Tag Archives: Dharma

Street-Smart Buddhism: Tools to Find Your Way Home

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

We speak so often in our teaching about the core principles of Buddhism. If not directly, then by example. By now, many of you should be familiar with the awakened teachings of Siddhartha Gotama, the principle of the Four Ennobling Truths, the Eightfold Path, impermanence, not-self, the principle of interdependent co-origination (or dependent origination), to name a few. We speak about Zen teachings of the Chinese and Japanese masters as they reflect the nature of self and other. We speak about the enriching empowerment of nature, as well as useful and productive psychoemotional self-help tools we can use to promote human flourishing. We even give history lessons that attempt to bring the ancient Buddhist culture into contemporary renewal that all of us today can relate to. In other words, we teach the dharma. In fact, most of the books about Buddhism on our modern shelf are about these topics in various forms. We are luck to have most of them.

Fewer people are aware that Siddhartha also provided frequent and compelling lessons on a wide range of social, political, and economic issues that impact the general welfare of all life on this planet. It is interesting that the issues of his day, 2500 years ago, are many of the same problems we are dealing with still today. He taught about ineffective government, rankest politics, the disparity of accumulated wealth, and the difficulties involved in mature interpersonal relationships. He even spoke about integration and immigration concerns of his day. He was a very modern man for his time. That his teaching extends so dynamically into “compassing and corrective action” indicates that he was wise in appreciating the concerns of the ordinary people on the streets and in the homes, of all classes, not just those that flocked around him as monks and nuns. His concerns were those that can resonate with us in the 21st century, both spiritual and corporal. And with the numbers he was able to attract in his public lectures, considering some of the controversial topics he spoke about, he was clearly a social activist in every meaning of the word. A man awakened to the issues of the day that brings unsatasfactoriness to so many, but offering a path away from this social-suffering by skillful means, not just clamor. As we navigate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life, the Buddha’s teaching can provide a way to see our way home. Indeed, the precepts of Buddhism can transform that navigation into something frankly wondrous: the life of a Buddha realized as our own life. And in so doing, avoiding the alienation of the growing number of have-nots from those few with almost all the advantages.

Being thoroughly educated and originally trained to become a ruler in his nation-state, Siddhartha was exposed to the conflicts and problems arising in the social sphere. This would have made him acutely aware of the complexities of social conditions and their moral and ethical underpinnings. He was an extraordinary person by conventional standards. I think his enlightenment integrated his character with a deep appreciation of all the various ways the Universe expresses itself, and the nature of human emotion and psychology gave him a deeper awareness of the nature of the roots to individual and social suffering. In all its aspects, not just birth, sickness, old age, and death.
We know that after his awakening, he remained in the world teaching for almost fifty years, developing skillful means to respond to the searching questions of his day. This is the nature of the Buddhist path. When we have mastered one situation, a new one presents itself and we are challenged to reflect on it with renewed thoughtfulness, using the tools we have developed to seek answers. In other words, we work to find the lessons. He had plenty of opportunities to see how his teachings were making a difference and to correct, redirect, broaden, and refocus them when necessary to achieve excellent results. I can only image that over those fifty years, his teachings evolved to better meet the challenges that each new situation presented.

Because his experience as an astute social observer became intertwined with his wisdom, it is worthwhile to study his teachings about social and economic conditions in relation to a spiritual practice and an ethical life. Many of those that came to ask question of him were not monastic’s. Many of the dilemmas they encountered remain relevant today and will remain relevant as long as human nature does not evolve away from its current state. He had to address the life questions that were of burning concern to the people coming to his discourses. He was directly confronted, you see. We are spoiled today with our mass communication options where we get our information without having to going to the source. Not so in his day. And we know from the Buddhist Cannon, they flocked to him. He was in many ways, a superstar of the spiritual world in Hindu culture.

One of the central observations Buddha made about the breakdown of the social fabric is that poverty is the chief cause of discontent, immorality and crime. Theft, violence, hatred, cruelty, financial trickery, all result from poverty. Poverty also restricts people from acquiring an education. It seems that ancient governments in India, like many governments today, tried to handle the social problems of the day through a less then equal set of measures that restricted liberties and imposed restrictions mostly targeted to the lower classes. Siddhartha said that attempts to control and solve social problems in this manner would ultimately fail. He related this to building a dam to hold back the water, but the barrier will always need to be there, and there will always be a threat of the water’s spilling over or sweeping the dam away. Buddha said that if you want to eradicate social problems, the economic conditions of the people have to be improved.

He encouraged people in businesses to provide adequate wages to their employees. He said that governments should make opportunities for everyone to be employed, for everyone to earn a sufficient income. It was in the governments best interest to do so, from both a socially-just perspective, as well as for the economic wellbeing of the state. When people are freed from their poverty, they rarely commit negative actions born from desperation. He said this is nothing more then common sense. He was astute enough to suggest that contented workers were more productive, enriching both themselves as well as the business owners. It could be a win-win situation.

While Buddha championed improvement of economic conditions, he clearly differentiated this from hoarding wealth. He taught about “just a right amount” of wealth. There should be enough to sustain oneself, some savings, and plenty to share appropriately with others. He actually spelled out how much of the earnings one should save, how much to operate with, how much to reinvest in one’s business, how much to give to people who are more needy. He did not just expound the lofty dharma; he also got nitty-gritty and pragmatic in his teachings. Sometimes he talked like a political-activists, sometimes like a street preacher, sometimes like a CPA. Remember, he was working among the people he would have been ruling one day, if he had not left that inherited role behind. If you will allow me to use some of the new terminology just now emerging from the conflict-dialog of today’s social unrest, it is important to understand that Siddhartha came from the 1%, but his teaching reflecting the sensitivities he awakened to of the suffering of the 99%. Remember, Buddhism is a conduit for understanding the world around us. Buddhism is not ultimately about Siddhartha, it is about us and how we are in this world in this very moment.

In the context of the teachings of the Eightfold Path, Siddhartha helped ordinary people by elaborating on the topic of right livelihood. Besides indicating what trades a person should avoid in order to actualize the innate harmony of this world, he spoke about the qualities one should cultivate in our work. When a student asked for doctrines that would help in attaining happiness and harmony in this lifetime, the Buddha listed four points pertaining to one’s profession. First, one should be skilled, efficient, honest, and energetic in what ever profession one engages in. One should thoroughly master it. Second, one should protect one’s income and savings, one’s home, the fruits of one’s efforts. Third, one should cultivate good friends, individuals who are honest, faithful, and open-minded, friends who reinforce the virtuous qualities of the dharma. Fourth, one should find the middle way in dealing with money: do not be extravagant, do not be self-abnegating he said.

Buddha also described four virtues that are conducive to happiness. A person should have trust and confidence in their moral, spiritual, and intellectual values. He put these in a specific order of importance, I think. Each one of us should keep these values conscious; we should really know what they are. We must think hard about what worldview we have been living our lives by, and make corrections if necessary that reflects the ethical and moral principles of our Buddhist practice we have professed to uphold. This is reflected in Zen training today when we make vows to keep the Buddhist precepts and when we periodically renew those vows, making our values conscious and public. I and every OEB monk do this every day as a part of our daily monastic service, something we share together. As we follow the Buddhist precepts, we are striving to develop the wisdom that leads to a complete cessation of suffering, both for ourselves and other.

On one occasion, while talking with a successful banker who was one of his disciples, Siddhartha offered him advice about circumstances associated with happiness. He pointed out that there are several types of contentment; the happiness associated with enjoyment of economic security and sufficient wealth that was acquired by just and righteous means; the happiness that comes form spending that wealth liberally on one’s self, one’s family, one’s friends, and on meritorious deeds; the happiness of being free from debts; and the happiness of living a faultless and pure life, without committing evil in thoughts, words, or deeds; of not creating evil karma. It is interesting that three of these four contentment’s are economic in nature, implying that the Buddha clearly saw that not all of his students were destined for the monastic life, and that there was a vital spiritual teaching and practice involving the secular laity too. Especially those who were in a position to do so much for the welfare of others.

Siddhartha was acutely aware of corruption in government. He knew about the hunger for, and the addiction to, power, and the vanity, intrigue, and malice that could infect rules, ministers, and local bureaucrats. He saw that when officials were corrupt and unjust, the whole country would fall into a state of economic and spiritual decline. Sound familiar? In his teaching “The Ten Duties of the King,” he establishes guidelines for an effective and just government. What he said about the duties of the king can easily be translated and applied as the duties of a president, a prime minister, the head of a union, the chief officer of a large corporation or a small business, a legislator, or a judge. It is applicable to that broad segment of society that wields power and in many ways and controls the lives of its people. And since all of us, whether we like it or not, have a role to play in our society, this teaching applies to each of us as we realize our responsibility to this great earth and to one another. Because we are agents-for-change.

But remember this, all of the Buddha’s teachings are really none other than the precepts: the vow to give life to the Dharma, to return to the heart of being. Any time we renew our precepts vows, we renew our ability to practice them more vigorously. Practicing them does not mean never violating them. It means practicing them, and like practicing with the breath, we are always starting fresh. This is right action. When we bring our practice into our communities, and onto the streets, we create an energy around us that is palpable to others. This practice is contagious.

We have a wonderful gift at our disposal in these teachings of the Buddha; we should vow together that this gift will continue to nourish all beings for countless eons to come.

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Awakening Revealed In Few Words

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

A monk ask, “What is liberation?”
Shitou replied, “Who has bond you?”
Another monk asked, “What is the Pure Land?”
Shitou said, “Who has polluted you?”
Another monk asked, “What is nirvana?”
Shitou said, “Who has given you birth and death?”

The great Chinese Zen Master, Shitou Xiqian, who lived in the eighth century was a key figure in the development of Ch’an Buddhism. Three of the five traditional schools of Chinese Zen can trace their lineage through his disciples down to the present day, including my own. Shitou taught that “what meets the eye is the Way” A very pragmatic worldview, and one that hints at the influence the Tao had on Buddhist thought and practice in his day.

Master Shitou is said to have had a great awakening while studying the Zhao Lun (A classic text of commentaries on the sutras). In that work he encountered a passage that said, “The one who realized that the myriad things are one’s own self is no different from the sages.” This realization inspired Shitou to write a number of verses, each more refined and elegant than the last as he worked to broaden his state of enlightenment further. Finally he choose just fifteen Chinese characters to represent the awakened wisdom of a mind free of distortion. In English it takes twenty two words to translate:
Each sense and every field
Interact and do not interact;
When interacting, they also merge —
Otherwise, they remain in their own states.

It is not my intent here to provide a full commentary of this verse. But I will give a broad hint as to how to begin to understand this simple, but very deep wisdom gained over many years of contemplation. Consider “each sense” as meaning a gate, entrance or even an exit point. The phrase “every field” means all-encompassing objects or things outside of ourselves, especially the sense organ of mind. That sense, while we can not touch, see hear, smell, or taste it, it can be imagined. Abstract concepts can be objects of mind. While we can not perceive these things, we can awaken to their reality. The sense organs and their objects are the totality of our lives, and when we learn to coordinate their inputs plus the exquisite functions of mind we can grasp the meaning of “emptiness.”

With this in mind, work to understand each word in this verse as an individual piece in the awakening puzzle and with their separate meanings established, fit them together, and in so doing you will see their individual forms disappear, and an awakened view of all reality emerge.


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Ask A Monk: Questions From the Cushion

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

From time to time I like to share with our Sangha some of the questions we receive either at our centers from the meditation hall, those ask during a one-on-one session with us, or by correspondence, and our answers to them. Perhaps these are some of the question you have been wondering about and have not ask, or the question reminds you of a similar topic you need clarification on. So in preparation I have researched my achieves of notes and correspondence and have selected what I think is a broad spectrum of subjects that might be of interest to those of you with a developing knowledge of Buddhism, or someone just showing an interests. The questions are taken from those not ask in confidence. Skillful means is called for in these types of question as the questioner often has limited knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practices, and an academic response is not called for. As you listen to the answers, test your own knowledge of the subject and how you might answer if given a chance. So, take out paper and pen and make some notes that you can use in the discussion period that will follow.

I’ll start by sharing with you questions I was ask by a University undergraduate student that contacted me asking for help on a research paper she was doing for a religions studies class.

1) What impact does the Eightfold Path have on your daily life? Does it come into play in your decision making?

A – The Eightfold Path is a practical guideline for leading an ethical and moral life with the goal of helping an individual move away from negative attachments and delusions. As a Buddhist monk in a socially engaged order the vows I undertook reflects all the underlying elements recognized in this path. They effect the way I view daily situations I encounter and influence the intent of my actions. I put great emphasis on the practical aspects of this path, and it is through practice that I can achieve dong good for myself and others. It most defiantly comes into play during decision making as I remain aware of how the path teaches wisdom, reflection on how my conduct must reflect ethical standards I have vowed to maintain, and also how following this path develops mental awareness. I view the Eightfold Path not to be considered as separate or sequence of single steps, instead they are highly interdependent principles that have to be seen in relationship with each other.

2) How big a part does meditation play in the Buddhist faith? Is it a daily activity, or reserved for special occasions?

A – First, let me say that it is easy when reading the available literature on Buddhism in this country, including textbooks, to have Buddhism referenced as a faith-based belief system. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was very clear that his teachings are to be based on what we are able to experience and verify in our own life. Considering Buddhism from a pragmatic perspective we consider it to be a practice-based philosophy with spiritual dimensions. It is up to the practitioner to realize their full potential.
Meditation, and specifically mindful meditation (Zazen), is a key component of the practice of Buddhism. The Buddha spoke often of the importance of training the mind to be aware, and meditation is the major aspect of this effort. I sit in meditation twice a day for forty minutes each as a part of my monastic service and practice-life. In all our centers we begin with a period of meditation generally lasting thirty or forty minutes before we move into other body-mind practices, like Qigong, before the Dharma talk. So, meditation is a major aspect of our Buddhist practice, and one the Buddha consider essential for developing an aware mind.

I think in America, and in the West in general, meditation is considered almost a necessary aspect of Buddhist practice, and as such, you will find in most of the Buddhist schools, some form of meditation. This is not necessarily the case in Asia, where meditation is generally practiced in the monasteries among the monks and nuns, but not among the laity. Meditation is encouraged to be a daily practice and not reserved for special occasions.

3) The rites of marriage and death are a significant part of most religions. How does Buddhism celebrate these or any other rites?

A – This is an excellent question. Very early in the Buddhist American experience, and especially as Zen Buddhism was introduced, the practice of rites was considered not necessary. In fact, Zen was considered to be without any structure almost. But now we know this was not the case. Rites, ceremonies, and ritual practices can be found in most all Buddhist schools worldwide. Among the rituals regularly performed in most Buddhist centers and monasteries, we can distinguish between those that are practiced on a daily basis and other periodic rites that are less frequent and in some ways therefore considered special. Of the rites that are performed periodically and considered special would be those associated with marriage and death. And each school has their own ritual based practice prescribed for these occasions. Continue reading


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Understanding The Dharma: Multi-Dimensional Aspects To Buddhist Study

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 曦 肯

As informed and educated beings when we respond to a new interest we first work to achieve some understanding in order to know how to engage it’s potential usefulness in our lives. While there are many ways that we can facilitate this understanding, from my experience it is generally done in the beginning through reading or listening to an awakened teacher. Today I would like to speak to you about how we may consider approaching the study of Buddhist thought from our reading and self-directed research. After all, many of us started our Buddhist life as “book-Buddhists”.

English language books on Buddhism have increased in number since they began to be published in the nineteenth century. Until very recently, virtually all of them have taken one of two distinct contemporary forms, either they put themselves within the modern scientific tradition in order to analyze the history and sociology of Buddhism, or from a more romantic sense as they attempt to transmit the truth and transformative nature of traditional Buddhist principles. As Buddhism engages our Western culture we often encounter current re-prints of older Asian publications that also gives us a chance to study Buddhism from an Eastern perspective. It is my reading-experience that each of these forms have tended to criticize the other severely. From a scientific point of view, romantic transmissions of Buddhism are simply inaccurate. They project forms of Buddhism more in line with contemporary non-secular ideals than with anything that has ever existed in Asia, and often miss the spiritual aspects of Buddhism. And from a romantic point of view, scientific studies miss the point of Buddhism altogether. They inadvertently transmit the mentality of a modern science worldview, and do nothing to awaken the mind, or alleviate unsatisfactoriness, for that matter. The scientific motive for the study of Buddhism is to obtain accurate knowledge of our world – awakening defined as a thorough understanding of world culture and history. The romantic motive for the study of Buddhism is to give us a breakthrough to a new kind of experience – awakening defined as a fundamental transformation of the human body-mind. These approaches seemed to be irreconcilable until recently.

If scientific rationalism and modern romanticism can now be seen to share a similar worldview, the perspective from which this can be seen is no longer completely within either one of them and therefore in some sense has created a stronger platform from which to study Buddhism from our contemporary experience. And it is this new development that has acted to create platforms like Pragmatic Buddhism, the American Ch’an tradition that I was trained under by the Ven. Dr. Shi Yong Xiang, my root teacher. The quest to understand what Buddhism is without understanding cultural influences is analogous to the academic demand to set aside all personal preferences and just examine the information, or read the text, in and of itself. Our minds are context-dependent; they come to a particular form of understanding that they do within particular cultural and historical settings. As we read and study available Buddhist books we have the obligation to take care to also understand the cultural and social references, as well as the perspective, of the author. We do not just read for pleasure. We read for understanding and assimilation into our own worldview. In the language of Zen, it calls forth “the one who is right now reading,” and refuses to allow the reader to cling to his or her own invisibility. The dharma is transmitted to each generation through the process of the human connection. Transmission is the process through which all forms of culture, including Zen awakening to the dharma, makes their way from one generation to the next, one form leading to a transformed other and to another, without end. It is another example of our causal Universe at work. Here I am using the word “transmission” to mean universal understanding of the dharma (or what is real), not the formal transmission you may be more familiar with where a teacher passes on to their Dharma-hire the “teaching” style and methods of a particular school. The dharma is transmitted in many ways, and those of us that have stepped onto the path have opened ourselves up to receiving Siddhartha’s legacy when we became receptive to its relevance in our lives. 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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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.

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