Spiritual Transformation

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei  曦 肯

Being transformed by experiencing our human nature’s drive to seek the spirit and wonder of our own nature is a rather grand-sounding phrase, but that is what we are engaged in.  And hard work it is too.  There can be pain and weariness, and there are many doubts and questions along the way.  It is not just sitting and thinking, but becoming dynamically aware, sensing with our entire body-mind.  Our zazen posture is a posture of awakening.  It is open and alert; we are aware of our breath as it moves through us.

The word meditation comes from the Latin ‘meditare’, which is the passive form of the verb, meaning “being moved to the center.”  It is not the active form, which is “moving to the center.”  Do you hear the difference?  This center is our own essence.  Sitting after sitting, letting everything drop away, we become more aware of our own personal center.  We become more rooted in it.  This simple act of sitting absolutely still, letting everything go,  has far-reaching effects.  Those of you with a dedicated meditation practice know the intent of what I am expressing, but my words are inadequate to express it completely.

Sitting still is not what some of us may have imagined a practice of spirit to be.  We may think that it involves something more impressive.  But those of us who do it, those of us who are ‘present’ at this moment, know that this is it.  Sitting absolutely still, body AND mind are not separate.  Our state of mind at any given moment becomes clearer in this condition of being present, completely present.  And there is great healing power in this simple act.  Of course we may experience some pain.  The true taste of contemplation really cannot be understood unless we have some challenges.  After our contemplative practice experience begins to develop and mature, we do not find the challenge over whelming.  Our teacher works with us in order for us to learn not to move against it; we do not struggle with it; rather, we simply remain aware of our breath and work to change our condition.  We become aware of what happens when we pay attention to it, and practice with positive intent.

When I begin to work with a new formal student I often ask, “Why did you come to sit?  What is your reason?  Do you have a reason?  What happened in your life that brought you to the cushion?   In essence, “Why are you here?”  And most students say they came because they wanted to have some peace of mind.  As we sit, there is some temporary peacefulness, of course.  But we want to come to a condition of mind that takes us in the beginning through all the circumstances of our life, no matter how difficult.  Then, no matter what happens, there is this quiet, truly peaceful space within.   All of us with a meditation practice has gone though this phase of development.  And still work, at times, to conquer our devils.  So you see, it is an ongoing process, not an event.   And I am so thankful that I have a Dharma Brother to talk these things through with.  Please do not misunderstand.  This does not mean we should inflict anything on ourselves.  It simply means that if issues come up, we let it come, and we let it be our teacher.  Thus, even our personal challenges can be a wonderful teacher for us.  We work to cultivate a beginners-mind.

What does it also mean to say that I “cultivate” a spiritual quality such as patience, compassion, or wisdom?  Can they be created just by applying techniques and through the force of  our own will?  Even if they are so produced, there must be something, some predisposition, that turns into patience, compassion, or wisdom.  Or are they produced from nothing?  Or from emptiness, to borrow a Zen expression?  Or are they already lying there dormant and complete within us, waiting to be exposed and freed by the intent of our actions?  Again we are confounded by the mystery of Universal nature.  Steven Batchelor says that a meditative attitude is akin to a midwife.  It neither designs nor constructs, but brings forth with care what is about to be born.  If I deny the presence of something transcendent which can emerge unpredictably, I am bound to reduce spiritual practice to the application of techniques.  A spiritual attitude, it seems, must acknowledge something that is both transcendent yet active in our human natures.  In understanding Buddhism, it is crucial to understand the extent to which its practice depends, and does not depend, upon the application of techniques.  Awakening cannot be systematically cranked out as though it were the end result of a technical process alone.  Remember, it took Siddhartha over six years of intense practice to experience an awakened mind-state.  We must work to cultivate patience, and wait for those special moments when the wonder of a spiritual path starts to be manifest in our thoughts.  No methods can produce an awareness of this.  The most we can do is be prepared and receptive for such an awareness to arise.   Having an intellectual understanding of the teachings of the Dharma is not enough.  We sit in awareness, and watch, and listen.

So many things are teaching us all the time.  How often we can miss a great opportunity.  Even the words printed on the label of a tea bag can teach us.  But too often, we thing, “I want a famous, wonderful, illustrious teacher from some great lineage to teach me.  I must find such a person.”  I know, because that was a component in my search for my first teacher.

“Why did I come to a Buddhist teacher to learn?  Why am I really here?”  What kind of person is a Zen student?”  As we ponder these questions, we begin to practice more sincerely.  There is a lot going on around us, but we continue to practice in our own way, just as all of us must do.  We are always surrounded by many activities, many books; there are always interesting lectures to go to; but fundamentally, at bottom, we must find out for ourselves.  WE STEP ONTO THE PATH.  Sometimes without even knowing it.

What do we do in our meditation and contemplative practice?  We cut down the forest of our delusions and cultivate the fields of our true natures.  Sitting quietly, we are cutting off, digging, cultivating the “Buddha fields” as one Zen Master put it.  This dharma is deeply rooted in our ordinary, everyday activities; lofty discussions miss the mark.  In this practice, we engage in our life work completely and fully, reaching our essential being and then expressing it, wherever we are.  Change is all around us, in every moment.  We can never come to a standstill on this path.  We are always moving on, letting ourselves be moved on by the wonder and spirit of our quest.  What is our practice right here, right now behind our avatars?  It is always different.  It is living, moving, changing, and always open.  No static condition.  It is also very simple, straightforward, and naturally harmonious.  And it is a felling of deep friendliness.  We do not need to say a word, but we feel it.    We are expressions of the Universe TOGETHER.  No separation, no virtual wall.  A Buddhist practice, is a joyful practice.

These simple, quiet activities — just sitting, just walking, just eating, just cleaning — are helping us to find a vital way of living, a way to face things fearlessly, directly from our essential nature to seek harmony and happiness; a useful and productive life, free of unsatisfactoriness.  Today I challenge you to look at everything as if for the first time.  Take no fixed positions; let your opinions fall away.  There is no inner voice insisting, “This is the way I have to do it.”  Be willing to find a new way to do it, a new way to look at it, a new way to open up.  THIS IS BEGINNER’S MIND.  Give yourselves entirely to each moment, just as you are, rooted on your cushions, rooted in the earth.  Sitting on our cushions by our own effort, we feel the wonderful support and encouragement of all others present.  What an extraordinary practice we have together; “self” and “other” not separate.  Just our breath to keep us aware, in, out, just this.

Copyright: OEB January 2014

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