thing is that we do it well, with a creative and discipline mind always returning to the larger good. Labor is a disciplined activity, and while engaged in it, we strive to be conscious of our purpose, and the outcomes of our actions.

Now as you know I am not a temple monk anymore, but one that lives in the world. My root teacher use to say, “My life is my monastery.” In fact, it is not unusual for either a Christian or Buddhist monk to live away from their monastery. I strive to be equally self sufficient in both my contemplative living and how I work and interact in my community; for my community. I am very fortunate to have variety in how my practice becomes “my work.” No matter what I do I strive to make my work sacred. It has not always been that way. And I have been just as caught up in struggling to achieve success as most everyone else. Especially my “work” as a writer/author, teacher, spiritual leader and Interfaith Chaplain. But I have accepted a different frame of mind mostly as a result of my dedicated meditation practice. You do not have to be a monk, or spiritual leader, or a priest to find the sacredness of work. It is found in any work you are engaged in, as long as it does not promote unsatisfactoriness.

For this to manifest within our commitment to earning a living, our task is always the same: to bring light to an activity and dimension of our ordinary experience that is often darkened by the uncaring coldness of the economic realities in our culture. Consistency in each moment and experience is the goal, not the fragmented existence that oppresses our culture these days. Consistency through the discipline of a spiritual life and the application to our work and the people we meet is the ultimate goal in career and work. When we meditate on a consistent basis we develop the capacity for developing a state of calm, even serenity. When that is brought into the work place it both effects how you approach your tasks, as well as all those you come in contact with. It is motivating and enhances the encompassing and corrective actions we strive to maintain. It is a single mindedness that guides us into a steadiness of action, a habit of spiritual life that colors our work, our family, our friendships, and all our interests.

Perspective, the gift of vision, gives us a powerful determination to live out of the center of our awareness. Determination is the key. And how do we increase our determination? We need to become more single minded in our practice, to develop and maintain the requisite perspective in every situation. I continue to strive toward that goal. It is not easy, but with practice, achieving some positive results will come. Ultimately all our activities are opportunities for growth, including the important function of work.

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