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Augustine & Buddhism

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I want to offer you a transparent glimpse of my interfaith perspective gained from my spiritual development as it has unfolded over the years and through my monastic experience both as a Christian and Buddhist monk. It has not always been a clear and concise path and may still remain so. For a true spiritual path has many of the same markers no matter the linage, faith, or set of beliefs.

One of my favorite Christian theologians is Augustine. I still quote him often in my Buddhist discourses and when I wish to authenticate a theological point. While he is one of the old guy’s, his wisdom is as bright today as it was 1700 years ago, at least for me.

With this in mind I want to try to bring Buddhist philosophy and Christian basic theological concepts together by using the philosophical work of Augustine as he writes in “Confessions” & “On Christian Doctrine” compared with “the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha”. I admit this challenge may be more fitting for those educated in the classical method, but I find the similarities between these two bodies of work to fit into what I wish to convey that shows how either the Christian or Buddhist view can be used to confront some of the most often ask questions for those of us on a spiritual path as there is much in common.

My intent is to get others to think and relate to their beliefs from a philosophical point of view for a moment. As Buddhists we have a practice of meditation and contemplative thought. We have explored some very basic Buddhist themes and have encountered Buddhist thought from a Zen perspective. Now I would like to move on to set a foundation for future philosophical dialog between Christian and Buddhist thought and this approach may be adequate to the task. This is not a Buddhist approach, this is not teaching Buddhism either directly or indirectly; it is establishing, however, the framework so we can learn how others beliefs can directly confront the many challenges we face today in a global society and maybe work together to solves some of these unsatisfactory conditions within our own communities, and in the greater world outside our front door.

Let me present Augustine’s reflections on the interpretation of signs in relation to Buddhist perspectives on language and truth. For Augustine, the interpretation of signs was intimately related to his deciphering of signs of god’s love in the narrative of his own life. While in many ways Augustine’s perspectives conflict sharply with Buddhist principles, the play of similarity and difference can be illuminating for both traditions, if we keep an open mind. Continue reading

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Solitude And The Socially Engaged Monk

By:  David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I speak often about the importance of awakening to how the Four Noble Truths articulate the importance for us to develop the individual as well as social elements of this noble practice we call Buddhism.  We learn how we are, both as persons and as partners, in this web of connections we call life.  As a Buddhist monk that has taken vows to engage others beyond the walls of a temple, it is important for me to confront the realities of the social-self component of my practice.  Without it I do not have much of a Buddhist ministry.  The Buddha emphasized, however, the importance for us to balance our social responsibility with the individual need for our own spiritual renewal.  Siddhartha often removed himself from the everyday activities of the Sangha, and retreated into solitude in order to “recharge” his spiritual energy.  The Ch’an and Zen tradition has a long history of supporting an extended period of retreating into solitude away from all distractions.  This is true in both the East as it is now in the West.

I want to share with you today some thoughts on the nature of this transformative body-mind practice know as “session”, or intentional practice into solitude.  Time or space is not imposed.  It is up to the individual to establish the parameters surrounding the need.  It is always an effect of the causal chain of events that drives the situational aspects of making the choice for withdrawing from social interaction.

Solitude or withdrawal is the state of being secluded or separate from others.  An individual can choose to inter a state of practice of being solitary based on circumstances.  It is an example of situational-practice.  When used at the right time and in the right manner it can have an important role in our spiritual development.

Before his enlightenment Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, also spent over six years in extended periods alone in the forests of his ancestral home in what we know today as Nepal.  He was seeking first to understand himself before he could have the wisdom to administer the affairs of others.  That was when he thought his destiny was to govern the region after the death of his father, the King.  That we know now did not happen.  The causal nature of the Universe revealed a different path for him, and we are all the richer for that reality.  Reminiscing on this time many years later he said in the Majjhima Nikaya, “Such was my seclusion that I would plunge into some forest and live there.  If I saw a cowherd, shepherd, grass-cutter, wood-gatherer or forester, I would flee so that they would not see me or me them.”  We know from the many references made in the various Pali Canon that after he attained enlightenment he would occasionally go into solitude.  In the Samyutta Nikaya he is reported as saying, “I wish to go into solitude for half a month.  No one is to come to see me except the one who brings my food.”     Even though Siddhartha came to consider that the fabric of all phenomena-form, including our human one, are interconnected and dependent, it was still vital to withdraw from intentional contact in order to reconnect with renewed vigor.  The notion is that I might be in a room by myself, but I am never totally alone, because all the connections I have with others before I stepped into solitude are never severed, unless that too is an intentional act.   Even then, we are only in a body-mind state of being “alone with others” as Stephen Batchelor puts it. Continue reading


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Considerations On Taking Refuge: But Refuge In What?

By:  David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

In all Buddhist traditions taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) is the first step in becoming a Buddhist.  But what does “taking refuge” really mean?  The Webster’s University Dictionary defines ‘refuge’ to mean: something to which one may turn for help, relief, or escape.  OK, I can understand this when I consider the Dharma, and even the Sangha, but how am I to consider taking refuge in someone that is dead?  After all, the Buddha was Siddhartha Gotama, a man that lived, taught, awakened to Universal reality,  and flourished 2500 years ago.  Just what am I taking refuge in?  Is the Buddha still alive somehow?

The challenge for any Buddhist teacher when presenting Buddhism to new students is to avoid unconsciously creating an insurmountable barrier between the Buddha as reflected in Siddhartha’s legacy teachings that point to the dharma, and an abstract metaphysical persona of an idealized Buddha as reflected in the iconography created from the mind of man.  When we look at the various Buddhist traditional schools practices today, it sometimes is hard to see the man that lived in India with a large following of both lay and monastic disciples, growing up a Hindu with a life of privilege with a young wife and child,  giving practical lesson on how to live a life full of meaning and wonder for the world around them, begging for food and shelter as he did, that died after a long life in his 80’s leaving behind a foundational philosophy and worldview that is as relevant today as it was 25 centuries ago.  In his place we often find in legacy as well as contemporary language a semi-divine being who is visualized as bearing numerous extraordinary physical characteristics, and whose life is described in fantastic mythical imagery.  The essentially human element of the Buddha is dissolved in an impressive, but humanely unobtainable, idealized state of being.  Considering this abstract image, the man slowly fades away and dies.  And something altogether different emerges.

Most people who study Buddhism are familiar with the awakened teachings of Siddhartha; the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, the doctrine of not-self, the principles of interdependence and Dependent Origination for example.  Fewer people are also aware that Siddhartha spoke often and with  a compelling argument on a wide range of social and economic issues of his day that impacted governments, politics, and the difficulties involved in seeking social justice, as well as on personal relationships.  That his teachings extends so dynamically into “right action” indicates that the Buddha’s wisdom can be appreciated not just in monasteries but also on the streets and in our homes in the 21st century.  As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide a way to see our way home.  Stepping onto the Buddhist path can transform that navigation into something wondrous.  For you see, we are given a change to see the life of the Buddha, as our own. Continue reading

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