By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
Buddhist philosophy and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, but there is a real difference, especially in how we internalize them in our practice. The term spirituality for me refers to an individual’s solitary seeking for and becoming awakened to the deeper nature of the relationship between self and the greater reality of the Universe. It involves direct experience or realization of vast awareness beyond language to express. Spirituality carries with it a conviction that how we view the world around us is limited by our human limitations, and it requires some sort of spiritual transformation that acts as a catalyst for us to achieve an inner awakening in order for us to achieve our full potential. It is primarily personal, but it also has a social dimension. Spirituality derives from inner contemplation, and can be awakened at any time during our lifetime.
For thousands of years before the dawn of the world religions became social organisms, the spiritual life thrived. I can just imagine one of our early ancestors stepping out of his cave one dawn morning and encountering an intense sunrise. That experience could have sparked an inner awakened moment that many have caused intense emotions; emotions that all humans are capable of experiencing, even for prehistoric man. This human experience which underpins all genuine spiritual practice, is what the Buddha also experienced that special morning when he became transfixed on the morning-star; his moment of enlightenment. But we can also find similar stories of awakening to something special in the life of Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed. It is interesting that Siddhartha and the others experienced there life changing spiritual revelation when absolutely alone, and most likely in deep contemplation.
Our minds are awakened, or jarred awake, when be begin to comprehend the significance of Siddhartha’s new worldview, as we too begin to validate our experiences with those of an extraordinary man that lived 2500 years ago. It is therefore quite natural and appropriate that spirituality should become more primary in our practice as we grow in our understanding of the Buddhist teachings and discover more substantial and ultimate nourishment in the living reality of the dharma. We need the Buddhist teachings, yet we need direct inner spiritual development in order to strike a balance in our practice. A philosophical and academic Buddhist education are valuable carriers supporting an ethical and moral platform for our personal and community life, but they must not be allowed to choke out the breath of the human drive to seek spirit and wonder that acts as the driver for enriching the human hart.
For many years, Buddhist training did not touch on the spiritual nature of a mature practice. This has changed over the past few decades, especially by Western teachers. Sometimes I think this spiritual element of a well rounded practice was assumed. One can not watch a Tibetan monastic community in ritual practice, for example, and not feel a tug of emotions. But generally speaking, our Buddhist training is more on the academic and meditative level, while the contemplative dimension is neglected. This may be a holdover from our Western Judaic/Christian roots where we thought of the ‘spiritual’ as touching on the mystical, and therefore something to be discarded. This is not to say that one can’t experience spiritual thoughts in meditation, but contemplation and meditation together is required to achieve a balance.
By allowing inward change, while at the same time simplifying our external life, spirituality serves as our greatest single resource for changing our centuries-old trajectory of violence and division. Spirituality is profoundly transformative when it inspires in us the attitude of seeking moments to express compassion and selfless giving. The 20th century has witnessed acts of immense destruction that have resulted in untold suffering. The architects of these political movements defined the human in the abstract, which allowed them to destroy living human beings. Now in the 21st century we see the same trend toward using violence to solve conflict and disagreements, rather than seeking reform and renewal though displays that reflect the better part of man’s nature. One would think that the world religions could unite and find common ground around each others emphasis on the power of a spiritual practice, and bring pressure to bare to seek peace in compromise.
We need to understand, to really grasp on an elementary level, that the definitive solution to world conflict is the spiritual awakening of humankind. This awakening will be the task of the interspiritual age, as Wayne Teasdale, a Christian Benedictine monk, calls it. The necessary shifts in consciousness require a new approach to spirituality that transcends past religious cultures of fragmentation and isolation. This direct experience of interspirituality paves the way for a universal view of what it means to be human that transcends self-centered grasping for power and a worldview based on the notion of relativism. Or if you are not one of us, you are not important for our consideration. A truly medieval tribal perspective.