Tag Archives: Buddhist thought

Zazen Is Not The Better Way

By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯

I greatly respect the life experience reflected in the teachings of Master Dogen, especially when I open my mind to what he is pointing at when I get his 13th century language out of the way. This is the challenge that all serious students have when reflecting on what our legacy teachers have transmitted to us. It is the nature of their karma. Master Dogen taught that zazen is the key to our awakening. I bow to his wisdom. But why do I say then that “zazen is not the better way?” This is yet another lesson of when the ideal meets the real. Some Zen teachers may even have said that zazen is not the better way, it is the only way. The problem with this statement is in using the words better or only.

The important point here is for us to understand what zazen really means. Zazen is pointing to our universal natures, or that we are expressions of the universe. The practice of mindful meditation can be a bridge to zazen, just as what we “do” in each moment off the cushion can be a bridge to awakened moments when our body-mind is ready. Zazen is expressed in how we are when we do enough work on the cushion to establish a clear and abiding mind transformation without making unnecessary distinctions, or thinking. I express this as saying that Buddhism is about subtraction not addition. We learn to subtract from our ordinary mind-state so we can become ready to move beyond it to an extra-ordinary mental experience. This can achieve a body-mind state that is natural to our human-beingness. The reality of this universal self is not to run away from either the good or unsatisfactory situations we may encounter in the moment. When we establish a mental attitude of life where our Buddha nature lives from states of reality rather than self imposed notions of a set of ideals, we awaken to acknowledge that a healthy worldview accepts a world just as it is. While ideals may be a part of our worldview platform, they are only blueprints that we take with us into the real world experience. Reality reflects a life lived with varied scenery. These various scenes unfold as they have been driven by the causal-chain of events we are honing in our practice on the cushion. A healthy and harmonious mind accepts things as they are. No better, no bad, no only. It just is when we get ourselves out of the way and move into a mental state capable of “becoming.” This is why I say that zazen is not the better path. The reality of our lives that zazen wakes us up to is really a life that comes from our natural self, and a now that is only the now we can fully trust as being real. Our past experiences, and any thoughts of future expectations, only can prepare us for the present moment. All else is an illusion. When we base our lives on distinguishing between the better way and the worse way, we will never find a peaceful mind that whatever happens is all right. There is no end in looking for “the better.”

Zazen is pointing us to the lessons of interdependence, universal connectiveness, impermanence, and a way of moving away from floundering in desperation. Shikantaza means just sitting and Dogen used both expressions to teach the nature of meditation as a vehicle for transformation beyond the ordinary. However, zazen as Dogen Zenji used it in a broader sense indicates the reality that is manifested in practice. Zazen is about refining how we are. A delineated best path does not exist for universal life. There is only the direction of natural causal forces as they influence our life. This is equally true of zazen as a practice we may choose. So how can it be better, when how we are is our natural state of being all along. We just must come to realize this reality. So zazen is like a mirror too. How we come to see what is reflected is up to our ability to awaken to what is real. “Just like this.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Allowing Personal Truth’s To Distort Experiencing Realities

By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?” These words are played out on a daily basis in courtrooms all over the country. Every time a witness takes the stand they say these words or some version of it. So what is truth? Why it is two witnesses to the same scene can have very different details in their versions? Is one of them lying or is it perhaps the filters in their own lives have influenced their version of events to suit their own realities? So again what is truth?

Is something true simply because enough people believe it to be true that it gains popular acceptance,or are there better criteria against which to gauge it? This is a problem that many grapple with, and many have difficulty working around. The way to break down this question comes not from popular acclaim, but from what can be observed repeatedly, what evidence outside the thing being claimed true says, and from our own human history. Our personal experience cannot be used as a yardstick for empirical claims of “truth”, any more than just standing o solely on the rationalist view under which reason or reflection alone is considered to be evidence for the truth or falsity of some propositions.

The problem about “truth” is that it’s subjective, not in the traditional sense, but in a cycle of circular reasoning and personal biases. It’s “subjectively subjective”, meaning that “truth” is often described as “true” according to what a person believes to be “true”. Not only are the truth claims themselves subjective, but the very criteria against which the truths are measured are also subjective. And down the rabbit hole we go.

In the news we often hear of people who claim to have seen the face of a religious icon such as Jesus or the Virgin Mary or a loved one that has passed away in an object. There a thousands upon thousands of accounts of people who can attest to the truth of their claims. But this does not mean their truths are actually true in an empirical sense. What it means is that people believe they saw a vision, and that belief translates as true. In many cases like these, the person experiencing the vision already believes that they will experience the vision before they actually experience it. People expect what they believe to be true to actually be true, so it becomes self-fulfilling.

Those who find images of Jesus in tree-stumps, toast or a freshly cut pumpkin, already believe that such a thing is possible, and are greeted with the spectacle of seeing Jesus’ face in ordinary objects, rather than thinking it looks vaguely like a human face. If you are predisposed to a belief, the likelihood that you see that belief played out in your lifetime is much stronger. The mind has a way of stitching together small pieces of information and creating an answer from what it can gather.

Not only is the human brain an excellent pattern seeking device, it is also intuitively looking for answers to the questions it creates. This is one of the bases of human nature, human cognition, human adaptability, and human ingenuity. When used correctly, without the many biases that we all hold in our minds, the brain is an excellent problem-solving machine. Used incorrectly, it is the creator of many an illusion, and the upholder of “personal truths”.

From a Buddhist perspective a strong practice is one based validating our experiences. While we may experience something once, and our senses may tell us that it is a “reality” unless it is verifiable it is nothing more than a “personal truth.” The same is true concerning things we read or hear. We must be cautious as we seek to gain knowledge, that we do not take another’s experiences for empirical truths. We often see this pitfall in the student teacher relationship. A student may blindly follow his or her teacher and not test and verify the lessons for themselves. We all come from varied backgrounds with varied belief systems, and life experiences which can color the way we view the Universe around us. As practicing Buddhists we must always match the teachings to our own experiences and make sure we are not looking through someone else’s rose tinted glasses.

Finally, we should be cautious to not grasp to tightly to realities. All things in this causal universe are subject to change, so what are truths today might very well be false tomorrow. Our challenge is to gain wisdom from knowledge and experience of the things we can know, and to let go of and accept that some things we cannot know.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Intimacy With Unity Of All Things

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

 In a wonderful Tibetan Buddhist story, a man tells his friend about an extraordinary spiritual teacher 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 God! Prove to me that he 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 lake. 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 Lama holds his head firmly submerged. Finally, on his fourth attempt, the teacher lets him out of the water. The poor soul bursts out of the water, gasping for air. “What are you trying to do, kill me?” he yells at the saint. 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 God is as desperate as your desire for air, for your very breath, then you will find the source for Creation!”

This powerful story dramatically illustrates the importance of commitment in the spiritual life. No genuine progress is possible without it. Such a commitment expresses itself in the discipline of regular, daily spiritual practice that paves the way for breakthroughs, for the miracles of grace to happen.

Spiritual practice is the core of our transformation, and it requires what can be called the contemplative attitude, a disposition to life of mystical depth. Spiritual practice often means meditation and other forms of inner exploration. It can also mean prayer. Silence and solitude – the seeking of illumination and wisdom – are further parts of the contemplative experience, a process of our ultimate 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, is wisdom. We live in a mutual causal world. Everything happens as an effect of another action. Either human or not. It started at the moment our Universe was created. 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 expression. It is up to us to discover the contemplative dimension of life and experience what it means to be human on a mission to understand the unity of all things.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Change And The Power Of The Human Spirit

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

The current events in the Middle East, and especially in the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, should be kept in mind as we reflect on the importance of cultural transformation in the 21st century, and the pressures associated with conflicts that have their basis in religious differences that can spillover in troubling ways for us removed from the realities of a particular region.

We now face a new challenge and opportunity: the end of isolation all around the planet as previously remote cultures and societies open up to one another. The world’s religions have been for centuries separate cultures, but now their boundaries are giving way as we find new relationships with other traditions and enter into conversation after a very long silence. Since the Second Vatican Council, along with extensive ecumenical and interfaith encounters in Europe, India, and America, the religions have been coming out of their self-imposed isolation, and through encounters with one another, have discovered common ground. This common ground is primarily a matter of those serious, practical issues we all face: injustice, abuse of human rights, economic exploitation and inequity, the pursuit of peace, spreading ecological responsibility, promoting educational and employment opportunities, and the desperate plight of refugees, women and children in certain areas of the world. This loss of isolation has also created deep resentments in many conservative practitioners who cling to the closed primacy of their beliefs. We are witness to this as we experience the violent expressions of Islamic fundamentalism, or narrow minded and culturally isolated pockets of Christian fundamental extremist interpretation of the Gospel’s message. Even in Buddhism we find some traditions isolating themselves from other Buddhists over the issues of how to interpret some of the basic principals of the Buddhist doctrine. But as the world’s spiritual traditions continue to learn from one another, the small segments responsible for so much turmoil will slowly fade in their influence, if we only continue our universal dialogue with each other.

Through interfaith organizations like the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the Temple of Understanding, the World Congress of Faiths, among others, the followers of various traditions are discovering bonds of community. Our own Engaged Dharma Insight Group is a member of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington for example. This profound and growing sense of community is the basis of the new relationship between the leadership of these various traditions. There are exceptions of course.

This experience of community among the traditions leads to an openness to the spirituality present in each one of them and an eagerness to explore spiritual life and practice across traditions, a unique phenomenon of our time that we can call interspirituality. A term first used by the Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale more then a decade ago. Now, I will agree that this degree of openness is often limited to the leadership and not surprisingly the “more liberal” clergy. The laity, in many cases, are ahead of their own leadership, especially in the more orthodox traditions, including the more “orthodox” Buddhist teachers. Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality, or an overarching syntheses of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of what it means to be human and to seek the spirit and wonder of this world. Our knowledge of other religions and cultures is likewise increasing, opening the door to a universal understanding of religion, spirituality and world culture.

This is a scenario for the beginning of this new millennium, a movement to open doors and forging relationships leading us to a new universal civilized culture. In this new world culture we would be welcoming to all religions, achieving a genuine universal spaciousness that allows for diversity. A civilized social structure governed by considerations of kindness, mercy, compassion, selflessness, and nonviolence; a civilization in which political, economic, and military power have given way to the power of compassion as we see it portrayed so irresistibly in both the Gospel’s message, as well as in Buddhist teachings found throughout the Pali Cannon.

The different traditions would no longer see members of other faiths as outsiders. They would promote the study of these traditions, seek common ground and parallel insights, and encourage celebration of what we have that binds us, not what separates us.

Once the great traditions have a permanent structure in which to communicate their concerns, insights, and methods, they will collectively become a potent force to check the often irresponsible actions of governments. It requires acceptance of a universal responsibility we can all find in the practice of our individual traditions. It will also require the reform of some of our social systems, especially those of education, economic, moral, and the special needs of those less fortunate than ourselves.

Our Western civilization has been based on three great institutions, the family, educational structures, and the Church (I use the term with a universal meaning). It was the way our moral and ethical standards were transmitted between generations. And what does our experience till us today about these pillars of cultural stability? I see the system as broken. When I was growing up I went to church with my family, we had a morning prayer in home room class in all my grades in public school, the church was were I had most of my social interactions when I was young. My youth and scout groups were church based. I know we live in a causal universe, nothing remains the same for long. Change happens. I like change, my life is about change. And I many be reminiscing like someone my age might. But my point is that we need to consider how to get back to basics. How to restore the best intentions that can drive a pluralistic worldview between the different world cultures in order to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. How do we re-energize the national dialogue? For us to do so we will need to shed some of our old rhetoric and actions. We will need to become far more inclusive and less judgmental of other’s beliefs and traditions. Such a miraculous change is possible and maybe even inevitable.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Developing The Art Of Questioning

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 

I often speak about the pragmatic and existential importance of validating the information we are learning through direct experience.  In that way we come to really “know” something, which is about gaining knowledge.  Now I would like to expand on that by sharing with you some of my thoughts on journeying through the unknown, and using the skill of questioning.  For you see, questioning is an element of the art of practice.  If we do not question our experiences as they unfold though the various situations we find ourselves in, there will be very little change in our worldview, and without change we are just treading water.  And when that happens in the middle of the ocean, given enough time, we will tire and drown, or the sharks will find us.  The same is also true in our practice.  Questioning is mental action that when done skillfully will lead to awakened moments.   All Buddhist teachers encourage questioning, because without questions, we have no idea where you are in your training and understanding of Buddhist thought and doctrine.  Questioning is a sign of an active mind, silence is another form of emptiness.  That can be either good, or not, depending on the wisdom of the act of silence.  In a training situation, silence is always unexpected.

As we progress along our life’s journey, it’s difficult to avoid encountering some of the perplexing challenges we humans have confronted again and again.  Many of these experiences are related to the big questions that have always confounded the human mind for centuries.   This was the driving force that propelled Siddhartha on his quest for universal understanding over 2500 years ago.  The big questions are still the same as they were for the Buddha, Socrates, Plato,  Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Mills, and all other philosophers both Western and Eastern.  These are human questions, no matter what side of the world you stand on.

These big questions our serious ones.  Yet, popular cultural views of some want to focus on cracking the enigmas like the Da Vinci code.  But thank goodness, we also have others that have devoted their lives in bringing into reality the genetic codes that might lead to finding cures for disease.    And what about us?  We can work on breaking through our personal identity codes and develop even stronger characters, with integrity, ethics, and social values.   We can work on breaking through the barriers of other enigmas of our everyday life.  In every moment we work for our own liberation. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

Pope Francis and the Dao De Jing

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Over the past few months we have been experiencing the social reaction to the election of the 266th Christian Catholic Pope.  Like many former Catholics, I have been drawn by curiosity to see what this change may be all about.  If what the early days of his pontificate may teach us, it will be quite a change.  Pope Francis is bringing an old message back into the light of day, one that seems to have been muddled over the recent decades in our technological and capitalistic driven age.   This old message was also one that was echoed 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha, the Buddha.  Pope Francis is wasting no time in issuing an appeal that in the limited time he has in Rome we must return to the basics of social justice as it is reflected in responsible economic policies, having compassion for the less fortunate in our communities, in the focus of doing good, and in protecting the world environment.   He said, “We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness.”  A statement that is universal to a spiritual path.  He went on to say that, “Let us never forget the authentic power is service.  Only those who serve with love are able to protect.”

As I think about his message I am reminded of the expansive thoughtfulness found in Chapter 60 of the Dao De Jing that speaks to this encompassing ideal.  When I say encompassing, I mean universal.  So lets look at this Chapter, and my commentary on it, to experience the lessons that point directly to the responsibility of social governance.

“Bringing proper order to a great state is like cooking a small fish.
When way-making (dao) is used in overseeing the world,
The ghosts of the departed will not have spiritual potency.
In fact, it is not that the ghosts will not have spiritual potency,
But rather that they will not use this potency to harm people.
Not only will the ghosts not use their potency to harm people
But the sages will not harm people either.
It is because the ghosts and sages do not harm
That their power (de) combine to promote order in the world.”


First remember the historical context and language of this text.  It is Chinese and developed over the period 403-221 BCE, which was also during the time of Alexander the Great.  This period of Buddhist expansion in China paid homage to how ancestors influenced world order in many ways.  Like in the time when Siddhartha lived it was believed that the realm of ghosts existed.  In our 21st century reality some creative re-description is called for in bringing this chapter into contemporary understanding, but in doing so takes nothing away from it’s core message. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Buddha Is Not Dharma

By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei

“We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha”.   If we follow Buddhist thought, and not accept a duel state of being, we may come to realize that while we make distinctions of the Three Jewels in practice, in reality they are not separate phenomena.  They are interdependent and connected as one reality, and are components of the principle of Inter-dependent Origination.  So, we come to ask the question, “how can ultimate reality be embodied in the form of a person (Buddha)?”   I would argue that if we strictly apply Buddhist logic, it isn’t.  It is a kind of paradox, and what is “ultimate reality” anyway?

We use the term “Buddha nature” rather freely sometimes without a clear notion of what we are talking about.  Yes, as human beings (and the historic Buddha was that) we are both Universal and unique expressions of the Universe at the same time.  Buddha nature is an expression that points to our inclusion in the Dharma; we manifest an image or reflection or intimation of that which can not be separate from all the other expression the Universe is.  Life as we know it can be considered as a large fabric woven of all the various expressions that in totality makes up what we know as reality.  Remember that science tells us that we have only identified about 8% of what makes up the Universe.  We have a long way to go yet in our exploration.  Dharma goes beyond this limited notion of reality to encompass both what we can know, and that which is unknown.

Continue reading


Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

A Lesson Contemplating A Contemporary View Of Agnosticism

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been ordained as an American Ch’an Buddhist monk, and trained in both the Chinese view of Buddhist principles, as well as influenced by Japanese Zen traditional styles of transmitting the dharma.  My Ch’an root teacher, the Venerable Shi Yong Xiang, was very scholarly in his approach to Buddhist philosophy, as well as teaching the importance science plays in informing us of universal realities, especially life-sciences.   I spent much time in discussing with him, and the other senior formal students, the logic and critical analysis of Buddhist doctrine.   I cherish those moments even today.  I came to understand how reason and my own experiences can form a new worldview based on these Buddhist lessons, both directly from primary sources, and through the legacy material that came down to us over the centuries after the death of Siddhartha Gotama.    What I was not aware of at the time, is just how future change works in this personal transformation.  I thought once I came to an understanding of a specific doctrine, that it became somewhat static.  Boy was I wrong.  The causal universe had some hidden lessons in store for me down the road.

What attracted me to Buddhism as a logical and spiritual path was that it did not rely on simple faith as my Christian one did, but required me to critically evaluate my own conclusions, and the importance of experiential verification.  The Buddha said, “…you should examine my words, and not just accept them because you have faith in me.”  The problem with this honest statement for me was in the reality of working with some of the principle doctrines.  How was I to achieve understanding when some of them were unknowable.  Like rebirth.  Being agnostic about it seemed a cop out.  Obviously in Buddhism there is no such kind of permanent entity that can go from one body to the next.  The principle of impermanence and not-self is very clear on this.  There seemed to be a contradiction in the very basic set of core doctrines.

Japanese Zen does not focus on the notion of rebirth all that much, like do some of the other Buddhist traditions, including Tibetan.  The early Chinese Ch’an practices did specialize on ritual practices associated with notions of how to comfort the dead, some in complex ways.  But anyone that reads both past and contemporary Buddhist literature will encounter the doctrine of rebirth frequently.  Over the centuries various traditions have developed ways to explain rebirth, generally in ways that consider how consciousness survives physical death.  These early dogmas also found ways to explain the continuity of individual karmic actions that come back to confront us as we appear in another universal expression.   A large majority of Buddhists see the idea of rebirth and individual-karma as simply non-negotiable elements of Buddhism.

Right from the beginning, I found a natural acceptance of Buddhist philosophy and practices.  But some of the doctrines when studied from a contemporary perspective became inhibitors.  Maybe because of my past spiritual training, and natural philosophical mind, I did not have a problem with selecting what principles to “set on the back burner” and work with those that had the most meaning for me.  In the first monastery where I studied, this set me apart from most of my follow formal students that took the position that you had to eat everything on the plate.  I spent many hours with my first teacher pursuing scholarly training analyzing the concepts and terminology of Buddhism through the Socratic method (as I did with my root teacher later).   They did not push my reluctance, and sometimes out-right skepticism, but worked to build a solid platform from which to explore deeper topics.  But this one area of Buddhist thought that stems from its pre-Buddhist encounter with  Hinduism was, for me, the elephant-in-the-room.  When I read how eminent masters ask us to accept rebirth it sounded like, “Don’t worry about understanding it, of course it is not obvious, but when you experience deep states of meditation, everything will become very clear for you.”  In other words, it is a mystical spiritual state, beyond normal experience.  There are practices in both Tibetan and Dzogchen traditions that help one to experience knowing this nature of consciousness and how the mind has to arise from a previous moment of mind.   What was interesting to me that after some time studying the Pali Nikaya’s the idea of brain was barely mentioned.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor