Current Events Through The Lens Of The Four Nobel Truths

[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:

I want

I need

I hate

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

Mine them

Engage them

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.


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The Last Words Of Christ

“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.

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A Day Of Right Speech

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.    



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Spring For Change

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

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Buddhist Encounters On The Inter-Spiritual Journey

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.  


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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.



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Dogen’s Discourse #439

[Dharma Hall Discourse on the Buddha Nature Beyond Conditions and a commentary by Rev. David Shen-Xi  Astor, Sensei]


“All tathagatas are without Buddha nature, but at the same time, previously they have fully accomplished true awakening. Bodhisattvas studying the way should know how Buddha nature produces the conditions for Buddha nature.”


There is much said and written about “Buddha nature.” Maybe to much. In my experience it may be one of the most misunderstood terms that has arisen from Buddhism moving to the West. I get the question often, especially when I ask for general questions from the Sangha. My answers very in approach depending on who is asking the question. The answer to this question needs to be influenced by the state of the questioners practice. Today I take another opportunity to speak about it.  Master Dogen, in his effort to teach about Buddha nature, is pointing to the very essence of how the Universe expresses itself.

He begins by stating that all tathagatas are without Buddha nature although they have arrived in the state of an awakened mind. A tathagata is one that has achieved awakening as to the nature of the Universe, as did Siddhartha Gotama. Being in such a state of this unconditioned conscious condition is coming to realize through moments of perfected insight one’s own “true” nature as is expressed in our human form. In the second sentence Dogen is saying it is important for those that have vowed to work hard to become awakened to how the Universe is, to also understand how could Buddha nature produce the conditions for Buddha nature.  Perhaps this is another one of those Buddhist paradoxes. 

We can go about interpreting this discourse by looking at how Dogen spoke about the topic in his other writings. In Shobogenzo’s essay “Buddha Nature,” he makes the reference as, “being Buddha nature and non-being Buddha nature.” I like the use of “being” in this reference. In the first sentence when referencing all tathagatas, he is putting forth the meaning of “non-being Buddha nature”. In the second sentence, he is making the other reference as “Buddha nature produces the conditions for Buddha nature”. Interesting enough he may be also making the case that there is no such thing as Buddha nature, since a thing cannot be its own cause. In other words, an object being the subject of its own self.

If we accept Dogen’s use of the term “being Buddha nature,” we might understand this lesson as indicating that Buddha nature is unconditioned. Consider that in this state of being an object can not exist beyond its own causal circumstances.

Consider that we go down to the ocean with a glass jar. We dip the jar into the water and fill it up. We then sit down and contemplate our glass jar’s contents. Is it the ocean? Well, not really. Why? Although it has some of the key natural elements of “ocean”, it lacks the ability to function as ocean. In many ways it has lost its original causal nature. We can say it is “empty” of ocean. It has no wave action, no sea life, no variance of salient content, no tidal interaction with the moon, so on. Yet, it has expressions of dharma nonetheless. While it doesn’t have the nature and function of ocean, it does have elements that still are expressing the interconnectiveness of Universe, (thus Buddha nature). Now let us walk back to the ocean and pour the contents from the jar back into the sea. Is it now “ocean?” Has it been restored to its original nature?

Our practice is like this, our awakening body-mind is like this. Our enlightened state can be like this. Buddha nature is not something to get, or lose. This Buddha nature Master Dogen is expressing is also the reality in zazen which is the same as the state of an awakened body-mind.   It is a state where the Universe looks into its own eyes.

Note: This dharma hall discourse comes from the Eihei Koroku, and was given in the Fall of the year 1249. Like many of Dogen’s discourses, this one also is very short put packed with meaning. It is # 439.

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What Does Taking Vows Mean?

By: Venerable Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna, OEB

A Dharma talk given during the Fall Leadership Retreat 2020

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

One of the traditional Buddhist practices or approaches to practice is taking vows. So what does taking vows mean? Other words could be commitment, or dedication. I want to talk about its use as a specific physical practice.

The Bodhisattva Way of practicing together to help support and realize universal liberation is to express and actualize our caring for all beings. Paradoxically, the style in Soto Zen practice is to start with the highest vows, as well as the highest form of meditation. So we begin from these inconceivable vows: to free all beings; to cut through all delusions; to enter all of the gateways to truth; and to realize the Buddha way. This ultimate level of vow may seem like some fairy tale or fantasy. But how we actually carry that out is connected to very practical, everyday vows. Both levels arrive together. The ultimate vow is to free all living beings, to awaken together with all beings, to be willing to just be ourselves, sitting here on our cushions, and to see everything arising together. We see how in various ways we support each other, or don’t support each other, or get all tangled up together. It is just that here we are, together. Maybe another word for vow is willingness. This includes our dedication and intention to practice uprightly together, and allows something to happen within which we are all connected.

Again, these four inconceivable vows that we chant are not in the realm of ordinary human activity. They go beyond. And yet they are connected to us. One of the ways to talk about this ultimate vow of freeing all beings is also to see ourselves in an ultimate way. What is, for you, the most important thing? This is our practice as we sit facing the wall, trying to sit upright, being present until the bell rings. As we sit, naturally thoughts and feelings arise, intentions appear. We see all of the ways in which our mind is jumbled around. Suzuki Roshi used to ask, “What is the most important thing?” The most important thing may be different for each of us. The most important thing could be different today than it is tomorrow. The most important thing may change during a period of zazen. But there must be this consideration of what is really important to me. What is my life about? This is the same level as freeing all beings. How can we give a name to the meaning of this precious, wonderful, impermanent life? Just to look at what means the most to us is an important part of our practice, and connects to this ultimate vow. How do we free all living beings? How do I find what I want to do with this life? It is alive, and changing.

Suzuki Roshi also said that the most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing. But it is also important to find out what are the fairly important things. Perhaps there is not one single most important thing. Maybe we can never say what that most important thing is; but sometimes we can. I have heard people say what the most important thing is for them. But it might change. We should also investigate what are some of the important things. What really matters to you as you sit there on your cushion, trying to be upright, inhaling, and exhaling?

How is this related to Mahayana Buddhist practice of the basic vows we chant? “I vow to enable people to understand the truth of the origin of suffering” This is about my delusions, and of course everybody else’s delusions, the government’s and the culture’s delusions; delusions are everywhere. “I vow to enable people to peacefully settle down in the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.” Actually there are innumerable paths to enter into reality, into truth, into caring, into being this person right now, and into freeing all beings. Such paths are as plentiful and numberless as the delusions. Maybe they are not different from the delusions. Every delusion, every hang-up, every problem, may also be an opportunity or pathway into awakening to universal realities.

Finally, “I vow to enable people to attain Nirvana.” Buddhist practice is not one thing.. It is a way or path. Dogen from his “Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas” essay: “Just experience the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha.” There is a vital process, a path, and it is alive. How do we realize it? How do we turn toward it? How do we remember: oh yes, I said I wanted to practice awakening, and here I am. In a way, this is most alive when we realize that we have not been taking care of what is really important to us.

I have been speaking about the level of ultimate vow. But the actual practice of vow, as a practice, can be very specific and concrete. Vowing is one of the transcendent practices that also include the practice of generosity, the practice of patience, the practice of meditation, the practice of prajna or wisdom, and the practice of knowledge, which is knowing how to enact our practice intention. Vow is a specific practice that we can actually work on, just like we endlessly work on how to be generous with ourselves and others, how to be patient with all of the problems of the world and all the problems on our own seat. We can actually take on this practice of vow. This practice is not just the ultimate vow to free all beings, but part of how we do that is to take on particular practices, particular limited commitments, such as sitting here in a retreat. Committing to studying with a teacher on a weekly basis. We have an intention and we try and do it. There can be innumerable kinds of things we can take on as actual practices, various large and small projects, whatever you see that needs to be done. If a fence is needed over there, we might see if we can build it. Once we are engaged in the level of ultimate, inconceivable vow, then very specific, concrete activities are part of the practice of commitment or vow.

Vow always becomes relevant in early January, because we may make New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes these can be frivolous, but New Year’s resolutions are a way of enacting the practice of vow in our culture. There are many gateways to Dharma, even in our primitive, corrupt culture. Of course we can take on a New Year’s resolution any month of the year. Any time we could take a resolution for a week or a month or a year or a lifetime. But people think about it when it is January 1st.

I have some resolutions that I’ve decided I would try and act on this year and into the next I  a resolution to try and manage my different activities more effectively. I am trying to use my time more effectively. So that is a New Year’s resolution. Who knows if I actually will be able to do that? But I am going to try.

I’m sure some of you have these kinds of practical resolutions. Whether New Year’s resolutions or not, they are projects, specific limited commitments, that we try to take on. We all wonder how to take care of the things around us in the world. How do we take care of family and friends? How do we take care of the things that we want to do?

This level of what is important includes many things. It includes something as simple as making sure to get exercise every week, or calling a friend that you haven’t spoken to in a long time. There are lots of things that come up if we are looking at what is my intention, what am I up to. They can be wonderful bodhisattva activities, or they can be ordinary things. We have many different things that we want to do.

Part of this practice is to bring into consciousness the things we want. You may think that you don’t have any resolutions, that you don’t have any particular vows. But actually, unconsciously we have many. We have things that we think we should do. We have patterns going back to our childhood that we may not be aware of, but that are our habitual modes of conduct. When we actually take on vow as a practice, and say, for example, I am going to be more generous in giving my time and resources to others, taking that on as a conscious intentional vow, when we consider our intentions, we can also see our unintentional vows. There are things we do habitually that maybe we do not need to do, or maybe we do not really want to do. But we still think we should do them. Maybe such an intention has actually helped get us somewhere, but perhaps we no longer need to do that. Maybe it was a good thing to do for a while, but now I don’t need it. When we are aware of our intentions, we can see them, and we have a choice. 

We each have various vows already. So in the practice of sitting still and examining what is important to us, what we care about, we can see our unconscious habitual vows. And when we see them we have a chance decide whether we really want to do that. Maybe you do. But it is not about what you think you should be doing, but what is it you really want to do. Freeing all living beings is not something that you should do because somebody else says you should. Ending all delusions is not something that I think you should do, or Buddha thinks you should do, or Suzuki Roshi thinks you should do. We chant those vows because then we have a chance to see whether that is a path we want to be near. We may not know how to do it. We may not know how to be more generous. But we can decide that is something we want to try and do. When we start to do that, we see all the ways that we are caught by habits. Substituting a limited positive intention, vow, or commitment may be like assuming a positive addiction. Positive does not mean that it is necessarily good according to somebody else’s idea, but we can say I myself really want to do that. We can weigh these choices against the background of the Three Pure Precepts.

The practice of conscious vow is a little like ritual practice. Even though that’s a different realm of practice than vow, it’s quite comparable in terms of this aspect of arousing consciousness. We sometimes chant the Heart Sutra, which ends with this old traditional Sanskrit mantra supposed to have beneficial effects: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha.” We chant other teaching Sutras, etc in English, and sometimes a phrase may strike us. You can use that as a mantra, a phrase you say silently to remind yourself of something.” We may not know what it means, but that does not matter. Or it could be a line from a popular song, such as: “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.” When we do this practice of repeating some teaching as an intentional conscious mantra, we may see the other mantras that are there, our unconscious mantras, negative mantras about ourselves or the world. We may unconsciously be telling ourselves: I can’t do that; I don’t want to see those people; I don’t want to say hello to that person.

The practical aspect, connected to the ultimate level of freeing all beings, is actually taking on some very limited specific practice. It may be saying, “Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely,” or just saying hello to people. Try taking on some intentional specific physical practice, something we actually do, like going and visiting a friend who’s sick. These practices are endless.

This is actually how we put our zazen to work. For a while I have been discussing zazen as more than just sitting on a cushion. As we are sitting, naturally this body and mind is expressing our Buddha nature. No matter what posture we are in, how we are expresses something, always. When we take the position of the Buddha it expresses a particular kind of openness, awareness, and uprightness. And when we are willing to do that, to be upright and just be present with ourselves and face ourselves, not running away from who we are, it allows a connection to other activities in our life.. One way to do that is this practice of vow. So this practice of vow is a way of specifically joining our own energies, our own expressive personal Buddha nature, to the kind of deep connection that we have some access to in zazen. This is so even if you are sitting for forty minutes wondering when the bell is going to ring, and wanting to move around because your knee is hurting. Even in a so-called difficult period of zazen, still there’s something going on that is deeper than your idea of whether this is a great period of zazen, or a difficult period of zazen. 

Maybe calling this “vow” sounds too big, too serious. Just make a commitment to something, even if some of us are nervous about commitments. How do we decide to take on something? Again, it might be just going to a Dharma talk, or going for a walk this afternoon. It could be a very small thing. But we actually decide, I’m going to do that. Then we do it. This strengthens our zazen. This strengthens our connection to freeing all living beings.

In Buddhism we have various ways to check ourselves in this practice. The precepts are also a way of looking at our practice of specific vows and universal vow. There are ways to remind ourselves of what our deepest zazen mind wants to do. Formally when people take the precepts they make a vow to follow these precepts. So we have a little ceremony, and people receive a Dharma name. This is a kind of vow practice. But the precepts are reminders of how awakening expresses itself, and the values we feel in that experience. We see our inner intention to not be harmful to ourselves or others, and to lessen harm in the world. And we see our own direction to generosity and tolerance.

The precepts are not about how you should not do this or that. They are actually ways of expressing something positive to which we want to make a commitment. You may think that you should not enjoy doing the things that you enjoy doing. You may think they are bad. But actually you should enjoy doing what you enjoy doing. If you like eating ice cream, please enjoy when you eat ice cream. That is a kind of practice of vow. See what it is that you actually like to do. See how that works and what that is. You may finally decide you do not really like to do it. But you cannot find out until you are willing to actually take it on. This is like our practice in zazen. 

But this practical approach to vow that I am describing is always in the context for us of the fundamental inconceivable vow of the bodhisattva way, to be helpful to all beings. When we care that All Beings are free from suffering, this informs our wholehearted engagement in the particular practical activities we take on. Then they are not separate. Saying hello to people on the street can be part of your practice of freeing all beings. Going to the store might be a way of entering all Dharma gates. The most important thing for us is not separate from taking care of particular, supposedly small matters.

This bringing our intention to our life and our activity helps us see this vital process on the path of total emancipation. This vital process is the path of going beyond Buddha, not getting stuck in some version of Buddha, but actually making Buddha alive in our life. We see what we want to do, and how that connects with everyone else. Also we encourage everybody else to do what they want to do. There is a level of trust or faith involved in this. Can I trust that it’s okay for me to be the person I am? Can I trust that I actually can do what I want to do, that I can enjoy doing what I want to do? This is what’s sometimes called Buddha nature. We say, okay, here I am. I will do this and I will look at it, and see if I still really want to do it.

Practitioners come to retreat hoping to get great benefit and go home a new person. This attitude is very good in itself but it can also become an obstacle to practice. Harboring this kind of desire will distract you from your method, and the harder you press the greater the obstacle becomes. Expecting to gain something, as well as being afraid of not practicing well are both incorrect attitudes. But, while having a seeking attitude is counter-productive, we still need vows to keep ourselves from faltering on the path. There is a saying that before one is liberated from the cycle of birth and death, one is like an ant in a red-hot frying pan.

When he meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree, Shakyamuni vowed that he would not rise from his seat until he realized supreme enlightenment. By fulfilling this vow he became a fully awakened being, a Buddha. Once a traveler knows the directions to his destination, he should just get on with the actual traveling. Even if you cannot yet see the final destination, you need not be doubtful or anxious. To make a vow is to set the direction and the goal, and the practice is our vehicle. Vows andcontinuous practice go together.


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Two Traditions, One Wish


December 12, 2020 · 10:04 am

What Makes A MONK, A MONK?

This Dharma talk by Rev. David Astor Sensei was given on November 14, 2020 in the Order of Engaged Buddhist’s Fall retreat.]

The question before us in this retreat is, “What makes a monk, a monk.”   

The term monk, and spiritual practice, are two things held together as both subject and object, although they differ much from each other at the same time.  For the one is like our perfecting the self-observation of our universal nature as Buddhists, and the other like the path we practice to understand that, yet they both are moving towards a single unified purpose: the salvation of our very being as we contemplate the mystery of what it means to develop spiritual filters through which to view the world around us in an extraordinary way. Monasticism is very much an extraordinary absorbing way of living a spiritual focused existence different from a lay spiritual practice that is generally less demanding.  This is not to say a lay practice can not be as focused, but it is about the nature of the practice and dedication to a monastic vocation that defines most of the differences. This nature of a monastic practice is the same no matter of one’s tradition, independent of a religious or  philosophical affiliation. 

My personal monastic experience as both a Christian Franciscan following a monastic vocation and a Buddhist, now an itinerant monk and Cleric, has taught me that, from my point of view, while the narrative of each practice is different, the monastic calling and psychosocial characteristic that stepping on this counter culture spiritual path is the same from a human perspective.  The mental processes that a person goes through in order to decide if a monastic vocation is what they are being called toward is the same, the focus of what one is called to is what is different.  This is why Thomas Merton, the Benedictine (Cistercian) monk and spiritual mystic, and the Dalai Lama were so attracted to each other as they witnessed in each other the same spiritual mind although their individual objective focus were different. 

A word on salvation for a moment. You don’t hear many Buddhist teachers use this term. It smacks of Judeo-Christian dogma, I know. It sets my Dharma Brother Wayne Sensei’s teeth on edge. But there are now a few Western Buddhist teachers using the term because most of their Western students come from this background and can better relate to how it is being used along side Buddhist principles. Our Sub- Prior, Rev. Luis Lista Sensei, and I use it some times in our private sessions.  The Buddhist principle I relate it to comes from the Four Noble Truths and originates in the Third Truth and is put in practice in the Fourth Truth. As we develop a dedicated practice focused on human flourishing, we are working to eliminate suffering in our lives. The more we begin to rid ourselves of the behaviors and mental frame of mind causing suffering we are moving toward our own salvation away from suffering and the inhibitors that keeps us from an awakened mind. This is why it is called a noble practice and why the Four Noble Truths is the key for liberation.  The major difference between Christian and Buddhist usage is for Christians salvation comes from outside the self, and for Buddhists salvation comes from within the self.  Our Buddhist practice IS our salvation no matter the degree of how it is achieved. 

The Latin word for monk is monachus a noun, which means a person who practices religious asceticism by monastic living who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order.  Well, this definition can certainly be used for a Christian or Buddhist monk really. Although we know that how monks practice and live in the 21st century is often different from those in the dark ages. 

But from my point of view this is only a part of how a monk can be described. The key word here is ‘described’.  The English language is limited to words that are either persons places or things. We can definitely describe a monk in any of these categories. But our question is, “What makes a monk, a monk?”  The raging question today among Buddhist that follow a “monastic calling” is what is a real monk. Most will say a monk must leave their material world behind and step inside the walls of a traditional monastery. If a monk is not cloistered in this fashion, they are not real monks. Today this is being challenged. My teacher, Eubanks Sensei, and his teacher used the expression, “The world is my monastery.”  Even Christian monastic orders today do not strictly fall within this category anymore.  So the question again, “What makes a monk, a monk?”  

While we can use traditional language to answer this question effectively, I want to share some ideas from my own experience that go beyond the ordinary.  They reflect the nature of what it means to be human. It’s about self discovery and about how the Universe is speaking to us in a silent whisper. So we can say that a monk is “one that’s ready” to listen. And more profoundly, it’s about the journey. Speaking about this journey is not an easy matter let alone how the Universe is speaking to us. It can be said the Universe is everywhere so where do I start the journey?  If it is everywhere do I need a journey at all?  If the Universe is everywhere then it is very close to me, in some mysterious way, it might be my own self. 

A monk is one who the Universe is especially speaking to in order to enter into this dilemma and  this mystery. The Universe is said to be found by our true nature, when we are ready, that is united by an intimate bond of knowing. So this is the journey, the journey to find the Universe within, and by doing so we begin a life long encounter with the spiritual-self one that has been hiding in plain sight all along. The varies styles of monastic practice in moments of solitude, silence and contemplation dispose our Universal natures for this mysterious destiny. To say yes to a monastic style of practice is a deeply personal choice we are driven to experience even if we are not fully conscious of why. A monk is one who is driven to answer this burning WHY. 

I have been very cautious for many years now, as was my teacher, in when and how to use the word “truth”.  But the very meaning of Dharma does not hide its relationship with this simple word. But for a monk, truth is a part of the mosaic on which our journey treads. Use of the word truth has been so abused that it has lost some of its impact on our minds I think.  We may have lost much of its value. I’m intentionally placing the emphasis on the word value and not meaning. A critical distinction. Take a moment to absorb this. The true is what is real. It is true because it is. And that is what the monk is seeking: reality. He seeks that which is.  But he does not seek truth merely as a concept, or as an object. He seeks the existential truth that is only found by entering into the mysterious actuality of life itself. He seeks the truth that is possessed when it is rightly lived and making it our own by doing good. Our monastic practice is working to make ourselves real. Only by building on truth can we build the foundation for awakened moments. Considering the importance of this aspect of a monastic practice, it is my experience that achieving this relationship with truth is best done in the real world and not living an isolated life behind walls. The OX Herding Pictures place much importance on this reality. This focus on a monastic practice is important for all those called to walk this path no matter their rank or standing in a structured Order.  Once we step on the path of vowing to live according to a more rigorous way of turning inward we have accepted the challenge of opening up an inner dialogue that drives the exploration of finding our true selves. It’s both that simple, that complex, and that rewarding. 

The various practices of monastic spirituality are more or less valuable to the monk in proportion as they help him to accomplish an inner spiritual work that needs to be done to make his awakening real to how the Universe is. When these monastic practices are misused, they serve only to fill the monk with himself and to harden his mind in resistance to hearing this silent whisper that enriches our very being. It is about emptying a man of himself in order to realize what is really meant by emptiness. 

The final answer of “what makes a monk, a monk” has nothing to do with the clothes we wear, or the building we practice in, or the title we are known by, or the lineage we are associated with, or the words we recite in ritual practice, or even what we think of ourselves. Monks live and die like all human beings. It is about the integrity and the special jewel we have been given at birth that has led us to explore this path and journey in the first place. Perhaps we did not find the path at all but the path found us. The reason may never be revealed or known to us. But it happened, and if genuine, is a spiritual gift very few have discovered.  

And finally, let me say that any serious spiritual practice and journey can be profound and an awakened experience, and not reserved exclusively for monastics living a monk’s life style. I have know many monks, both Christian and Buddhist, that were ill prepared and fitted to being know as a monk. Many see it as a role they wish to perform as they strut on the world stage. Some have touched this extraordinary special spiritual gem and lived out a life of devout practice and truly displaying the very nature of the Three Pure Precepts or the lessons of Jesus in the sermon on the mount as ordinary private individuals or in lay practice. 

My final question to you then is, “What type of monk will you become and will you be ready to hear that silent whisper in the silence of your everyday practice?”  It’s about confronting your mind and conscience in a room alone. But then we must open the door and lead the OX home. There isn’t a moment to loose.  Oh, and don’t forget that the OX has to be fed too. 

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