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Buddhism With Two Voices

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

A truly historical thinking must also think its own historicity.”
H. G. Gadamer

The history of the Chinese Buddhist school know as Zen (Ch’an) was created precisely out of the need to “transmit the mind” of its masters in a language to make it intelligible and attractive to others serious in engaging the wisdom of the past history of Buddhist thought in writings that others new to Buddhism could understand. These new narratives functioned to help transmit the core canon and legacy teachings of the past into a language and style that was practical and useful to promote the continuation of Buddhism for a different culture (Chinese). New language and rhetoric was always necessary in order to convey the meaning of Buddhist thought and values from one culture to another. This happens each time as Buddhism moved throughout the East Asian societies.

Now that Buddhism in all it’s various forms has come to the West, the need to bring the language of the East along with it’s customs and styles of meaning to Western ears has been making the same journey of discovery in language transformation for the past few decades or more. A primary question may be, “How does this historical consciousness relate to the basic understanding of Zen and Buddhism in general for us in the 21st century?” Especially now that Buddhism has encountered a developed scientific and technological age, as well as an educated modern consumer of spiritual ideas rooted in past centuries of practice. This is a story of dissemination of the beginning of Buddhist practice in the ancient culture of the Buddha and continuing through Indian and Chinese patriarchies up to the current recipients here in the West.

Within this overarching historical framework, I would like to pick out the topic of karma to give an example of how words and meaning of it is in an active discussion and debate within various schools of thought here in the West, specially in America, relative to giving a fresh look and understanding which may differ from the ancient teachings.

It has become resoundingly clear for me as my Buddhist study deepens and my attention to contemporary scientific understanding and social concerns broadens, that Buddhist philosophical and social values can be viewed as very modern in how it emphasizes the core principles in pragmatic terms. Of course this depends on what and who I read. At the same time, however, there are aspects to Buddhist doctrine that remains in ancient-language-of-understanding as it comes down to us in a century that is dramatically different then in the time of the Buddha. I often regret that the core canon is still presented in many translations that I still struggle with in practical terms perhaps caused of my Western education and cultural limitations. Mutual causality, impermanence and the notion of no-self that substantiate modern notions of human psychology has a contemporary voice. Karma (rebirth and mystical planes of existence) is spoken of in an ancient voice because it has almost no counterpart in Western language to convey. So karma, for example, is still spoken of in words that comes from past centuries. This does not necessitate ignoring karma if we want to present Buddhism as being relevant for the modern age. But it does require a very serious interrogation of how it has been interwoven throughout Buddhist philosophy. Karma requires creative re-description in my estimation. In this way we may begin to find answers to the question, “How is understanding the laws of karma a help to us today?”

When we study the Buddhist canon, we quickly learn from the various sutras that the community of monks (Sangha) was supported by the generosity of the lay members. This was the tradition in ancient India. The merit of this lay support (dana ) for the individual was the hope that they could be reborn as a bodhisattva so they could have a chance to gain enlightenment. This earning merit was considered an important aspect of the characteristic nature of karma. Karma in this case being “attached” to the individual. I call this Velcro karma. When viewed this way, karma was a kind of product that could be purchased by one’s efforts. the understanding of karma, and its value, was of great importance in ancient Hindu society. And also had to be considered when translated into the Zen language by the Chinese masters (which is a whole different topic for consideration).

One’s status in this ancient society determined quality-of-life realities. The laws of karma were used to justify what in our modern era would be called social injustice. To these ancient people, however, social justice situations were built into the moral fabric of the society as their life played out on the various social levels as universal fate. In a big way this understanding of how the universe functioned helped to maintain order, and life struggles were viewed as helping propel one to a better place after the present life ended.

Siddhartha, the Buddha, worked to transform this notion of the universe and through understanding the reality of mutual causality taught a very different interpretation of karma. He came to realize that accepting fate as a universal reality was the engine that continued human suffering. One of the pillars of the Four Noble Truths supports the wisdom of this philosophical sea-change. The intent of an individual’s actions is karma. Karma has no value, however, until it is given value. Our actions, and the effect of those actions, is multi-directional. That is to say that it effects both subject and object of one’s intentional actions. Yet it is not something we “have”. Considering that the only reality we can directly experience is what we can experience in the moment, our actions come from a sense of self and the choices we make. By intentionally choosing to make changes in how we are, we change the very nature of the person we continually transform into. (Maybe some day I will take this topic and address Thomas Aquinas’ Principles of Double Effect and Totality)

As we work to understand the kind of reason we are, we are confronted with how we can change, not only our character, but the community around us. We awaken to the reality that we are agents-for-change acting in the capacity of the social-self. As we gain wisdom in our practice we come awakened to the fact that karma drives what we have done and how we change as a result of both the intent of our actions and their consequences. If we want to be a different kind of person, we must gain insight in the world around us with a new kind of vision. Karma is not a fatalistic doctrine, but empowers us to find the good in our selves, and in others. In this way, karma brings a rebirth to us moment to moment as our actions bring change before our very eyes.

The challenge for Buddhism today is to continue to find a contemporary language that speaks to these ancient principles that have not always been successfully transformed from their original cultural language and context. This adds to the confusion we teachers encounter from our students when they begin to take a deeper interest in the Buddhist path, yet have gotten their initial understanding from works that are stuck in the past. Because of this, Buddhism often speaks with two voices, contemporary and ancient. Yet, if we keep the teachings simple, straightforward, and rich in modern understanding, we will move forward with confidence that we will find a common language from which Buddhist thought and values will ride on the stream of karmic change. This lesson the Buddha spoke of often seems so simple, yet so difficult to glimpse until we awaken to how things are beyond just words to convey.

What is important to recognize, however, is the way in which the understanding of how karma functions has been set before us today in works in historical and cultural terms reflecting a universe viewed through an ancient lens. I recognize that this is a struggle for contemporary Western students of Buddhism that work hard to honor our traditions and teachings as passed down to us from our legacy masters. How we choose to bring encompassing and corrective change to these core teachings may seem at times disruptive and unnecessary, however for Buddhism to effectively move into the next century we in the West must work to find the language and rhetoric for it to remain relative as it marches-on powered by the karmic energy the Buddha set in motion 2600 years ago. I might even suggest we may need a language of immediacy. Martin Heidegger said, “There arises the possibility that we undergo an experience with language, that we enter into something which bowls us over, that is, transmutes our relation to language.”

I might finally add, Zen did this too. Now we confront a new reality by honoring Buddhism’s historical values and yet finding a path that reflects a contemporary vitality for it to flourish into the future.

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Concerto In Ego Minor

By: Rev. David Astor, OEB

[This piece was originally published in Buddhadharma magazine Winter 2012 issue in the First Thoughts section]

I was watching a documentary about the late pianist Glenn Gould, perhaps the greatest interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach of any generation, and was struck by how he seemed to disappear behind the work he was performing, especially when he played Bach. It was as if he removed his human form completely and let the music come through him. The transformation encompassed his entire body and you could tell his mind was in another space. His playing reminds me of the line in a Zen poem: “Barn’s burn down — now I can see the moon.”

The lesson I took away from watching this video is that, like Gould, who let his ego fall away so he became a conduit for the music, when I let my ego fall away, honed by my practice, I can connect with how I am conducting the activities of the moment and thereby maximize the karmic results for promoting good.

It seems that there are two aspects within each of us —the functional being who learns to master the technique required for excellence and the ego that wants to control the process and is hard to get out of the way. In other words, one part of me — the reservoir of knowledge, the muscle memory, and the overall life experience that influences how I act —is a conduit for energy. The other part is the self-centered egotist who wants to critique, take credit for his accomplishments, and accept the appreciation of others.

I tell my students that it is important to learn to get out of the way of what you are doing, and just let your practice shine through. This takes some perseverance and it’s not easy to do with a lot of grace in the beginning.

Consider the words by Shunryu Suzuki from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “When we do something with a quiet simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.”

It takes a great deal of practice to be a “beginner”. A beginner’s mind means one has no agenda for any outcome. The energy that arises from a beginner’s mind flows from letting go of all the personal preferences, the attachments, and the distorted worldview we come to think is reality. When we learn to touch the spiritual element of our being, we bring happiness and harmony into a world full of awakened potential.

 

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Expressing Unity

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September 1, 2017 · 7:42 am

Getting To The True Heart Of The Matter

By: Venerable Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor 曦 肯, OEB

A dedicated Buddhist practice is about planting seeds in the rich soil of Buddhist thought and values passed down to us from both our legacy and contemporary masters in order to confront what Zen calls “The Great Matter.” It is a journey into exploring some of the most confound questions man as been asking from the vary time he ventured from the cave and beyond. These questions are timeless. We work to grow these seeds into insight of what it means to be human in this vast universe, or more specifically perhaps, what is the nature of this thing we call “self”. There are countless sutras, books, lessons and koans that we encounter almost daily that act to point to ways we can begin to contemplate these fundamental questions sensing that it is a key component to come to some kind of understanding of the reality of this core teaching. As we step on the Buddhist path we are greeted by the constant question of what is this self as it is to be considered alongside the principle of no-self. It is said that when we have come awakened to the reality of this question, we have arrived at the “heart of the matter”. Arrived is not the end of the journey, but only a new beginning. You see, the core principle of mutual-causality also is applied to achieving some degree of wisdom of our applied studies. Awakening is not a single event but a series of events. It is not about perfect understanding but about perfecting our growing knowledge that drives us to greater vistas our universe offers us when we are ready. The Heart-of-the-matter is vast. Remember too that the Buddha arrived at a point of his contemplating these questions by just sitting in silence. No words, the experience was beyond language to express. And it must be true for us as well.

Yet we teachers are expected to help our students to arrive at some threshold of understanding so they can take this experience to a deeper level in their practice too. Why this is often so hard for teachers to do is because our culture is working against the vary reality we are trying to express in our lessons. So much of life in our hyper-busy and technologically saturated world tends to pull us away from the path toward discovering a way to see the self beyond ordinary definitions. We are told in little as well as big ways every day that we must construct our identities, supplement ourselves with products and services, and look a certain way, and be a certain way. In other words, we must conform to a socially accepted definition of what it means to be human. Following this path is a sure way of seeing a “false self”. It is a mask we create that hides any notion of the “greater self” within.

The idea of our spiritual journey too is connected to the quest to discover this human nature we call self, or I. It is not just one idea among many, but a principle idea that transcends the ordinary to an extra-ordinary way of seeing the world around us. This pivots on the question of ultimate human identity that connects us to the very unifying nature of the universe itself. This calls for a deeper reflection on authentic human identity beyond the individual form we call self. This challenges us in the 21st century as we have culturally placed the notion of the individual and free will at the core of defining the individual. Our very Western concept of moral and ethical behavior is based on the responsibility of the individual self-worth and how to promote the common good. This notion comes from the understanding that the nature of individuals that were derived from either the Platonic world of forms or the Aristotelian explanation of identity rooted in the accidental qualities of a given object. But for some early thinkers the individual possesses a unity that is more significant than the specific individual form when considering an idea of a transcendent universal nature that all individual forms embody. This way of conceiving of the individual is the basis of both Buddhist philosophy and Christian theology, although they take a different direction when the notion of a deity is thrown into the mix. Yet, they both consider that there is something beyond common knowing about how we come to understand the nature of self. We must be careful here not to get lost in the weeds of metaphysical speculation or day dreaming. Coming to understand self is a serious part of our practice so we can move to a deeper respect in the encompassing and corrective way of walking the Eightfold Path.

The challenge in coming to understand how our individual self is also the no-self requires deep meditation that promotes the perfection of wisdom. Human behavior and self-understanding is largely subjective. The challenge of our practice is to awaken to who we really are beyond these things. But most often we get trapped into seeing just what our every day life wants us to see and believe we are. Ultimately discovering the meaning of our existence and our true universal nature is up to us alone. This means to say that we should not passively exist, but actively participate in the discovery of how to answer the age old question man has been asking from the beginning of his appearance on this planet. What is it! The key to discovery this very question is right in front of us. What is it!

Answering this question is less important, I think, then following the Three Pure Precepts and making the Fourth Truth manifest in our practice. Human flourishing is about the self, and when we embrace this path with all the energy we can muster, we might just trip over that self that has been silent all along that will awaken us to the True Heart of The Matter we call life.

 

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Climbing Mt. Wisdom

By: Rev. Dr. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna, OEB 长金

When you set out to climb a mountain you must have the summit in view. It is the sight of the summit that imparts the general direction of one’s steps. For this reason, even at the very beginning of a climb you must keep looking up. Yet you still have to climb the lower slopes and scale the intermediate reaches before you gain the summit. If we were to compare climbing with attaining wisdom, we could say that wisdom comes only at the end of your practice of the path.
Wisdom can be described as the understanding of the Four Noble Truths, the understanding of interdependent origination, and other Buddhist doctrines. What we mean when we say this is simply that the attainment of wisdom is the transformation of these doctrinal items from mere objects of intellectual knowledge into real, personal experience. In other words, we want to change our knowledge of the Four Noble Truths for example, from mere book learning into actual, living truth.
Anyone can read a book about the meaning of the Four Noble Truths, interdependent origination, causality, or any other host of topics. But this does not mean that he or she has attained wisdom. The Buddha himself said that it was failing to understand the Four Noble truths and interdependent origination that we have gone on in this cycle of birth and death for so long. Obviously, when he said this, he meant something deeper than simple failure to be acquainted intellectually with these items of doctrine.
The term “understanding” must be taken in the sense of right understanding, that is to say, direct and immediate understanding. It can be likened to a simple act of perception, like seeing a patch of blue color. Perhaps this is why the language of seeing is so often used to describe the attainment of wisdom. We speak of wisdom in terms of “seeing the truth” or “seeing things as they really are” because the attainment of wisdom is not an intellectual or academic exercise: it is understanding the nature of the reality of the universe around us. This opens the door to freedom from suffering to nirvana.
In Buddhism, wisdom is the key to the realization of the goal. In some religions, we find that faith is paramount; in other traditions, meditation is supreme. But in Buddhism, faith is preliminary and meditation is instrumental. The real heart of Buddhism is wisdom.

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Understanding The Perfections Of Character

By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse 将稳, OEB

Recently, in my dharma practice, I’ve been studying the Six perfections with the helpful insights of my teacher, Venerable Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei. So it was a surprising delight that I came across a short discussion of the Perfections in the Lankavatara Sutra 1. (The Perfections of Character are: generosity, morality, tolerance, energy, meditation, and wisdom).

The Perfections can be thought of as ideals to acheive. Although there are only six Perfections, according to the Lankavatara Sutra, there are three levels of understanding these Perfections.

The first level is an apparent, mundane understanding. This is the view of the ordinary, everyday world around us. The Perfections are understood in terms of the immediate benefits they can bring us.

At this wordly level of understanding, Generosity is considered in terms of making one feel good about giving to others (how it might possibly be a tax deduction, for example). At this level, helping others is only a superficial thought. Morality might be thought of as doing what is good in order to to be seen as a good person in the eyes of other people. The practice of Tolerance is personal – how one is patient with other people’s annoying habits and characteristics. Energy is thought of as perseverance; it is linear in that one believes that there is a final goal to be reached. Meditation is also thought of in terms of what one may acheive by the practice; perhaps some sort of a state of bliss. Wisdom may be viewed as reaching a state of pure peace where one is not bothered by anything and one dispenses to others the advice of a sage.

The second level of understanding is mental, or conceptual. At this stage, one begins to see how our thoughts can become problematic for ourselves and others. One sees that there is a bigger picture, one that is not only more inclusive of other people, but also of how conditions and events contribute to people’s situations.

At the conceptual level of understanding, Generosity goes beyond the simple act of giving; one now posseses a sympathetic understanding of others and this leads to a greater precision in the charity one offers to people. The motivation of Morality changes as well as one now sees the connections between what one does, thinks or says, and how these affect people and situations, and so one begins to respond with consideration of how personal actions will influence outcomes. Tolerance moves from a selfish endurance of others to an extension of one’s self onto others; one realizes that other people feel and react the same way as we do and so the patience we have with ourselves becomes the patience we have for others. Energy transforms from goal-oriented to process-oriented; it is no longer about striving to reach a particular goal, but rather how one perceives the world, thinks, speaks, acts, perseveres, is mindfully attentive, and how one diciplines the mind (this is often referred to as the eightfold path). Meditation shows one how everything is dependent upon everything else (for example, people need food to live, food is produced by farmers and weather conditions, each of which depend upon other factors such as solar systems, thermal systems, water cycles, etc.), and how all things fit into a larger system of ever-changing processes and interactions. Wisdom reveals itself in one’s understanding of the similarities and connections we share with all other things.

The third level of understanding is spiritual, when one habitually recognizes the connections and commonalities between all things and people, rather than seeing only surface-level distinctions.

At the spiritual level of understanding, generosity becomes a sincere desire for everybody to find peace-of-mind and happiness as well as the accompanying desire to help others acheive this state of well-being. Morality becomes spontaneous and effortless as one now sees there is very little difference between one’s self and others. Tolerance is now such that one views everything as having no real distinctions; although one can see that there are individuated phenomena, these disctinctions are secondary to the understanding that apparent differences are at best only a fuzzy blurring between boundaries – everything is relatively equal. Energy is revealed as knowing that there really are no differences between one task and another; doing one thing is about the same as doing another so the same effort is extended to all tasks. It all becomes just “stuff” one does! Mindfulness now includes everything; how one thinks, how one speaks or acts. As to wisdom, this is displayed when one has the epiphany that it is only in one’s mind that hard distinctions are created, that no real borders exist as all things rely on other things and everything is intimately interconnected with all of existence itself.

1. Goddard, Dwight, ed. A Buddhist Bible. The Lankavatara Scripture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970. p. 329-331.

 

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When The Ideal Meets The Real: A Pragmatic Perspective

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, OEB 曦 肯

 

My root teacher, Venerable Dr. Shi Yong Xiang Eubanks Sensei, would always stress that we remember the importance in the lessons to be learned when our ideals meet the world of reality, or “when the ideal meets the real.” This is so important because we may often get lost in an idealistic impression of a dedicated Buddhist practice that is often written about in some of the contemporary texts. (The debate of vegetarianism as a Buddhist practice comes to mind, for example.) It is especially important if we are clerics/teachers with a publicly engaged community practice and ministry. Yet, and this is a big yet, we should always consider that an awakened practice must remain keenly aware of the effort it takes on our part to pursue ideals and to think idealistically, to be idealistic even. In a postmodern society being a “realist” is considered by many as a key component in a civilized culture. Realism is also considered as an important characteristic of being pragmatic. For those that consider themselves realistic individuals 24/7, the basis for their criticism of others that see the world through idealistic lenses, do so by invoking the very ideals that they deny, yet take the position that being idealistic is naive and deluded. Which is an interesting irony. As a Buddhist teacher and Zen cleric with an engaged community practice, I find myself confronted with this lesson on a regular basis, especially in many of the questions I get ask in Sangha sessions. If we can remember when we were growing up as a child this struggle between our ideals and the reality of making them achievable was often dashed against the rock of reality, often that rock was encountered in our very home. Then we grew up and began to learn how to negotiate among the rocks.

If we can expect any degree of success in conquering our life challenges when moving from the realities of the First and Second Noble Truth to the Third one, we must consider a set of ideals that will act as a guide for our practice by engaging them in the real world realities as we implement a practice based on the Forth Truth, among other moral and ethical structures we choose to adopt along our way to move among the rocks we encounter. So ideals is the bridge to get us to the Forth Truth. Let me be clear, realities our not inhibitors when they are considered in an encompassing and corrective way. This is a good thing. The challenge is to learn how to balance our ideals against presented realities that promotes the common good and honors the Three Pure Precepts. This is the corner stone of our Buddhist moral and ethical practice. When ideals have not been cultivated and integrated into our practice, any hope for the future and deliberate action on our part will lack thoughtful intentions and thus effective and wise change is left to chance. A broken arrow can reach its target but the chances are less then reality should expect. At the same time, if we live in a world of ideals alone, we are running the risk of being consistently disappointed. Which brings us back to the Second Truth. So balance is the key, which is pragmatic too. Idealism is pragmatic in that it creates a platform on which we can act in realistic and creative ways. The trick is to not get stuck on just one side of the fence. Finding the balance between the ideal and the real IS the middle way. Our focus determines our reality. Focused almost exclusively on the present, our vision may not be able to see beyond the current situation. This doesn’t mean we should not be aware of each moment. But each moment has a purpose too, and that purpose should be grounded in the ideals of a wise practice that guides our future actions.

No value we may hold comes with a guarantee that it will hold its value unconditionally. This is just the human condition and the reality of a changing world reflecting the principle of the law of mutual-causality. Therefore ideals concern the way the world ought to be, the way it could be, not the way it really is. The reality of our current condition, however, is the bases on how we learn to articulate and judge our ideals, and it is this perspective by which our ideals are used to pass judgement on current reality. When we lack ideals and the mental capacity to be idealistic, we run the risk that we become complacent in the social condition and just accept things as fine just the way they are. And that is the slippery slop that will get us thrown onto the rocks for sure without the ability to get to the other shore.

 

 

 

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Serving As Buddhist Ministers

By: Rev. Dr. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna, OEB 长金

This morning I came across an article in my Facebook feed about the first female Buddhist Chaplain to be commissioned in the US Military. Lt. Saejeong Ilshun Kim was commission as a chaplain in the U.S. Navy on August 6th at the Won Buddhism temple in Los Angeles. Lt. Kim felt that being a chaplain in the U.S. Navy was a great opportunity to meet and support people who are in need. In OEB we often talk about vocations and ministry. It is a fundamental part of who we are as monks and servant leaders within our communities.
The very same causes of suffering old age, sickness, death that inspired Siddartha to seek out how to bring an end to this suffering, still plagues us today. The Buddha eventually found a path that in the midst of suffering and discontentment could bring about inner peace. He reached out to the men and women in his community who were also seeking to alleviate their pain. Through his teachings and guidance the Buddha himself gave us an example of how to be a chaplain and serve our sangha’s and larger communities as a whole. For over 2500 years Buddhists have meditated on the ailments of sickness, old age and death to find an end to suffering. Buddhist chaplains, monks and priests continue this practice today in hospitals, prisons, infirmaries and other medical and non-medical facilities, assisting people through skillful means to deal with and better understand what is happening to them.
In Buddhism we do not have a diety or external source in which to turn to for salvation or intercession. Instead we use wisdom and compassion as skillful means to bring about change. We rely on the Precepts a moral and ethical compass.
Everyone needs encouragement, assistance, and direction on their life’s journey; one of our role’s as ministers is to accompany individuals as their awakening and freedom from suffering unfolds. This may mean simply being a good listener, or an encouraging companion, an intelligent guide. Overall, the purpose is to alleviate suffering in its many forms: physical pain, difficult emotions, and confusing or disturbing thoughts, more commonly known as agony, fear, anger, guilt, depression, loneliness, grief, and so on.
Being a Buddhist monk, priest or chaplain means we are committed to putting others above ourselves. When we see others through the lens of unity instead of difference, we open our hearts with compassion towards our fellow sentient beings. We draw from our own experiences with suffering and unsatisfactoriness to guide others down the path we have already traveled. Lt. Kim said “she feels her unique experiences may help understand each individual’s differences with openness, which will allow her to connect with Sailors.”
Balancing the roles of clergy and officer in the military, or balancing the roles of monk and householder that many of us are is certainly a challenge. But it’s a challenge that brings about harmony, peace and human flourishing. Lt. Kim’s final words are ones that we can all learn from; “(I) feel honored and humbled…I am grateful for the opportunity to serve, excited for the new journey and curious about the path I am taking.”

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Practice And Trauma

By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse, OEB

Childhood physical abuse is devastating. It doesn’t end when the beatings stop or you move away from home. It lingers on. It affects us in adult life, it determines our perspective of the world. It hurts. And it continues to hurt even when we are grown.

It is especially hurtful in those times of quiet when we are alone with our minds. Sitting on the cushion is both a terror and a relief.

I want my mind to be quiet and peaceful and all zen-like, but what I get is a chaotic mass of memories, terror and disbelief. Memories flood in and force themselves upon me so that I can no longer avoid looking at them. And I relive the pain, the confusion, the fear, and the self-blaming.

Then the painful, teary questions come: Was that abuse really my fault? How could I have been treated like that – I was only a little boy. Why? Why? Why?

This is the terror.

But I hold those memories, I ask those questions, and allow that pain to be fully present and felt. Why shouldn’t I just push it away and avoid it? After all, that strategy seemed to work fine for much of my life. I buried it deep, so deep that much of early childhood is a forgotten blank. But one day I find myself in fragile, depressed state and a hollow in my chest that I can’t explain. I discover that I can no longer avoid the ugly truth of my past.

I embrace fully the pain that has come into my life; I don’t try to avoid it, but I allow it to bring itself fully into my experience – how can I deal with something that I can’t even look at? So I allow it to wash over me and look at it head-on so that I can process it from a variety of perspectives. I begin to understand, to see how childhood trauma still affects me now, some 50 years later.

I can begin to let it go, little-by-little until it no longer holds me as it once did. I begin to feel a loosening in my body, my mind, my life. I can breathe deeply and fully and I can begin to feel happy for the first time in a very long time. I can finally start to get out from underneath that heavy burden of shame and guilt and feel the sunlight warming me.

This is the relief.

 

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A Reflective Meditation Practice

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi  

A serious meditation practice, over time, may move beyond elementary awareness of body-mind techniques alone.  Mindfulness meditation is the stepping stone to a deeper perfected meditation practice when one has mastered the ordinary-mind state and has accomplished the ability to sit in silence and listen without following our thoughts.  We learn to follow the breath and move beyond the internal chatter characteristic of a mind not use to being quiet.  Zazen can be a multi-dimensional experience for those that are ready to engage other meditation discipline by extending our meditation practice to the next level.

We can begin to engage a reflective meditative mind-state by incorporating a specific objective focus on a very specific subject.  The driver for this deeper practice is often given over to our contemplative reading and analytical reasoning skills.  In other words, we begin to open up to controlled thinking beyond the ordinary sense-based awareness where generally our life-filters our employed to inform us of specific action-based intentions.  We practice to disengage these filters that are not helpful at all in a deeper meditative state awareness.   This reflective meditation practice is where the major Buddhist meditation forms take place.  What is interesting about this is that for the lay reader of Buddhist meditation texts, this point is almost never made very clear, especially in the beginning of us picking up meditation as a practice.  So, most individuals may never move beyond simple mindfulness meditation techniques and focused breathing exercises.  Although there is great value in a basic mindfulness meditation practice.  When advanced meditation is spoken of, it sometimes takes on the language of metaphysical notions that sound a lot like mystical states of consciousness.

But for those ready for the next level of engaging rational analytical thought, they   almost immediately understand what is expected from this deeper thinking process.  It is somewhat intuitive.  We jump in because we are already wet, so the deeper water is never an immediate shock.  But this can be misleading.  The next thing that happens is that our mind almost immediately encounters doubt and questioning because turning on the analytical engine is not intuitive after all, and finding the switch in the dark is harder then we first imagine.

Reflective experience focuses not just on the thing before us but on the complex relation between my mind and the thing.  This is why choosing what to contemplate, and what source to use, is critical.  “The thing, the object” must not be obtuse.  We must grasp the core concept of what it is we are contemplatively engaging in order to recognize that as we bring in our experiences we search for how they relate to this abstract subject in order to make it real for us to contemplate.  This is a complex process for higher analytical thinking.  Without a deeper ability to engage higher reasoning, we just flounder around hoping that something will cause a spark that makes things clear.  Remember that all our experiences are now just thoughts.  So we are engaging a ready notion of a thought, and trying to relate it to new ways of thinking about it.   This in turn re-describes our reality, or at least, acknowledges the reality we have already adopted as real.  This must be a process of reevaluation.  If we assume that what we already know is correct, we may miss important nuances that will lead us to consider a new perspective, and we are left with the same beginning thought.  A reality for sure, but a reality that can trap us in mental realms that are barriers to awakening to the larger unified picture of universal realities.  Which is the point to a perfected meditation practice.

We learn to think critically, questioning the way things make their appearance to our mental awareness.  Be aware of the path we use to reach something that seems to be very satisfying to what we think we are searching for.  Become aware of the relationships we come to recognize and know that we have the power to ask ourselves whether what appears to us in immediate experience really is what it appears to be in our analytical mind’s eye.  We should not dismiss out of hand something that has potential for changing our mind.  This is where our ability to manage doubt becomes critical for self-discovery.

 

Going one step further, the meditators attempts to describe and classify mental experience, which is called phenomenology, or dharmas, which are moments of awareness.  We are challenged to find lessons of the various realities that are being presented to us (self or other) and to consider if they are worthy of cultivation in a positive or negative sense.  This is where a guide is most important.  This is where advanced self-study begins to reap rewards too.  In the beginning, this style of meditation is very studious.  It may seem like ordinary thinking, but in a perfected mindfulness state of awareness this meditation technique borders on the extra-ordinary human thinking capability.

Advanced meditators teach themselves to be profoundly aware of mental change.  Recognizing a particular mental state is key.  To what extent do we observe and evaluate our moods, or do we simply suffer them unconsciously?  This is one aspect that we are advised to bring into our meditation session when we contemplate our daily activity.  Keeping a journal is helpful as it gives us a chance to later bring these thoughts on the cushion to our focused contemplative practice.

An interesting characteristic of reflective meditation and these styles of phenomenological contemplative techniques is that they help form the basis on which Buddhist ethics could develop as a conscious mental processes. In a way, this is what we are trying to instill in our novices and those in precept study.  This is Dogne’s idea of Zazen and the practice of studying the self in order to know the self, and in turn influences our intentions to not only do good in our actions, but “finding the good” in our deeper conscious state relative to contemplating universal realities.  Because these realities are good in their very natures.  When we try to assigning value to them is when we run into trouble, and may miss the deeper lessons in Buddhist ethics.  Contemplative thinking cultivates thinking in the service of enhanced awareness and wisdom, which is a good definition of Zazen, really.

I often speak about the importance of reading meditatively.  It is an excellent skill that goes beyond just the printed word.  It entails working an idea or set of ideas carefully through the mind with the intention of internalizing them, or coming to embody them.  It is reflected in the model R2A2 – Recognize, Relate, Assimilate, Act.

Another relevant concept to be considered here is that of meditation on altruism.  Which is about finding the lessons of interconnectiveness and interdependence.  Finding the lesson of looking beyond the individual to find the unity of the greater realities all around us.  Meditators simply work the teachings through their minds, over and over, until their impact begins to be reflective in how we interpret everyday experiences.  Which is an element of a spiritual practice.

When considering meditative readiness, Dale Wright said, “…this form of engagement differs from the typical modern activates of readying or thinking in that it is not a pursuit of information or knowledge.  This requires that the practitioner join the spirit of the practice through full involvement and some degree of self-abandonment.” 1   What is interesting about this is that in the beginning we adopt a position of believing what we are reading is in order to arrive at understanding and then we move on to be transformed in the reality it points to.  All this depends on the readiness of the reader.  Moving a student to fast into this phase of meditation can cause problems.  This is because our reading and study influences our emotions, and in turn influences are intention to act.  It is like going into hyper-drive to fast without the proper preparation to aim safely.  We are moving from the conditioned consciousness to the un-conditioned conscious mind.

Our emotions function to give an overall orientation to our experiences.  We must learn to catalog our experiences.  When we do that, as humans, we also tag them with mind-facts.  In other words, we assign value to the experience we store for later reference.  Humans have a short memory.  So, when we recall an experience, we are also recalling the emotional value we have also assigned to it.  Because we might have totally forgotten the experience until it’s recall, we have no way now to determine if the assigned emotion is valid.  We just go with the memory and its value.  This is why we should practice to be very clear as to what value of emotion we assign to memories.

Dale Wright does a good job of giving his definition to my R2A2 model when he says, “The point of contemplative meditation is to give direction to emotions so that emotional inclinations are cultivated along lines that we have chosen.”  This is the R2 component.  He goes on to say, “They need to be cultivated through mental disciplines in order to make their spontaneous emergence at the right time more and more likely.”  This is the A2 component.  When considering the teachings from the Six Perfections, the perfection of energy and meditation comes before the perfection of wisdom, because we cannot forget that any meditation practice has the objective to get us to act spontaneously honed by the readiness we are achieving though cultivating self-awareness.  So, spontaneity and simplicity are among the long term goals of a reflective meditation practice.

1 All quotes: The Six Perfections by Dale S. Wright pg. 192-196

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