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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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Two Traditions, One Wish


December 12, 2020 · 10:04 am

What Makes A MONK, A MONK?

This Dharma talk by Rev. David Astor Sensei was given on November 14, 2020 in the Order of Engaged Buddhist’s Fall retreat.]

The question before us in this retreat is, “What makes a monk, a monk.”   

The term monk, and spiritual practice, are two things held together as both subject and object, although they differ much from each other at the same time.  For the one is like our perfecting the self-observation of our universal nature as Buddhists, and the other like the path we practice to understand that, yet they both are moving towards a single unified purpose: the salvation of our very being as we contemplate the mystery of what it means to develop spiritual filters through which to view the world around us in an extraordinary way. Monasticism is very much an extraordinary absorbing way of living a spiritual focused existence different from a lay spiritual practice that is generally less demanding.  This is not to say a lay practice can not be as focused, but it is about the nature of the practice and dedication to a monastic vocation that defines most of the differences. This nature of a monastic practice is the same no matter of one’s tradition, independent of a religious or  philosophical affiliation. 

My personal monastic experience as both a Christian Franciscan following a monastic vocation and a Buddhist, now an itinerant monk and Cleric, has taught me that, from my point of view, while the narrative of each practice is different, the monastic calling and psychosocial characteristic that stepping on this counter culture spiritual path is the same from a human perspective.  The mental processes that a person goes through in order to decide if a monastic vocation is what they are being called toward is the same, the focus of what one is called to is what is different.  This is why Thomas Merton, the Benedictine (Cistercian) monk and spiritual mystic, and the Dalai Lama were so attracted to each other as they witnessed in each other the same spiritual mind although their individual objective focus were different. 

A word on salvation for a moment. You don’t hear many Buddhist teachers use this term. It smacks of Judeo-Christian dogma, I know. It sets my Dharma Brother Wayne Sensei’s teeth on edge. But there are now a few Western Buddhist teachers using the term because most of their Western students come from this background and can better relate to how it is being used along side Buddhist principles. Our Sub- Prior, Rev. Luis Lista Sensei, and I use it some times in our private sessions.  The Buddhist principle I relate it to comes from the Four Noble Truths and originates in the Third Truth and is put in practice in the Fourth Truth. As we develop a dedicated practice focused on human flourishing, we are working to eliminate suffering in our lives. The more we begin to rid ourselves of the behaviors and mental frame of mind causing suffering we are moving toward our own salvation away from suffering and the inhibitors that keeps us from an awakened mind. This is why it is called a noble practice and why the Four Noble Truths is the key for liberation.  The major difference between Christian and Buddhist usage is for Christians salvation comes from outside the self, and for Buddhists salvation comes from within the self.  Our Buddhist practice IS our salvation no matter the degree of how it is achieved. 

The Latin word for monk is monachus a noun, which means a person who practices religious asceticism by monastic living who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order.  Well, this definition can certainly be used for a Christian or Buddhist monk really. Although we know that how monks practice and live in the 21st century is often different from those in the dark ages. 

But from my point of view this is only a part of how a monk can be described. The key word here is ‘described’.  The English language is limited to words that are either persons places or things. We can definitely describe a monk in any of these categories. But our question is, “What makes a monk, a monk?”  The raging question today among Buddhist that follow a “monastic calling” is what is a real monk. Most will say a monk must leave their material world behind and step inside the walls of a traditional monastery. If a monk is not cloistered in this fashion, they are not real monks. Today this is being challenged. My teacher, Eubanks Sensei, and his teacher used the expression, “The world is my monastery.”  Even Christian monastic orders today do not strictly fall within this category anymore.  So the question again, “What makes a monk, a monk?”  

While we can use traditional language to answer this question effectively, I want to share some ideas from my own experience that go beyond the ordinary.  They reflect the nature of what it means to be human. It’s about self discovery and about how the Universe is speaking to us in a silent whisper. So we can say that a monk is “one that’s ready” to listen. And more profoundly, it’s about the journey. Speaking about this journey is not an easy matter let alone how the Universe is speaking to us. It can be said the Universe is everywhere so where do I start the journey?  If it is everywhere do I need a journey at all?  If the Universe is everywhere then it is very close to me, in some mysterious way, it might be my own self. 

A monk is one who the Universe is especially speaking to in order to enter into this dilemma and  this mystery. The Universe is said to be found by our true nature, when we are ready, that is united by an intimate bond of knowing. So this is the journey, the journey to find the Universe within, and by doing so we begin a life long encounter with the spiritual-self one that has been hiding in plain sight all along. The varies styles of monastic practice in moments of solitude, silence and contemplation dispose our Universal natures for this mysterious destiny. To say yes to a monastic style of practice is a deeply personal choice we are driven to experience even if we are not fully conscious of why. A monk is one who is driven to answer this burning WHY. 

I have been very cautious for many years now, as was my teacher, in when and how to use the word “truth”.  But the very meaning of Dharma does not hide its relationship with this simple word. But for a monk, truth is a part of the mosaic on which our journey treads. Use of the word truth has been so abused that it has lost some of its impact on our minds I think.  We may have lost much of its value. I’m intentionally placing the emphasis on the word value and not meaning. A critical distinction. Take a moment to absorb this. The true is what is real. It is true because it is. And that is what the monk is seeking: reality. He seeks that which is.  But he does not seek truth merely as a concept, or as an object. He seeks the existential truth that is only found by entering into the mysterious actuality of life itself. He seeks the truth that is possessed when it is rightly lived and making it our own by doing good. Our monastic practice is working to make ourselves real. Only by building on truth can we build the foundation for awakened moments. Considering the importance of this aspect of a monastic practice, it is my experience that achieving this relationship with truth is best done in the real world and not living an isolated life behind walls. The OX Herding Pictures place much importance on this reality. This focus on a monastic practice is important for all those called to walk this path no matter their rank or standing in a structured Order.  Once we step on the path of vowing to live according to a more rigorous way of turning inward we have accepted the challenge of opening up an inner dialogue that drives the exploration of finding our true selves. It’s both that simple, that complex, and that rewarding. 

The various practices of monastic spirituality are more or less valuable to the monk in proportion as they help him to accomplish an inner spiritual work that needs to be done to make his awakening real to how the Universe is. When these monastic practices are misused, they serve only to fill the monk with himself and to harden his mind in resistance to hearing this silent whisper that enriches our very being. It is about emptying a man of himself in order to realize what is really meant by emptiness. 

The final answer of “what makes a monk, a monk” has nothing to do with the clothes we wear, or the building we practice in, or the title we are known by, or the lineage we are associated with, or the words we recite in ritual practice, or even what we think of ourselves. Monks live and die like all human beings. It is about the integrity and the special jewel we have been given at birth that has led us to explore this path and journey in the first place. Perhaps we did not find the path at all but the path found us. The reason may never be revealed or known to us. But it happened, and if genuine, is a spiritual gift very few have discovered.  

And finally, let me say that any serious spiritual practice and journey can be profound and an awakened experience, and not reserved exclusively for monastics living a monk’s life style. I have know many monks, both Christian and Buddhist, that were ill prepared and fitted to being know as a monk. Many see it as a role they wish to perform as they strut on the world stage. Some have touched this extraordinary special spiritual gem and lived out a life of devout practice and truly displaying the very nature of the Three Pure Precepts or the lessons of Jesus in the sermon on the mount as ordinary private individuals or in lay practice. 

My final question to you then is, “What type of monk will you become and will you be ready to hear that silent whisper in the silence of your everyday practice?”  It’s about confronting your mind and conscience in a room alone. But then we must open the door and lead the OX home. There isn’t a moment to loose.  Oh, and don’t forget that the OX has to be fed too. 

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Is Dogen’s Form Of Buddhism Zen?

By David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

The question of Dogen being Zen or not Zen is a question of definition, so what does it mean to define something? I am offering four different ways of defining Zen, in some of these ways, Dogen is not Zen. In others, he is Zen. 

First, Zen as a discursive practice – This means literally a tradition where ideas move through time via authors. In discursive practices, some authors have authority, other authors do not (which is a pragmatic view really). For example, if the sayings of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) masters are the basis for defining Zen, Dogen, a Japanese Master, would be excluded from this, since those masters had to have received transmission from a Chinese tradition. 

 But If you look at the body of Zen in literature beyond Chinese Ch’an masters, anyone who identifies themselves as Ch’an/Zen teachers, and his words have been excepted by a Zen community, then Dogan would qualify as Zen, since his writings have an 800 year old discursive practice associated with them.

Second, Zen as a cultural practice – Regardless of what writing there is, Zen can be seen through the eyes of those that identify as a Zen Sangha. What do people who call themselves Zen practitioners of Zen do? How do they live? Who’s ideas are important to them? This kind of definition for Zen is exclusive of anyone who identifies as a Zen practitioner, regardless of some sort of textual authority. Dogen would be Zen in this  sense in that he was part of a cultural practice which labeled itself as Zen. 

Third, Zen as a metaphysical believe system – This is Zen as a form of “catechism”. What does Zen say is true or not true about the world? What are the metaphysical points that Zen is trying to articulate? Such as the term  Buddhanature considered as (“you are already enlightened “), or (“enlightenment happens instantaneously”) sort of reasoning. 

Dogen had  innovative ideas in terms of Zen metaphysics, such as sitting meditation itself being enlightenment although he also said that sitting Zazen has nothing to do with sitting or not sitting, and his importance on a continuity of an awakened state is clear in his writing, such as instructions to the cook. If we were systemizing Dogen’s ideas,  some would depart from some Ch’an masters, some would resonate but others not as much. His Zeness for this category of definition might be termed ambiguous, creative, radical, visionary, or wrong depending on how they are perceived by the individual based on their understanding of a particular line of study or training. 

Fourth, Zen as ineffable – Zen is something beyond any sort of definition because it’s essence is beyond words.

None of these definitions are either right or wrong. They are expressed in language for saying what something “is”. This is one of the basics of critical thinking: what we say is always a matter of the terms of definition, of perception and reflecting our own state of mind in any given moment.  I bet you have heard that before!  

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Message On The Corona Virus From The OEB Prior General

Members and friends of The Order of Engaged Buddhists,

Throughout time people have experienced events that have gone on to define them or the generation in which they belong too.  We could be experiencing one of those events now ourselves.  The speed with which the Corona Virus has spread across the world is something no one was prepared for.  How this will shape and define us as a people remains to be seen.
As Buddhists we subscribe to the concept that we are all interconnected and interdependent on one another.  So with that in mind can we take anything positive from this pandemic?   My hope is that perhaps as a society this will help us to all reconnect.  As we have more time at home it gives the chance to reconnect with our family and stop the hustle and bustle that seems to become common place in our lives now.  Reconnect with our communities as we consider the plight of small business, and restaurants and the workers that make all of that possible, now sitting idle with no income.  Support those that are trying to keep their doors open by offering take out and delivery services.  

We spend almost all of adult lives working.  40,50,60 hours a week.  But how much time should one really have to spend at work in order to have a good life outside of it?   My challenge to you during these stressful times is to take this opportunity to find ways to check back into truly living life, instead of just work, work and more work.     Reconnect with yourself, your family, your friends and what is truly important in your life.   Remember what it means to be human, to be connected, to slow down and smell the proverbial roses.

The universe is in constant change and this virus will too soon pass away giving rise to something else.  Embrace this time, embrace the change, embrace the unfolding and ask yourself the question….What if….?
I shall keep all of you in my thoughts as we face this uncertain time together.
Ven. Brian Shen-Jin
Prior General

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Of Oxen & Clouds

Rev. Brian Shen-Jin Kenna ThD


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


Ten Thousand Things

All in This Breath

Grasping Hold of Emptiness

There’s really nothing to say?


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


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

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

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Letting Go

By: David Astor Sensei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Making The Impossible, Possible

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Being A Contemplative Buddhist, Being A Solitary Buddhist?

By: Rev. David Astor Sensei

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

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

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

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

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

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