Tag Archives: David Xi-Ken Astor

Culture & Transformation Of Ideas: Engaging Buddhism In The West

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

We should never underestimate the role any culture plays in the transformation of ideas, because the society we live in places heavy influences on how we interpret the world around us.  This is true today as it was for the Buddha in his day.   As you are aware, Siddhartha (the Buddha) was a practicing Hindu from a noble family clan.  He was well educated.  But he began to question the basic perceptions and realities universally held by the society he engaged during his life time.  As a result he came to an awakened understanding of the causal nature of the Universe.  He spent the remaindered of his life finding skillful language to describe this new worldview.  Upon his death, and after many decades, these teachings became the foundation of Buddhism.  But after his death, and without his guiding hand, other cultural influences began to creep into how Buddhist theory began to be interpreted.  As expected, many conflicting views began to find their way into how the dharma was taught and as expected found their way into some of the Buddhist cannon we have today.  This is why using caution is so important as we study ancient Buddhist writings and the suttas, as well as our legacy masters that themselves lived with the world views held during the middle ages.

Over the next few centuries Buddhism began to move East through Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Indochina, Korea, and Japan.  As this migration happened, Buddhism encountered different social norms and adopted some of these indigenous cultural and religious beliefs into how they began to practice Buddhism.   In Tibet it was B’on, in China it was Tao & Confucianism among others, and in Japan it was Shinto.  But as Buddhism moved East it found similar ethical, moral and legal standards, and similar notions of freedom that was still specifically Asian.  It was not until the early 40’s that Buddhism made it’s way to the West in earnest after World War II, although it found some roots in America before that in the 19th century, mostly from Chinese immigrants.  As Buddhism encountered Western philosophy and science it crashed headlong into the most challenging transformation of its history.  It encountered a different worldview philosophy that engendered a new way of considering individual freedom, as well as different foundations of law and social justice.  Not to mention the challenge of transforming these Eastern ideas into Western languages.

As Buddhism encounters our contemporary world, especially as it moves West, it discovers situations where imagination and creativity are central to our notion of personal and social freedom.  While Buddhist traditions have consistently affirmed freedom FROM craving, anguish, and unsatisfactoriness, being the path to awakening, they have been less consistent in affirming the freedom TO respond creatively to the suffering in the world as we see it today.  Thus the emerging focus on engaged Buddhism over the past two decades has heated up.  This is a reflection of the gradual influence that engaged Buddhism has received since Thich Nhat Hanh introduced the movement in the late 1960’s.

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The Zen Art of Teaching Birds To Fly

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

In teaching Buddhism, and especially zazen, I am constantly reminded of Dogen’s statement that “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.”  This is not only the essential ingredient in his Genjokoan, but also the driving force that moves us along our encounter with the Buddha’s primary teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The Zen master, Shohaku Okumura Roshi, tells us that the word study that Dogen uses in Japanese is narua.  Okumura tells us, “Narau comes from nareru, which means: to get accustomed to, to become familiar with, to get used to, or to become intimate with.  This is not simply intellectual study.”  He continues to tell us that the Chinese character for narau is written in two parts.  The first character means “bird’s wings” and the second one means “self”.

This explanation took me back to an experience I had many, many, years ago when I had a large house that was divided into two apartments.  I lived upstairs, and I rented the downstairs.  One of my renters was a young single mother with two sons.  The older kid was about six and his name was Jimmy.   Like most boys his age he was always hanging around watching what I was doing; mowing, fixing a stuck door,  planting a tree, that sort of thing.  He was just very curious, and generally was not annoying.  I could not drive my car into the garage that he did not come running to see what I brought home.  One day as I drove up I noticed under the large tree in the back yard a commotion on the ground.  It was a bird that seemed hurt.  But after a moment I realized that what I was observing was a young bird and his mother higher up in the tree teaching him how to fly.   She would hop down, then fly back up and call down to him.  He would hope around and try to fly a few feet at a time.  This was repeated over and over.  As I was transfixed on this event Jimmy came running up.  I pointed out the bird on the ground and ask him what he thought was happening.  He said he thought it was hurt or sick.  When I pointed out that the bird on the ground was young and was being taught, through encouragement, how to fly by his mother up in the tree, he was truly dumfounded.  I remember this so well even now.  He looked up at me with those blue eyes and a look that was overwhelming and said “I thought birds could fly by themselves.”  He was transfixed as I too was on what was happening.  But what he said next was very memorable.  With a true look of wonder Jimmy said “I didn’t know that.”   Even for a six year old, this was a moment toward understanding and wisdom.  As a young person himself, there might have been a connection some how with the bird and his own growing experiences.  Kind of like narau.  In many ways, we too have to learn how to fly.  This is an essential meaning to how Dogen engaged zazen.

When we engage zazen practice, we engage this study-of-the-self admonition.  We study the self in order to awaken to how we are.  That awakening awareness is what drives the change necessary for our self-flourishing.  In other words, we must learn to fly too.  We awaken to this notion of the self being the only foundation that is none other then our Universal expression.  Like the baby bird that has the ability to fly and yet does not know how until it observes the skillful teaching of the mother,  our zazen practice is driven by the skillful teachings of others that have gone before us and the observation of this self we call ’I”.

As flying is an essential attribute for a bird to be a bird, so is the study of ourselves essential for discovering our human natures.  We awaken to what truly makes us human when we gain a quiet abiding body-mind that is the self of our Buddha natures.  Then we too will fly with the birds.

The Study Of Self:
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.  To study the self is to forget the self.  To forget the self is to be verified by all things.  To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of self, and the body and mind of others, drop off.  There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped.  We endlessly keep expressing the ungraspable trace of realization.”

— Dogen Zenji from Genjokoan

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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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Reality As Realized In One’s Own Experience

By:  David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

The medieval Chinese Zen Master, Huang Po, made this statement, “If one does not actually realize the truth of Zen in one’s own experience, but simply learns it verbally and collects words, and claims to understand Zen, how can one solve the riddle of life and death?”

“Reality as realized in one’s own experience” is a powerful statement reflecting the importance of the difference between knowing something, and understanding it (prajna).  They are not the same, and are 10,000 miles apart when your Buddhist practice has no floor.  So, if this old Ch’an monk has mind-vision, and the study of Zen by verbal clues and language alone does not constitute an understanding of it, then what is he talking about?  To study Buddhism we will need to consider what understanding is.

Consider that understanding is different from knowledge as something that we are always doing as we engage everyday experiences.  So, as we eat, perform various tasks at work, even our thoughts are all ways of understanding as they presuppose the need for us to use various components and dimensions of our experience in order to perform them.  Understanding is our awareness of the world around us; the way each of us is embedded in this world and oriented to it, and engaged with it.   Understanding also implies degrees of comprehension, intelligence, ability to reach an agreement, and is fundamental to our ability to show compassion and sympathetic action.

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Multi-Dimensional Aspects Of The Four Noble Truths

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

There is an interesting dimension to Buddhist teaching which is both inspiring and fascinating, but which is not always apparent to either the beginning student or even the more experienced ones.  That is, how often do we hear specific Buddhist lessons presented that often mysteriously reflect other aspects of Buddhist thought other than the one presented.  Specifically I am thinking about the Four Noble Truths.  I have awakened to how the whole Buddhist path is a macrocosm that can be expressed and understood through each element of teaching within it, starting with the Noble Truths.  Consider for a moment the lessons inherent in the Jewel Net Of Indra.  Where each jewel reflects all the other jewels in the net of co-dependence,  and that this net is a metaphor for the nature of our Universe.  This is somewhat a revelation for some when they come to realize how Buddhist lessons can be studied and are often capable of showing how our practice reflects the essence of the entire Buddhist dharma.  This is also an example of the transformation of ideas that reflect how we must encounter and understand the lessons from different traditions in order to give us a chance for a clearer meaning to our understanding of the dharma in our contemporary lives.  Even if we do not adapt them to our own platform and practice.  The Dalai Lama expressed it this way, “Buddhism is more than an Asian religion.  As the teachings of the Buddha (dharma) become better know and practiced in Western countries, it is vital to understand their place in Western history and culture.”

The challenge of this realization comes when we consider that each Buddhist tradition has developed over time their own interpretations, selected and adopted suttas, and external concepts and practices outside the Buddhist Cannon.  But at the same time these external concepts become a part of the Cannon within their tradition, and are reflected along with the standard teachings that are common to all the other traditions.  For example, some traditions are more comfortable relying on mystical and metaphysical interpretations and beliefs and finding ways to integrate them into their common teaching, than are other traditions.   Yet, the underlying message is basically the same.  The Buddhist practitioner must decide which tradition best reflects their own worldview and practices, and then commit to follow the path according.  But we must always work to find the lesson that reflects Universal reality, or Dharma.  We must also remember that this is a mutual-causal Universe and we must leave room open for change as our own experiences, and expert research by others, points to a clearer understanding of the Dharma as time evolves.

I would like to explore the Four Noble Truths in terms of how they can be understood through other aspects of  Buddhist teaching.  Although it is said there are eighty-four thousand discourses that the Buddha used to teach his disciples over forty years, all of them are an expansion of details on this core teaching.  I choose this as they are fundamental to all Buddhist traditions.  Let me call your attention to the Sammaditthi Sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya.  This Sutra #9 is by Venerable Sariputta on Right View and speaks at length on the teachings of the Four Noble Truths.

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Can A Buddhist Ask “Does God Exist?”

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

For some time now I have wanted to talk about the subject of whether or not God exist.  You can imagine that as a Buddhist teacher I get asked if I believe in a God frequently by those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought.  You see, our culture is confused about what Buddhists believe, and the role Siddhartha, the Buddha, expresses in the Buddhist faith.  The word “faith” goes along with the word “God” when the question is ask most of the time, that is why I am using it here. Considering this question, Buddhism generally takes a more pragmatic and agnostic approach, rather then get involved in theological dogma, preferring neither to say yes or no, and thus taking the Middle Way.  The Buddha himself did not deny or confirm the existence of a Creator God, but taught that there is no need to have an answer to this question because it did not achieve awareness of how we are that can lead to an enlightened state of body-mind.  Theism is not a central component of Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment, and the notion of a God was one of those questions he refused to speculate about because he was more intent on individuals seeking a way from their unsatisfactoriness through their own experiences, and thus to human flourishing.

But many of our Buddhist legacy teachers did speak about this question in either direct or indirect ways.  I will stick my neck out here and say that many of our enlightened Buddhist masters may have spoken about the “Does God Exist” question because they considered the answer to be in the question.  For myself, I believe the question is more complex than a simple yes or no answer, or even taking an agnostic worldview.  That is why I refer to myself as a reluctant agnostic.  I think the answer to this hard question requires a more nuanced consideration, as my spiritual practice works to seek an answer that expresses something more then a simple dismissal of what reality may be.  Much of my adult life has been seeking the quest for an answer to this question, and unsatisfactory answers was the major reason I left my Christian monastic practice.  Now that I am walking the Buddhist path, the quest is still a driving force in my recognition of how I am.  But my view of how the word “God” has transformed into a wider concept then just creation being a noun has dramatically changed how I approach the subject now, taking into consideration my understanding of the principles of mutual-causality, impermanence and the reality of a non-dual state of being.  When I am ask the question now, I generally ask, “What do you mean by God?”  This delays the obvious perhaps, but it gets the questioner a chance to think about their own way of expressing a question that has no absolute response.  I think an answer is incomprehensible if it is a good one anyway.

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Building A Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been speaking recently about the importance of living a life by vows, either as lay Buddhists or especially for those of us that have taken monasticism as a life’s vocation.  Our monastic vows is a way of intentionally committing us to a social life of rigorous action honoring the Bodhisattva ideal above other competing personal responsibilities.   We are beginning to see in the West, however, a new secular teaching community arise that reflects, perhaps, a more realistic attitude to an ordained life within our communities beyond the walls of a monastery/temple.  In addition we are seeing monks that have decided to live outside of these “walls-of-practice”, but still adapt the monastic precepts as a guiding force for daily living.  No matter how we see our Buddhist practice developing, however, building the spiritual dimension to how we see the world around us is critical for having a well balanced life and worldview.  For after all, seeking the wonder of our Universe and spiritual wisdom to understand our role in it, is what it means for us to be human.  A spiritual life is both one of interior riches, and exterior displays of wisdom.  We must learn to balance these two aspects of practice in order to have a mature spiritual life.

I am reminded of the story of an elementary school teacher that gave her students a drawing assignment.  As she went around the room looking over the students work and giving encouragement and help, she was absorbed in the joy of the assignment as well.  As she approached Stephen totally entranced and furiously working on his picture, she was confused at what she saw on the paper.  When she ask him what he was drawing, he replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”  But she reminded him that no one knows what God looks like.  “They will in a minute!” exclaimed Stephen, as he returned to his work.  What Stephen is teaching us is a can-do, I’m on top of this, I know what I am doing spirit of the intrepid spiritual seeker.  He was lost “within himself”.  He is reflecting the “Buddha with-in”, or the natural nature of what is possible when committed to an ideal.   Then I suppose we grow up and loose the clear mind of the child.  Building a spiritual practice is like stepping back on the path we use to have before cultural influences cloud our minds.

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The Social-Self: Ethics Without A Creed

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we speak about the Buddhist principle of non-self (anatman) we attempt to envision the notion of a self as expressing Universal realities without making the distinction that we are independent of all other Universal expressions.  Never an easy exercise.  One example of this would be that our human expression is only different from other animals simply by the complexity of our behavior — not just behavior, but our ability to reason.  Our ability to learn, gain knowledge that promotes wisdom, and thus act with reasoned intent, is what advanced human specie development.   In general, most individuals work to understand knowing something by penetrating what lies behind the appearance of things.  This approach is good enough most of the time perhaps, but considering how our mutual causal Universe expresses itself, we need to work hard to find the change that is presented in each moment’s situation in order to awaken to truthful-realities that consistently challenge the view we have of the world around us as having some kind of permanence.  Our quest for “truth” can never be fully realized when we ignore that change is always a factor in everything we encounter, so “truths” are only momentary, and a state of permanence is only an illusionary concept.

This brings to my mind several questions.  Is our knowledge of things sufficient to understand how they really are?  Is the language we use to describe how we are interconnected to things capable of fulfilling our needs as realistic as how they actually can?  Is our Buddhist practice, as manifest in our intentional actions, able to help us realize a better future for ourselves and others?   Is there such a thing as unconditional obligations in a Buddhist practice?   When considering ethics pragmatically, I have great doubt about the suggestion that anything is unconditional as the driving force of self-interest is a natural aspect of the human condition.  When we introduce the element of social relationships weighted against the distinction between routine and non-routine civil behavior as judged by cultural norms, we encounter possible inhibitors when we act from a feeling of what is natural to “us”,  but interpreted as unrealistic to others, even when we are both using the same set of ethical expectations.  These inhibitors come into play when our personal needs begin to clash with those of others.

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Spiritual Life Is A Life

By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei

The spiritual life is first and foremost a life in that it is apart of the sum of the phenomena we call “me”.  It is not something we “take out” and wear during periods of contemplation, meditation, or feeling like a Buddhist when we are in the mood.  Either we have it or not.  It is that simple.  A spiritual life is not something we can study.  It is however, like all other dimensions that makes us up, when it is not nourished it will die.  It can be like other interests we develop, spend time with, then move on to other things.  What makes finding a spiritual interest different is that it appears to be a natural progression when we turn our attention to the bigger picture of what life may be about.  Like seeking the wonder of our world, seeking the spirit seems to be connected to our human condition, not something handed to us “by the angels.”    We live as spiritual individuals when we live seeking answers to the big questions.  It is something man has been doing since he walked out of his cave and looked up at the night sky.  The difference between him and us, is that we now have a language to express our spiritual natures, but the experience is the same.

To keep our spiritually alive we must constantly work at it.  This is the reason we engage meditation and contemplative practices.  I am reminded of the experiences I have had on my sailboat at sea in the fog, peering into the gloom listening for sounds and hoping I stay on course in order to avoid being lost and reach the harbor.  The spiritual life is all about keeping awake.  We must not lose our sensitivity to what inspires us to sit in contemplation keeping alert for “signs” we can use to stay on course.  We must always be able to respond to the slightest warnings in order to avoid running our life on the rocks that can sink a spiritual life as well.

Meditation is one way in which the spiritual man keeps awake.  The reality of a contemplative life , however, is that it puts us at risk of becoming distracted and falling asleep.  Meditation is a strict discipline, and not so easy to do well, at least in the beginning.   It requires perseverance and hard work to avoid falling into the trap of compromise.  When our zazen and contemplative practice is compromised, it is a failure.  Even when we keep at it without much focus.   A contemplative practice is a body-mind practice, that is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit.  When you enter into such a meditation practice it is not without a kind of inner upheaval.  By upheaval I don’t mean a kind of ciaos, but a braking away of a normal routine of thought.  We move away from ordinary mind into an extra-ordinary inner space.  We move away from all those distractions that preoccupy us in our work-a-day world.  We move beyond all that.  It is not something that is easy moving from an active mind to a passive one so we can experience the quiet necessary to transcend the ordinary.  The bridge is not easy to find either.  It may take years to find the bridge.  But once found, we know the way again.

Neither imagination or raw feelings are required for the transcending nature of the contemplative state of mind.  It is hard to put into human language, but there is a very real and recognizable sense when we tune into our inner space.  Our inner eye opens to the center of our spiritual natures.  Meditation and contemplation is the opening of this eye.

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A Spiritual Life Is Not A Mental Life

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

A spiritual life is not a mental life.  It is not thought alone that creates a contemplative state of mind.  It is not a life of sensation or felling of ecstasy.  Contemplation is not about stepping on the mystical carpet and flying away.

The contemplative aspects of a spiritual life, however, does not exclude thought and a deeper sense of awareness either.   But it is not just a life where the body-mind and imagination are excluded.  If that were the case, very few individuals would be able to have a successful contemplative practice without retreating into a cave for a decade or two.  Considering man’s social natures, that would not be a life enriched by an engaged social practice, but one totally turned inward toward the self excluding others.  Even though the intent of such a life might be honorable.  It would not be one most would associate with Mahayana Buddhism.    If we are to be truly alive, we must be committed to our practice body, mind, heart, and spirit, directing our compassion towards helping others.  For a monk, that is the heart of our Bodhisattva vows.

It is unproductive to try to achieve a contemplative state of mind merely by stringing thoughts together and then “thinking” about them.  While thinking is the first step in our contemplative session, we must use those thoughts as a springboard into our inner world that reflects the state of our practice beyond words and thoughts.  The quality of such a practice depends on the depth we venture into as we activate our inner-vision.  A purely mental practice may destroy any chance we have to go beyond the ordinary.  In that case we substitute thought and ideas for the real thing; for real awakened moments.  Any activity associated with what makes us human is not purely mental as we are not just a disembodied mind.  This is why validating our experiences is so important to our contemplative practice because it keeps us balanced.

What we achieve from a contemplative practice must also be brought back into our everyday lives in order to move our knowledge to wisdom that gets us ready for more awakened moments.  As we make it apart of ourselves, we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.  This is the cycle-of-life of a contemplative.

Thomas Merton in his work, Thoughts In Solitude, said, “Living is the constant adjustment of thoughts to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new.  Thus life is always new.”    It is yet another illusion when we think that our contemplative mind state is separate from how we live our lives as though it is separate and two different concrete realities.  When we sit in contemplation we are not sitting in a dream state.  We must keep an alert mind not distracted by our personal filters that dilutes how we see the world, AND the Universe around us.  This is why zazen is so important.  In mindful meditation we are preparing the mind for the contemplative.  A quiet mind, is a ripe mind.  That is the platform upon which our contemplative practice stands.

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