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.
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!
Members and friends of The Order of Engaged Buddhists,
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
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.”
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.
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.
By: David Shen-Xi Astor Sensei
Much of the time I speak about ways to consider and understand the practical aspects of Buddhist thought, and how to bring our practice alive in order to promote human flourishing. For you see, living the lessons of the Eightfold Path are real, it is not a theory to discuss and debate. The Four Noble Truths points directly, in practical and useful ways, to achieving a life full of meaning and wonder when we take the time to contemplate the joys available to us in this vast world we have a chance to become aware of more deeply. It is a way of letting go in order to be reconnected with what is important that will bring harmony and happiness into our lives. We let go in order to reconnect to what is real. It is easy for Buddhist teachers to stick to presenting the core Buddhist principals in our dharma talks. We often use legacy language to color our speech from the cushion to attract attention or make what we say more “authentic.” But you will rarely hear me use such approaches unless I talk directly about a historical topic or present a specific philosophical principle, or when I choose to speak with a “Zen voice.” But don’t misunderstand me, these are important methods of Buddhist teaching as well, and we should all have a grounded perspective of the specific Buddhist platform we have chosen to stand on and practice, but in the end, we must step on the stage of life and engage others in real-time. And it is this social engagement that I respectfully ask to be your guide and present to you my thoughts and personal experiences gained from my own developed world view that can act as pointers in order for you to find useful elements and tools for your own life-journey. This is a primary role of a Buddhist teacher, I think. So, I wish to share the importance I have learned in my own journey of keeping life simple. It calls for us to act with voluntary intent to live with deliberate thought, and to consume less. By taking this step, you will not only enhance your own life, but also the sustainability of our planet. But stepping through this door is never easy.
At the heart of the simple life is an emphasis on harmonious and purposeful living. There is no special virtue to the idea of voluntary simplicity; it is merely a somewhat awkward label. Still, it does acknowledge explicitly that simpler living integrates both inner and outer aspects of life into an organic and purposeful whole. To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully. In short, it is to live more consciously. We cannot be deliberate when we are distracted from life. We cannot be intentional when we are not paying attention. We cannot be purposeful when we are not being present. Therefore, to act in a voluntary manner is to be aware of ourselves as we move through life. This is why a meditation practice is so important to the inner life: to develop awareness and mindfulness. Words you often hear in relationship to Buddhist thought. This requires that we not only pay attention to the actions we take in the outer world, but also that we pay attention to the intent of these actions. To the extent that we do not notice both inner and outer aspects of our passage through life; then our voluntary, deliberate, and purposeful actions can be diminished. Continue reading
By: Rev. David Astor Sensei
As a world religion, how are we to consider the question, “Is Buddhism an atheistic philosophy?”
When we consider a pragmatic view of the problems of society, we generally do so from an intellectual and philosophical mindset, especially in the beginning. It becomes an exercise on how to make the ideals of a particular situation real. This does not have to be different when we come to consider religious experience and thought. From a pragmatic perspective, we can use the thoughts on the subject from the pragmatists John Stuart Mill, William James, and Richard Rorty as a guide as we also bring our Buddhist thought and practice into the consideration.
Richard Rorty as a 20th century pragmatist considered describing religious thought in terms of:
1 Placing aside talk about Truth and Reason, our only responsibility, philosophically and morally, is to our fellow human beings, not some “sublime dimension of being” or “ the starry heavens.”
2 This responsibility is “to make our beliefs cohere with one another, and to our fellow humans to make them cohere with one another.”
3 We examine our beliefs by how they are “habits of actions,” not on whether they represent the world.
4 What emerges is a utilitarian ethics of belief, which treats a belief as a habit of action.
5 Place into the context of the philosophy of religion, a utilitarian philosophy of religion must “also treat being religious as a habit of action.” 1
Any useful and positive thoughts on what it means to be a “religious individual” does not need to be different from secular or pragmatic understanding of other aspects of human moral and ethical conduct that is essential in cultivating a civilized society. Any religious practice (or spiritual), Buddhist or other, owes much of its moral obligation and responsibility to all sentient beings, not by strict observance of doctrine, scriptures, or legacy beliefs, but to intentional actions honed by serious practice of core humanist principles as guideposts. For Buddhists, these guides are first to be found in the Four Noble Truths and practiced using the guides of the Eightfold Path of behavior that promotes human flourishing, and the higher reasoning perspective of the Six Perfections (Refinements.) Whether you consider this a religious endeavor or not is really not all that important. What counts are the lessons found in the Three Pure Precepts – Do no harm, do only good, do good for others. Which is Buddhism’s equivalent to the “Golden Rule”. Continue reading