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[Dharma Hall Discourse on the Buddha Nature Beyond Conditions and a commentary by Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei]
BUDDHA NATURE BEYOND CONDITIONS
“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.
By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei
The spiritual life is first and foremost a life in that it is apart of the sum of the phenomena we call “me”. It is not something we “take out” and wear during periods of contemplation, meditation, or feeling like a Buddhist when we are in the mood. Either we have it or not. It is that simple. A spiritual life is not something we can study. It is however, like all other dimensions that makes us up, when it is not nourished it will die. It can be like other interests we develop, spend time with, then move on to other things. What makes finding a spiritual interest different is that it appears to be a natural progression when we turn our attention to the bigger picture of what life may be about. Like seeking the wonder of our world, seeking the spirit seems to be connected to our human condition, not something handed to us “by the angels.” We live as spiritual individuals when we live seeking answers to the bigger questions. It is something man has been doing since he walked out of his cave and looked up at the night sky. The difference between him and us, is that we now have a language to express our spiritual natures, but the experience is the same.
To keep our spiritually alive we must constantly work at it. This is the reason we engage meditation and contemplative practices. They are equal partners yet require different techniques in how they are practiced. I am reminded of the experiences I have had on my sailboat at sea in the fog, peering into the gloom listening for sounds and hoping I stay on course in order to avoid being lost or running onto rocks. The spiritual life is all about keeping awake. We must not lose our sensitivity to what inspires us to sit in contemplation or meditation keeping alert for “signs” we can use to stay on course. We must always be able to respond to the slightest warnings in order to avoid running our life on the rocks that can sink a spiritual life as well.
Mindful Meditation is one way in which the spiritual man keeps awake. The reality of a contemplative life, however, is that it puts us at risk of becoming distracted and falling asleep. These are strict disciplines and not so easy to do well, at least in the beginning. It requires perseverance and hard work to avoid falling into the trap of compromise. When our zazen and contemplative practice is compromised, it is a failure. Even when we keep at it without much focus. A contemplative practice is a body-mind practice, that is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit. When you enter into such a practice it is not without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I don’t mean a kind of chaos, but a braking away of a normal routine of thought. We move away from ordinary mind into an extra-ordinary inner space. We move away from all those distractions that preoccupy us in our work-a-day world. We move beyond all that. It is not something that is easy moving from an active mind to a passive one so we can experience the quiet necessary to transcend the ordinary. The bridge is not easy to find either. It may take years to find this bridge. But once found, we know the way again.
Neither imagination or raw feelings are required for the transcending nature of the contemplative and meditative state of mind. It is hard to put into human language, but there is a very real and recognizable sense when we tune into our inner space. Our inner eye opens to the center of our spiritual natures. Meditation and contemplation is the practice that can open this mental space of refuge where we encounter the human spiritual dimension that reflects an uncontrolled-conscious state where we leave our “I” behind. And when this happens, we keep our spiritual life alive and nourished.
©️ Order of Engaged Buddhists 2018
By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei
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.” 1 This statement which comes form his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind got my attention. I have not thought of my practice in this way before. Not knowledge, but confidence is what we should cultivate is what Suzuki is stressing. This emphases on confidence over knowledge can be a strong agent for change. It asks the question, “Do we really believe what we know?“ 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, especially from Japanese legacy Masters. Focusing rather on our personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, are considered more essential for coming to a realized state of body-mind.
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 exchanging the word ‘understanding’ to ‘confidence’ is that it places focus on the importance of acceptance of what we are learning as we practice. Not just on knowing by analysis 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 with a monkey-mind in the weeds. 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 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.
1. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Weather hill, Inc. 1970/2000
Seasons Greetings! Another year almost over, and as we prepare to enter a new year we turn our attention to the time of celebrating another Christmas day. In the West, and especially in America, Christmas has become an “every-man’s holiday” it seems. And although my primary spiritual practice And world view is Buddhist, I can be just as caught-up in the festive spirit as others are. It comes perhaps from some degree of my past Christian background and monastic vocation. It is a rare thing to find a Buddhist from birth in America, we generally come from other traditions. But my thoughts turn to finding lessons that can teach universal realities from other traditions at times like this.
The Advent season is here and is being kept throughout all Christians lands as one of the great celebrations of Christendom. It is meant to be essentially a religious festival, but has become very commercialized over the past century it seems. It is now an essential component of a successful world economy. So supreme a festival, all secular duties are laid aside on Christmas day, and there is a spirit of joyfulness almost everywhere. It is on this day that men dream of “peace on earth and good will to men”. On this coming day in the year, we try to put aside our rivalries and jealousies, enmities and strife, so as to come a little nearer to each other. An attempt is made more strongly than usual for us to greet each other with the “spirit of Christmas”; in fact so great is this spirit that it is possible to see friends in larger number during this time than on other days. It is the characteristic of those who throw themselves into the spirit of Christmas, that he who perhaps the day before seemed as someone that bothered us is seen more as a friend.
Perhaps the keynote underlying Christmas is the discovery of friends everywhere. The holiday is, of course, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and because of the power of his message of hope and the importance of recognizing that we are all connected, gives us time to value friendship and family. This one time a year we make this distinction while we erect barriers between ourselves on ordinary days because of our attitude of suspicion and distrust. But on Christmas day there is an attempt to put aside that attitude, and because of that effort, teachers like Jesus and the Buddha are nearer. And so next week we are thinking of doing the same thing. There is a mass effort which makes it easier for each of us to swing along with the current towards doing good. Showing some compassion toward those around us. I believe the message of Jesus is that he came to declare a greater change is at hand if we could only learn to awake and become enlightened to the fact that we are living a myth.
On December 8th all Buddhist’s around the world celebrated the day that Siddhartha Gotama obtained enlightenment (Bodhi Day). This awakening is very often misunderstood even among many Buddhists’, and especially in the West. In short it is experiencing the true nature of our universe and the role we have in it, and the interconnectiveness of all things. Not from an intellectual perspective, but in actual experience. It is not to be understood as mystical, however. I find the lessons of Jesus and Siddhartha are similar in many ways. They offer a “re-birth”, and a chance for us to step on a path to salvation and renewal. While this notion of salvation is interpreted differently between our two traditions, it is still a process that leads to being saved from suffering and the unsatisfactoriness we bring on ourselves if we only change our mind-state. For Buddhists, it is the result of understanding the nature of human flourishing the Four Nobel Truths point to.
When we celebrate Christmas and Bodhi Day it is an opportunity for us to help others understand what important lessons Jesus and the Buddha have to give us. Christmas time is special because Jesus’ life offers hope and understanding that can influence our lives in useful and productive ways, and on this day the message is given special attention. But what a wonder it would be if every day could be like a Christmas day. And why not? Jesus lived not that his spirit might pervade the earth on one day, but that it might pervade it every day in the year, and not in one particular place, a church, but that it might pervade everywhere, in the home, in the office, in the school, in the judgment hall.
So if we understand the lessons of your tradition and acknowledge how the lessons of Christmas can transform our lives and the world around us each day, one can train themselves to greet others everywhere with the same intent and be mindful of every moment in order to be ready to show our understanding and compassion – an understanding and maturity that realizes the state of our true nature, like a Buddha. So I call for us all to attempt each day to evoke in others more of the spirit of Christmas. In a way, Christmas day is a day of special giving in order that the day might be a pattern for all days in the year.
As we gather around the tree at home, and receive and give gifts out of love for our family and friends, let us not forget the biggest gift of all. One that will never wear out no matter how often we use it.
I extend warm blessings to all.
David Shen-Xi Sensei
By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei, 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” as expressed in non-dualistic terms requires deep meditation that promotes the perfection of wisdom beyond 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 refining of this self nature, and when we embrace this path with all the energy we can muster, we might just trip over that perfected self that has been silent all along that will awaken us to the True Heart of The Matter we call life, and thus awaken to universal realities.
I’ve received transmission! Now what?
By: Rev. Dr. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna
What happens after one receives Dharma lineage? Is it like the end of a race and there’s cheering and confetti? Or is it something more somber? To receive Dharma transmission is to accept the challenges and advantages of the lineage one belongs too. That does not mean however that one cannot learn and appreciate from schools outside of one’s own and perhaps absorb and use some of the finer points. As Chan Buddhists we can still learn from our Soto and Rinzai or Tibetan and Theravadan brothers and sisters. This is how Buddhism becomes connected to a larger audience.
What are the differences between Dharma heirs and other practitioners? Simply the responsibility to continue their mission. To uphold, and teach, pass down the Dharma teachings. To utilize skillful means to do so independently. Does that mean other practitioners cannot share Dharma? Of course not. While they might not have been assigned this task to teach formally it is one which all practitioners should participate in.
In OEB we talk about our calling to serve as a vocation. As a Dharma heir that vocation takes on added responsibility. It now includes this mission that has been handed down from Siddhartha himself. In the Sutras he speaks about those who are able to apply the Dharma, pass down and practice the Dharma, propagate and promote the Dharma and take up the mission, can be Dharma heirs. One needs to generate Bodhi-mind so that they will give of themselves to sentient beings. In OEB there are many different positions and ranks and responsibilities, but there is no differentiation in status. As a matter of fact even our Prior General is considered first among equals. If one receives the Dharma but loses their sense of humility, generosity and tolerance then he or she is not living up to the transmission of their lineage.
We should treat all others how we ourselves want to be treated. With respect, compassion, friendliness and with right speech. Too often we people in all walks of life get the power and the position, and enjoy the fruits that come with it only to forget where they came from. When I first started in the Christian ministry I shared an office with 3 other interns. It was a huge deal for me when I became Associate Pastor and had my own office. But every time I would walk by my old cramped office it was a sober reminder of where my roots were. One of the advantages of being a Buddhist Priest or Monk is that once we put on robes we are all essentially the same. There is no designer name robes, or fancy jewelry one needs to wear. If you really want to get your students excited and motivated, then get down in the trenches with them. They will only learn to serve by the very example you set as a servant leader. It is great to have vast knowledge and education, but without basic moral and ethics and a desire to better your fellow man, you really are nothing more than an encyclopedia with legs.
In the Platform Sutra, Master Huineng is asked whom he was going to assign the “treasury of the true Dharma Eye.” His response was “The one with the Path will attain; the one of no-mind will understand.” How’s that for a response? I’m sure the monk who asked the question was looking for a much similar answer. But don’t we all? We seek what is small and miss what is greater right in front of us, if we would only expand our field of vision. If one treats others as themselves, and continues that practice then they too may obtain the treasury of the Dharma Eye as Huineng stated. But how does one go deeper into the true essence of the Dharma? The answers can be found in the Six Perfections. Generosity, Morality, Tolerance, Energy, meditation and Wisdom.
It is with great pleasure that I announce the Priestly Ordination of the Rev. Jim Chang-Raiun Kearse after many years of practice, scholastic study and community service. He has also demonstrated a break through in a state of awakened mind. Chang-Raiun has been a Formal OEB Student and ordained Bhikkhu before this action taken today. He continues his advanced studies with his root teacher David Astor Sensei.
Rev. Shen-Xi Astor, Prior
By: Rev. Dr. Brian Shen-Jin Kenna 长金
“Continuous practice, day after day, is the most appropriate way of expressing gratitude. This means that you practice continuously, without wasting a single day of your life, without using it for your own sake. Why is it so? Your life is a fortunate outcome of the continuous practice of the past. You should express your gratitude immediately.” — Dogen (Kazuako Tanahashi, trans.)
Gratitude can be an antidote for the poisons of greed, jealousy, resentment, and grief. When we are grateful we do not wish for more than we have, but accept and appreciate that which is already present in our lives. We do not resent others for what they may have that we may not. We do not mourn over what is lost and gone, or perhaps never had in the first place. The desire for more can be all consuming but ultimately is a dead end road. We can always find one more thing to want.
Acceptance and gratitude are feelings that can occur spontaneously, but they are also attitudes that can be cultivated. The more space we make for them in our lives, the more we practice them, the less room there is for unsatisfactory thoughts to take hold and make themselves at home.
As sentient beings in this place and time can we be grateful for our lives? That we live in a time and place where we can hear and study the dharma? When we take time to meditate on gratefulness we begin to clear away the negative filters and move from a place of want to a place of appreciation for all that we DO have. As the world seems to get faster and faster with each passing day it’s easy to overlook all that is there in front of us. Can we be grateful for the earth that holds us up, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that nourishes us? Can we be grateful for the presence in our lives of people who love us, and people that we love? Can we be grateful that, whatever ailments afflict us, we are still able to breathe and think and move? Can we be grateful that, whatever financial reverses we may have suffered, we still have shelter, clothing, and food to eat? Can we be grateful for our parents who gave us life and kept us alive through childhood, who fed and clothed us, who cared for us when we were ill?
Of course there will be times in your practice where negativity will arise. The “if only” and you can fill in the rest with a myriad of answers. Or the “Yes…but….” Negative thoughts will happen, how we respond to them is what counts. Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to the people around us. We see that our lives are a small part being woven into the greater tapestry of the Universe. When we let go of the endless desires, wants and worries of the drama that life throws at us we begin to feel liberated. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a more refined appreciation for the interdependent/interconnected nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joy. Gratitude can soften a heart that has become too guarded, and it builds the capacity for forgiveness, which creates the clarity of mind that is ideal for spiritual development.