Red Bird On The Fence

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Buddhist philosophy and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, but there is a real difference, especially in how we internalize them in our practice. The term spirituality for me refers to an individual’s solitary seeking for and becoming awakened to the deeper nature of the relationship between self and the greater reality of the Universe. Spirituality is about reflecting on the mystery of life. A mystery is beyond language to explain, no matter how hard we try. One reason we developed mathematical symbolism to express complex thought. It involves direct experience or realization of vast awareness beyond language to express. Spirituality carries with it a conviction that how we view the world around us is limited by our human limitations, and it requires some sort of spiritual transformation that acts as a catalyst for us to achieve an inner awakening in order for us to achieve our full potential. It is primarily personal, but it also has a social dimension. Spirituality derives from inner contemplation, and can be awakened at any time during our lifetime.

For thousands of years before the dawn of the world religions became social organisms, man’s spiritual life thrived. I can just imagine one of our early ancestors stepping out of his cave one dawn morning and encountering an intense sunrise. That experience could have sparked an inner awakened moment that many have caused intense emotions; emotions that all humans are capable of experiencing, even for pre-historic man. This human experience which underpins all genuine spiritual practice, is what the Buddha also experienced that special morning when he became transfixed on the morning-star; his moment of enlightenment. But we can also find similar stories of awakening to something special in the life of Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed. It is interesting that Siddhartha and the others experienced there life changing spiritual revelation when absolutely alone, and most likely in deep contemplation.

Our minds are awakened, or jarred awake, when we too begin to comprehend the significance of Siddhartha’s new worldview, as we begin to validate our experiences with those of an extraordinary man that lived 2500 years ago. It is therefore quite natural and appropriate that spirituality should become more primary in our practice as we grow in our understanding of the Buddhist teachings and discover more substantial and ultimate nourishment in the living reality of the dharma. We need the Buddhist teachings, yet we need direct inner spiritual development in order to strike a balance in our practice. A philosophical and academic Buddhist education are valuable carriers supporting an ethical and moral platform for our personal and community life, but they must not be allowed to choke out the breath of the human drive to seek spirit and wonder that acts as the driver for enriching the human hart.

For many years, Buddhist training did not touch on the spiritual nature of a mature practice. This has changed over the past few decades, especially by Western teachers. Sometimes I think this spiritual element of a well-rounded practice was assumed. One can not watch a Tibetan monastic community in ritual practice, for example, and not feel a tug of emotions. But generally speaking, our Buddhist training is more on the academic and meditative level, while the contemplative dimension is neglected. This is certainly true in the Soto Zen tradition with emphasis on no-mind meditation. This may be a holdover from our Western Judaic/Christian roots where we thought of the ‘spiritual’ as touching on the metaphysical, and therefore something to be discarded. This is not to say that one can’t experience spiritual thoughts in meditation, but contemplation and meditation together is required to achieve a balance. This is why in the Rienzi Zen tradition importance is placed on using koans to focus the mind on ever deeper meditation states. An example of a contemplative-mind state.

Our spiritual side is driven by thoughts of what is this Universe all about. Humans love a good mystery. It is what drives the pursuit of science for example. Mystery novels and movies are a big category of entertainment for many. A mystery is without boundaries, it requires an open mind, and the suspension of our ordinary filters, so we can be accepting of an ever increasing expansion of our mind’s horizons, so this expansion of thought results in making the abstract real. When we put this human capability toward our spiritual development, we enrich our capacity to awaken to Siddhartha’s insights. Our spiritual practice expands our capacity to awakening to the interconnectiveness of all phenomena moment to moment.

This reminds me of an experience I recently had while sitting on the back porch. The property backs up to wetlands. So we have an abundance of wildlife to observe. I do a lot of contemplation from this porch. On this afternoon an intense ray of sun struck the wooden fence on the perimeter of the property at the same time a cardinal landed in this ray of light. It became unbelievably red and shimmering. I was overcome with a sense of awe for a few seconds, it was that surprising and unexpected. It was both a spiritual/awakened moment for me as well as a lesson on the net of connections: the fence, the bird, the sun, the light, the monk. Our spiritual practice expands our awareness and gets us ready for these moments, our mind to process the extraordinary, and when we encounter these experiences with momentary abandonment, we encounter the mystery life has to offer. It reminds me also that the Buddha was awakened by the sun rise, the Universe expressing it’s self to it’s self through his eyes, and Siddhartha awakened to this reality. His mind was ripe. These moments are to be cherished for the potential they offer as life changing events. We can encounter these moments when we are least expecting them; these mysteries of the Universe. They can be found in the softness of flowers, the iridescent colors of a butterfly, rainbows, the cry of a loon, sunsets at sea, designs of snowflakes, a child’s giggle, the radiance of a smile, or a shooting star. It is up to us to find our own spiritual moments, and then bring them into our practice. Let them expand our understanding of our Buddhist studies, to allow inward change. But don’t be fooled, our spiritual nature is a concrete one that drives the intent of our actions as we engage life as it is. It is a plank on the raft that gets us to the other shore. Maybe even a paddle. Our spiritual practice has real consequences as it too is ruled by the laws of cause and effect. Our spiritual nature should be used for doing good for others , not keep in a closet of an unresponsive hart.

By allowing inward change, while at the same time simplifying our external life, spirituality serves as our greatest single resource for changing our centuries-old trajectory of violence and division. Spirituality is profoundly transformative when it inspires in us the attitude of seeking moments to express compassion and selfless giving. The 20th century has witnessed acts of immense destruction that have resulted in untold suffering. The architects of these political movements defined the human in the abstract, which allowed them to destroy living human beings. Now in the 21st century we see the same trend toward using violence to solve conflict and disagreements, rather than seeking reform and renewal though displays that reflect the better part of man’s nature. One would think that the world religions could unite and find common ground around each others emphasis on the power of a spiritual practice, and bring pressure to bare to seek peace in compromise. But not yet it seems.

We need to understand, to really grasp on an elementary level, that the definitive solution to world conflict is the spiritual awakening of humankind. This awakening will be the task of the Interspiritual Age, as the late Wayne Teasdale, a Christian Benedictine monk, called it. The necessary shifts in consciousness require a new approach to spirituality that transcends past religious cultures of fragmentation and isolation. This direct experience of interspirituality paves the way for a universal view of what it means to be human that transcends self-centered grasping for power and a worldview based on the notion of relativism. Or if you are not one of us, you are not important for our consideration. A truly medieval tribal perspective.

The contemporary Buddhist perspective attempts something unique: to present a practical guide to spirituality in a universal and pluralistic context. In this new age with its superior communication technology, all forms of spiritual practice is accessible to most of us, allowing creative crossover and opportunities to borrow from many traditions in order to broaden our own experiences. A strong contemplative practice is a tool for everyone seriously committed to living the spiritual life, regardless of circumstance. We do not need to enter monasteries to have a spiritual worldview. Our cultivated spiritual inner life is the deepest part of how we are. We need only to realize and activate that essential part of our nature.

There is a desperate need for spirituality in our time, yet this spirituality must be in dialogue and communion with everything of value in our study, meditation, and spiritual practice. It is in the spiritual framework that we are awakened to the unity of the human family, not one that further divides us or maintains old antagonisms. At the same time, this spiritual approach must not submerge our differences; we must come to see all traditions in relationship to each other. The reality of this Universe is big enough to include our diversity of views. They are all based on authentic inner experience, and so are all valid to the human character. No matter our tradition, we respond to the mystery inherent in confronting the unknown in similar ways, before any dogma is allowed to attempt an explanation. It is at that point, before attempts at reasoning, looking up at the stars perhaps, that common human emotion of thought finds common ground. The Buddha called it the ‘unknowable’, I call it a mystery.

The world around us and compassionate social service are both means of activating the contemplative within. Although most Western faiths are essentially practiced by the laity as extroverted action, Buddhist practice places a significant attention on meditation, understanding the nature of the inner development of self so we can effectively promote social harmony. As we learn to turn inward, we discover this contemplative way of processing what is going on around us, as we seek the meaning to a spiritual life of service as an objective reality. Contemplation is a way that grasps the common ground between the inner and outer in the depth of expanding our conscious thought process. It is a process of overwhelmingly self-honesty in the light of reconciling ourselves with the nature of developing an awakened mind. The lesson is for us to get out of the way and let pure awareness of the moment enter the still-point of our concentration. Such metaphors as the path, getting to the other shore, the mountain, searching for the ox, all express this progress. They point to a process that takes place in an external world. But contemplation equally involves more intensely the inner life. Although the West has been regarded as extroverted, its contemplative tradition is also highly oriented to interior contemplation. Thomas Merton’s Trappist Benedictine Order is a perfect example of this intense practice.

In contemplation we turn within; our introversion keeps the objective of reality constant. But what is this “objective of reality”? That is the mystery. We encounter this reality that is both Dependent Origination and the immanent ground of all being every moment. But we do not recognize it for what it is. I will give you a clue, we are all expressions of the Universe. When you look at your reflection in a still mountain pool, that is also reflecting back the clouds above, where is the difference?

I would like to do a quick exercise in perspective. It is important, you see, to get the proportions of our very existence right when we expand our awareness beyond what we know. Let us start by imagining a blackboard. In the middle of this blackboard we place a dot that represents all human knowledge from the dawn of consciousness. Compare this little dot to the expanse of the blackboard, and then to the surrounding room; then imagine stepping outside and looking to the night sky. Take in the stars and realize that what there is to know lies in their immensity. A trained contemplative mind allows us to extend our awareness far beyond the dot on the blackboard. It is beyond language to express. It enlarges our understanding and gives us access to the experience of our minds potential for awakening to the immense potential of our opening to the reality that we ARE ALL CONNECTED. It is the most precious wisdom we can experience. Our life here on this planet is short, do not squander your opportunity to experience the mystery for yourself.

Oh by the way, don’t forget to look for that red bird on the fence. Or anywhere else it might appear. The image below is from a photo taken by Jim Sabiston from Essential Light Photography and given to me by Mn. Jin-Deng at his ordination in New York last week. He remembered the “red bird” lesson from months ago and surprised me with this wonderful picture. It is now hanging in the meditation room for all to experience too, when their mind is ripe. Bowing /\


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