Tag Archives: Buddhist spirituality

Experiencing Our Natural World As Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we reference the Buddhist cannon, especially the Nikaya’s, we learn that Siddhartha Gotama placed a great deal of emphasis on action and the natural energy associated in both a meditation and a contemplative spiritual practice. The poems of the Korean Zen Master T’aego also expresses this reality. They challenge us to discover something about meeting the phenomenal world in a particular way as spiritual practice. It happens when we make the unknown knowable to our aware state of body-mind. As teachers, the only thing that we can impart to you when teaching about spirituality is the “how to begin” element. In other words, we can teach you how to walk, but it is up to you “where you walk”. Because, you see, how spirituality is manifest is unique to the individual. So spirituality is a journey too. Today is my continued attempt to awaken your inner self to this reality.

There are four poems, all only four lines each. Zen had an important formative influence on the way many Chinese and Japanese poet-monks thought about writing poetry. One thing these poets had in common was there use of nature, or worldly themes, to awaken the mind to the richness of an inner spiritual life.
The first is called: How Can I Speak?
All phenomena are beyond names and forms
The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest
What is “closest”?
You can only please yourself: how can I speak?

The first line, “All phenomena are beyond names and forms,” offers an interesting statement. It reminds us of the Heart Sutra, a fundamental sutra for both Ch’an and Soto Zen traditions. Usually, when we think about spirituality and meditative practice, a certain erroneous notion arises that we should get to a place of complete silence and stillness, a place apart from and beyond all names and forms. But here T’aego says that all phenomena themselves are already beyond names and permanent forms. Think about it, the sun never says ‘I am the sun’ or the moon says ‘I am the moon’. So all phenomena are beyond names and permanent forms. I ask you now, are we different from the sun and the moon? Are not we, the sun, and the moon expressions of the same Universe? We learn in science class that we humans are also made from stardust. Why then do humans want to make a distinction?

The poems’ second line says, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest.” Sometimes we see the word closest used in this kind of poetry. Closest has the connotation of intimate connection, of becoming ‘one with’ sort-of-thing. To become completely ‘intimate with’ is to become close. So we might read that line as, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are most intimate.” Closer than the word stream or mountain, or the pictures we hold in our minds of them. Just hearing the sounds of the stream and seeing the color of the mountain, brings the image into thought and makes it more real, much more intimate. We don’t literally take a stream or a mountain into our being like we would an apple. However, we experience them though sounds and color. This is when the inner observer steps aside and lets the spiritual process take over.

This is all nice talk, intimacy, and closeness. But then T’aego throws in one more line: “What is ‘closest’?” Now this is when the poem becomes a koan. What is closest is, in fact, the very not-knowing, the question itself. Great doubt is given space to arise in our reasoning efforts. If you use the word closest, what is that? If you talk about intimacy, what does that mean? I bring up frequently the teaching associated in Indra’s Net to explain relationships. In this poem, and in T’aego’s use of the word closest he is talking about relationships. In fact, when we have spiritual moments, we are experiencing some kind of relationship.

The last line of the poem reads: “You can only please yourself: how can I speak?” You have to find it yourself, I have no words to give you about this. Look deeply into it. My spiritual moments can only come from my ripe body-mind. Mine are different from yours, and yours are different from mine. There is no words I can use to express that microsecond of realization I experienced when the bird landed on the fence before my mind recognized the implication of the event. And in that split-second, I was closest to my true nature expressing itself. Looking at it’s self. You will have to find these moments on your own. Continue reading

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Spirituality In The Modern Age: A Buddhist Perspective

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Buddhism is one of the oldest spiritual traditions who’s foundational teaching stresses the importance of experiencing aspects of man’s behavior that promotes human flourishing.  Yet, a large portion of Buddhist thought encompasses the philosophical and psychological nature of man and may be lacking in direct and useful language of what “spiritual” means when we strip it of the mystical and metaphysical.  It is way to easy to find Buddhist practices that touch on the mystical, or even magical components in the legacy teachings as they have been handed down from the medieval mindset.  This is to be expected, but does not make it any easier to find contemporary language that expresses the “spiritual” in agnostic existential terms.  There are aspects to Buddhism that many find attractive, especially those that promote harmony in how we live our life among others in engaged activities, and the importance placed on meditation practice.  Buddhism also fits nicely in our modern age that promotes the pragmatic and pluralistic view that supports the notion that we never accept anything on the authority of others alone, but on what we can eventually understand from our own verifiable experiences.  Without this direct experience our practice is one of blind faith.

This attitude toward reality is inherent in modern thinking.  Buddhism does not require anyone to believe anything that they can not rationally understand.  Buddhism is not a faith-based religion for those with a serious study practice.  Individuals should only hold as reliable what they can confirm through experience.  Siddhartha spoke often about the danger of holding opinions with such strong and unyielding force that they could not be subject to change, as this can become another form of attachment.  Buddhism is not an otherworldly practice but remains grounded in universal realities.  Thus the importance Buddhists places on living in the moment and not expecting the future to be neatly defined, as things never happen the same way twice.  All this we know after just a short time in Buddhist study and practice, especially if you are guided by a teacher.  Buddhism is very practical and provides a discipline for the body-mind that has the potential to awaken us to how we are, and how the universe is wonderfully mutually interconnected.  It does not just say “have compassion for others”, but shows us how living a life aware of our place in our world is a path away from unsatisfactoriness.  This is because it is practical and not ideal.  A Buddhist practice is found at the intersection where the ideal meets the real.

None of this, however, effectively defines what the “spiritual” component is unless you want to define all Buddhism to be a spiritual practice.   One can do this of course, but that does not work for me.  Buddhism has three basic dimension: the philosophical, the psychological, and the spiritual.  We take this approach as it helps in breaking up the teaching characteristics associated in Buddhist literature.  But it is proved difficult when we are left with trying to achieve what could be considered a comprehensive definition of the spiritual.   It is both a dilemma and a paradox, especially when most of us can come up with a definition of some sort.  When we really try to nail it down, however, we come to realize the complexity of the task.

The term spirituality has had a long and diverse history, especially in the Christian traditions.  In many ways, this is a part of the problem as many try to associate the Christian spiritual thought and struggle to bring them into their Buddhist practice.  From a Buddhist point of view, spirituality can be  defined as the “human quest for personal meaning and mutually understanding of the relationships we have with others, the environment, and the universal.”  As Buddhists we avoid language suggesting mention of a god, or concerns associated with the non-mutual causal nature of creation.  This leads us away from the Christian notion of the spiritual, but does not act as a clear understanding either.  It is just a definition that sounds good.  It is also interesting that the core existential phrase “existence before essence” can be used to support either a Christian interpretation of creation (Creator), as can an agnostic or atheist universal view.  The challenge is in the interpretation of the word “existence”. Continue reading

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Awakening Our Subconscious Monitor

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

As we continue to learn how to live within the borders of our vows taken during the precept ceremony we also focus on getting to know what is going on inside our psychophysical personality that sees clearly what is happening outside of it.  For you see, being in the moment is both an inner and outer experience.  It is both a physical and mental process.   Meditation and contemplative thought begins with the development of a strong subconscious monitor, or witness to how we are in moments of awareness without us being aware of it.   It is a critical element that promotes change when we are ready.  Change is what our Buddhist practice is all about.  It is the principle that underlies the Four Nobel Truths.  I once heard it said that “You can’t move a plank you’re standing on”.  How many of us are struggling with our practice and getting no where?  As long as ordinary awareness is the only awareness you know, there is really no possibility of shifting the weight of your person from its ego-centered perch to its true center.  In this ordinary awareness the best you can hope for is to wind up with a healthy ego, one that is in reasonable touch with its own boundaries and respectful of the boundaries of others.  For many of us that is as good as it gets.  At least, hopefully, it is an ego that has adopted the Three Pure Precepts: Do no harm, Do only good, Do good for others.  But there is much more to life when we learn to develop an encompassing and socially aware subconscious monitor moving it to the state of consciousness.

We were each born with the potential to realize certain powers of supreme importance, and our process of becoming how we are is a process of learning to nurture, develop, and utilize those skills and powers of observation, it is how humans survived and flourished.  We were born with the potential to be able to celebrate the gift of life, to act with caring for others, to have a passion for social justice and reality, to affirm life despite our inevitable suffering, the potential not only to labor, but to live, enjoy, love, to embrace existence itself and everything in it, including everything that was here before we were born and that will be here after we are gone.  Everyday we are diverted and absorbed in the busyness of living.  We often miss an opportunity to look, to listen, and to wonder at the uniqueness that is about us and within us.  Part of the gift of human consciousness is our potential for awareness of our separation from the world driven by the ego’s seeing itself as separate and eternal.  Our Buddhist studies restores ourselves from this state of separation by facing directly what it means to be an expression of the Universe.

What makes the ego behave in such a restrictive manner is its incapacity to separate from itself.  It has a tendency to get completely lost in its inner psychodramas.  In many ways an uncontrolled ego is like sleep walking, or going through life on automatic – watching life go by like driving a car while looking out the rear window.  And we can all imagine how well that would work out.   That might account for why some people’s lives are like a car wreck.   If we want to know what kind of ego it is to which we are personally attached, we only need to ask ourselves what it is that makes us feel defensive.  What comment cuts us to the quick?  What criticism of us rouses our anger?  Each of us has our own list, and that is the list of our ego attachments.

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