Category Archives: David Xi-Ken Astor

Equanimity Is A Human Emotion Too

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Some of the most difficult concepts of Buddhist thought to explain is often not the philosophical principles, but the psychological ideas that emerge from the understanding found in the Four Noble Truths, that teach how human emotions create both good and less good behaviors. Almost from the very beginning of Buddhist study we encounter the reasons for human suffering and unsatisfactoriness that point directly to how we develop and display them though our emotions. These emotions reflect our feelings at the time ….. anger, fear, happiness, sadness, need, and feelings of compassion are some of the many emotions we humans can experience, and act on. Our sense of who we are is so bound up in the desires we value, that for many who explore the Buddhist path that teaches we must learn to divest ourselves of many of our personal preferences in order to awaken to our full potential, is asking us to give up much of what makes us human too. It is so easy to consider nonattachment as a life-style that offers very little richness.

But, the Buddha is asking us to achieve a balance in what we desire that works to promote happiness and harmony for us and those around us. He is teaching us that we do not have to give up being emotional, just that we move away from unhealthy and un-productive displays of emotion that are not useful and productive in the long run. After all, karma is about outcomes and how they create movement in the world around us. So the key word here is balance, or achieving an equal-balance in how we act. It is about learning to bring control and composure to our behavior, that reflects a mature state of mind that is achieved when what we desire, and weighed against what we can achieve, reflects our practicing the Three Pure Precepts. In other words, our cultivating equanimity.

It is fare to ask, what is wrong with being very attached to the color red, or being extremely annoyed when people our rude and obnoxious? Well, with all things being equal, not much. And yes, I know you know there are healthy desires and unhealthy desires. The Buddha discovered just after his awakening, however, that desire can be like a house builder. The Dhammapada # 154 says, “Housebuilder, you have been seen! You will not build another house …. My mind has reached the destruction of craving.” His experience suggests his understanding that desires build a framework of a personality upon which suffering finds a stage for acting out in unproductive ways. What the Buddha is saying, is that a life of many desires can achieve an over-emotional human being, which is not good, even if many of those desires are harmless when taken one at a time. Being aware of self, or even our Buddha nature, is a human thing, something rocks and trees don’t have. It is what makes us spiritual beings. Because we have the capacity to like or not like something is what creates the notion of a permanent and unique self. Attachments often have the nature of permanence, that we can carry with us until we walk through the exit door.

The second element of the Four Noble Truths has as it’s core realization that it is not what we want, but that we want which creates human desire and thus displays of human emotions that has the potential for suffering. Desires are a complex human psycho-emotional human element, and creates complexity when confronted by the sense of self that makes how we learn to cultivate equanimity difficult. But there is an easy way to confront this challenge, and that is the practice of being mindful moment to moment. And in these moments we have the potential to achieve equanimity. But being awakened to the moment without wanting is not the same as having no emotion, for equanimity itself is an emotion. Visualize an emotional scale in the form of a single line, where at one end is absolute-frantic-action and at the other complete non-emotion (flat affect). On this human emotion scale equanimity should be found somewhere near the center. So you see, equanimity is a balanced-emotion. When we display calm and great composure in our actions, we are displaying constructive emotion that has the potential for achieving good. Either extreme is not it.

We do not become less human by controlling our emotions by curbing our desires. As Buddhist walking the middle way path we learn to practice responses to situations that gives proper credit to what is happening without trying to make it something else that is more about us than about the reality of the moment. And when we learn to achieve this level of equanimity in our practice we step closer to what it means to live a nobly human life. It teachers us to seek equanimity in our own experiences. Another way to keep our house uncluttered.

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Rediscovering Our Spiritual-Self: An Action For Transformation

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. 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, the 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 prehistoric 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 be begin to comprehend the significance of Siddhartha’s new worldview, as we too 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 may be a holdover from our Western Judaic/Christian roots where we thought of the ‘spiritual’ as touching on the mystical, 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.

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.

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 Wayne Teasdale, a Christian Benedictine monk, calls 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Spiritual Practice: Potential For Inner Change

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.” Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

God: The Human Creation

David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Let me say right-off-the-bat I do not wish to offend anyone with a strong spiritual practice based on the belief in a superior being. I respect a pluralistic worldview and one’s own freedom to find what makes us human as we all walk the path “up the mountain” together. In fact, taking an agnostic worldview is more difficult to explain in our Western culture. Even for some Buddhist that have taken the scriptures/suttas as referring to the Buddha as a divine-like figure may also be challenged by a discourse on the topic of God (or the little god’s) when considering the topic of Creation. As a former Christian monk, I too come to this subject with a great deal of “soul” searching, contemplation, and philosophical study. But I am glad I did because my eyes have been opened to the wonder of this Universe and my expression in it; one no longer inhibited by limitations imposed by accepting the notion of a god, and all that that encompasses. I prefer to consider “creation” as a verb not a noun. And that verb is unknowable, as Siddhartha said many times.

The word “God” has a powerful effect because as soon as we hear the word meaning comes into our minds. How we consider the word depends on our conditioning that we have experienced through a lifetime of association with the culture we live in and religious affiliation of our “tribe”. It is a word that begs not to be questioned. When we hear the word “God”, if we are honest with ourselves, we sense an immediate emotional effect, and we display the personal preferences we have come to accept as representing what we believe. I think very few individuals really question the authenticity of a Creator. It is something that just isn’t questioned. The typical response when ask if we believe in God is, “Of course I believe in God, are you crazy?” That is the first problem with the word, because our minds are already closed. Our culture, our families, our communities, our social justice system is based on a superior being setting guidelines of what is moral and ethical. Without that we would experience chaos.

As a Western Buddhists, I think it is important to take an interest in this notion of God because we are living amongst a predominantly theistic culture, many being Christian, and as a Buddhists teacher I am ask this question often. It is something I have had to work out because of my interest in inter-spiritual community dialogue. Even those new to Buddhism almost always ask the question early on in their studies. As our studies become more complex and advanced this idea of universal-creation often is perplexing and unresolved as to where Creator/God fits into the picture. As Westerners this is a normal reaction, not because we want God to somehow fit in, but it is due to our past conditioning, and the power of the word that needs resolution. Interesting enough, my own teacher seemed to be very reluctant to bring the subject up. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Solitude And The Socially Engaged Monk

By:  David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I speak often about the importance of awakening to how the Four Noble Truths articulate the importance for us to develop the individual as well as social elements of this noble practice we call Buddhism.  We learn how we are, both as persons and as partners, in this web of connections we call life.  As a Buddhist monk that has taken vows to engage others beyond the walls of a temple, it is important for me to confront the realities of the social-self component of my practice.  Without it I do not have much of a Buddhist ministry.  The Buddha emphasized, however, the importance for us to balance our social responsibility with the individual need for our own spiritual renewal.  Siddhartha often removed himself from the everyday activities of the Sangha, and retreated into solitude in order to “recharge” his spiritual energy.  The Ch’an and Zen tradition has a long history of supporting an extended period of retreating into solitude away from all distractions.  This is true in both the East as it is now in the West.

I want to share with you today some thoughts on the nature of this transformative body-mind practice know as “session”, or intentional practice into solitude.  Time or space is not imposed.  It is up to the individual to establish the parameters surrounding the need.  It is always an effect of the causal chain of events that drives the situational aspects of making the choice for withdrawing from social interaction.

Solitude or withdrawal is the state of being secluded or separate from others.  An individual can choose to inter a state of practice of being solitary based on circumstances.  It is an example of situational-practice.  When used at the right time and in the right manner it can have an important role in our spiritual development.

Before his enlightenment Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, also spent over six years in extended periods alone in the forests of his ancestral home in what we know today as Nepal.  He was seeking first to understand himself before he could have the wisdom to administer the affairs of others.  That was when he thought his destiny was to govern the region after the death of his father, the King.  That we know now did not happen.  The causal nature of the Universe revealed a different path for him, and we are all the richer for that reality.  Reminiscing on this time many years later he said in the Majjhima Nikaya, “Such was my seclusion that I would plunge into some forest and live there.  If I saw a cowherd, shepherd, grass-cutter, wood-gatherer or forester, I would flee so that they would not see me or me them.”  We know from the many references made in the various Pali Canon that after he attained enlightenment he would occasionally go into solitude.  In the Samyutta Nikaya he is reported as saying, “I wish to go into solitude for half a month.  No one is to come to see me except the one who brings my food.”     Even though Siddhartha came to consider that the fabric of all phenomena-form, including our human one, are interconnected and dependent, it was still vital to withdraw from intentional contact in order to reconnect with renewed vigor.  The notion is that I might be in a room by myself, but I am never totally alone, because all the connections I have with others before I stepped into solitude are never severed, unless that too is an intentional act.   Even then, we are only in a body-mind state of being “alone with others” as Stephen Batchelor puts it. Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Transforming Negative Experiences Into The Positive

I would like to share with our readers a response I gave to a question received on the EDIG website about the duel posting on Karma: Where The Ideal Meets The Real.  The question was, “How does one keep positive thoughts when harmed by others?”  Here is my answer:

One thing we must realize about karma is that it has no value until we give it value.  Cause and effect is a universal reality and is pervasive in all things.  Nothing is permanent, even happiness.  The most we might experience is a sustained state of mind that is free from disharmony.  But even that mind state has limits.  It is not unreasonable to assume that bad things happen to good people.  I am not speaking about natural events that is built into our human condition, such as illness, old age, and death.

It takes some practice to see situations separate form their causes, and eventual consequences.  But neither thoughts or actions are without a cause.  There is always a chain of causes.  This starts effecting us before our birth and continues throughout our lives and even beyond our deaths.  When we experience an event, either good or unpleasant, it is natural to ask questions.  The what if game, or the blame game, or the why me game, or the thank-god game.  This especially is what happens when we feel we have been harmed by others.  It may seem more natural if something bad happens as an “act of nature.”  But when it happens at the hand of others, we generally take it personally.  And this is where our practice and a more enounced understanding of how our mind process events comes into Buddhist perspective.  Especially relative to karmic consequences.

It is easy to say that our mind is up to its old tricks trying to justify, rationalize, and find ways to make ourselves feel better.  The real question might be, “Who is harmed here?”  Our everyday-mind (ego) answers me!  Negative karma and positive karma are like seeds.  If either are not planted in soil, will they ever grow?  If they are planted in soil, but given no water, will they grow?  What if they are planted in soil, given water, but never allowed light to reach them, will they grow?  Karma is like seeds.  Causal conditions must be just right in order for them to grow into effects.  Without conditions they will never flourish.  This is why we must always be sure to avoid creating conditions for negative karma to ripen, and instead create conditions only for good karma to grow.  This is most important with our thoughts.  If we identify, nourish, and expand harmful events, either real or perceived, we only continue to harm ourselves.  Harm is a value we give to an event.  Harm retards the feeling of happiness.  When this happens, it growns into resentment and the chance that we will continue the harm by expanding it towards others.  A process that if not checked at the very beginning of an unsatisfactory action, it could quickly get out of hand.

Do you know the problem here?  To much thinking!  Thinking about the past, especially going over bad things that have happened in our minds again and again, serves no purpose.  It is completely useless mental activity.  In fact, it is worse than useless, because it can only harm our happiness.  This is not to mean we should never analyze perceived harmful events in a way to find lessons that adds to our wisdom-file.  This is how a mature Buddhist practice develops insight.  It is the uncontrolled thought constructions that holds on to the negative and labels them harmful.  The mind which gets caught up in useless fantasy and projection is only a self-serving mechanism that has the potential of separating us from others, even if it is clothed with higher purpose.  When we trip on something on our path we did not see coming, we pick ourselves up, maybe apply a band aid to a scratch, and keep walking.   This accident will cause us to be more watchful.  So it is a learning experience.  This is the same with negative causes.  We get up, fix the problem if necessary, and keep walking the path with renewed or additional experiences to add to our wisdom-bag.  We do not hold on to them, we store our experiences for later reference if needed.

Out of every adversity is an equal or greater opportunity.  It is up to us to see through the fog of negative thinking.  It is hard not to think negatively about a harmful experience.  It is that self generated negative thinking we need to abandon.  Another’s harm is only momentary, self inflected negative emotions can last a life time.  Live happy, live with compassion, live with maximum enjoyment, share with others, all these things will override the unhappy.  It is not as important what people do to us, as it is what we do to ourselves that counts.  Because it may effect how we treat others.  Be a duck, let water roll off your back.  When you learn to do that, the water will return to its source eventually.  And that is how karma works, and quacks.

/\ David Xi-Ken Shi

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Vows and Duty: Guiding Principles For A Buddhist Monk

David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I generally avoid making a distinction between a lay practice and the refined-life-practice of a Buddhist monk in a public discussion.  While the roles within a Buddhist community and the Sangha leadership may have different aspects and responsibilities, the depth and wisdom between a lay and monastic practice can be much the same depending on individual commitment and capacity for understanding.  From a Western point of view, many contemporary Buddhist teachers avoid defining a Sangha as only a community of monks/nuns, but take a pluralistic position that is inclusive.   This is a useful and productive attitude that recognizes the values imbedded in the principles of our interdependence and interconnectedness.

However, there is an aspect to a life dedicated to the Bodhisattva ideal that is undertaken when one takes formal vows and commits themselves to living as monks, either as temple-monks or itinerant-monks.  The intentional action to submit to a monastic life of purpose is unique and enhances an individual practice beyond a specific defined role.   It is this unique motivation and life that I would like to present today.  I address my thoughts to those individuals that have taken, or are in training to take, the step of professing monastic vows.  Although many of the lessons here can be adopted into a lay practice as well.

First and foremost, becoming a monk (I wish to use the term to include both men and women) is not to adopt a different type of practice from a lay one.  A Buddhist practice, is a Buddhist practice.  Wearing monk robes does not change that.  What makes a difference is “how we are” as we live within the monastic tradition.  Of course having the time to devote to a dedicated practice without some of the worldly distractions is an additional element for a monastic life.  So, the question that arises is, “What makes one a monastic?”   The Christian tradition has a nice answer to this question that revolves around a “special calling and religious vocation.”  We Buddhist generally don’t use these phrases to explain why one comes to understand their desire to become a monk.  Make no mistake though, Buddhist monasticism is a vocation, as it is a human experience reflecting the spiritual dimension, answering a deeper self-awareness that even for me is hard to define.  When we are moved to step onto the monastic path, we must understand just what it is we are committing ourselves to.  “Why” is not as critical as “what” in this case.  So the question expands to, “WHAT makes one a monastic, and WHAT is required of us?”   The answers to these questions are critical to one’s understanding of how their life will change, and how the monastic-practice sets priorities and challenges, as we monks engage our everyday Buddhist practice.

As Buddhism moved West and encountered a culture familiar with monastic traditions (Christian), some assumptions on what a Buddhist monk was were taken for granted.  We Westerners saw robes, ritual, temple buildings, chanting, and deep spiritual characteristics of the few Buddhist monks we came in connect with, that reinforced the idea of “monkness”.   But the difference between Christian and Buddhist monastic practices were not obvious to the casual observer.  It has taken a few decades for the Buddhist monastic structure to find roots in the West, and attract Western men and women to the Buddhist monastic life. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Spirituality In The Modern Age: A Buddhist Perspective

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Buddhism is one of the oldest spiritual traditions who’s foundational teaching stresses the importance of experiencing aspects of man’s behavior that promotes human flourishing.  Yet, a large portion of Buddhist thought encompasses the philosophical and psychological nature of man and may be lacking in direct and useful language of what “spiritual” means when we strip it of the mystical and metaphysical.  It is way to easy to find Buddhist practices that touch on the mystical, or even magical components in the legacy teachings as they have been handed down from the medieval mindset.  This is to be expected, but does not make it any easier to find contemporary language that expresses the “spiritual” in agnostic existential terms.  There are aspects to Buddhism that many find attractive, especially those that promote harmony in how we live our life among others in engaged activities, and the importance placed on meditation practice.  Buddhism also fits nicely in our modern age that promotes the pragmatic and pluralistic view that supports the notion that we never accept anything on the authority of others alone, but on what we can eventually understand from our own verifiable experiences.  Without this direct experience our practice is one of blind faith.

This attitude toward reality is inherent in modern thinking.  Buddhism does not require anyone to believe anything that they can not rationally understand.  Buddhism is not a faith-based religion for those with a serious study practice.  Individuals should only hold as reliable what they can confirm through experience.  Siddhartha spoke often about the danger of holding opinions with such strong and unyielding force that they could not be subject to change, as this can become another form of attachment.  Buddhism is not an otherworldly practice but remains grounded in universal realities.  Thus the importance Buddhists places on living in the moment and not expecting the future to be neatly defined, as things never happen the same way twice.  All this we know after just a short time in Buddhist study and practice, especially if you are guided by a teacher.  Buddhism is very practical and provides a discipline for the body-mind that has the potential to awaken us to how we are, and how the universe is wonderfully mutually interconnected.  It does not just say “have compassion for others”, but shows us how living a life aware of our place in our world is a path away from unsatisfactoriness.  This is because it is practical and not ideal.  A Buddhist practice is found at the intersection where the ideal meets the real.

None of this, however, effectively defines what the “spiritual” component is unless you want to define all Buddhism to be a spiritual practice.   One can do this of course, but that does not work for me.  Buddhism has three basic dimension: the philosophical, the psychological, and the spiritual.  We take this approach as it helps in breaking up the teaching characteristics associated in Buddhist literature.  But it is proved difficult when we are left with trying to achieve what could be considered a comprehensive definition of the spiritual.   It is both a dilemma and a paradox, especially when most of us can come up with a definition of some sort.  When we really try to nail it down, however, we come to realize the complexity of the task.

The term spirituality has had a long and diverse history, especially in the Christian traditions.  In many ways, this is a part of the problem as many try to associate the Christian spiritual thought and struggle to bring them into their Buddhist practice.  From a Buddhist point of view, spirituality can be  defined as the “human quest for personal meaning and mutually understanding of the relationships we have with others, the environment, and the universal.”  As Buddhists we avoid language suggesting mention of a god, or concerns associated with the non-mutual causal nature of creation.  This leads us away from the Christian notion of the spiritual, but does not act as a clear understanding either.  It is just a definition that sounds good.  It is also interesting that the core existential phrase “existence before essence” can be used to support either a Christian interpretation of creation (Creator), as can an agnostic or atheist universal view.  The challenge is in the interpretation of the word “existence”. Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Considerations On Taking Refuge: But Refuge In What?

By:  David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

In all Buddhist traditions taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) is the first step in becoming a Buddhist.  But what does “taking refuge” really mean?  The Webster’s University Dictionary defines ‘refuge’ to mean: something to which one may turn for help, relief, or escape.  OK, I can understand this when I consider the Dharma, and even the Sangha, but how am I to consider taking refuge in someone that is dead?  After all, the Buddha was Siddhartha Gotama, a man that lived, taught, awakened to Universal reality,  and flourished 2500 years ago.  Just what am I taking refuge in?  Is the Buddha still alive somehow?

The challenge for any Buddhist teacher when presenting Buddhism to new students is to avoid unconsciously creating an insurmountable barrier between the Buddha as reflected in Siddhartha’s legacy teachings that point to the dharma, and an abstract metaphysical persona of an idealized Buddha as reflected in the iconography created from the mind of man.  When we look at the various Buddhist traditional schools practices today, it sometimes is hard to see the man that lived in India with a large following of both lay and monastic disciples, growing up a Hindu with a life of privilege with a young wife and child,  giving practical lesson on how to live a life full of meaning and wonder for the world around them, begging for food and shelter as he did, that died after a long life in his 80’s leaving behind a foundational philosophy and worldview that is as relevant today as it was 25 centuries ago.  In his place we often find in legacy as well as contemporary language a semi-divine being who is visualized as bearing numerous extraordinary physical characteristics, and whose life is described in fantastic mythical imagery.  The essentially human element of the Buddha is dissolved in an impressive, but humanely unobtainable, idealized state of being.  Considering this abstract image, the man slowly fades away and dies.  And something altogether different emerges.

Most people who study Buddhism are familiar with the awakened teachings of Siddhartha; the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of not-self, the principles of interdependence and Dependent Origination for example.  Fewer people are also aware that Siddhartha spoke often and with  a compelling argument on a wide range of social and economic issues of his day that impacted governments, politics, and the difficulties involved in seeking social justice, as well as on personal relationships.  That his teachings extends so dynamically into “right action” indicates that the Buddha’s wisdom can be appreciated not just in monasteries but also on the streets and in our homes in the 21st century.  As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide a way to see our way home.  Stepping onto the Buddhist path can transform that navigation into something wondrous.  For you see, we are given a change to see the life of the Buddha, as our own. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Developing The Art Of Questioning

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 

I often speak about the pragmatic and existential importance of validating the information we are learning through direct experience.  In that way we come to really “know” something, which is about gaining knowledge.  Now I would like to expand on that by sharing with you some of my thoughts on journeying through the unknown, and using the skill of questioning.  For you see, questioning is an element of the art of practice.  If we do not question our experiences as they unfold though the various situations we find ourselves in, there will be very little change in our worldview, and without change we are just treading water.  And when that happens in the middle of the ocean, given enough time, we will tire and drown, or the sharks will find us.  The same is also true in our practice.  Questioning is mental action that when done skillfully will lead to awakened moments.   All Buddhist teachers encourage questioning, because without questions, we have no idea where you are in your training and understanding of Buddhist thought and doctrine.  Questioning is a sign of an active mind, silence is another form of emptiness.  That can be either good, or not, depending on the wisdom of the act of silence.  In a training situation, silence is always unexpected.

As we progress along our life’s journey, it’s difficult to avoid encountering some of the perplexing challenges we humans have confronted again and again.  Many of these experiences are related to the big questions that have always confounded the human mind for centuries.   This was the driving force that propelled Siddhartha on his quest for universal understanding over 2500 years ago.  The big questions are still the same as they were for the Buddha, Socrates, Plato,  Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Mills, and all other philosophers both Western and Eastern.  These are human questions, no matter what side of the world you stand on.

These big questions our serious ones.  Yet, popular cultural views of some want to focus on cracking the enigmas like the Da Vinci code.  But thank goodness, we also have others that have devoted their lives in bringing into reality the genetic codes that might lead to finding cures for disease.    And what about us?  We can work on breaking through our personal identity codes and develop even stronger characters, with integrity, ethics, and social values.   We can work on breaking through the barriers of other enigmas of our everyday life.  In every moment we work for our own liberation. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor