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Of Oxen & Clouds

Rev. Brian Shen-Jin Kenna ThD

 

When I first started my practice Shen-Xi Sensei recommended a movie “Amongst White Clouds” for me to watch.  Since that time it has become a favorite of mine about the Chinese Monks who live high up in the mountains and practice in somewhat solitude.    At one point in the movie one of the monks gives a riddle to the filmmaker.  It goes like this:

 

Ten Thousand Things

All in This Breath

Grasping Hold of Emptiness

There’s really nothing to say?

 

He goes on to give what I like to call a hint or a brief explanation which I can summarize as this: Why are people in this world so busy?  Just for one breath?   They say “busy busy, mine mine”   Busy for a whole lifetime for “Me”    When this breath is cut off, you let go of the whole Universe.    Why not let go from the start?

 

What this monk is saying that we live our lives in a scattered state of mind and of perpetual movement that gets us nowhere.  Think of the gerbil on a wheel just running and running but ultimately he’s still on the wheel and hasn’t really moved one bit.   We’ve developed this concept of “self” that it distorts our view so everything we consider is through the lens of “me”

MY clothes, MY friends, My property, MY practice, MY world.  There’s an old saying that people will use to describe another person: “They think the sun rises and sets by them.” Or another “They think the Earth revolves around them.” Continue reading

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Letting Go

By: David Astor Sensei

[This short dharma talk was given on January 22nd, 2020 during the Installation Ceremony for our new Prior General. I am very pleased that the Order of Engaged Buddhists has achieved this milestone that allows me to pass on the leadership responsibilities to the next generation of servant/leaders.]

The lessons associated with the type of clinging and unhealthy attachments we encounter almost from the beginning of our exploring Buddhist thought and values is well know to even the novice students of the dharma.  We speak often about how to overcome everyday life challenges that results in unsatisfactoriness in our practice, both real and assumed.  This challenge requires us to recognize when what we might be  clinging to is something we own and is particular to our life circumstances, or is outside of our ability to control.  It is about how we can go about changing things to achieve a good outcome in order to bring more peace into our practice, and thus into our lives.  We learn that the study of Buddhism is about subtraction more than it is about addition.  It is about letting go.  

It says in the Buddhist Na Tumhaka Sutta that “Whatever is not yours: let go of it.  Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.”  In life we become attached to a lot of things: people, material things, our work, our ideas, opinions, goals and desires.  Attachments do  not need to be negative of course.  But attachments, however, are tricky things as they can sometimes sneak up on you before you know it.  It is when attachments become personal and needed is when we might expose ourselves to them in such a way that makes letting go an emotional journey.  This letting go does not equate to not caring about them, instead, we must learn to accept things for what they are.  

There are several additional Buddhist concepts that are interconnected and interdependent to this notion of letting go.  In the Six Perfections we come to understand the very first element we try to perfect in our practice is Generosity.  But what we do not discuss often enough when we engage generosity is the concept of gratitude. Gratitude is worth thinking about when we study the importance of letting go.  Because gratitude is the place-holder  we should consider when we create a void that letting go often creates.  Gratitude is one of the foundations of the principle of generosity.  It is both directed toward another as well as directed back to ourselves.  So letting go is an act of gratitude.  And when we awaken to this powerful reality we also realize the importance of what it means to be grateful.  Generosity, gratitude and gratefulness is the safety net for letting go. It is also a sign of spiritual progress.  

Today I sit before you as a grateful ordinary individual with a Buddhist practice, one I hope is perfected, but one I hope more shines bright when I teach. What I breathed life into over five years ago, this unique Western contemplative Order, begins a new chapter in it’s march through the 21st century.  It has always been my hope that when the time comes for turning over the leadership role to another, I can do so while I can observe how the seeds that were planted and nourished over the years continues to thrive.  By letting go now I have become aware of the importance of what it means to experience a strong sense of gratitude for all that has been accomplished by everyone that has chosen to join us on this path that reflects the mutual-causal reality expressed over the centuries and passed along to me by my root teacher, Eubanks Sensei.  But above all I feel a strong emotional sense of gratefulness. 

Venerable Brian Shen-Jin becomes our second Prior General.  I bow to his readiness to assume this responsibility.  But my bow is more then a sign of respect, it comes from a grateful heart that also reflects what can be accomplished when we are able to let go and yet never having our hands empty. From one hand to another. These hands were never really empty over the centuries that our legacy masters handed down to us what the Buddha put into motion, hand in hand, unified always one, yet more then one. And when the time comes for him to let go, it will be “just like this.”
🙏🏼

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Making The Impossible, Possible

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

In a wonderful old Buddhist story, a man tells his friend about an extraordinary spiritual master he has met. Although this friend is curious about this teacher, he is also somewhat skeptical, so he decides to seek out this holy man and put him to the test. After asking around, he discovers the master is living and teaching nearby, so the young man goes to see him and manages to obtain an audience with him. He defiantly walks before the teacher, and before he can catch himself, blurts out a challenge: “Show me this Buddha nature! Prove to me that it exists!”

The saintly master calmly extends his hand and, in a soothing, inviting tone, says, “Come with me.” The young person takes the teacher’s hand, in the Asian sign of friendship, and off they go to the neighborhood pond. As they reach the place, the teacher leads the man into the water and tells him to dive in. Then the master does something even stranger. He holds the mans head under the water. As the minutes pass, the man tries three times to come up, but the master holds his head firmly submerged. Finally, on his fourth attempt, the teacher lets him out of the water. The poor man bursts out of the water, gasping for air. “What are you trying to do, kill me?” he yells at the master. The holy man looks at him with infinite compassion and lovingly, patiently responds: “Forgive me if I caused you undue anxiety, but when your desire for seeing Buddha nature is as desperate as your desire for air, for your very breath, then you will find the source for all that is empty!”

This powerful story dramatically illustrates the importance of commitment to a dedicated and wise practice, both meditative and contemplative. No genuine progress is possible without it. Such a commitment expresses itself in the discipline of regular, daily practice that paves the way for breakthroughs, for the mystery of awakening to happen.

A serious practice is the core of our transformation, and it requires what can be called the contemplative attitude, a disposition to life of perfected depth. A contemplative practice often means hours of meditation and other forms of inner exploration. Silence and solitude, the seeking of illumination and wisdom beyond wisdom, are further parts of the contemplative experience, a process of our ultimate spiritual evolution, our unfolding to higher states of awareness. To understand how this process can unfold in our lives, we need to explore its elements.

This is what I hope we are doing here at OEB. Our personal experiences provides us an opportunity to gain knowledge. Application of knowledge, when done in the spirit of right intent, will lead us down the path to wisdom. We live in a mutual-causal world. Everything happens as an effect of another action, either human or not. It all started at the moment our Universe was created, or what we understand as the core principle of Dependent-Origination. We are here as a result of that original event. Everything we think or do is a continuation of that action. Even our deaths contribute to this Universal reality. It is up to us to discover the power of a   contemplative dimension in our life. In walking this path we open ourselves to the all important lesson of what it means to be human on a mission to understand the unity of all things.  The power of this awareness should not be underestimated. It is the key that opens the door to our true natures. We can only see it when we know.
🙏🏼

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Is Being A Contemplative Buddhist, Being A Solitary Buddhist?

By: Rev. David Astor Sensei

We can meditate alone or with others.  When attending a Buddhist center we do so with others, and with others we listen to the Sensei delivering a dharma talk.  Even within a monastic community the monks generally sit along with others.  In fact sitting with others is an entirely different experience than when we sit by ourselves, it is often more intense.  A contemplative practice, however, is better done alone in solitude from my personal experience. A contemplative practice is not teaching us to be solitary, that would be absurd.  Even for those that have chosen to live a monastic community life, do so with others.  Those who wish to be solitary are, as a general rule, expressing their solitary character that is not how the Buddha expressed our human natures to be, especially for us that value engaging the dharma seriously.  We are, after all, social selves.  The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is about self and others.  Stephen  Batchelor (A contemporary Buddhist teacher and author) expressed it as “alone with others.”

There are many examples of individuals that can not stand to be alone.  It drives them crazy.  Our culture and social values provides ample opportunities to enable us to avoid our own company and be with others almost twenty four hours a day.   Even when we are in a room alone, we can turn on and tune in to so many modern devices that bring others into our room even if they are digitally represented.   Just noise can eliminate being alone, even if it is just in our minds.   Being truly alone is hard work in our contemporary 21st century world.   It is hard to imagine living a life without society, that would be almost impossible today even if we wanted to.  Those who claim they would like to live in solitude and are able to, are often those who depend most on others, even if they are not aware of this simple fact.  Their pretense of solitude is only a clear admission of their dependence, another type of illusion.  Even another example of suffering perhaps. 

Our communities enable us to care more easily for ourselves which gives us the capability to care for others.  This is an essential element of what makes us human as advanced sentient beings.  Yet, there is great value in taking the time to be alone, both physically and in a contemplative mind-state, in order to create the solitary-environment that can promote experiencing awakened moments.   Another aspect when considering the notion of solitude is that of interior solitude.  We retreat into our private space so we can activate this “inner observer” that is necessary for a contemplative practice.

An authentic contemplative is not one who simply withdraws from the world.  The act of social withdrawal from others can result in personal unsatisfactoriness and a sick kind of solitude without a useful and harmonious outcome.  A contemplative practitioner is called not to reject the nature of their human nature, but to transcend it using social interaction with others as a reminder that just living in the material world without “looking up” into silence is a life void of realizing a world that reflects back into our eyes the meaning of the wonder of its universal majesty.

An essential component of this interior solitude is that we practice rigorous self-honesty and not develop a self-centered sense of our importance by “doing” what we think is serious practice.  This is our ego talking.  We must remember that when we direct our mind toward universal suchness, we our at the same time encountering it as mystery.   By nature mystery is just that, a mystery, unknowing.  Another essential of this interior practice of solitude is the actualization in which we take responsibility for our own inner life.  We face its full mystery as is that of our own universal nature.  We take upon ourselves the barely comprehensible task of working our way through the unknowing aspect of our own mystery-ness and become aware of how we and the very Universe we work to comprehend is the reality beyond common knowing.  We accomplish this by losing all words and language to express it.  What is interesting is that there is nothing particularly special or spectacular about these glimpses of Dharma.  Don’t expect “the ultimate answers.”  The Universe will always remain a mystery in unfathomable ways. But we can learn to sense a connection that resolves into great doubt that works to sustain our contemplative practice to go further.  These become moments when we confront the solitary aspects of our contemplative practice, and by so doing, find we are not alone after all.
🙏🏼

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Voluntary Simplicity

By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

Much of the time I speak about ways to consider and understand the practical aspects of Buddhist thought, and how to bring our practice alive in order to promote human flourishing. For you see, living the lessons of the Eightfold Path are real, it is not a theory to discuss and debate. The Four Noble Truths points directly, in practical and useful ways, to achieving a life full of meaning and wonder when we take the time to contemplate the joys available to us in this vast world we have a chance to become aware of more deeply. It is a way of letting go in order to be reconnected with what is important that will bring harmony and happiness into our lives. We let go in order to reconnect to what is real. It is easy for Buddhist teachers to stick to presenting the core Buddhist principals in our dharma talks. We often use legacy language to color our speech from the cushion to attract attention or make what we say more “authentic.” But you will rarely hear me use such approaches unless I talk directly about a historical topic or present a specific philosophical principle, or when I choose to speak with a “Zen voice.” But don’t misunderstand me, these are important methods of Buddhist teaching as well, and we should all have a grounded perspective of the specific Buddhist platform we have chosen to stand on and practice, but in the end, we must step on the stage of life and engage others in real-time. And it is this social engagement that I respectfully ask to be your guide and present to you my thoughts and personal experiences gained from my own developed world view that can act as pointers in order for you to find useful elements and tools for your own life-journey. This is a primary role of a Buddhist teacher, I think. So, I wish to share the importance I have learned in my own journey of keeping life simple. It calls for us to act with voluntary intent to live with deliberate thought, and to consume less. By taking this step, you will not only enhance your own life, but also the sustainability of our planet.  But stepping through this door is never easy. 

At the heart of the simple life is an emphasis on harmonious and purposeful living. There is no special virtue to the idea of voluntary simplicity; it is merely a somewhat awkward label. Still, it does acknowledge explicitly that simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole. To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully. In short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted from life. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This is why a meditation practice is so important to the inner life: to develop awareness and mindfulness. Words you often hear in relationship to Buddhist thought. This requires that we not only pay attention to the actions we take in the outer world, but also that we pay attention to the intent of these actions. To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life; then our voluntary, deliberate, and purposeful actions can be diminished. Continue reading

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Considering Buddhism As A World Religion

By: Rev. David Astor Sensei

As a world religion, how are we to consider the question, “Is Buddhism an atheistic philosophy?”  

When we consider a pragmatic view of the problems of society, we generally do so from an intellectual and philosophical mindset, especially in the beginning. It becomes an exercise on how to make the ideals of a particular situation real. This does not have to be different when we come to consider religious experience and thought. From a pragmatic perspective, we can use the thoughts on the subject from the pragmatists John Stuart Mill, William James, and Richard Rorty as a guide as we also bring our Buddhist thought and practice into the consideration.

Richard Rorty as a 20th century pragmatist considered describing religious thought in terms of:

1 Placing aside talk about Truth and Reason, our only responsibility, philosophically and morally, is to our fellow human beings, not some “sublime dimension of being” or “ the starry heavens.”

2 This responsibility is “to make our beliefs cohere with one another, and to our fellow humans to make them cohere with one another.”

3 We examine our beliefs by how they are “habits of actions,” not on whether they represent the world.

4 What emerges is a utilitarian ethics of belief, which treats a belief as a habit of action.

5 Place into the context of the philosophy of religion, a utilitarian philosophy of religion must “also treat being religious as a habit of action.” 1

Any useful and positive thoughts on what it means to be a “religious individual” does not need to be different from secular or pragmatic understanding of other aspects of human moral and ethical conduct that is essential in cultivating a civilized society. Any religious practice (or spiritual), Buddhist or other, owes much of its moral obligation and responsibility to all sentient beings, not by strict observance of doctrine, scriptures, or legacy beliefs, but to intentional actions honed by serious practice of core humanist principles as guideposts. For Buddhists, these guides are first to be found in the Four Noble Truths and practiced using the guides of the Eightfold Path of behavior that promotes human flourishing, and the higher reasoning perspective of the Six Perfections (Refinements.) Whether you consider this a religious endeavor or not is really not all that important. What counts are the lessons found in the Three Pure Precepts – Do no harm, do only good, do good for others. Which is Buddhism’s equivalent to the “Golden Rule”. Continue reading

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Trees Can Teach Us Dharma Too

This dharma talk was given on October 6, 2019 during an OEB meditation retreat organized by and for our Long Island, NY Sangha.  

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

A tree reflects the magnificence of the universe first of all by being a tree.  For in being what it is meant to be by causal forces, it is imitating a reality which it’s very nature is unique to it’s kind, but at the same time that which is not distinct from the essence of it’s unified nature either, and therefore a tree imitates the universe by being a tree.  

The more it is like itself, the more it is like everything we can come to know that is universe.  If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like what universal forces, through Dependent Origination’s effects, meant it to be through space and time at the very moment our senses recognize that it is in our sphere of reference.  

But there is something more.  No two trees are alike.  And their individuality is no imperfection.  On the contrary, the perfection of each natural form is not merely in its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identity as it’s form-contours is presented to us.  Yet, all trees have a unique tree-nature that link them to the net of existence that all other forms are also connected to.  In our sense driven body-mind we process the image of a tree to be separate from who we think we are, and thus we make differences real.  And we assign language to reinforce this distinction.  

When we do this we are being creators ourselves by causing the thought that any form we come to experience is separate and distinct from all other forms around us.  We see the trees but miss the forest.  We miss the opportunity to open our mind’s eye to walk the causal-chain of connections that links the individual to the unified view of how the universe really is.  In other words, we see individual nature of things but not the universal nature that is beyond our human need to make difference.  The principle of interconnectiveness and interdependence of all things can only be experienced when we move beyond the senses we use to process everyday events and sit in awareness perfecting our minds ability to imagine, without the use of language, realities on a universal scale.  The challenge, and our meditation and contemplative practice, is to imagine this net of existence from it’s individual elements to the one unified dimension we call “uncreated”.   Continue reading

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Race & Prejudicial Behavior

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor

In the past few weeks we have been exposed once again to a national awareness, mostly on cable news channels and print media, on the state of the race issue in America as a result of intentional or unintentional speech by our nation’s leadership depending on ones point of view.  What complicates understanding of this current example in public speech is how do we process such overt emphases on racist that seems to have taken on a matter-of-fact behavior of a segment of society that goes beyond language we expect to hear in civilized society today.  

Buddhist and Christian traditions are rich with pragmatic philosophical/theological pyridines to guide our ethic and moral outlook relative to the nature of these critical social concerns.  It is, yet again, an example of an opportunity to apply situational ethics to moral behavior that reflects how a civilized society engages the common good in order to achieve progress away from the past that brought on so much suffering to those among us.  So I would like to share some thoughts that might give an idea on how, as a Buddhists, we might approach a discussion on the issues associated with this unfortunate phase in our current political dialogue. 

Siddhartha spoke in a very clear voice that can guide us through these very real, and very divisive, situations with lessons on our obligation as a social-self to act with astute and applied compassion that stems from a cultured sense of generosity. Keep in mind that this is another example of how the ideal meets the real.  Social issues are often messy things. 

Buddhist thought is often naturalist by its vary essence. And naturalists are champions of causal universal realities.  As such, we look for naturalistic accounts to help us understand “why” something expresses the way it does.  This allows us to plan and succeed through deferential action aimed at undoing what is unhealthy, destructive, and promoting discontent while promoting that which is instead healthy, harmonious and satisfying in the psycho-emotional sense.  The person who is bound by his racism is in need of help and intervention as much or more than the victim, as it is easier to tell a new story to oneself about a wrongdoing done to us than it is for a perpetrator to change his actions.  It is easier to think differently than to act differently.  It takes a deep understanding and appreciation for mutual causality to see this, because we are, in a liberal democratic society, “wired” today to feel strong disgust first and foremost at the individual of negative attitudes and actions before we feel the urge to make it better.  The feeling of disgust is protective of liberal democratic values because if we don’t feel this way, who will preserve the values?  However, it is not sufficient, and is far from sufficient, for anyone seeking to make the world qualitatively better just to feel disgust.  If one person is a racist we all have work to still do. It takes practice, but Buddhists (and especially the leadership both clerics and community leaders) living in their communities aim to develop a sense to stop the immediate repercussions of negative attitudes and actions, such as scolding someone’s racist remarks or standing in the way of an angry boyfriend ready to hit his girlfriend followed up immediately by the ethics of the Bodhisattva ideal; how do we reform this circumstances for the better?  As engaged Buddhist we value action.  Without action there is no substantial practice.   Continue reading

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A Pragmatic View Of Rebirth

By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

The notion of rebirth is a tricky topic these days in the West. It depends on many factors and points of view. And from a Buddhist perspective too. What was perhaps once thought as a core principle is seriously being re-evaluated from a more contemporary pragmatic position. Even in some legacy traditions the reality of rebirth was never considered essential for understanding the Buddha’s core teaching of the Four Noble Truths. As a contemporary Western Ch’an(Zen) teacher, my understanding of rebirth has evolved over the years that I have encountered this topic in my study and research. When I teach about rebirth now, I ask people to consider what happens to the physical elements of the body after they die. I ask them, if we buried you in the ground with no preservatives and dug you up in a week, would we recognize you? Yes. If we dug you up in a year, would we recognize you? Maybe. If we dug you up in ten years, would we recognize you? No. So what happened to the elements that made up the body? They all dispersed and became other things.

If you die angry, what happens to that energy of anger?

Appreciating this, people begin to understand that on the physical level there is an endless chain of energy that passes through a series of changes. Then if you apply the same principle to our mental and emotional energy, you can also ask where does it goes. That energy is also not destroyed, though the energy that was “you” will transform.

Karma is a wonderfully exact force in our lives. If you die angry, what happens to that energy of anger? Where does it go? When you walk into a room where people have been angry, you can sense it—the energy is palpable. So is that the kind of energy you would like to pass on, to be picked up by other  lives? One can also look back at what energies have been passed down to you—perhaps by your family or the people who influenced you—and that helps you understand that energy doesn’t die but rather continues on in some form.

I don’t worry too much about questions like, “Am I going to remember that I was Queen Victoria or her servant?” People get caught up in that sort of approach to karma and rebirth, but it’s almost irrelevant. The continuity of the energy is what’s important. What do you want to pass on—suffering or happiness?

🙏🏼

©️ OEB 2019

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Spiritual Practice As A Path For Inner Change

By: David Shen-Xi 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 some 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, yet live under a monastic rule. 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. And 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 or nuns 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. And 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.

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