David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
All over the world engaged individuals are actively living an intentional spiritual practice. In some areas of the world, dedicated monastic’s are living the spiritual life in secret, while others are directly engaging their spiritual or religious beliefs for the selfless benefit of others. Spiritual practice assumes many forms. In my own Order, for example, we say that the world is our monastery, as we have taken vows to engage the dharma outside the walls of a traditional temple, which is becoming more common here in the West. Many Buddhist and Christians monks and nuns rise at 3am every morning to begin their day. Trappist Christian monks are completely dedicated to the inner experience, pursued through community prayer in the chapel, and private contemplation in their monastic cells. Jewish contemplatives keep aware of their god on the Sabbath and daily acts of engagement in remembrance of and conversation with him. The Dalai Lama wakes every day between 3:30 and 4 am to meditate and perform his prostrations. Stephen Batchelor told me once that he often wakes at 4 am to meditate for two hours, exercise, eat breakfast, and then write for the next six hours on subjects that are awakened in his mind during those early morning periods of contemplation. It is not just those that have dedicated their lives to a full-time traditional practice that develop spiritual-based lives, but many lay people have also found ways to engage their beliefs and practice too. In doing so, they have enriched not only their own quality of life, but those of others as well. But it does start with an awakening that you also can do this. It is not just Buddhist or Christian monks that have found this particular path of commitment. The common thread of all these diverse practices is the inner work that is slowly changing them from within. Each has embarked on the journey to the place of realization that promotes human flourishing. All are exploring who they really are beyond mere social identities and roles assigned by society, family, or even their faith. The vast majority of them will not give up the struggle but will press on until they are freed from within and set loose from this world of illusion. Set loose even from the need of a structured traditional platform, which only acts as a supporting frame until the spiritual structure is established. As for myself, I have been on this journey for a long time, in fits and starts. Constantly seeking the path even if it was not in the forefront of my consciousness. After years of searching and study, I have found the answer I have been looking for, and have taken the step onto the path up the mountain, a mountain with many paths. And in the end, for me, it was a natural step, and an easy one at that. My Buddhist practice, and the various ministries I pursue, is as natural as breathing. You do not need to take vows to have a spiritual life, but you do need to have a clear vision of your inner landscape that awakens you to action. This is the task for each one of us. We are all challenged by the call to plunge into seeking the ultimate roots of our identity in the great mystery which is sometimes called “our true natures.”
The core of the spiritual life, the enduring substance of the journey, is the refinement of this inner landscape — humility, egolessness, selflessness — that occurs through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is how we develop the wisdom that guides the inner self to confront the world and relate to others as well as nature. Spiritual practice is the cutting edge of radical interior change and the basis for profound self-knowledge to emerge in our lives, that results in a positive, useful and productive worldview.
The spiritual life is impossible without the insight of humility and a cultivated selfless view of our social roles. What we call the social-self. It saves us from superficiality, and compels us to always be true to ourselves and mindful of others. Humility of purpose forces us to stand on the platform of what we come to know as Universal reality. It is my sad experience that for many Americans, humility is not only undesirable, it is virtually incomprehensible. Those who do not know its nature, view humility as weakness. But humility of character is not about displays of weakness, it is about honesty and self-confidence. It includes modesty about self, but it is essentially a virtue related to giving us power to act compassionately. No other accomplishment in life may compare to this attainment. Humility is closely related to egolessness. Egolessness is to live out of the depths of the spirit of kindness, mercy, love and compassion. It is really a state of body-mind and a fundamental element in the spiritual journey, and is required for the spiritual life to awaken and prosper. This form of wisdom is summed up by the Tao Te Ching: “The sage has no mind of his own. He is aware of the needs of others.”
Spiritual practice, the work of our transformation, is the means of inner growth and change toward human maturity seen in the best of moral excellence, as we try to live a decent life. This is especially critical in the authentic practice of a spiritual life as we try to relate to multi-faith approaches to spirituality or what Brother Wayne Teasdale called inter-spirituality. Through this habit of relating to the nature of what it means to be human, the transformative nature of how we live our life begins to change how we see the world around us. Without a spiritual practice of some kind, spirituality is a hollow affair; it has no substance and is reduced to the formality of religiosity.
A genuine spiritual practice is only strengthened by periods of contemplation, devotional practice alone is not it. Only such periods of intense practice, as in meditation for example, will lead to interior breakthroughs that provide real progress in the awakening to the dharma. This insight is found in all the spiritual traditions, and marks the difference between a genuine practice as apposed to one of occasional displays of piety. All spiritual practices are transformative, be they various forms of meditation, contemplative thought, prayer, or sacred reading. Even activities as performing liturgy and ritual with intent, music, chanting, yoga, Qigong and certain martial arts, even hiking and walking can all lead to spiritual transformation. They change us from within and make this inner change consistent with our actions in the world. Seekers of every tradition (Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and many others) have cultivated a spiritual practice and have thus cultivated profound knowledge of our Universe. The platforms upon which we choose to stand may influence how we interpret this experience, but the spiritual awakening, as a process, is the same. The common thread is what makes us human, the driving force for seeking the spirit and wonder of our Universe. This is true when cave men looked up at the stars, as it is true today when we study the images of the Hubble telescope.
Spiritual practice shapes our understanding, character, will, personality, attitudes, and actions by enlarging their scope through the light of compassion and love. Thomas Merton, the Christian Trappist monk and Buddhist explorer, became a great teacher to millions because he embraced the daily observance of a contemplative discipline. He did not just talk and write about contemplation, he WAS a contemplative. But he was also a man of the world. And as a result he influenced others profoundly. He counted among his friends, Popes, the Dalia Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, many of the leading Buddhist scholars of his day, as well as the common man. His worldview was truly immense, and made many in the power-elite of the Catholic Church unconformable. His world view was both pragmatic and pluralistic. He often said that faith and theology often got in the way of man’s ability to contemplate his true nature. Contemplative thought was his spiritual practice, and he was always trying to communicate its transformative nature to others. This is a critical aspect of a spiritual practice, engaging others. Thomas Merton was a true bodhisattva, although he was not a Buddhist. It is not important what you are, but how you are.
Spiritual practice is to the contemplative life what food and water is to the body-mind. Just as we can not survive very long without food and water, we can not survive on the spiritual journey without a rigorous meditation practice of some sort. It is the inner source of nourishment and growth. There are as many forms of spiritual practice as there are individuals. As you see, a spiritual practice is unique to the individual. Forms may differ, but the goal is the same: integration and transformation. To achieve authentic spirituality, we must adopt some form of a spiritual practice.
Brother Teasdale identified seven levels of transformation as it relates to development of a spiritual practice: consciousness, the will, the emotions, the character, the imagination, memory, and action. Let me take each of these and try to express in short form my understanding of them from a Buddhist perspective.
First, lets look at consciousness. Our consciousness affects our understanding of life and reality. Through the practice of the spiritual life, our awareness grows and expands allowing us to “take-in” moment to moment what is real around us. The more we are aware of our body-mind interactions, the greater becomes our capacity to understand, to change, and to actualize our potential for human flourishing. As this understanding increases, ignorance dissipates and we can then modify or change the intent of our actions. Enhanced consciousness allows us to make connections, with self and other.
Next our will then responds to this inner change that effects an expanding transformation in our character and behavior. The will becomes stable in the pursuit for common good, in transcending self-centered preferences, so we can respond to others with selfless understanding.
Our emotions achieve a greater stability and order. They no longer operate on their own, but are brought into harmony with the integrated body-mind. With the help of a strong meditation practice, our emotions now serve the spiritual journey, and they no longer are a source of distraction.
The change in consciousness, will, and the emotions gradually habituates our character to be reshaped in and by the moral and ethical values our inner journey engenders. Our character then makes the shift from self-centered preoccupation, from ignorance to wisdom, from human limitation to the liberating power of recognizing the nature of a social-self. Our character takes on the form and substance of virtue. Our person then takes on the character of wisdom, compassion, and kindness. What is interesting about this transformation is that we start to project a type of attraction that others relate to in a positive and constructive way.
Our imagination, like our emotions and feelings, is tied to our understanding, will, character, memory, and actions to form an integral and effective center for our willing, knowing, acting, and being in the moment. Our imagination is not performing in its own field ignoring what is happening in our inner life. It is in harmony with our will and intention. Our imagination is no longer roaming free, but has a purpose and focus inline with our spiritual practice.
Memory is at the service of our inner growth. It no longer sits in isolation, wallowing in what it thinks as its hurts or injustices, but becomes completely present to the NOW experience (to use a Zen phrase).
A mature integrated spiritual practice transforms our actions and behavior to be in harmony with compassion and practical wisdom, and allows us to be aware of the suffering of others and the appropriate responses to that suffering. Our actions become consistent with our virtues, and we can not longer act in isolation from what we have realized. We must act from our inner life and from wisdom. This is the life of a Bodhisattva.
All the great examples of lives lived out of compassion throughout history, in all traditions, attest to the relationship between inner transformation and outer action. If they are not in harmony, if they are not consistent, then the relationship and the transformation are either inauthentic or incomplete.
All spiritual practice is ultimately about this inner development that reaches fruition in selfless compassion, mercy and kindness. All spiritual practices — numerous forms of meditation, spiritual reading, reflection, affective prayer, music, art, dance, walking, yoga, the martial arts, contemplation, or chanting the names of god — are directly related to self-knowledge and inner transformation. We can not ignore the overwhelming evidence that these practices bring to inner change, and over the ages they stand as a witness to their value and efficacy to lead us to a complete reversal of the old self, addicted to selfishness and the notion of the false-self. Following this path is not easy, but no better way to lasting happiness and tranquility of peace of body-mind exists, from my experience. All spiritual paths lead finally to this place that transcends all we thought we knew before.