Wedding Announcement

It is with great pleasure that I announce the wedding of Rev. Brian Chang-Jin Kenna to  Dien Ratcliff-Kenna in September on Long Island NY.  I had the  privilege to officiate this celebration. Yes, there is a long history of Zen Priests being allowed to marry that are not living a strict monastic life inside the walls of a monastery.

I extend my blessing and good wishes to your future together on this path we have chosen to walk.

Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor.

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Power Of A Still Mind

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Kawartha Lakes Meditation Group

Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse 将稳 is our Associate Cleric from  Ontario Canada and this is his meditation group.

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Faith vs. Great Doubt

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

Our Buddhist practice is one of seeking – seeking the inner spirit and in wonder, which is gifted to us by our very human natures. It requires committed action, with determined intent to find a place of this wonder, that promotes our mental state at peace and in harmony with all that surrounds us in this marvelous universe. We are called to deeply examine our lives from a position that will lead us to ask deeply profound questions about how this body-mind of ours functions in relationship to our personal needs, but also how we live together with others. The Buddhist Precepts that are condensed from the Four Noble Truths, and reflected in the bodhisattva ideals, require and challenges us to seriously consider how we can live a life that manifests our unique universal expression, which is the manifestation of our source for harmony and happiness. We may be the only sentient beings that has this capacity for seeking a wider understanding of how we can awaken to this unique nature of ours that has the potential for us to become awakened beings. Because, as I see it, when we come to realize this capacity for developing the body-mind state of perfected wisdom and insight, we have stepped onto the path to awakening. But there is a challenge.

Master Dogen in Shinjingakudo (Realization of the Way through the Body and Mind), said, “The sun, moon, and stars as seen by humans and by devas are not the same, and the views of various beings differ widely.” But these views are nothing but thinking. If this is true, then all phenomena that fill our sense consciousness can be considered differently by different beings by how the mind processes the concepts inherent in what the senses present to it. Does this mean that everyone’s view is correct? Does it mean that everyone’s view is somehow wrong? Does it mean that there is no right or wrong, that it is all relative? Given this, how can we possibly live together in harmony if each of us adopts a different view of this world from how we perceive objects through our filters of dispositions and personal preferences?

We only need to look at the current news and the commentary giving varied views on cause and consequences to know that there is a lot of talk about moral/ethical values and the need to cultivate civilized behaviors based on the roles we play in our communities, government and politics, and in our educational and religious institutions. These ideas and notions are then going to find their way into the creation of policies that find their way too into the schoolroom that influences what is being taught, and how we understand things from contemporary scientific discoveries as well as our understanding of democratic values that shift as our cultural values shift. We find those in authority expounding on the right action necessary to address current day social challenges, and often with a convincing voice. I don’t doubt their convictions or sincerity (well some perhaps). However, we need only to wait for the briefest moment to hear a rebuttal, and another view expounding what is right and giving us the “real” correct value according to that worldview. We are being ask to have faith and trust that a given action is best for a specific situation. We only need to believe. These various claims to authority lead to arguments, hatred, and sometimes violence. All in the name of what is “right”. Continue reading

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Zen Teachings of Huang Po

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

Huang-Po (d 850)

Our original Buddha-Nature is, in highest truth, devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy — and that is all. Enter deeply into it by awakening to it yourself. That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside.

Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.

You will come to look upon all those eons of work and achievement as no better than unreal actions performed in a dream. That is why the Tathagata said, “I truly attained nothing from complete, unexcelled Enlightenment. Had there been anything attained, Dipamkara Buddha would not have made the prophecy concerning me.” He also said, “This Dharma is absolutely without distinctions, neither high nor low, and its name is “Bodhi.”

It is pure Mind, which is the source of everything and which, whether appearing as sentient beings or as Buddhas, as the rivers and mountains of the world which has form, as that which is formless, or as penetrating the whole universe absolutely without distinctions, there being no such entities as selfness and otherness.
This pure Mind, the source of everything, shines forever and on all with the brilliance of its own perfection. But the people of the world do not awaken to it, regarding only that which sees, hears, feels and knows as mind. Blinded by their own sight, hearing, feeling and knowing, they do not perceive the spiritual brilliance of the source-substance. If they would only eliminate all conceptual thought in a flash, that source-substance would manifest itself like the sun ascending through the void and illuminating the whole universe without hindrance or bounds. Continue reading

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Meditation: Mountain & Clouds Technique

                  By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse 将稳, OEB

When people hear the word “zen”, thoughts often come to mind of old Japanese bald-headed men sitting quietly in robes in dark monasteries and attaining the highest of enlightenment. And that can be zen, but very likely it is not the typical experience of ordinary North Americans.

North American zen is an adapted form, one that fits into the lifestyle of those typically born and raised in North America. I was born in 1960 so I can only speak about my experience, which is likely different from yours, even if you too are from Hamilton, Ontario!

It is highly unlikely however, that you live in a monastery and most likely you have to keep a job for income. So, you can’t spend 12 hours a day in meditation. Yet meditation is the major activity of zen. Therefore, I think it prudent to begin examining Zen from the perspective of meditation.

I’m not going to go on about the benefits of meditation. If you want to know, get on the net and look it up. You’ll find pages of very recent scientific studies of meditation and all of its benefits.

There are all kinds of meditation techniques – so many that it can be overwhelming. My advice when starting out is to look at several, try a few, and settle on a couple.

When beginning anything new, it must be relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. You don’t need to go out and buy all kinds of fancy-schmancy equipment or build a new meditation room on the house to start. Keep your costs low at first. All you need to start is a few moments of quiet throughout the week.

When you do find that time, sit down someplace and relax. Make sure you can sit so that your back is straight and your hips are slightly higher than your knees. A kitchen chair is perfect for this. Sit. Relax. Take a few long, slow, deep breaths. Then sit there for awhile until you’re done.

Many teachers will have you focus on your breath; watch how the abdomen or chest rises and falls with each breath in and each breath out. Some may have you listen to the sounds in the room around you. Still others may have you focus on an object such as a candle flame. All of these techniques are as good as any other. Try them and see if you like them.

For me however, what I’ve found works the best is what I call the Mountain and Clouds technique. This can be done any place because you only need your own mind! Sit down. Relax. Take a few deep, long, slow breaths in and out. When you’re ready to begin, do the following: Imagine a mountain with a high peak. The mountain is still and stable. See this in your mind. Picture the mountain. Now imagine clouds. In your mind you can picture the mountain, being stable and still as the clouds, gently roll by. They do not stop, they simply come and they go. They may surround the mountain and even sometimes obscure it, but they always pass along. Sometimes the clouds are light and wispy. Sometimes they are dark and filled with thunder and lightning. But whether wispy or stormy, the clouds come and the clouds go. The clouds don’t destroy the mountain or carry it away with them; the clouds come and the clouds go. The mountain remains. Continue reading

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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?” Continue reading

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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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