Tag Archives: Heart Sutra

A Pragmatic View Of Dualism

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

When we apply a rigorous study of contemporary pragmatic philosophy to Buddhist thought we find a new way of reconstructing notions the ancient mind had of their worldview. Chief among some of these ideas was the tendency to interpret the world and personal experiences in terms of dualism. These included not only the idea of mind and body functions but also to objects, nature, actions, and human essence, to mention just a few. Their belief was that all these concepts of what was happening around them involved two fixed entities that, when clearly understood, totally excluded each other. The Buddha applied a pragmatic frame of reference and saw the error in their approach when he came to realize that the elements of these so-called pairs all coexist with each other both in the world and in our validated experiences, so that thinking of them as mutually exclusive makes this actual coexistence into a kind of mystery. When we apply the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination (or Dependent Co-arising), as well as the modern lessons science provides, it helps clear up some of this ambiguity.

What is needed, from a pragmatic point of view, is a reexamination of dualism for the purpose of overcoming this mystery. A useful approach is to consider first that thought and conscientiousness are not individual elements of brain function and that the concrete reality is that human beings think in a single stream of functionality as a living organism. Ideas of a dualistic nature of the thought process are no more than abstractions taken out of their physiological context and turned into fixed and independent parts. A second step in undermining dualism is to shift attention away from understanding objects, nature, actions, human essence, and so on in terms of their having a fixed essences that defines them in terms of the characteristic ways in which they function, and the roles they play in the concrete processes of the intent of their actions. We learn not to make distinctions. Take the act of thinking for example. There is no idea devoid of a thought and no thought without some conscious content. Concept of thought and its subject become a dualism when they are abstracted from the thinking process and each is viewed only as a separate entity excluding the other.

The Buddha came to the pragmatic reality that even the nature of our human expression is devoid of a dual nature. The doctrine of not-self recognizes that there is no permanent and everlasting nature that is know as ‘self’. Although, as expressions of the Universe, the elements that define our form return to express themselves in new ways. This is the interconnected and interdependent nature of the Universe which is void of any dualistic aspects. Name and form have no self-nature and are void of a duel-nature. This is what is meant in the Heart Sutra as emptiness. (I now prefer to use the term “unity”) We can say that this world comes out of Universal unity and eventually returns to that same reality. Viewing the foot as separate and distinct from the body is not logical. So why do be try to find the duel nature of what we see as individual things. Our Buddhist practice ultimately comes to awaking to the reality that everything is the all encompassing.

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Shattering The Glass Ceiling Of Our Minds

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we speak about zazen, mindful meditation, or meditation in general we must learn to be aware that throughout the history of Buddhism expositions of meditation typically group varies practices under two different styles. The first one has the goal of deep concentration, the second with the goal of insight into the nature of reality. When we engage the literature on meditation we often find that certain practices, especially in Ch’an/Zen, teach that the two goals can be practiced in a single process. But many contemporary teachers consider concentration and insight separately, especially with students first learning to meditate. In my own teaching experience when working with non-Buddhist groups, like seniors or in my prison ministry, I myself make a distinction because it avoids complications.

The practice of concentrating on an object, like your breath or a thought or a sound, is used as the focus for sustained attention. As meditation on concentrating the mind gains in strength, the body-mind state achieved moves away from the object and distractions decrease until a state called serenity (samatha) is attained. Most traditions that subscribe to various concentration techniques regard this as the minimal level of a meditative mind-state for experiencing an awakened awareness. I am careful not to use the word enlightenment for this level of meditation. But it is only the first of many states of ever-deepening mental focus that has the benefit for experiencing awakened moments off the cushion (or on). The Buddhist literature abounds with examples of this style of progressive mental training. We should not consider this style of meditation as originating from what Siddhartha (Buddha) used in his practice. Techniques in concentration were most certainly used by Siddhartha when he practiced yogic training from his teachers Alara Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. The Buddha did seem to indicate that he came to understand that these mental states are still apart of samsara and should not be mistaken for liberation from suffering, as those Hindu masters he encountered early in his forest experience taught. The Buddha was always teaching caution when talking to others about interpreting their own self-created mental states. He said that one must not only have mental training that comes from a meditation practice, but also wisdom to know the difference between reality and ego driven mental distortions.

When I speak about wisdom relative to our meditation practice I am not referring to accumulated knowledge, but to a specific insight into the nature of reality itself. Master Dogen described zazen as the study of the self, when we gain insight into ourselves as a result, we gain insight into the world around us. Our ignorance of considering a permanent state of self-existence is overcome and we awaken to our universal nature. The wisdom that arises from hearing and understanding what we study of the dharma (pragmatic wisdom) is heightened from a body-mind honed through concentrated meditation. This wisdom that arises from meditation refers specifically to insight into the nature of reality by a mind concentrated at the level of serenity. It is this wisdom that is able to cut through our delusions thus reducing the unsatisfatoriness that keeps us back from experiencing an awakened mind. This state of body-mind is called insight or discernment (vipasyana). I relate this state of mental practice as contemplative practice. With a body-mind trained in silencing the everyday mind-chatter which achieves a state of serenity, we can move our meditation practice forward through a practice of insight meditation that over time achieves greater states of insight into ourselves as well as how the Universe is expressing itself around us. The Heart Sutra points to this practice as moving away from form to emptiness. Not from something to nothing, but away from seeing only the shadows thrown by reality itself.

The first step in developing a dedicated meditation practice is to train the mind to be still, and to sit in silence. Clear mind it is called. With this achieved we can move to using this silence to gain insight and discernment. The initial experience of focusing on mental external “objects” reveals that, like things seen in a dream, they are not disconnected and independent from the reality of a notion of self. If there are no real separate “objects,” there can’t be a real separate observer. Therefore, the duality of perceived and perceiver is shown to be a fiction. It is only our minds that make this separation by thinking it is separate and permanent. Our challenge in gaining this insight is to understand that EVERYTHING is connected and interdependent, or empty of a permanent existence. Yet, and this is the Buddhist paradox, we must still walk the path of self and other too; the only way we can get through our everyday lives on this planet we call earth. When we come to understand this, we have achieved the wisdom that drives our awakened moments, and break the glass ceiling holding our mind captive.

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Book Review: Living by Vow

By: Mn. Dr. Brian Jin-Deng Kenna

Living By Vow written by Shohaku Okumura is a wonderful guidebook for any Zen Buddhist Practitioner. Master Okumura has brought the Zen Master out of Japan and into our living room as he weaves some of the common Soto Zen chants and text around the core Buddhist principals as reflected in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Okumura uses his vast knowledge of the Japanese language, customs and culture, mixed into a blender with his years of experience teaching in the West to produce a book that is both practical and relevant for a Buddhist practice in the 21st Century.

Starting with the Bodhisattva Vows, Okumura covers 8 of the chants and vows most central to Soto Zen, and by extension, the Mahayana tradition. Within each chapter of Living by Vow, Okumura provides lessons based on his years of experience and understanding of Buddhist principals. As he gives us a history lesson of the meaning of the English, Japanese and Sanskrit words, and relating them to different legacy teachers interpretations and lessons, or his own, he is breathing new life into chants whose words can become stale over time.

Okumura dedicates 75 pages to the chapter on the Heart Sutta. One of the core fundamental Suttas in Zen Buddhism, yet one of the most difficult to really and truly comprehend. Perhaps a quote from this particular chapter will bring this review full circle:

“In Bodhisattva practice we try to see the reality before separation. When we see the reality of our life, we find that we are not living as an individual substance but are more like a phantom, a bubble, or a flash of lightning, as the Diamond Sutra says. We are phenomena caused by many different elements and factors. We live with the support of all beings. This dynamic interpenetration works constantly. Nothing exists independently. We live together in this universal movement. Our existence is movement. We have to accept this ever-changing reality as our self.” 1  (pg. 189)

As the title states, this is a practical book. Okumura is giving us direct instructions and ways and means that support all aspects of our Buddhist practice. From chanting, to meditation, to making the vows we take real and personal. Not just static words that are recited at a ceremony, but vows and lessons that we should take with us on our personal journey each and every day.

I would absolutely recommend this book for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike. It is a book that one will want to read many times for the important insights on the human condition and Zen practice it contains. If you desire to become more intimate with your Zen practice this book will become a regular source of knowledge and encouragement.


1 Living By Vow, by Shohaku Okumura and Edited by Dave Ellison.  Wisdom Publications 2012

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