Reflecting The Buddha Within

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

When our practice has cultivated a deep sense of connectiveness with how we think and behave, we are positioned to understand the importance of experiencing each situation we encounter as being interpreted by our dispositions (how we are). It is therefore vital that we develop trains of thought that define our worldview in order to be ready when situations arise demanding our involvement and perfected insight. This is why we study and train our body-mind in meditation. While we go through our daily routines, we practice in order to be open for accepting whatever situation arises conditioned by universal realities. The reality of the human condition is such that we react from established conditional expectations, and not from nowhere.

When we observe Zen masters it is easy to consider that their responsive actions are spontaneous, but what we are really observing is a highly cultivated and mature set of dispositions that have been honed over decades of practice and keen observance of the world around them. Their training has been internalized and embodies the “Buddha within.” When it appears that someone’s actions seem to be spontaneous, we know from contemporary scientific research and controlled observation that genuine spontaneity is a result of dedicated training and internalized skillful means that is being reflected in their actions.

Each situation is unique and arises from its own historical causal-chain. There is no cookie cutter aspect to how we should engage with the world around us. This is the foundation to Buddhist ethics. Each situation should be considered and responded to situationally. My root teacher, Dr. Eubanks Sensei, reflected on this reality and said, “As contingently arisen human beings, we have a specific biopsychosocial blueprint from which we must work, and effective engagement with our world arises from an acute recognition of how we are.” We can not escape this reality of what it means to be human. This is why it is vital for us to understand why we react the way we do, and refine our behavior to align with productive actions that promotes positive change. If we don’t learn this important lesson we will continually fall short of our intentional expectation. 

An authentic real-life Buddha is someone who values the reality of their causal Universe and applies these lessons in every day life situations that reflects a strong recognition of what the social-self is all about. This recognition values the connection of the self with others and fuels a life of altruistic positive engagement. When we become aware of how causality is interwoven throughout each situation we encounter, we begin to know what drives our daily success. This daily success arises from a routine of thoughtful preparedness. In order to achieve this state of being it is important to cultivate a practice of readiness, and this can be best achieved by using the elements in the “Buddhist toolbox” as my dharma brother, Wayne Hughes Sensei, would say. We learn to develop dispositions for daily success. Like those Zen masters, we too can become relaxed as we engage the world around us as we trod our daily routines. When our normal disposition is calm and mindful we get things done without creating anxiety and unsatisfactoriness. Buddhism is all about subtraction, not addition. We work to subtract all those characteristics that work against liberation from suffering that we have adopted over a lifetime of adding on to what we think we want and need, to a life driven by a more simple way of engaging those around us. It is easy when we get our self out of the way. And when we achieve this state of practice, we reflect the Buddha within.

🙏🏼

©️ OEB 2019

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I/We, One or Many?

By: Rev. Shi Shen-Jin

Years ago the US Army ran an ad campaign to recruit new comers with the slogan ”Be an Army of One”  This always struck me as a little odd, because what if all those armies of one just decide to do their own thing?   Sounds a lot like a bit of chaos.  What they were trying to say was join the Army, keep your individuality.  But can that really work?  What about in our own Sangha’s?  Can we be a Buddhist of One or do we need something more?

In historical times and even today in the East the Sangha is mostly monastics.  They wear the same clothes, live together, work together and pretty much live in uniformity.  But here in the West we don’t really have much of that.   First off most practitioners are not monks or clerics at all, but simply lay persons.  Secondly many Buddhist teachers are not living behind the walls of temple or monastery.  It brings a unique set of circumstances and challenges as we seek to practice here in the West.    

The “modern day” Sangha is less a group of monastics than a group or community of practitioners. So as clerical leaders how can we be successful in spreading the Dharma just as Siddhartha did in his day?  Most of us in OEB all lead a local Sangha of our own.  So the first thing is we must start with the general public.  We must constantly remind ourselves that we are of service to them, caring for them and enabling them to realize human flourishing from the Buddha’s teaching according to their own needs and places in life.   Since the days when Siddhartha left his palace Buddhism has relied on the public.  He might have come from privilege and royalty and wealth.  But the people he encountered were ordinary people, just as we will encounter in our own Sangha’s.  

As we seek to be “Agents for Change” in our communities and beyond it has to start with the individuals in our Sangha’s.  While we are not resident monastics, and the majority of the make-up of students is lay followers, we can all interact closely and move in the same practiced direction.  Buddhism practiced in a unified manner is the essence of Buddhist values.  As we move forward in this New Year let me challenge you to embrace individuals in a way that acts to enable them toward human flourishing in new and constructive ways beyond their ordinary experiences.  There is an old saying attributed to the Buddha “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  May we all stand at the ready with open hearts and open doors for all who need to enter.

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Contemplative vs. Meditative Life Practices

 

By: David Shen-Xi Sensei

The term meditation is both insufficient and ambiguous when it is applied to the perfected practice of contemplation.  Nothing is more foreign to authentic contemplative traditions either than a kind of common understanding that attempts to elevate such a practice above the ordinary Buddhist practitioner by initiating him into a realm of esoteric knowledge and  experience.  And tries to deliver him from the ordinary struggles and sufferings of human existence, and elevating him to the privileged state among the “spiritually pure,” as if he were almost an enlightened ox, untouched by matters and passion alien to the realities of the Four Noble Truths and no longer familiar with the controlled-conscious state of mind that drives everyday human activities.  

While it is often common to find meditation sessions within a Sangha or public space, especially among lay practitioners, the state of practice of a contemplative is more often accomplished in solitude during moments of self-searching where the uncontrolled-conscious state has found a place of refuge within a mind perfected during mindful meditation practices.  The way of genuine contemplation brings us face to face with the sham and indignity of the false self that seeks to live for itself alone and to enjoy the contemplative moment for its own purpose.  This is why it is most important to prepare for our contemplative practice by way of mindful meditation in order to quite the ego-mind state so we can be free from the stresses of the false self.  This kind of false self is pure illusion, and ultimately he who lives for and by such an illusion must end either in disgust or in self imposed unsatisfactoriness. 

This is why a dedicated life of contemplation has generally been done in a monastic community. However, my root teacher often would say that our Buddhist practice, our meditative life in this modern era, is often done outside the walls of a monastery, thus the “world becomes our  monastery.”  This kind of worldly life in its own way promotes an illusory distance to ordinary distractions when our contemplative practice establishes some kind of barrier for us to utilize in our moments of solitude.  The curious state of alienation and confusion of man in modern society is perhaps more bearable because it is lived in common, with a multitude of distractions and escapes, and also with opportunities for fruitful action and genuine self forgetfulness that can also promote spiritual energy that sustains a contemplative practiced life.  

Underlying all life is the ground of doubt and self questioning which sooner or later must bring us face to face with the ultimate meaning of our life.  This self questioning can never be without a certain existential dread, a sense of insecurity that if we are not careful can divide our spiritual being away from the reality that we are all struggling with how to be human at the same time.  In more advanced practices of meditation and contemplation we must become aware not to be distracted with thoughts that we are being untrue not so much to abstract moral or cultural norms but to one’s own inmost truths as everyday common experiences seep into our contemplating thoughts.  This can promote thinking that we are living a lie, that we are only pretending to live up to the ideals of what a contemplative life should be, not what we are doing is.  

True embrace of moments of silence is the answer to thoughts we are living a lie.  Within silence we will find the energy to move toward wisdom beyond wisdom.  As we move closer to this reality, we do so by being more empty of what we thought the world required of us.  This reinforces that Buddhism is a practice of subtraction not addition.  Therefore those of us that have adopted the contemplative practiced life enters into communion with this silence that moves through us into our world for the benefit of all beings.  

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Confidence Trumps Knowledge In Our Practice

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.” 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. Focusing rather on our personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, as well as the personal practice toward human flourishing 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 uncontrolled conscious state 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. 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, 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 and foundation 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 awakening. 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 and study, metaphysical beliefs, or faith alone. It is through actual action-practice, not by reading or contemplation of philosophical constructs alone 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.

©️OEB 2019 First posted on March 2014

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Sacredness of Work

By: David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei

I would like to speak to you today about one of the lessons in the Buddha’s teachings on the Eightfold Path. And that one is on right livelihood. In fact I would like to modify the description by changing the word “right” with encompassing and corrective. By doing so I am being both pragmatic and also modernizing the language. “Right” becomes two words, encompassing reminds us that our actions will have wide ranging effects, positive, negative or neutral, and corrective reminds us that these are the actions necessary to make positive changes necessary in order to move away from unsatisfactoriness and discontentment.

When we consider livelihood, or the major activity we engage in to sustain our own and our family’s welfare, as individuals on a spiritual path, we must also think of it as the sacredness of work. Just as time orders and measures our life’s activities, work orders our life’s purpose and the resources we require. Our work contains an innate dignity when it is truly connected to self — when our creativity finds concrete expression in what we do, how we shape our environment, in the fruits of our efforts. Work is sacred and uplifting when it springs from who we are, when it bears a relationship to our unfolding journey. For work to be sacred, it must be connected to our spiritual awareness. Our work has to represent our passion, our desire to contribute to our culture, especially to the development of others. By passion I mean the talents we have to share with others, the talents that shape our destiny and allow us to be of real service to others in our community. Continue reading

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Awaking Revealed In A Few Words

 

By: Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei

A monk ask, “What is liberation?”

Shitou replied, “Who has bond you?” 

Another monk asked, “What is the Pure Land?”

Shitou said, “Who has polluted you?”

Another monk asked, “What is nirvana?”

Shitou said, “Who has given you birth and death?”

 

The great Chinese Zen Master, Shitou Xiqian, who lived in the eighth century was a key figure in the development of Ch’an Buddhism. Three of the five traditional schools of Chinese Zen can trace their lineage through his disciples down to the present day, including my own. Shitou taught that “what meets the eye is the Way” A very pragmatic worldview I think, and one that hints at the influence the Tao had on Buddhist thought and practice in his day.

Master Shitou is said to have had a great awakening while studying the Zhao Lun (A classic text of commentaries on the sutras). In that work he encountered a passage that said, “The one who realized that the myriad things are one’s own self is no different from the sages.” This realization inspired Shitou to write a number of verses, each more refined and elegant than the last as he worked to broaden his state of awaking further. Finally he choose just fifteen Chinese characters to represent the awakened wisdom of a mind free of distortion. In English it takes twenty two words to translate:

Each sense and every field

Interact and do not interact;

When interacting, they also merge —

Otherwise, they remain in their own states.

It is not my intent here to provide a commentary of this verse. But I will give a broad hint as to how to begin to understand this simple, but very deep perfected wisdom gained over many years of contemplation. Consider “each sense” as meaning a gate, entrance or even an exit point. The phrase “every field” means all-encompassing objects or things “outside” of ourselves, especially the sense organ of mind. That sense, while we can not touch, see hear, smell, or taste it, can be encountered when we step away from our everyday controlled-mind state. Abstract concepts can be objects of mind. While we can not perceive these things directly, we can still awaken to their reality. The sense organs and their objects are the totality of our lives, and when we learn to coordinate their inputs plus the exquisite functions of mind we can grasp the meaning of “emptiness.”

With this in mind, work to understand each word in this verse as an individual piece in the awakening puzzle and with their separate meanings established, fit them together, and in so doing you might just experience  their individual forms disappear, and an awakened view of all reality begin to emerge.

🙏🏼

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Out of It, Into It

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January 6, 2019 · 5:31 pm

Eihei Dogen’s Dharma Hall Discourse#439

[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.”

Commentary:

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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The Other Side

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December 23, 2018 · 8:13 am

Keeping Our Spiritual Life Alive

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

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