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The Last Words Of Christ

“In that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things went not only through agony, but through doubt. There is only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

What Pope Benedict XVI taught about the last words of Christ.

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A Day Of Right Speech

By: Venerable Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna

Bob Ross is one of the most influential painter’s to ever put brush to canvas.  But along with his magnificent artwork he is also remembered for what he said and how he said it.  With his soothing voice, encouraging quotes, and mild mannerisms he inspired countless numbers of people to take up The Joy of Painting.  Even now, years after his death, his advice on life offers confidence and reassurance that it’s OK to make mistakes because they’re just “happy little accidents.” 

This exercise is devoted to setting aside one day to devote to Right Speech. We will commit to using speech in kind, harmonious & meaningful ways that empower others.

Begin your day a commitment to use speech in a way that promotes harmony, kindness and compassion.   Really focus on what you say as well as how you say it, as inflection can be just as powerful as the words themselves. Try to discover ways to keep your words positive and encouraging, even if you yourself are not feeling that way.  Remember what our precepts say about speech:

I undertake the training of verbal empowerment; I will abstain from meaningless speech.

I undertake the training of kind speech; I will abstain from harsh speech.

I undertake the training of meaningful speech; I will abstain from frivolous speech

I undertake the training of harmonious speech; I will abstain from slanderous speech.

Take note that 4 of our 10 Precepts deals directly with Right Speech.  This is something we need to cultivate and work on in our practice.  It’s not always easy, we get caught up in conversations that may not really be meaningful.  We forget to let people finish their thoughts & sentences and interrupt to get out own points across.  Discover how silence can speak volumes.   These are all things we can incorporate into our practice daily.   

At the end of the day reflect back on your Day of Right Speech, take some time to contemplate on what was positive and what were “happy little accidents.”   Then tomorrow you can do it all over again.  That’s the thing with the practice of Right Speech, is that it’s every day not just one.    



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Virtual World Of Buddhism

By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB

I’ve been fortunate to have access to a complete library of Tricycle magazine from the premiere issue in 1991 featuring the Dalai Lama, up to 2016.  It has been an informative and thought provoking journey through some contemporary Buddhist history.  Informative because it is a journey that reveals the impact of causal conditioning on Western Buddhism; thought inspiring because of the transformations that were predicted, some which happened, others that didn’t.  In this moment I am inspired to respond, or maybe to update an article by Tracy Cochran, in the Fall 1992 issue, titled Samsara Squared: Buddhism and Virtual Reality. 

Since 2010 I’ve been offering the dharma in the virtual world known as Second Life (SL).  While it is not the virtual reality that Tracy Cochran refers to in the article it is the closest thing to it that most people can experience in this moment.  Virtual reality is the creation of 3D world. Virtual worlds are 2D environments that can accessed through most home computers.  The author writes, “Within ten years, however, virtual reality is going to become sleek and cheap, and it’s going to be everywhere.”  Nearly 30 years later that prediction hasn’t happened.  Cochran goes on to say, “Soon you will be able to ‘telepresence’ anywhere in the world.  Picture a virtual sangha flying to Mr. Kailas.”  I have not experienced this in a 3D virtual reality sense, but I have experienced something similar in the 2D virtual world of Second Life.  I have flown along the Great Wall of China, marveled at the architecture and iconography in Tibetan temples, and walked through intricate Zen gardens. Populating each area there are avatars that can be anything from someones idealized version of themselves to a full sized, in relation, elephant or a furry little bunny wearing a pink party dress.  Human avatars might appear as ninjas, hippies, wearing suits or ball gowns, or wearing nothing at all.  There are alien figures that come in a variety of appearances and even the occasional Star Trek crew member or black robed witch. 

Hearing that I was sharing the dharma in the virtual world of SL someone once responded, “Seems like you’re just doing a radio show or a podcast.”  It is more than that.  On radio or through podcasts only two of the six senses realized in Buddhist practice are engaged by the listener.  They hear and their conscious mind builds some sort of image of the speaker and of their message.  There is no taste, touch or smell yet the conscious mind might create illusions of them given what is heard.  With its limitations the challenge of what Cochran termed “being present” is possible in a virtual world with some skillful thought and action.

Being present in the virtual world means being mindful that whatever form an avatar presents, there is a human being at the other end of those pixels.  Equally, as a Buddhist teacher or layperson to be aware that a virtual spiritual place must be treated the same as one in the real space. When an individual attends a Buddhist temple in real life there is a certain gravitas, an atmosphere that arises as a combination of place, people and ritual.  Being present means taking advantage of those same factors in a virtual space in order to guide the attending avatars to being present also.  This can be done by creating a sense of involvement and having clear rules that mirror those at a temple in real life for sangha members and curious attendees.  I can best explain by describing the intentional ritual that is part of every Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) sangha session at the Buddha Center in SL.  Lessons learned from my teacher, Eubanks Sensei, in my role as Guest Prefect for the Order of Pragmatic Buddhists, and the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism guide my thoughts and actions in the virtual world.

The entirety of an EDIG session at the Buddha Center is an intentional ritual.  When I first enter the space I bow to the icon of the Buddha.  Taking a seat on the teacher’s zafu (cushion) each individual already there is greeted by name, and the same for each that enters.  At my request one of the founders of the BC, Yuri, created and placed a set of three candles, an incense pot, and a ching bell in front of the teacher’s zafu.  The ching bell is sounded once to announce the beginning of the session.  Candles are lighted left, right, center and I, in the form of my avatar bow three times from the seated position.  Then the incense in lighted.  Greetings are again extended to any late comers.  A short period of bell meditation is done, 21 strikes.  The Three Refuges, Three Pure Precepts, and the Bodhisattva Vow are recited ending with Sva Ha.  Then a dharma talk is given followed by an opportunity for comments or questions.  This is the opportunity for members of sangha to get clarification or to speak of personal experiences with the subject of the talk. In either instance I offer insight or inquiry meant to expand further the sangha’s knowledge and practice.  Often I give the sangha “homework,” a practice  connected with the subject for them to engage with.  The ching bell is sounded and Sharing of the Merit is recited.  The ching bell is sounded three times and the candles extinguished.  I thank them for their attendance and attention, bow to the sangha and offer them wholesome thoughts for the week to come.  Each step is a ritual intended to make the virtual experience a real experience.  

The ears, the eyes and the mind can be effective modes of absorbing the dharma as long as right speech is used by the teacher, and visual aids are used when appropriate.  In SL there is the opportunity to augment the spoken word with pictures, slideshows and videos.  These visual aids add to the sense of being present and enhance the practitioner’s learning experience.

The biggest challenge in the virtual world is the inability to see and respond to body language and facial expressions, human signals important when mentoring and monitoring sangha members.  There are physical movements called gestures in SL but think of them like emoticons.  You put what you want someone to see, not always what is real.  In true virtual reality the body of the avatar is being moved by the actions of the person wearing the gloves and boots so there is some discernable body language.  In virtual worlds that movement is done by the directions keys on a keyboard.  So, that leaves the question how can a teacher in a virtual setting really know if the offered dharma is having a wholesome effect?

Truth is the effect can’t be definitively known but it can, to a point be discerned.  Discernment involves being aware of a variety of causal factors.  How often do they attend sessions?  What sort of questions do they ask?  Where do they commonly sit in relation to the teacher?  Do they interact with other sangha members?  Do they offer their own experiences and knowledge?  A combination of any or all of these offer insight into how they are engaging the dharma outside of the virtual environment.  These are questions that must be asked where ever student and teacher interact.  In a virtual world ears, eyes and mind input the information into the consciousness.  

Cochran wrote, “The consensus seems to be that the proper and ethical use of virtual reality, from a human as well as a Buddhist standpoint, seems limited to a scientific instrument, as a means to extend intelligence and consciousness.”  Cochran doesn’t say who came to this consensus but I would agree this is true for virtual worlds.  For everyone who enters a virtual world like SL there is a factor of anonymity.  They can appear as whoever or whatever they like and they can act in whatever manner they choose.  There are individuals that use this anonymity to sow discord, to threaten, and to pass themselves off as someone they are not.  Trolls inhabit SL in the same way they do Twitter, Facebook and the comment sections on Yahoo News.  There is little doubt, given human nature that they would find a way to inhabit virtual reality too.  This the main reason I chose to make my avatar look as much like the real me as possible, and that I urge those that attend EDIG sessions at the Buddha Center to go to the Engaged Dharma website and learn more.  It is a way to give them an opportunity to engage in experiential verification and develop some trust in the information that is being offered, to take in step in authenticating their own experience.

Information is one of the three things, along with a sense of belonging to a sangha and mentoring of their practice that a Buddhist teacher can offer to practitioners in a virtual world.  Virtual spaces can be tools of the dharma used to extend a practitioner’s knowledge of how they can choose to be.  Information once put into practice and the value of it experienced transforms into knowledge, knowledge that once it becomes part of their consciousness transforms how they interact with themselves, others and the world around them.  They learn to be better human beings who respond appropriately to the suffering of themselves and others.  They become engaged Buddhists.

Offering the dharma in a virtual space can be an effective tool for explaining the dharma, teaching the history of it and of Buddhism in general, and for mentoring practice.  These are proper and ethical ways of engaging this virtual tool.  There is an important aspect of Buddhist practice that, in my experience cannot be effectively accomplished in a virtual space, meditation.  Meditation, of all the Buddhist practices requires a physicality that cannot be effectively replicated in a virtual environment. The teacher and the student are present in the form of avatars that sit in pre-programmed positions that can be maintained as indefinitely as the power to the computer lasts.  I say to students who attend Buddha Center sessions that an avatar can sit in meditation for years and not gain anything from the experience, only the person behind the avatar can benefit from a meditation practice.  This is to remind them that they are present in the form of pixels, that these forms are delusions and only the human being they represent can benefit from any aspect of Buddhist practice. Meditation is as much a physical act and it is a mental one.  Posture and breathing can be explained verbally and even with diagrams on a board however, without being able to see the physical form of the student a teacher cannot offer them the corrections to posture and breathing that will invariably arise in the early stages of practice.  Then the question of whether meditation sitting sessions have value in a virtual setting.

Meditation sessions are popular events at the Buddha Center in SL.  There are members of the BC staff who are meditation facilitators.  These dedicated individuals schedule regular sessions for members and visitors to attend and engage in various meditation practices, metta and silent practices are popular ones.  The avatars sit in meditative postures on pixellated zafus.  The facilitators explain the practice, some light the candles, burn the incense, and ring the ching bell to begin meditation.  The question is then what happens.  The facilitators are offering the opportunity to sit with a sangha, albeit a virtual one.  There are real people behind each avatar so there is some sense of community and shared experience and this is a positive thing.  However, there is no way of knowing if the person behind the avatar is really meditating or are they web surfing, playing with the cat, or eating dinner.  There is no way to monitor their practice, so mentoring is difficult.  For those who attend and do actually engage in meditation wherever their physical form resides this isn’t really an issue.  For those who attend and do not actually meditate there is an issue.  It is a personal one.  They are abdicating their individual responsibility to themselves and most likely setting an individual precedent of negative habitual behavior.  Whether or not meditation practice in a virtual setting has value is entirely up to the attendee.  So, where is the value in sitting with a virtual sangha?

For someone confined to their home for whatever reason and the person who doesn’t have access to a Buddhist temple in their area there is great value in being able to attend virtual Buddhist sessions. I have been told by multiple attendees at the Buddha Center how much the existence of Buddhist themed virtual destinations mean to the quality of their lives.  For some it is the only avenue they have to learn about and practice the dharma with others. Over time the Engaged Dharma Insight Group (EDIG) sangha has grown and matured. They have developed a level of trust in each other that is indicated by their willingness to speak openly and honestly about their fears, their successes, and their practices. It is a real sangha in a virtual environment.

When I gave my first dharma talk in December of 2010 I had limited experience in sharing the dharma. Now, in my eleventh year at the Buddha Center I have given approximately 1100 dharma talks, lectures and pujas to a virtual international sangha. I share the dharma from a beautiful temple or from what is called “The Deer Park”. I share the dharma with Buddhists and non-Buddhists from across the world. I share real Dharma in a virtual world.

So, is sharing the Dharma in a virtual environment like Second Life the future of Buddhism in the West? No, but it is part of that future. Can it replace attending a physical temple? No, but it isn’t meant to.  For some, who can’t attend a physical temple, for whatever the reason, the opportunity to attend a virtual temple gives them a similar experience. It offers them a place to come and learn Buddhist philosophy, history and practice, and to become a member of a sangha. And, I can only speak for the Buddha Center in Second Life, the setting might seem cartoonish, that there might be a cowboy sitting on a zafu next to a fairy princess, and that you are sitting in your comfortable office chair at home, it is real Dharma in that virtual environment. 

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Spring For Change

By: Venerable Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna

There is a quote by Bishop Reginald Heber, “Spring unlocks the flowers to paint the laughing soil.”  Spring is often the time of year when we begin to notice changes all around us. Spring brings with it a renewal as the sometimes harsh realities of winter are ending.  Changes in the seasons are easy to take notice of and accept both externally and internally.  But what about cultural change?  Changes in the institutions and ideas that for many of us have existed before our time, but have been ingrained into us through family values, religion, and education.  What happens when these things start changing?   People often tend to see this impermanence as something external to them. It’s something outside, and they think they can “make it go away” just as we would close a window to a cold breeze. But one cannot stay locked in their home forever. 

 So how do we address this as Buddhists? How do we talk to others as Buddhist leaders in our communities about the cultural changes happening all around us?  We teach about being agents for change, and what better time perhaps then now to be that agent.  We have the opportunity to lend our voices to those who are trying to have a positive impact on our culture today. We have the opportunity to speak truthfully, with words that inspire and not tear down. But we also have a great teaching opportunity with those who are trying to close that window to the breeze.  We can be aware of their suffering as well and use that as an opportunity to teach impermanence through loving speech and the ability to listen with intent to their stories as well.

Nothing stays the same, whether it be nature, our culture, our practice and ourselves.   So as the seasons turn from winter to spring, let us use that as a reminder to slow down and observe all the continual change that is around us. To remember that we too are not separate from this impermanence and also never separate from our own true nature. True knowledge is not attained by thinking. It is what you are; it is what you become. – Sri Aurobindo

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Why Buddhism?

By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB

Whenever strangers meet In St. Louis, Missouri the first question many of them ask is, “What high school did you graduate from?” If one is found to have attended a rival school back in the day or if they didn’t, the answer is important. The answer can make or break a possible friendship. Get more than one Buddhist in a room and the question, “What brought you to Buddhism?” will probably be asked. It isn’t the answer that is really important . . . it is the willingness to answer that is. I’ll venture to say that not one of you would reject the friendship of another person because they didn’t come to Buddhism along the same path you did. Why we came to Buddhism really isn’t that important; why we choose to continue to pursue the Middle Path is. It is what defines practice.

I often get asked, “Why did you chose to be a Buddhist?” My reply of, “I found Buddhism because at a difficult time in my life Buddhism offered a different way of thinking and acting in relation to how I was in that moment.”, doesn’t really answer the question that most people are asking. It is actually a pragmatic question they are asking, one meant to reveal to them what is useful and productive about being a Buddhist in the West. How can a Buddhist practice help them through life’s situations? It is a legitimate question, but having an honest answer requires me to listen deeply to myself and be honest about why I am a Buddhist.

A better answer begins with, “I practice Buddhism because . . .”, within those four words is a major reason why I chose the Noble Path. I’m a human being and I want to be an even better human being. Buddhism offers me that opportunity through my practice. I’m not expected to be perfect or to have all the answers but I am expected to keep practicing. Yeah, I know the saying “practice makes perfect” but honestly I’ve never seen any proof of that. In my experience I get better at being Buddhist but being “perfect” isn’t ever part of the agenda. Refining my character, refining how I am in relation to myself and the world around me is the agenda. In my experience “practice makes more practice” and I am good with that. For me it is in the doing, not in the done.

The response finishes with, “ . . . what we do matters.” Four words that encapsulate for me the whole of Buddhist psychology, philosophy and spiritualism as I have come to realize it. The Four Ennobling Truths are all about how our actions are the cause of suffering, and can be cause of the alleviation of suffering – what we do matters. The Three Characteristics of Existence that include suffering, and add impermanence and not-self, are rooted in the ideal that we are each a unique part of the causal process of the Universe; we can bring about positive change on an encompassing scale if we choose to make the appropriate effort. I haven’t read a sutra or legacy teaching that wasn’t sending the message “go do it”. The ideal that what we do matters renews my intent to be the best human being I can be. I want to cease to do harm because it matters. I want to do good because it matters. I want to do good for others because it matters.

“I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.” Together the answer reveals the I and the We, the interconnection I realize between all phenomena. I am a Buddhist because my experience has proven to me that acting like a Buddhist engenders positive effects both personal and social. Combine my practice with friends, family, sangha and consequential strangers who also recognize that what we do matters is a force for positive transformation that can’t be equalled. There is a dark side to the “what we do matters” that a Buddhist must view realistically. The negative actions of others also matter and we, Buddhist or not, must not hesitate to act appropriately and decisively whenever we can to mitigate the negative karmic consequences that can arise. We can control what we do and how we react to the results of the actions of others.

Acting pluralistically is the I and We. The We in the equation may not always be a Buddhist. It makes no difference to me what faith, religion or tradition another person is . . . they are part of the We. Our commitments may differ but it is the goal of alleviating suffering that matters.

Taking action is highlighted in the words practice and do. Am I a Buddhist because I take action or do I take action to be a Buddhist . . . doesn’t matter as both are more likely to result in positive karmic consequences. Buddhism is all about action. The psychology, philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism has roots, beginning with the Four Ennobling Truths, in action. It takes personal action to recognize the reality of suffering and it takes engaged action to realize the alleviation of suffering. The Eightfold Path guides me to actions that will improve how I am and how I can be an agent of positive transformation. I practice Buddhism because . . . I am a unique factor in the causal process of the Universe, and ‘because’ is causality. This happened because that happened. I practice to “be cause” of more positive than negative ingredients in the karmic stew.  

Action and responsibility, being the cause of good, the I and we of pluralism, do something, actions have karmic consequences so each action matters are reminders of intent in my personal mantra, and you are welcome to make it yours – I practice Buddhism because what we do matters.*

Ask yourself the “Why am I a Buddhist?” question before someone else asks “Why are you a Buddhist?”. Without the ability to be honest with yourself about the answer your chance of having a deep Buddhist practice is slim. Curiosity, desire, life experience, or wanting to be cool might have caused you to look into Buddhism but why you continue when it takes such effort and commitment is what is more important. It is there you will find the depth of your practice and what you can do to enhance it.

I picture Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree after his awakening and thinking, “Man, what I just awakened to will really matter. Acting like that is going to take some practice.”

*Over time the mantra has been pared down “What We Do Matters”.

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Buddhist Encounters On The Inter-Spiritual Journey

By: David Shen-Xi Astor

As Buddhism adjusts to the realities of Western culture it encounters some of the barriers that have traditionally separated the various world religious. We are witnessing some of those collapsing as a new model is emerging creating an inter-spiritual paradigm that begins to permit people from various traditions to explore the spiritual dimensions of other beliefs within their community.  More people find themselves rooted in one tradition while seriously exploring another. This often is driven by the leadership within these traditions seeking an open dialog.  

While the world religions in their respective beliefs and practices have been generally isolated from one another, at their core they share a deeper underlying dimension beyond philosophical, theological or mystical foundations. This is the common ground of intent that inter-spirituality explores: the dimension of understanding what makes humans explore the relationship between themselves and the universe beyond ordinary understanding. Inter-spirituality is based on the existential, innate  interdependence of all beings, the essential interconnectedness of all reality.  One of the core principles of Buddhism is the understanding of interconnectedness/interdependence of all things that can be projected to the reality that various religions and belief systems are really depend on one another for maintaining our cultural moral and ethical foundations that promote social justice and individual wellbeing.  

As these barriers begin to give way, an acceleration over the past few decades is noticeable. However, there doesn’t seem to be a loss of identity among the traditions but rather the freedom to experiment in our search for a common spiritual path of understanding. This might mean that religions are no longer cultures set apart, but open systems conversing with the world and with one another either directly or through the agency of the interfaith movement. While this has been done within the various Christian detonations in the beginning, it has now expanded to include outreach with all the world religions.  There are notable exceptions of course especially among some of the evangelical faiths. However, there is much interest in the West now to understand Buddhist thought and values especially as the term “Zen” and “meditation” has entered into our common speech.  

Inter-spirituality encompasses many traditions and projects ranging from the spread of Eastern meditation practices among Christians, Jews, and Sufis, to inter-spiritual centers such as Osage Monastery, a monastic community dedicated to bringing Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism together.  There are Baptist and UCC churches that accept people of different traditions as well as Christian teachers who combine Zen mastery with the teachings of Christ.  I would be amiss not to mention the extraordinary visionary Thomas Merton which has done much in his all to short life to champion the cause of understanding Buddhism for Christians, especially among Catholics. 

Many efforts at inter-spiritual synthesis come in the form of meeting places where people of different traditions can come together to practice.  My own experience as the Resident Teacher of the Epiphany Zen Center in Sebring, Florida, is that most come to learn and practice meditation and learn something about Buddhism, but they primarily attend a community Christian church or Jewish temple as their “faith of choice.”  Curiosity brings them through our doors, but getting something meaningful, and even spiritual, keeps them coming back for a practice that is lacking, for now anyway, in their own religious community.  While I opened Epiphany Zen Center as a Buddhist practice center, I learned quickly that 99% were more interested in mediation and some spiritual food for thought.  So we switched focus and created a practice that honored Buddhist values but shared in a language that was more understandable to those attending.  As a result they became comfortable in learning how Buddhism and their Christian/Jewish tradition had much in common.  A win-win for our community and enriched my own Buddhist practice as well.  I have even been invited several times to give the invocation at the County Commissioner Meeting as a Buddhist Cleric.  A big step for a small town in Florida.  What made this an easy transition for the Zen Center admittedly was my past experience as a past Christian religious monk, so I used that experience to share how Buddhism could be encountered using Christian/Jewish terms that did not alienate but promoted inclusivity and understanding. 

Inter-spirituality is essentially an agent of a universal integral spirituality.  We often walk the Inter-spiritual path in an intuitive attempt to reach a more complete truth even if we are not aware of our intent at the time.  That final integration, a deep convergence, is an integral spirituality that I think resonates throughout the Four Noble Truths as it points to a deeper underlying truth that goes deep in order to gain moments of awakening.  This brings together all the great systems of spiritual wisdom, practice, insight, reflection, experience, and science that provides a truly integral understanding of spirituality in its practical application, regardless of our chosen tradition of practice.  Each spiritual tradition contributes insight to this human endeavor. All this spiritual wealth facilities our future work in transforming the human family.  I am grateful that I live in a culture that has many spiritual traditions. But I admit that it would be easier as a Buddhist teacher if I did not have such an uphill climb.  But because I don’t, my practice and sharing Buddhism with others is more rewarding.  I can say without a doubt it has made my own spiritual journey stronger, one step at a time.  


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Transitioning Through The Process From Knowing, Understanding To Confidence In Our Buddhist Practice

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said, “Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says that originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.”  This statement which comes from his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind got my attention recently as I returned to this classical work of Zen. I have not thought of my practice in this way before. Not knowledge or understanding but confidence is what we should learn to cultivate is what Suzuki is stressing. Although having knowledge without understanding will undermine our ability to cultivate confidence I think. This emphases on confidence over understanding can be a strong agent for change. It asks the question, “Do we really believe what we have come to understand?”  I speak often about how Buddhist practice and study can be viewed from a philosophical, psychological, and spiritual perspective. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very comprehensive and profound system of thought-processing. But traditional Zen practice is not taught or practiced with a great deal of philosophical explanations when addressing those in lay practice, especially from Japanese legacy Masters. Focusing rather on one’s personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, are considered more essential for coming to a realized state of awaking in the traditional sense. 

I have not considered the term confidence before when expressing how one should consider their practice, I use other words. Although without confidence the student/teacher relationship is in jeopardy. What I like about incorporating the words ‘understanding’ and ‘confidence’ is that it places focus on acceptance of what we are learning as we practice. Not just on knowing by analyzing something about Buddhist thought. It is more about acceptance, assurance, and certainty that the path we are on can achieve insight. That insight may also awaken the body-mind to the bigger picture of how we are in this world. We can be aware, but the subject of this awareness must transition into acceptance. When that happens we have gained confidence of its value, and our practice is strengthened as a result.

There is a danger in relying on invalidated knowledge alone. The human system for acquiring new information is complicated and involves some degree of interpretation and filtering on our part as we go about the learning process. Sometimes we get out of the way and let another’s thoughts and ideas replace our own. This, of course, is not a bad thing because we always rely on another’s expertise for guidance.  This in fact is very pragmatic. But without validating new knowledge with our own personal experiences, we are only taking what we are learning as a state of faith only. But when we have gained the experience of validating what we are learning, and thus acknowledging its reality, we gain the confidence that our worldview is on solid ground. This gets the ego out of the learning and acceptance process when it makes choices for us by using preconceived notions of what it thinks reality is.

Confidence should be the cornerstone of our practice then, and also it’s main human ingredient. When we truly believe in our way, the path becomes more clear. But when we have not developed unwavering confidence in the meaning of our practice, each moment presents the possibly of us walking around in the weeds confused and lost.  The Buddha talked often about this possibility from his own experience both before and after enlightenment. He was not entirely free of causal-life consequences either, he was only human after all. But he continued to walk the path of liberation with absolute confidence. His view of life was not shaken as he continued to experience awakened moments, and watched what was happening around him. He observed with great intent and awakened body-mind state of awareness how the Universe is. He had a very scientific understanding of Universal reality for his day which contributed to his  confidence-in-practice.

So our Buddhist practice is not just based on informative and intellectual understanding, metaphysical beliefs, or faith alone. It is through actual action-practice, not only by reading or contemplation of philosophical constructs that we reach awakening, and the confidence to know the difference. Master Suzuki put it this way, “Our understanding at the same time is its own expression, is the practice itself.” This practice stands on the very surface of our confidence, moment after each moment.



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What We Do Matters

By: Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, OEB

What we do matters because every thought and action we take has a causal effect.  There is no way around this, it is an omnitemporal event in that causality is a factor every time we act.  Our relationship with the universe is bound by cause and effect. The Buddha offered this truth in the Mahahatthipadopama Sutra, “He who sees causality sees the dharma, and he who sees the dharma sees causality.”  The reality of life is that we are agents of cause and examples of effect in everything we do.  With this knowledge a Buddhist turns their intent to being a wholesome agent of cause and effect.

While causality and dependent origination are often used interchangeably there is a distinction to note.  Causality points to a cause that creates an effect.  Dependent origination takes that another step.  It is those causes and effects that drive the moment-to-moment transformation of all phenomena.  The term causal conditioning brings these two ideals together.  All phenomena are dependent on cause and effect as transformative factors in their existence; those factors condition how those phenomena are, or in the case of human beings as they might choose to be.

Throughout the sutras the Buddha offered that there were certain characteristics of causal relationships.  Each characteristic was, like all phenomena, dependent on the other.  Causality exists omnitemporally.  No matter the time or the angle of view it is a fact of existence.  In metaphysics or science, in human or animal actions, whether the cause or effect is recognized, there is always a causal result, an effect that arises from a cause, or chain of causes (a causal chain).  Experience has shown that there is no exception to causal conditioning because nothing happens from “thin air.”  The cause may not be discernible but there is always a cause, sometimes more than one; and, this is true for effect also.  

Phenomena arise that may appear to have no cause, what some might term accidents or coincidence.  It is invariable that there is a cause, even one that is not readily evident.  It might have been an unintentional cause but it happened just the same.  This is why intent is so important in how and why we make decisions.  Effects are just as invariable.  The effect might never be recognized by the initiator of the cause but it also happens just the same.  Like cause there can be multiple effects, too.  Realized or not our actions are going to have consequences so we engage the world in such a way as to promote wholesome outcomes, wholesome karmic consequences. What we do matters.

All phenomena are conditioned by cause and effect.  For a practitioner it is critical you understand and accept that you are a cause, that your thoughts and actions condition how you interact with yourself and the world around you.  You are the effect of your own cause.  Your thoughts and actions will condition the people around you that you are both interdependent on and interconnected with.  This is why intent must be to perform wholesome acts in order to promote more wholesome acts.

Imagine yourself taking a walk.  The fresh air feels good in your lungs, your muscles get exercise, and your bodymind eases.  You pass by a neighbor, both of you smile and wave hello.  You might be on a sidewalk or a forest path.  Each step you take is a cause and whatever is under your feet is feeling the effects.  Tunnels laboriously made by ants are shaking, loose dirt falling.  The ants work to repair the damage.  You trod on a handful of tiny seeds scattered on the ground.  Cracked open, some seeds won’t germinate.

Every thought, every action is a cause.  Every thought, every action is an effect.

Viewing how we interact with ourselves, others and the world around us through a “causal lens” it will change our thoughts and actions.  When we realize that every move, thought and word WILL have results we realize we have the responsibility to be more aware, to engage in more intentional actions.  Because human beings are not limited to acting purely out of instinct, that we make choices dependent on input from internal and external sources, our actions tend to have broader encompassing effects than that of the other beings that inhabit this planet.  With that firmly in mind, making causal conditioning a part of how we think and act is critical for our goal of being the originators of positive consequences. 

Think before you act or speak are age-old proverbs.  What about think before you think?  How we think leads to a causal chain of how we’ll continue to think.  Through practice and study we may come to realize that some of patterns of thought are negative and they are leading us to make negative decisions and take negative actions.  Causality allows the opportunity to make positive changes and the knowledge that those changes are apt to lead to positive results contribute to our wholesome personal character.

Part of positive personal development is changing the way we think about ourselves.  How we think about ourselves and how we act for ourselves are both cause and effect of transformation.  Thinking positively might seem like a trite idea but experience reveals that it does have an effect on how we are and how we view life. It begins with the realization that we are not a permanent, unchanging self.  We not only have the opportunity to transform but we, with the knowledge of the Dharma, have the responsibility to strive to make wholesome transformations happen.  Unwholesome worldviews or dispositions don’t have to be permanent.  They can be transformed and then we can go on to engage others in a more wholesome way. 

What We Do Matters.



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Dogen’s Discourse #439

[Dharma Hall Discourse on the Buddha Nature Beyond Conditions and a commentary by Rev. David Shen-Xi  Astor, Sensei]


“All tathagatas are without Buddha nature, but at the same time, previously they have fully accomplished true awakening. Bodhisattvas studying the way should know how Buddha nature produces the conditions for Buddha nature.”


There is much said and written about “Buddha nature.” Maybe to much. In my experience it may be one of the most misunderstood terms that has arisen from Buddhism moving to the West. I get the question often, especially when I ask for general questions from the Sangha. My answers very in approach depending on who is asking the question. The answer to this question needs to be influenced by the state of the questioners practice. Today I take another opportunity to speak about it.  Master Dogen, in his effort to teach about Buddha nature, is pointing to the very essence of how the Universe expresses itself.

He begins by stating that all tathagatas are without Buddha nature although they have arrived in the state of an awakened mind. A tathagata is one that has achieved awakening as to the nature of the Universe, as did Siddhartha Gotama. Being in such a state of this unconditioned conscious condition is coming to realize through moments of perfected insight one’s own “true” nature as is expressed in our human form. In the second sentence Dogen is saying it is important for those that have vowed to work hard to become awakened to how the Universe is, to also understand how could Buddha nature produce the conditions for Buddha nature.  Perhaps this is another one of those Buddhist paradoxes. 

We can go about interpreting this discourse by looking at how Dogen spoke about the topic in his other writings. In Shobogenzo’s essay “Buddha Nature,” he makes the reference as, “being Buddha nature and non-being Buddha nature.” I like the use of “being” in this reference. In the first sentence when referencing all tathagatas, he is putting forth the meaning of “non-being Buddha nature”. In the second sentence, he is making the other reference as “Buddha nature produces the conditions for Buddha nature”. Interesting enough he may be also making the case that there is no such thing as Buddha nature, since a thing cannot be its own cause. In other words, an object being the subject of its own self.

If we accept Dogen’s use of the term “being Buddha nature,” we might understand this lesson as indicating that Buddha nature is unconditioned. Consider that in this state of being an object can not exist beyond its own causal circumstances.

Consider that we go down to the ocean with a glass jar. We dip the jar into the water and fill it up. We then sit down and contemplate our glass jar’s contents. Is it the ocean? Well, not really. Why? Although it has some of the key natural elements of “ocean”, it lacks the ability to function as ocean. In many ways it has lost its original causal nature. We can say it is “empty” of ocean. It has no wave action, no sea life, no variance of salient content, no tidal interaction with the moon, so on. Yet, it has expressions of dharma nonetheless. While it doesn’t have the nature and function of ocean, it does have elements that still are expressing the interconnectiveness of Universe, (thus Buddha nature). Now let us walk back to the ocean and pour the contents from the jar back into the sea. Is it now “ocean?” Has it been restored to its original nature?

Our practice is like this, our awakening body-mind is like this. Our enlightened state can be like this. Buddha nature is not something to get, or lose. This Buddha nature Master Dogen is expressing is also the reality in zazen which is the same as the state of an awakened body-mind.   It is a state where the Universe looks into its own eyes.

Note: This dharma hall discourse comes from the Eihei Koroku, and was given in the Fall of the year 1249. Like many of Dogen’s discourses, this one also is very short put packed with meaning. It is # 439.

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What Does Taking Vows Mean?

By: Venerable Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna, OEB

A Dharma talk given during the Fall Leadership Retreat 2020

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put an end to them.
The dharmas are boundless; I vow to master them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to attain it.

One of the traditional Buddhist practices or approaches to practice is taking vows. So what does taking vows mean? Other words could be commitment, or dedication. I want to talk about its use as a specific physical practice.

The Bodhisattva Way of practicing together to help support and realize universal liberation is to express and actualize our caring for all beings. Paradoxically, the style in Soto Zen practice is to start with the highest vows, as well as the highest form of meditation. So we begin from these inconceivable vows: to free all beings; to cut through all delusions; to enter all of the gateways to truth; and to realize the Buddha way. This ultimate level of vow may seem like some fairy tale or fantasy. But how we actually carry that out is connected to very practical, everyday vows. Both levels arrive together. The ultimate vow is to free all living beings, to awaken together with all beings, to be willing to just be ourselves, sitting here on our cushions, and to see everything arising together. We see how in various ways we support each other, or don’t support each other, or get all tangled up together. It is just that here we are, together. Maybe another word for vow is willingness. This includes our dedication and intention to practice uprightly together, and allows something to happen within which we are all connected.

Again, these four inconceivable vows that we chant are not in the realm of ordinary human activity. They go beyond. And yet they are connected to us. One of the ways to talk about this ultimate vow of freeing all beings is also to see ourselves in an ultimate way. What is, for you, the most important thing? This is our practice as we sit facing the wall, trying to sit upright, being present until the bell rings. As we sit, naturally thoughts and feelings arise, intentions appear. We see all of the ways in which our mind is jumbled around. Suzuki Roshi used to ask, “What is the most important thing?” The most important thing may be different for each of us. The most important thing could be different today than it is tomorrow. The most important thing may change during a period of zazen. But there must be this consideration of what is really important to me. What is my life about? This is the same level as freeing all beings. How can we give a name to the meaning of this precious, wonderful, impermanent life? Just to look at what means the most to us is an important part of our practice, and connects to this ultimate vow. How do we free all living beings? How do I find what I want to do with this life? It is alive, and changing.

Suzuki Roshi also said that the most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing. But it is also important to find out what are the fairly important things. Perhaps there is not one single most important thing. Maybe we can never say what that most important thing is; but sometimes we can. I have heard people say what the most important thing is for them. But it might change. We should also investigate what are some of the important things. What really matters to you as you sit there on your cushion, trying to be upright, inhaling, and exhaling?

How is this related to Mahayana Buddhist practice of the basic vows we chant? “I vow to enable people to understand the truth of the origin of suffering” This is about my delusions, and of course everybody else’s delusions, the government’s and the culture’s delusions; delusions are everywhere. “I vow to enable people to peacefully settle down in the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.” Actually there are innumerable paths to enter into reality, into truth, into caring, into being this person right now, and into freeing all beings. Such paths are as plentiful and numberless as the delusions. Maybe they are not different from the delusions. Every delusion, every hang-up, every problem, may also be an opportunity or pathway into awakening to universal realities.

Finally, “I vow to enable people to attain Nirvana.” Buddhist practice is not one thing.. It is a way or path. Dogen from his “Awesome Presence of Active Buddhas” essay: “Just experience the vital process on the path of going beyond Buddha.” There is a vital process, a path, and it is alive. How do we realize it? How do we turn toward it? How do we remember: oh yes, I said I wanted to practice awakening, and here I am. In a way, this is most alive when we realize that we have not been taking care of what is really important to us.

I have been speaking about the level of ultimate vow. But the actual practice of vow, as a practice, can be very specific and concrete. Vowing is one of the transcendent practices that also include the practice of generosity, the practice of patience, the practice of meditation, the practice of prajna or wisdom, and the practice of knowledge, which is knowing how to enact our practice intention. Vow is a specific practice that we can actually work on, just like we endlessly work on how to be generous with ourselves and others, how to be patient with all of the problems of the world and all the problems on our own seat. We can actually take on this practice of vow. This practice is not just the ultimate vow to free all beings, but part of how we do that is to take on particular practices, particular limited commitments, such as sitting here in a retreat. Committing to studying with a teacher on a weekly basis. We have an intention and we try and do it. There can be innumerable kinds of things we can take on as actual practices, various large and small projects, whatever you see that needs to be done. If a fence is needed over there, we might see if we can build it. Once we are engaged in the level of ultimate, inconceivable vow, then very specific, concrete activities are part of the practice of commitment or vow.

Vow always becomes relevant in early January, because we may make New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes these can be frivolous, but New Year’s resolutions are a way of enacting the practice of vow in our culture. There are many gateways to Dharma, even in our primitive, corrupt culture. Of course we can take on a New Year’s resolution any month of the year. Any time we could take a resolution for a week or a month or a year or a lifetime. But people think about it when it is January 1st.

I have some resolutions that I’ve decided I would try and act on this year and into the next I  a resolution to try and manage my different activities more effectively. I am trying to use my time more effectively. So that is a New Year’s resolution. Who knows if I actually will be able to do that? But I am going to try.

I’m sure some of you have these kinds of practical resolutions. Whether New Year’s resolutions or not, they are projects, specific limited commitments, that we try to take on. We all wonder how to take care of the things around us in the world. How do we take care of family and friends? How do we take care of the things that we want to do?

This level of what is important includes many things. It includes something as simple as making sure to get exercise every week, or calling a friend that you haven’t spoken to in a long time. There are lots of things that come up if we are looking at what is my intention, what am I up to. They can be wonderful bodhisattva activities, or they can be ordinary things. We have many different things that we want to do.

Part of this practice is to bring into consciousness the things we want. You may think that you don’t have any resolutions, that you don’t have any particular vows. But actually, unconsciously we have many. We have things that we think we should do. We have patterns going back to our childhood that we may not be aware of, but that are our habitual modes of conduct. When we actually take on vow as a practice, and say, for example, I am going to be more generous in giving my time and resources to others, taking that on as a conscious intentional vow, when we consider our intentions, we can also see our unintentional vows. There are things we do habitually that maybe we do not need to do, or maybe we do not really want to do. But we still think we should do them. Maybe such an intention has actually helped get us somewhere, but perhaps we no longer need to do that. Maybe it was a good thing to do for a while, but now I don’t need it. When we are aware of our intentions, we can see them, and we have a choice. 

We each have various vows already. So in the practice of sitting still and examining what is important to us, what we care about, we can see our unconscious habitual vows. And when we see them we have a chance decide whether we really want to do that. Maybe you do. But it is not about what you think you should be doing, but what is it you really want to do. Freeing all living beings is not something that you should do because somebody else says you should. Ending all delusions is not something that I think you should do, or Buddha thinks you should do, or Suzuki Roshi thinks you should do. We chant those vows because then we have a chance to see whether that is a path we want to be near. We may not know how to do it. We may not know how to be more generous. But we can decide that is something we want to try and do. When we start to do that, we see all the ways that we are caught by habits. Substituting a limited positive intention, vow, or commitment may be like assuming a positive addiction. Positive does not mean that it is necessarily good according to somebody else’s idea, but we can say I myself really want to do that. We can weigh these choices against the background of the Three Pure Precepts.

The practice of conscious vow is a little like ritual practice. Even though that’s a different realm of practice than vow, it’s quite comparable in terms of this aspect of arousing consciousness. We sometimes chant the Heart Sutra, which ends with this old traditional Sanskrit mantra supposed to have beneficial effects: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi svaha.” We chant other teaching Sutras, etc in English, and sometimes a phrase may strike us. You can use that as a mantra, a phrase you say silently to remind yourself of something.” We may not know what it means, but that does not matter. Or it could be a line from a popular song, such as: “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.” When we do this practice of repeating some teaching as an intentional conscious mantra, we may see the other mantras that are there, our unconscious mantras, negative mantras about ourselves or the world. We may unconsciously be telling ourselves: I can’t do that; I don’t want to see those people; I don’t want to say hello to that person.

The practical aspect, connected to the ultimate level of freeing all beings, is actually taking on some very limited specific practice. It may be saying, “Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely,” or just saying hello to people. Try taking on some intentional specific physical practice, something we actually do, like going and visiting a friend who’s sick. These practices are endless.

This is actually how we put our zazen to work. For a while I have been discussing zazen as more than just sitting on a cushion. As we are sitting, naturally this body and mind is expressing our Buddha nature. No matter what posture we are in, how we are expresses something, always. When we take the position of the Buddha it expresses a particular kind of openness, awareness, and uprightness. And when we are willing to do that, to be upright and just be present with ourselves and face ourselves, not running away from who we are, it allows a connection to other activities in our life.. One way to do that is this practice of vow. So this practice of vow is a way of specifically joining our own energies, our own expressive personal Buddha nature, to the kind of deep connection that we have some access to in zazen. This is so even if you are sitting for forty minutes wondering when the bell is going to ring, and wanting to move around because your knee is hurting. Even in a so-called difficult period of zazen, still there’s something going on that is deeper than your idea of whether this is a great period of zazen, or a difficult period of zazen. 

Maybe calling this “vow” sounds too big, too serious. Just make a commitment to something, even if some of us are nervous about commitments. How do we decide to take on something? Again, it might be just going to a Dharma talk, or going for a walk this afternoon. It could be a very small thing. But we actually decide, I’m going to do that. Then we do it. This strengthens our zazen. This strengthens our connection to freeing all living beings.

In Buddhism we have various ways to check ourselves in this practice. The precepts are also a way of looking at our practice of specific vows and universal vow. There are ways to remind ourselves of what our deepest zazen mind wants to do. Formally when people take the precepts they make a vow to follow these precepts. So we have a little ceremony, and people receive a Dharma name. This is a kind of vow practice. But the precepts are reminders of how awakening expresses itself, and the values we feel in that experience. We see our inner intention to not be harmful to ourselves or others, and to lessen harm in the world. And we see our own direction to generosity and tolerance.

The precepts are not about how you should not do this or that. They are actually ways of expressing something positive to which we want to make a commitment. You may think that you should not enjoy doing the things that you enjoy doing. You may think they are bad. But actually you should enjoy doing what you enjoy doing. If you like eating ice cream, please enjoy when you eat ice cream. That is a kind of practice of vow. See what it is that you actually like to do. See how that works and what that is. You may finally decide you do not really like to do it. But you cannot find out until you are willing to actually take it on. This is like our practice in zazen. 

But this practical approach to vow that I am describing is always in the context for us of the fundamental inconceivable vow of the bodhisattva way, to be helpful to all beings. When we care that All Beings are free from suffering, this informs our wholehearted engagement in the particular practical activities we take on. Then they are not separate. Saying hello to people on the street can be part of your practice of freeing all beings. Going to the store might be a way of entering all Dharma gates. The most important thing for us is not separate from taking care of particular, supposedly small matters.

This bringing our intention to our life and our activity helps us see this vital process on the path of total emancipation. This vital process is the path of going beyond Buddha, not getting stuck in some version of Buddha, but actually making Buddha alive in our life. We see what we want to do, and how that connects with everyone else. Also we encourage everybody else to do what they want to do. There is a level of trust or faith involved in this. Can I trust that it’s okay for me to be the person I am? Can I trust that I actually can do what I want to do, that I can enjoy doing what I want to do? This is what’s sometimes called Buddha nature. We say, okay, here I am. I will do this and I will look at it, and see if I still really want to do it.

Practitioners come to retreat hoping to get great benefit and go home a new person. This attitude is very good in itself but it can also become an obstacle to practice. Harboring this kind of desire will distract you from your method, and the harder you press the greater the obstacle becomes. Expecting to gain something, as well as being afraid of not practicing well are both incorrect attitudes. But, while having a seeking attitude is counter-productive, we still need vows to keep ourselves from faltering on the path. There is a saying that before one is liberated from the cycle of birth and death, one is like an ant in a red-hot frying pan.

When he meditated beneath the Bodhi Tree, Shakyamuni vowed that he would not rise from his seat until he realized supreme enlightenment. By fulfilling this vow he became a fully awakened being, a Buddha. Once a traveler knows the directions to his destination, he should just get on with the actual traveling. Even if you cannot yet see the final destination, you need not be doubtful or anxious. To make a vow is to set the direction and the goal, and the practice is our vehicle. Vows andcontinuous practice go together.


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