Tag Archives: Eightfold Path

It’s Always Best To Start At The Beginning

By: Venerable Dr. Brian Shen-Jin Kenna

“It’s always best to start at the beginning – and all you do is follow the Yellow Brick Road.”1

As Buddhist monks when we begin to start to engage the Scriptures it can seem a daunting task.The common thoughts that arise in one’s mind could be: Where to begin? What should be the first book and where should we begin reading? Should we start at the “beginning?” Where exactly is this ‘beginning’?

This is not only a practical problem, it is also a conceptual and interpretive problem. Wherever we choose to begin sets in motion a way of seeing, one which inevitably will highlight some aspects of what we explore and push some others into the shadows.

So what is a monk or teacher to do? How do we learn to understand this information before we can ever consider transmitting it to our students?

In Christianity the Bible is often referred to as the Word of God. As Buddhists we too can take this approach to scripture seeing them as the word of the Buddha or Buddavacana. Certainly a good first place to begin studying would be with the life of the Buddha. We can find scriptures detailing how he lived, what he thought, what he taught to his followers. By taking a scholarly approach we can begin to see the Buddha’s life and times not only from Buddhist sources but also other historical and religious sources that characterized the time in which he lived.

Within the scriptures themselves there are many biographies of the Buddha that one could start with. In the Ariyapariyesana sutta,“The Noble Search”, we hear from the Buddha himself as he recalls the start of his own journey down this path we are all traveling.

“I, too, monks, before my Awakening, when I was an unawakened bodhisattva [a buddha-to- be], being subject myself to birth, sought what was likewise subject to birth. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, I sought [happiness in] what was likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow… defilement. The thought occurred to me, ‘Why do I, being subject myself to birth, seek what is likewise subject to birth?’ Being subject myself to aging… illness…death… sorrow… defilement, why do I seek what is likewise subject to illness… death… sorrow…defilement? What if I, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, were to seek the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding [Nirvana]? What if I, being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness…death… sorrow… defilement, were to seek the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less,unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding?”

“So, at a later time, while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life — and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces — I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”

“Having thus gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Alara Kalama and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kalama, I want to practice in this doctrine discipline.’” Continue reading


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Right Listening: Companion To Right Speech

By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯

I want to speak to you today about one of the most important dimensions to the Eightfold Path’s element of Encompassing & Corrective Speech. I am thinking about the learned skill of listening. I say learned skill, because it is truly a skill that requires special development. It seems, we are not born with this particular tool for communication. Listening requires taming the ego-driven addiction to being center stage, and always trying to overcome another’s “air time”. To speak is to articulate words that convey meaning, and to listen is to be aware of the words being spoken. Human speech is a process then that requires both speaking and listening simultaneously in order to express ideas, emotions, instructions, desires, and other quite human expectations to others. It is of great importance in human relations. So, when Siddhartha Gotama spoke about Right Speech, he was including both sides of the communication equation; listening as well as skillful means of intentional speech.

When we think of all the ways we can cause trouble between individuals, it can be due to refusing to talk with someone, not making ourselves clear when we speak to them, or not listening to them undistracted so we can respond back in an intelligent fashion. If we speak to others and listen when they talk, we develop the possibility of mutual connection, understanding and acceptance. Speech and listening are like all other phenomena in the Universe, they are subject to the rules of causality. In the ordinary way of experiencing things, when something good appears, we have a positive reaction, and when something bad appears, we have a negative reaction. When we listen to others we experience a body-mind moment, that over time, will effect our actions, either knowingly or unknowingly. Thus, the Buddha’s concept of Right Speech pertains mainly to the ethical dimensions of speech, to the importance of the subject matter of what we have to say. But the Buddha was also concerned with how we speak, with those qualities that can make our words a positive and productive means of human communication. The Buddha always talked in a way that was ‘serious and beneficial for opening the mind’ as we hear expressed so often throughout the Pali Nikayas. He instructed his monks to speak without rambling and in a gentle tone, and to use language that is polished, clear, free-flowing, meaningful, comprehensive and unbiased. As we speak it is important to connect with whom we are speaking in order to gauge their reaction that gives us clues to how we are being understood. In other words, how are they listening. Speaking in such a manner makes ordinary social interactions more pleasant and harmonious, and teaching the dharma in such a way makes it more attractive and convincing too, I might add. Continue reading

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Sacredness Of Work

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I would like to speak to you today about one of the lessons in the Buddha’s teachings on the Eightfold Path. And that one is on right livelihood. In fact I would like to modify the description by changing the word “right” with encompassing and corrective. By doing so I am being both pragmatic and also modernizing the language. “Right” becomes two words, encompassing reminds us that our actions will have wide ranging effects, positive, negative or neutral, and corrective reminds us that these are the actions necessary to make positive changes necessary in order to move away from unsatisfactoriness and discontentment.
When we consider livelihood, or the major activity we engage in to sustain our own and our family’s welfare, as individuals on a spiritual path, we must also think of it as the sacredness of work. Just as time orders and measures our life’s activities, work orders our life’s purpose and the resources we require. Our work contains an innate dignity when it is truly connected to self — when our creativity finds concrete expression in what we do, how we shape our environment, in the fruits of our efforts. Work is sacred and uplifting when it springs from who we are, when it bears a relationship to our unfolding journey. For work to be sacred, it must be connected to our spiritual awareness. Our work has to represent our passion, our desire to contribute to our culture, especially to the development of others. By passion I mean the talents we have to share with others, the talents that shape our destiny and allow us to be of real service to others in our community.

It is this balance that enhances the sacredness of work, because it allows our talents, our innate creative passions to express themselves positively for the benefits of others. The root of this balance is purity of INTENTION: the state of the heart itself, that point within the depths of our subjectivity from where motivation springs. It is a noble aspiration to contribute to the improvement of the world in some meaningful way. It’s simply not enough to be successful economically; our lives have to possess meaning and value in relation to our community. I will repeat what you have heard me say before, we our social-selves first and foremost. This goes to the lesson on interdependence and connection with others that is how we can see ourselves as expressions of the Universe.

For someone on a spiritual path, work plays a central role, as our work should be, or nearly always will be, meaningful. All our activities require regular, creative effort — the real key to meaningful work. As long as what we do is good for the world, the important thing is that we do it well, with a creative and discipline mind always returning to the larger good. Labor is a disciplined activity, and while engaged in it, we strive to be conscious of our purpose, and the outcomes of our actions.

Now as you know I am not a temple monk anymore, but one that lives in the world. I like to say my life is my monastery. In fact, it is not unusual for either a Christian or Buddhist monk to live away from their monastery. I strive to be equally self sufficient in both my contemplative living and how I work and interact in my community; for my community. I am very fortunate to have variety in how my practice becomes “my work.” No matter what I do I strive to make my work sacred. It has not always been that way. And I have been just as caught up in struggling to achieve success as most everyone else. Especially my “work” as an author, teacher, and monastic leader. But I have accepted a different frame of mind mostly as a result of my dedicated meditation practice. You do not have to be a monk, or spiritual leader, or a priest to find the sacredness of work. It is found in any work you are engaged in, as long as it does not promote unsatisfactoriness.

For this to manifest within our commitment to earning a living, our task is always the same: to bring light to an activity and dimension of our ordinary experience that is often darkened by the uncaring coldness of the economic realities in our culture. Consistency in each moment and experience is the goal, not the fragmented existence that oppresses our culture these days. Consistency through the discipline of a spiritual life and the application to our work and the people we meet is the ultimate goal in career and work. When we meditate on a consistent basis we develop the capacity for developing a state of calm, even serenity. When that is brought into the work place it both effects how you approach your tasks, as well as all those you come in contact with. It is motivating and enhances the encompassing and corrective actions we strive to maintain. It is a single mindedness that guides us into a steadiness of action, a habit of spiritual life that colors our work, our family, our friendships, and all our interests.

Perspective, the gift of vision, gives us a powerful determination to live out of the center of our awareness. Determination is the key. And how do we increase our determination? We need to become more single minded in our practice, to develop and maintain the requisite perspective in every situation. I continue to strive toward that goal. It is not easy, but with practice, achieving some positive results will come. Ultimately all our activities are opportunities for growth, including the important function of work.

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When Is Social Disobedience Skillful Means?

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

There is a fine line between skillful action and speech, and that which is not. In our Buddhist practice we our encouraged to internalize the Eightfold Path for its power to energize our pledge to live according to the Three Pure Precepts. Both of these Buddhist principles require rigorous action on our part in order to effect positive and useful change. But it is difficult sometimes to know when our actions cross over the line from cultural and civilized expectations to social discord. This is where situational ethics comes into play to guide our actions from a platform of wisdom. I speak often about situational awareness because of its vital importance for informing us of how our intended actions are encompassing and corrective, or not.

Someone once said that those who are not students of history are doomed to repeat it. I am reminded of this wise statement when I read about what is happening in St. Louis currently, the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, and other action in communities reacting to unjust experiences according to their interpretation of events. I say movement because that is what it looks like to me. Not well formed yet, and in many ways a bit disturbing, but a movement nevertheless. I am old enough to remember the 60’s “cultural revolution” as it is referred to now, and what is happening now looks a lot like how cultural change takes root. As the world struggles to find a way to move from the anxiety of this decade of financial crisis, as we are reminded daily of millions who live in poverty, joblessness, or plunging personal worth, while corporate greed seems unabated, we are tempted to withdraw and to close our ears and our eyes to the troubling sights and sounds of protest that is far away from our community.

“Things” are in the saddle and ride us, said Thoreau. These “things” include not only material objects and desires, but also our subservience to our politics, our nationalism, our own ideas, and our own convictions of what is just or unjust. Engaging the dharma is not always easy, or even comfortable. It seems to me that we are living in another significant time of social and cultural change. Or at least, a time of questioning our communal-social values. We must keep informed of what is happening around us, so we can engaged the issues of our day with thoughtfulness and encompassing and corrective action.

Injustice ultimately is not converted into justice by governmental or social agencies. Those agencies are simply weapons against injustice. Injustice is converted to justice only by the passion for justice we become awakened to, and expressed in our actions. Expressing this in action that can be interpreted as social disobedience is sometimes the only alternative, and can result ultimately in positive outcomes. This style of action calls for considerable caution.

Let us seek to keep our minds free from the bondage of habit, class distention, and the comfort of too easy a conscience. May we listen to the voice of reason within each of us which allows us to judge not by the name of goodness, but by the nature of goodness, to know how to do good for ourselves and for the welfare of all beings. And then take intentional action with some idea of cultural expectation, even if that action challenges the status quo and the power that maintains it. Social disobedience is not outside the confines of walking the dharma path either, but during these types of action we must still keep firmly in mind the Three Pure Precepts. The value of harm is also a situational ethical construct, and the karmic reality is always interwoven in all our actions – on both sides of the cultural divide.

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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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