When The Ideal Meets The Real: A Pragmatic Perspective

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, OEB 曦 肯

 

My root teacher, Venerable Dr. Shi Yong Xiang Eubanks Sensei, would always stress that we remember the importance in the lessons to be learned when our ideals meet the world of reality, or “when the ideal meets the real.” This is so important because we may often get lost in an idealistic impression of a dedicated Buddhist practice that is often written about in some of the contemporary texts. (The debate of vegetarianism as a Buddhist practice comes to mind, for example.) It is especially important if we are clerics/teachers with a publicly engaged community practice and ministry. Yet, and this is a big yet, we should always consider that an awakened practice must remain keenly aware of the effort it takes on our part to pursue ideals and to think idealistically, to be idealistic even. In a postmodern society being a “realist” is considered by many as a key component in a civilized culture. Realism is also considered as an important characteristic of being pragmatic. For those that consider themselves realistic individuals 24/7, the basis for their criticism of others that see the world through idealistic lenses, do so by invoking the very ideals that they deny, yet take the position that being idealistic is naive and deluded. Which is an interesting irony. As a Buddhist teacher and Zen cleric with an engaged community practice, I find myself confronted with this lesson on a regular basis, especially in many of the questions I get ask in Sangha sessions. If we can remember when we were growing up as a child this struggle between our ideals and the reality of making them achievable was often dashed against the rock of reality, often that rock was encountered in our very home. Then we grew up and began to learn how to negotiate among the rocks.

If we can expect any degree of success in conquering our life challenges when moving from the realities of the First and Second Noble Truth to the Third one, we must consider a set of ideals that will act as a guide for our practice by engaging them in the real world realities as we implement a practice based on the Forth Truth, among other moral and ethical structures we choose to adopt along our way to move among the rocks we encounter. So ideals is the bridge to get us to the Forth Truth. Let me be clear, realities our not inhibitors when they are considered in an encompassing and corrective way. This is a good thing. The challenge is to learn how to balance our ideals against presented realities that promotes the common good and honors the Three Pure Precepts. This is the corner stone of our Buddhist moral and ethical practice. When ideals have not been cultivated and integrated into our practice, any hope for the future and deliberate action on our part will lack thoughtful intentions and thus effective and wise change is left to chance. A broken arrow can reach its target but the chances are less then reality should expect. At the same time, if we live in a world of ideals alone, we are running the risk of being consistently disappointed. Which brings us back to the Second Truth. So balance is the key, which is pragmatic too. Idealism is pragmatic in that it creates a platform on which we can act in realistic and creative ways. The trick is to not get stuck on just one side of the fence. Finding the balance between the ideal and the real IS the middle way. Our focus determines our reality. Focused almost exclusively on the present, our vision may not be able to see beyond the current situation. This doesn’t mean we should not be aware of each moment. But each moment has a purpose too, and that purpose should be grounded in the ideals of a wise practice that guides our future actions.

No value we may hold comes with a guarantee that it will hold its value unconditionally. This is just the human condition and the reality of a changing world reflecting the principle of the law of mutual-causality. Therefore ideals concern the way the world ought to be, the way it could be, not the way it really is. The reality of our current condition, however, is the bases on how we learn to articulate and judge our ideals, and it is this perspective by which our ideals are used to pass judgement on current reality. When we lack ideals and the mental capacity to be idealistic, we run the risk that we become complacent in the social condition and just accept things as fine just the way they are. And that is the slippery slop that will get us thrown onto the rocks for sure without the ability to get to the other shore.

 

 

 

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Serving As Buddhist Ministers

By: Rev. Dr. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna, OEB 长金

This morning I came across an article in my Facebook feed about the first female Buddhist Chaplain to be commissioned in the US Military. Lt. Saejeong Ilshun Kim was commission as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy on August 6th at the Won Buddhism temple in Los Angeles. Lt. Kim felt that being a chaplain in the U.S. Navy was a great opportunity to meet and support people who are in need. In OEB we often talk about vocations and ministry. It is a fundamental part of who we are as monks and servant leaders within our communities.
The very same causes of suffering old age, sickness, death that inspired Siddartha to seek out how to bring an end to this suffering, still plagues us today. The Buddha eventually found a path that in the midst of suffering and discontentment could bring about inner peace. He reached out to the men and women in his community who were also seeking to alleviate their pain. Through his teachings and guidance the Buddha himself gave us an example of how to be a chaplain and serve our sangha’s and larger communities as a whole. For over 2500 years Buddhists have meditated on the ailments of sickness, old age and death to find an end to suffering. Buddhist chaplains, monks and priests continue this practice today in hospitals, prisons, infirmaries and other medical and non-medical facilities, assisting people through skillful means to deal with and better understand what is happening to them.
In Buddhism we do not have a diety or external source in which to turn to for salvation or intercession. Instead we use wisdom and compassion as skillful means to bring about change. We rely on the Precepts a moral and ethical compass.
Everyone needs encouragement, assistance, and direction on their life’s journey; one of our role’s as ministers is to accompany individuals as their awakening and freedom from suffering unfolds. This may mean simply being a good listener, or an encouraging companion, an intelligent guide. Overall, the purpose is to alleviate suffering in its many forms: physical pain, difficult emotions, and confusing or disturbing thoughts, more commonly known as agony, fear, anger, guilt, depression, loneliness, grief, and so on.
Being a Buddhist monk, priest or chaplain means we are committed to putting others above ourselves. When we see others through the lens of unity instead of difference, we open our hearts with compassion towards our fellow sentient beings. We draw from our own experiences with suffering and unsatisfactoriness to guide others down the path we have already traveled. Lt. Kim said “she feels her unique experiences may help understand each individual’s differences with openness, which will allow her to connect with Sailors.”
Balancing the roles of clergy and officer in the military, or balancing the roles of monk and householder that many of us are is certainly a challenge. But it’s a challenge that brings about harmony, peace and human flourishing. Lt. Kim’s final words are ones that we can all learn from; “(I) feel honored and humbled…I am grateful for the opportunity to serve, excited for the new journey and curious about the path I am taking.”

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Practice And Trauma

By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse, OEB

Childhood physical abuse is devastating. It doesn’t end when the beatings stop or you move away from home. It lingers on. It affects us in adult life, it determines our perspective of the world. It hurts. And it continues to hurt even when we are grown.

It is especially hurtful in those times of quiet when we are alone with our minds. Sitting on the cushion is both a terror and a relief.

I want my mind to be quiet and peaceful and all zen-like, but what I get is a chaotic mass of memories, terror and disbelief. Memories flood in and force themselves upon me so that I can no longer avoid looking at them. And I relive the pain, the confusion, the fear, and the self-blaming.

Then the painful, teary questions come: Was that abuse really my fault? How could I have been treated like that – I was only a little boy. Why? Why? Why?

This is the terror.

But I hold those memories, I ask those questions, and allow that pain to be fully present and felt. Why shouldn’t I just push it away and avoid it? After all, that strategy seemed to work fine for much of my life. I buried it deep, so deep that much of early childhood is a forgotten blank. But one day I find myself in fragile, depressed state and a hollow in my chest that I can’t explain. I discover that I can no longer avoid the ugly truth of my past.

I embrace fully the pain that has come into my life; I don’t try to avoid it, but I allow it to bring itself fully into my experience – how can I deal with something that I can’t even look at? So I allow it to wash over me and look at it head-on so that I can process it from a variety of perspectives. I begin to understand, to see how childhood trauma still affects me now, some 50 years later.

I can begin to let it go, little-by-little until it no longer holds me as it once did. I begin to feel a loosening in my body, my mind, my life. I can breathe deeply and fully and I can begin to feel happy for the first time in a very long time. I can finally start to get out from underneath that heavy burden of shame and guilt and feel the sunlight warming me.

This is the relief.

 

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A Reflective Meditation Practice

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi  

A serious meditation practice, over time, may move beyond elementary awareness of body-mind techniques alone.  Mindfulness meditation is the stepping stone to a deeper perfected meditation practice when one has mastered the ordinary-mind state and has accomplished the ability to sit in silence and listen without following our thoughts.  We learn to follow the breath and move beyond the internal chatter characteristic of a mind not use to being quiet.  Zazen can be a multi-dimensional experience for those that are ready to engage other meditation discipline by extending our meditation practice to the next level.

We can begin to engage a reflective meditative mind-state by incorporating a specific objective focus on a very specific subject.  The driver for this deeper practice is often given over to our contemplative reading and analytical reasoning skills.  In other words, we begin to open up to controlled thinking beyond the ordinary sense-based awareness where generally our life-filters our employed to inform us of specific action-based intentions.  We practice to disengage these filters that are not helpful at all in a deeper meditative state awareness.   This reflective meditation practice is where the major Buddhist meditation forms take place.  What is interesting about this is that for the lay reader of Buddhist meditation texts, this point is almost never made very clear, especially in the beginning of us picking up meditation as a practice.  So, most individuals may never move beyond simple mindfulness meditation techniques and focused breathing exercises.  Although there is great value in a basic mindfulness meditation practice.  When advanced meditation is spoken of, it sometimes takes on the language of metaphysical notions that sound a lot like mystical states of consciousness.

But for those ready for the next level of engaging rational analytical thought, they   almost immediately understand what is expected from this deeper thinking process.  It is somewhat intuitive.  We jump in because we are already wet, so the deeper water is never an immediate shock.  But this can be misleading.  The next thing that happens is that our mind almost immediately encounters doubt and questioning because turning on the analytical engine is not intuitive after all, and finding the switch in the dark is harder then we first imagine.

Reflective experience focuses not just on the thing before us but on the complex relation between my mind and the thing.  This is why choosing what to contemplate, and what source to use, is critical.  “The thing, the object” must not be obtuse.  We must grasp the core concept of what it is we are contemplatively engaging in order to recognize that as we bring in our experiences we search for how they relate to this abstract subject in order to make it real for us to contemplate.  This is a complex process for higher analytical thinking.  Without a deeper ability to engage higher reasoning, we just flounder around hoping that something will cause a spark that makes things clear.  Remember that all our experiences are now just thoughts.  So we are engaging a ready notion of a thought, and trying to relate it to new ways of thinking about it.   This in turn re-describes our reality, or at least, acknowledges the reality we have already adopted as real.  This must be a process of reevaluation.  If we assume that what we already know is correct, we may miss important nuances that will lead us to consider a new perspective, and we are left with the same beginning thought.  A reality for sure, but a reality that can trap us in mental realms that are barriers to awakening to the larger unified picture of universal realities.  Which is the point to a perfected meditation practice.

We learn to think critically, questioning the way things make their appearance to our mental awareness.  Be aware of the path we use to reach something that seems to be very satisfying to what we think we are searching for.  Become aware of the relationships we come to recognize and know that we have the power to ask ourselves whether what appears to us in immediate experience really is what it appears to be in our analytical mind’s eye.  We should not dismiss out of hand something that has potential for changing our mind.  This is where our ability to manage doubt becomes critical for self-discovery.

 

Going one step further, the meditators attempts to describe and classify mental experience, which is called phenomenology, or dharmas, which are moments of awareness.  We are challenged to find lessons of the various realities that are being presented to us (self or other) and to consider if they are worthy of cultivation in a positive or negative sense.  This is where a guide is most important.  This is where advanced self-study begins to reap rewards too.  In the beginning, this style of meditation is very studious.  It may seem like ordinary thinking, but in a perfected mindfulness state of awareness this meditation technique borders on the extra-ordinary human thinking capability.

Advanced meditators teach themselves to be profoundly aware of mental change.  Recognizing a particular mental state is key.  To what extent do we observe and evaluate our moods, or do we simply suffer them unconsciously?  This is one aspect that we are advised to bring into our meditation session when we contemplate our daily activity.  Keeping a journal is helpful as it gives us a chance to later bring these thoughts on the cushion to our focused contemplative practice.

An interesting characteristic of reflective meditation and these styles of phenomenological contemplative techniques is that they help form the basis on which Buddhist ethics could develop as a conscious mental processes. In a way, this is what we are trying to instill in our novices and those in precept study.  This is Dogne’s idea of Zazen and the practice of studying the self in order to know the self, and in turn influences our intentions to not only do good in our actions, but “finding the good” in our deeper conscious state relative to contemplating universal realities.  Because these realities are good in their very natures.  When we try to assigning value to them is when we run into trouble, and may miss the deeper lessons in Buddhist ethics.  Contemplative thinking cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom, which is a good definition of Zazen, really.

I often speak about the importance of reading meditatively.  It is an excellent skill that goes beyond just the printed word.  It entails working an idea or set of ideas carefully through the mind with the intention of internalizing them, or coming to embody them.  It is reflected in the model R2A2 – Recognize, Relate, Assimilate, Act.

Another relevant concept to be considered here is that of meditation on altruism.  Which is about finding the lessons of interconnectiveness and interdependence.  Finding the lesson of looking beyond the individual to find the unity of the greater realities all around us.  Meditators simply work the teachings through their minds, over and over, until their impact begins to be reflective in how we interpret everyday experiences.  Which is an element of a spiritual practice.

When considering meditative readiness, Dale Wright said, “…this form of engagement differs from the typical modern activates of readying or thinking in that it is not a pursuit of information or knowledge.  This requires that the practitioner join the spirit of the practice through full involvement and some degree of self-abandonment.” 1   What is interesting about this is that in the beginning we adopt a position of believing what we are reading is in order to arrive at understanding and then we move on to be transformed in the reality it points to.  All this depends on the readiness of the reader.  Moving a student to fast into this phase of meditation can cause problems.  This is because our reading and study influences our emotions, and in turn influences are intention to act.  It is like going into hyper-drive to fast without the proper preparation to aim safely.  We are moving from the conditioned consciousness to the un-conditioned conscious mind.

Our emotions function to give an overall orientation to our experiences.  We must learn to catalog our experiences.  When we do that, as humans, we also tag them with mind-facts.  In other words, we assign value to the experience we store for later reference.  Humans have a short memory.  So, when we recall an experience, we are also recalling the emotional value we have also assigned to it.  Because we might have totally forgotten the experience until it’s recall, we have no way now to determine if the assigned emotion is valid.  We just go with the memory and its value.  This is why we should practice to be very clear as to what value of emotion we assign to memories.

Dale Wright does a good job of giving his definition to my R2A2 model when he says, “The point of contemplative meditation is to give direction to emotions so that emotional inclinations are cultivated along lines that we have chosen.”  This is the R2 component.  He goes on to say, “They need to be cultivated through mental disciplines in order to make their spontaneous emergence at the right time more and more likely.”  This is the A2 component.  When considering the teachings from the Six Perfections, the perfection of energy and meditation comes before the perfection of wisdom, because we cannot forget that any meditation practice has the objective to get us to act spontaneously honed by the readiness we are achieving though cultivating self-awareness.  So, spontaneity and simplicity are among the long term goals of a reflective meditation practice.

1 All quotes: The Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright pg. 192-196

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It’s Always Best To Start At The Beginning

By: Venerable Dr. Brian Shen-Jin Kenna

“It’s always best to start at the beginning – and all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.”1

As Buddhist monks when we begin to start to engage the Scriptures it can seem a daunting task.The common thoughts that arise in one’s mind could be: Where to begin? What should be the first book and where should we begin reading? Should we start at the “beginning?” Where exactly is this ‘beginning’?

This is not only a practical problem, it is also a conceptual and interpretive problem. Wherever we choose to begin sets in motion a way of seeing, one which inevitably will highlight some aspects of what we explore and push some others into the shadows.

So what is a monk or teacher to do? How do we learn to understand this information before we can ever consider transmitting it to our students?

In Christianity the Bible is often referred to as the Word of God. As Buddhists we too can take this approach to scripture seeing them as the word of the Buddha or Buddavacana. Certainly a good first place to begin studying would be with the life of the Buddha. We can find scriptures detailing how he lived, what he thought, what he taught to his followers. By taking a scholarly approach we can begin to see the Buddha’s life and times not only from Buddhist sources but also other historical and religious sources that characterized the time in which he lived.

Within the scriptures themselves there are many biographies of the Buddha that one could start with. In the Ariyapariyesana sutta,“The Noble Search”, we hear from the Buddha himself as he recalls the start of his own journey down this path we are all traveling.

“I, too, monks, before my Awakening, when I was an unawakened bodhisattva [a buddha-to- be], being subject myself to birth, sought what was likewise subject to birth. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, I sought [happiness in] what was likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement. The thought occurred to me, ‘Why do I, being subject myself to birth, seek what is likewise subject to birth?’ Being subject myself to aging… illness…death… sorrow… defilement, why do I seek what is likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow…defilement? What if I, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, were to seek the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding [Nirvana]? What if I, being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness…death… sorrow… defilement, were to seek the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less,unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding?”

“So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”

“Having thus gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Alara Kalama and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kalama, I want to practice in this doctrine discipline.’” Continue reading

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Violence & Non-Violence: Lessons on Perfecting Tolerance

By: Rev. Shi Shen-Xi Astor

From the very beginning of our Buddhist studies we learn about the Three Pure Precepts – Do no harm, Do only good, Do good for others; and the Ten Precepts, the first being to abstain from taking life, or as we creatively re-describe it ‘I undertake the training of loving-kindness in all possible circumstances, I will abstain from hurting sentient beings’. We recognize that by acting with encompassing and corrective effort that we gradually train our conditioned mind to act spontaneously for the good. The way we tackle life’s experiences and situations will seem spontaneous to others but we quickly learn that they come from practice and commitment to the path we have chosen to practice. Our Buddhist Precepts can be considered as positive and constructive resolutions that are sincerely and voluntarily undertaken. They awaken in us how the truly wise behave, beyond any sense of dominating self interest; the realization that mutability is the foundation upon which we are made.

Malevolent behavior often springs from an ego-mind deluded about our nature as human beings, and it can take the characteristics of hatred, aggression, and craving for unnatural control over others, or against others we perceive as being different, in negative aspects from what we consider “normal.” It is not power and control that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing control corrupts those who wield it unjustly and without consent, or fear of the unknown that they see as threatening to their core beliefs. These behaviors feed upon themselves and become strongly rooted in the way we see the world around us and our dominating dispositions, not only in individuals but in whole cultures or sub-cultures. Physical aggression, as expressed in violent like action, is no more than their most spectacular and bloody expression. In Buddhism the cultivation of situational ethics reflected in expressions of compassion by our attempting to follow the moral precepts is an aspiration toward breaking this karmic cycle. It is a primary step towards resolving the egocentricity of dominating willfulness, and cultivating sincere awareness of others. These moral and ethical precepts invite us to remove those filters through which we view the world in negative terms and to aspire to promoting harmony and reconciliation where it is needed. Whether, and to what extent, we keep the Precepts is the responsibility of each individual. But we must remain fully aware of the intent of our actions while we engage the hard issues of our day.

The contingent causal force of violent behavior will be affected by the circumstances in which it occurs. There is surely a difference between conflicts of conquest, religious intolerance and self-interests, than actions of defense. History has recorded some conflicts for national independence from foreign exploration in Buddhist countries that became established in some Buddhist schools tradition as examples of just actions to counter acts of tyranny since freedom was essential to the spiritual as well as the material progress of the indigenous community. We may deplore the historic destruction of the great Indian Buddhist heritage in the middle-ages undefended against the Mongol and Muslim invaders, for example. However, it is important to understand that according to Buddhism there is nothing that can be called a ‘just violence against a minority group’ which is only a false term coined and put into circulation to justify and excuse hatred, cruelty, ignorance, violence, suffering, and the philosophy of relativism.

Why does the violence inherent in radicalism so often undercut the humanistic nature of ones cause? To implement acts of destruction is easy, to work for a constructive and just resolution is difficult. Violence has no goodness, only outcomes. Someone is always on the winning or losing side. It is doubtful that peace by destruction could be the only way in which contemporary cultures would experience a stable world order resulting in a lasting peace as well as a universal one. In this modern time the ideal is at least stated in terms of peaceful methods for achieving tolerance and inclusiveness for everyone, not by force, but by consent, not by imposition imposed buy the weak minded. But reality reflects a different lesson. We speak in terms of tolerance, but act in terms of aggression. The intent, I think, is clear. Augustine put it this way, “…with the desire for peace that wars are waged….Every man seeks peace by waging war, but no man seeks war by making peace. For even they who intentionally interrupt the peace in which they are living have no hatred of peace, but only wish it changed into a peace that suits them better….Even those who they make war against they wish to make their own, and impose on them the laws of their own peace”. Continue reading

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Having Faith To Doubt

By: Rev. David Shi Shen-Xi 曦 肯

Our Buddhist practice is one of seeking. Seeking the spirit and in wonder, which is in our human nature. It requires committed action, with determined intent to find a place of wonder, promoting a mind at peace and harmony with all that surrounds us in our Universe. We are called to deeply examine our lives from a position that will lead us to ask deeply profound questions about how this body-mind of ours functions in relationship to our personal needs, but also how we live together with others. The Buddhist precepts that are condensed from the Four Noble Truths, as well as the Bodhisattva ideal, require and challenges us to seriously consider how we can live a life that manifests our universal expressions; which is the manifestation of harmony and happiness. We may be the only sentient beings that has this capacity for seeking a wider understanding of how we can awaken to the Buddha nature that makes us enlightened beings. Because, as I see it, when we truly realize this capacity for developing the body-mind state of harmony, we have stepped onto the path to awakening. But there is a challenge.

Dogen, in Shinjingakudo, the “Realization of the Way through the Body and Mind,” said, “The sun, moon, and stars as seen by humans and by divas are not the same, and the views of various beings differ widely.” But these views are nothing but mind. If this is true, then all phenomena that fill our sense consciousness can be considered differently by different beings by how the mind processes the concepts inherent in what the senses present to it. Does this mean that everyone’s view is correct? Does it mean that everyone’s view is somehow wrong? Does it mean that there is no right or wrong, that it is all relative? Given this, how can we possibly live together in harmony if each of us adopts a different view of this world from how we perceive objects thru our filters of dispositions and personal preferences?

We only need to look at the current news and the commentary giving varied views on cause and consequences to know that there is a lot of talk about moral/ethical values and the need to cultivate civilized behaviors based on the roles we play in our communities, government and politics, and in our educational institutions. These ideas and notions are then going to find there way into the creation of policies, into the schoolroom, and it is influencing what is being taught, and how we understand things; evolution, and the superiority of democratic values, that seem to have been lost in our contemporary culture. We find those in authority expounding on the right action necessary to address current day social challenges, and often with a convincing voice. I don’t doubt their convictions or sincerity. However, we need only to wait for the briefest moment to hear a rebuttal, and another view expounding what is right and giving us the “real” correct value according to that worldview. We are being ask to have faith and trust that a given action is best for a specific situation. We only need to believe. These various claims to authority lead to arguments, hatred, and sometimes violence. All in the name of what is “right”.

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The Golden Rule In Buddhism

By: Rev. David Shi Shen-Xi

The Buddhist precepts have over the years taken on a force of their own, it seems, as Western teachers work to creatively re-describe them in terms that their Western students can relate to. What makes the precepts a bit confusing perhaps is that the various Buddhist schools and traditions have different terminology for them that has been driven by past cultural expectations as Buddhism moved East out of India. A valid question may be, “Why are the precepts identified differently depending on what Buddhist books I read?” This is a fair question, and one that confused me many years ago too. The Buddhist precepts are moral and ethical guidelines and as such have evolved through the ages based on the realities of their day. Originally, they were developed by Siddhartha in order to foster harmony within those that lived together in the Sangha of his followers. In the beginning no precepts were needed, but as time went on the Buddha found it necessary to confront the inequities of human behavior and addressed disharmony by setting some “rules” for personal conduct. For this reason it is not surprising that the Ten Grave Precepts sound a lot like the Ten Commandments. In fact, you can find similarities in the precepts to the Golden Rule which is really the basis of the Buddhist Three Pure Precepts, when you think about it. Consider it like a ruler for drawing a straight line where this line is a path that helps prevent us from getting lost along the way of our practice. Precepts are not goals, but are realities that emerge from the Four Noble Truths. The precepts are like a mirror when held up to a mature practice reflects back these truths. They are something we undertake, not something we are given.

The Ten Grave Precepts are, in a way, another example of a Buddhist paradox. They can be viewed both as a negative and a positive. In fact, in older descriptions of the precepts they reflect what we should NOT DO. But as Western teachers engage them from a contemporary and pragmatic perspective, they are articulated in positive and useful language. In fact, we might consider them as seeds, that have been planted in the enriched soil of the Western culture that are producing a bumper crop of new plants that are better recognizable as something we can consume for nourishing the human spirit. Continue reading

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Seeing Is Believing or Believing is Seeing

By: Venerable Shen-Jin Kenna

The study of Buddhist scripture or any scripture for that manor is an undertaking that can lead to greater knowledge of one’s belief system but also can stir deep emotions from within. As Buddhist teachers we need to remember that when we teach the scripture to our students we must keep a fundamental distinction first and foremost in our minds. This distinction is that as Buddhist scholars and teachers we must make clear the difference between the devotional expression of particular religious beliefs as being an ideal standard or model and the nonsectarian study of religion that presumes the religious legitimacy of diverse normative claims. We need to make this distinction in order to recognize the validity of normative theological assertions without equating them with universal truths about the religion itself.

We can trace this distinction by saying that there are two kinds of realism in play when we make factual statements about the place of scriptures in the lives of Buddhist men and women. Religious influences are embedded in all aspects of human experience, and that all knowledge claims (including religious ones) are socially constructed and represent particular perspectives.

We will call this first kind of realism “observable.”

Knowing the facts of observable reality is essential to understanding Buddhism as it has existed in history, but it can have the effect, if we are not careful, of making Buddhist scriptures remote from us in time and space. Buddhist scriptures can become quite confusing when we encounter something that could perhaps be meaningful for people in days gone by or in places far away from wherever we find ourselves today. As we will see in a moment, focusing exclusively on the observable can also distort or even obstruct our understanding.

By looking at the second type of realism we can lessen these unwanted effects.

This realism encourages us to try to make factual statements about Buddhist scriptures not in terms of what is observable about where they have been “situated”, or in terms of what is observable about where Buddhist scriptures have been embedded in history and culture, but rather in terms of who is addressed by a Buddhist scripture.

When we try to make factual statements of this kind, we want to know something significantly different from what can be observed. We want to know what a scripture says to a person, and it will be best if we can hear what it is saying in present time, with a message for a particular person, group of people or oneself. As we try to make factual statements about this second kind of realism, we are trying to discern how scriptures are qualities of personal living, even when they are embedded in history and situated in societies and cultures. Continue reading

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Perfecting A Practice of Readiness

By: David Shi Shen-Xi

As we gain perfected readiness in understanding the core tenets of what we learn when studying many of the Buddhist principles, and begin to find them reflected in the lessons from our everyday experiences, our unconditioned conscious state will open up to a new beginning that drives the acquisition which helps us acquire an awareness of the wisdom they represent that shows us how the Universe reflects it’s reality all around us and how we relate to these individual expressions, and perhaps even allowing us to see the shadows also reflecting their unity with all other mutual relationships. During any explanation of Buddhist thought representing the beliefs of any specific Buddhist tradition, you will always hear of the important fundamental teachings of the Four Noble Truths as we have done from a pragmatic perspective so far. But in addition to these, there are other core principles that are teachings accepted by all traditions too. These are the principles of interdependent co-origination (or dependent origination), impermanence, no-self, and contingent-causality. There are others, but these are the core principles from which all others stem from. When I speak about the Zen teachings of the Chinese and Japanese masters as they speak about the nature of self and other, we can also find them discussing some or all of these core principles as well. Our legacy teachers speak about the enriching empowerment of nature, as well as the psycho-emotional self-help tools that can promote human flourishing. The study of history can bring the ancient Buddhist culture into contemporary perspective that all of us today can relate to, somewhat.

We need to be careful in how we study Buddhism, as in doing so we are really studying a REFLECTION of what the Buddha taught, not his actual thinking. While words are thoughts, we have to ask ourselves who’s thoughts. Just because a specific scripture is attributed to the Buddha, for example, they have become unverifiable from a historical perspective. That would be impossible as he is not here to explain away any misunderstanding we have of what we THINK truly represents his mind 2600 hundred years ago. In fact, the Buddha lived before Buddhism was ever developed into a philosophy and spiritual practice as seen through the eyes of an ancient Asian worldview, and now those views are challenged in order to reflect Western 21st century realities. Just like Jesus lived before Christianity was created into a unique theology. When we study Buddhism we must be keenly aware of what we are reading relative to how the subject or topic was most likely spoken of in the Buddha’s day. When we read a text in the Pali canon or other comparable source, if something said there by the Buddha could just as well have been said by a Jain or Brahman priest, then you put that aside as simply part of the broadly accepted worldview of the period. It’s not something unique to the Buddha’s dharma, you see. Although, the Buddha was like any of us and was no doubt influenced by the cultural expectations and moral structures of his time, they acted as the basis from which he sought ways to change things to reflect his awakened view point. We need to learn to apply “Buddhist math” in order to arrive at our own understanding of what it is we too believe that helps us make sense of this world we call home. By pursuing this process of math, specifically subtraction, we can start to separate out the generic cosmology and metaphysics of his time and space and use our days knowledge and technical tools including science to aid in a greater understanding of what it is he was teaching. And what remains standing can then be considered as what made the Buddha’s teaching so distinctive. This is also true when you study the precepts, as two human views are being confronted – the teachers and the students. Continue reading

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