Ask A Monk: Questions From the Cushion

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

From time to time I like to share with our Sangha some of the questions we receive either at our centers from the meditation hall, those ask during a one-on-one session with us, or by correspondence, and our answers to them. Perhaps these are some of the question you have been wondering about and have not ask, or the question reminds you of a similar topic you need clarification on. So in preparation I have researched my achieves of notes and correspondence and have selected what I think is a broad spectrum of subjects that might be of interest to those of you with a developing knowledge of Buddhism, or someone just showing an interests. The questions are taken from those not ask in confidence. Skillful means is called for in these types of question as the questioner often has limited knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practices, and an academic response is not called for. As you listen to the answers, test your own knowledge of the subject and how you might answer if given a chance. So, take out paper and pen and make some notes that you can use in the discussion period that will follow.

I’ll start by sharing with you questions I was ask by a University undergraduate student that contacted me asking for help on a research paper she was doing for a religions studies class.

1) What impact does the Eightfold Path have on your daily life? Does it come into play in your decision making?

A – The Eightfold Path is a practical guideline for leading an ethical and moral life with the goal of helping an individual move away from negative attachments and delusions. As a Buddhist monk in a socially engaged order the vows I undertook reflects all the underlying elements recognized in this path. They effect the way I view daily situations I encounter and influence the intent of my actions. I put great emphasis on the practical aspects of this path, and it is through practice that I can achieve dong good for myself and others. It most defiantly comes into play during decision making as I remain aware of how the path teaches wisdom, reflection on how my conduct must reflect ethical standards I have vowed to maintain, and also how following this path develops mental awareness. I view the Eightfold Path not to be considered as separate or sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.

2) How big a part does meditation play in the Buddhist faith? Is it a daily activity, or reserved for special occasions?

A – First, let me say that it is easy when reading the available literature on Buddhism in this country, including textbooks, to have Buddhism referenced as a faith-based belief system. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was very clear that his teachings are to be based on what we are able to experience and verify in our own life. Considering Buddhism from a pragmatic perspective we consider it to be a practice-based philosophy with spiritual dimensions. It is up to the practitioner to realize their full potential.
Meditation, and specifically mindful meditation (Zazen), is a key component of the practice of Buddhism. The Buddha spoke often of the importance of training the mind to be aware, and meditation is the major aspect of this effort. I sit in meditation twice a day for forty minutes each as a part of my monastic service and practice-life. In all our centers we begin with a period of meditation generally lasting thirty or forty minutes before we move into other body-mind practices, like Qigong, before the Dharma talk. So, meditation is a major aspect of our Buddhist practice, and one the Buddha consider essential for developing an aware mind.

I think in America, and in the West in general, meditation is considered almost a necessary aspect of Buddhist practice, and as such, you will find in most of the Buddhist schools, some form of meditation. This is not necessarily the case in Asia, where meditation is generally practiced in the monasteries among the monks and nuns, but not among the laity. Meditation is encouraged to be a daily practice and not reserved for special occasions.

3) The rites of marriage and death are a significant part of most religions. How does Buddhism celebrate these or any other rites?

A – This is an excellent question. Very early in the Buddhist American experience, and especially as Zen Buddhism was introduced, the practice of rites was considered not necessary. In fact, Zen was considered to be without any structure almost. But now we know this was not the case. Rites, ceremonies, and ritual practices can be found in most all Buddhist schools worldwide. Among the rituals regularly performed in most Buddhist centers and monasteries, we can distinguish between those that are practiced on a daily basis and other periodic rites that are less frequent and in some ways therefore considered special. Of the rites that are performed periodically and considered special would be those associated with marriage and death. And each school has their own ritual based practice prescribed for these occasions.

4) Is worship a community activity or is it done primarily by the individual?

A – We value the principle of adapting Buddhism and its rituals and practices to our contemporary society. We look at what is natural with the goal of developing or preserving practices that are useful, productive and positive. We strike a balance between what is considered traditional vs. modern. We recognize the importance that engaging others in our communities has in developing a socially-aware life that promotes human flourishing. Coming together to sit in meditation, participate in group discussions, and sharing our individual experience all interact to achieve this purpose. While we perform individual practice routines at home that include some of those elements, it is engaging with others that promotes the most benefit.

5) Tell me bout a festival or holiday that is significant to you as a Buddhist. Why is it important?

A – I think in non-Buddhist Western countries like America, there is not as much emphasis placed on Buddhist holidays among practicing Buddhist as you find in Asia, and especially where Buddhism is considered a state religion. This is my experience anyway. In my order there is one special annual event we consider most special and one we recognize in each of our centers. This is the remembrance of the death of the American Ch’an monk Venerable Shi Shen Long, Ryugen Fisher, the patriarch of our Order, and my teacher’s teacher. The ceremony is referred to as a Puja for Releasing Lives to Freedom, and is performed on the anniversary of his departing.

6) Buddhism is practiced in many countries by many different peoples. How do Buddhists in America differ in their beliefs, values, rituals, practices etc? Or, is Buddhism fairly uniform wherever it is practiced?

A – As Buddhism moves into different cultures with their varying difference and language it began to reflect the values and practices of the new culture. This change is further complicated based on the practices introduced by the various Buddhist schools, like Tibetan, Ch’an, Soto or Rinzai Zen, to name a few. So it is natural to realize that these different Buddhist school’s practices will begin to reflect American values over time. It is our goal to integrate the philosophy of American pragmatism with the traditional pragmatic teachings of Siddhartha Gautama in order to create a uniquely American Buddhism, for example. Our work is the synthesis of traditional Chinese Ch’an and Soto Zen Buddhism, and the American Pragmatist tradition, in what we call Pragmatic Buddhism. We utilize Ch’an and Zen Buddhist practice methods that resonate with Westerners, including the central practice of sitting meditation (Zazen). Our pluralistic approach uses modern-day language to explain Buddhism’s relevance to the contemporary Western lifestyle, and specifically reflects American values. In this way we cultivate personal development for enhancing peace and harmony in our own life and an opportunity to engage in positive actions within our communities. In this way we are contributing to the vibrant and useful aspects of the core Buddhist teachings, and participate in bringing these teachings into the 21st Century. We are beginning to see, for example, how Zen principles are being adopted into the American iconography and psychology even if their Buddhist roots are not always recognizable.

The next set of question came also from a student doing research in Buddhist history for an Asian Studies course.

1) Without a personal God, on what basis can any human exist?

A – Contemporary Buddhists have found affinity for evolution as an explanation of the existence of things. This is because Buddhism comes from India, where it was widely held thousands of years ago that the world and the humans who inhabit it (and all species for that matter) emerged from a causal process; just as the right conditions produce different elements, humans arise from the continuously changing conditions of the Universe. The nature of that transformation is and must remain unknown, but if we adhere to a causal reality we must acknowledge that it remains a part of the whole Universal expression.

2) What practices have changed significantly between early Buddhism and Buddhism today?

A – This is a good question, but surprisingly perhaps, modern Buddhism is more similar to early Buddhism than it has ever been – that is, Buddhism as it is discussed and practiced in the West is more similar to the way Buddhism was presented at the time of Siddhartha Gautama 2500 years ago. After the Buddha’s passing, Buddhism tended to be more analytical or more metaphysical than when it first arose among his disciples. The Buddha’s concerns, as are ours today, are the practical means of alleviating unsatisfactoriness in this very lifetime, and much less emphasis is placed on what are called “unanswerable questions,” which include the absolute nature and origin of the Universe, the existence of the soul, the nature or existence of the afterlife, and even the nature of enlightenment (The Buddha did not describe the nature of enlightenment, even though many later Buddhists tried to do so). In taking a pragmatic approach like the Buddha did, it can be said that our approach to Buddhist practice, both in theory and engagement, is a reversion back to the original teachings as found in the Buddhist Cannon.

3) Why are there so many variations of Buddhism?

A – There is no single “right way” to practice Buddhism, and it changes according to the time and place where it is found. For example, every example of Buddhism that survived the transition from one culture to another included the adoption of an indigenous worldview with the previous version of Buddhism. For example, when Buddhism moved to China, the Chinese philosophical school of Daoism was mixed with it, because Daoism more readily connected with the Chinese people. When Chinese Buddhism moved to Japan, the Japanese mixed their own Shinto religion with it, to again make it relevant to them. Tibetan Buddhism mixed the Tibetan Bon religion in with Indian Buddhism. In the United States, we are beginning to see various schools emerge that reflect specific indigenous cultural reference mixed with more traditional linage teaching that are beginning to sprout a cultivated view of Buddhism unique to American values. While Buddhism is defiantly not main-stream acceptable, overtime, that too may change.

4) What do lotus blossoms signify?

A – Lotus flowers in India would sometimes bloom in very muddy ponds. One would have been unable to see through the water, but the lotus, rooted at the bottom of the pond, would blossom above the muddy water. Thus, the image of clarity emerging from chaos is a powerful one for Buddhists, since this is our aim through Buddhist practice.

The following questions are those ask by Formal Students of my teacher Ven. Shi Yong Xiang. The answers are his, and sometimes free flowing in style.

1) From a pragmatic point of view how are we to consider Nirvana and life after death?

A – Nirvana is simply equilibrium. Early Buddhists had to discuss, because of cultural expectation and the normal vocabulary of the day, something about the afterlife because everyone, except the radicals, expected it. The Buddha did create a direct connection between life on earth and “what happens next” but he ALSO dropped entirely the assumption that the connection is unchanging, what we normally call Soul. The Universe, and hence causality, work like math, there is nothing that operates without affecting the rest of it, which is really the definition of math. When we die, the math continues. So if we die content and with a reasonable life the math indicates that it will work in our (whatever we are/become) favor.

2) Can Buddhism be learned from books?

A – There is a tendency in Western Buddhism to over focus on books. Buddhist books are indeed fun to read, interesting, and helpful as a supplement to our primary practice. But we must have a purpose to the reading. Buddhism teaches us that every action we engage in needs intent behind it, if it is to be realized through the kind of awareness we are cultivating in Buddhist practice. We must be careful as Western Buddhists that we don’t spend too much time reading books about Buddhism, and make sure our readings are secondary to a solid daily application of Buddhist principles. The question is and must remain: where is the Buddhism in my life? We are talking about using, doing, and sharing Buddhism. The Buddha asks us to use the measure of our own lives when we consider whether or not Buddhism works; the number of books we have read, different authors, etc. in no way measures the applicability and usefulness of Buddhist teachings. This is why having a teacher is so important.

3) Can madras be used to heal or perform metaphysical feats?

A – You are right to be curious about the claims. These are actually very old, traditional claims that come from stories about the power of madras. However, they are only claims and have no research to support them, and there is at least no known biological mechanism that could explain how hand positions could affect the health of our body-mind in such a way as described in this power point, so they are as of now still considered “metaphysical claims.” That is, un-verifiable. We use madras for the practical benefit of comfort and to induce relaxation for the meditation experience to have its maximum effect, and to promote deep calm.

4) I have been considering over the past few days new opportunities to extend my altruistic hand. The thought has occurred to me that giving without knowing the true need seems pointless and maybe even potentially harmful. But it may also lead to missed opportunities. Is it wrong to hold back giving until we determine need? Then it seems like we are making a value judgment. Is this wise?

A – The first premise necessary here is we can not, and do not always or perhaps even often know, when is the best time to offer our goodness to someone else, instead we practice and practice and try to take the lessons and experience we gain from our dedication to know of situations, and when to intelligently offer what we know or do for others. The world is not built in terms of ideals; that is entirely what we determine them to be, because there is only “the world as it is at this moment and MIGHT be in the future” — so we must interact, and the choice is how? That how is what we aim to work-out through our practice and the wisdom we can give back. This is where we can begin to think about wisdom, as it is easiest to think about wisdom as “applied knowledge” and for us, the specific knowledge that comes through sincere practice and experience.

It is like this: all knowledge is based on experience, so it is experience of the world and “how it tends to operate” that allows us to make intelligent decisions. The additional consideration is – it can be my experience OR your experience, and this is where we get the tradition and teachings (the collective experience of other people) plus our direct experience, and the interaction between these two is what informs us and gives us our body of knowledge. At some point, we come to deeply trust and see that the body of knowledge, both collective and personal that Buddhism tends to promote and hold is of such a quality that we wish to ascribe to it maximum value, which means we “become Buddhist” — so you trust the reciprocity of the others involved in the tradition and your experience within the traditions — understand we all must make a choice in reality; we all ACT from SOMEWHERE, and even science, atheism, Buddhism, Christianity, are like this. It is the initial decision on where we INVEST our time and resources to gain our knowledge that matters for us as individuals. And that contributes to the welfare of others. We trust we can make good choices.

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4 Comments

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