Tag Archives: meditation

Zazen Is Not The Better Way

By: David Xi-Ken Shi 曦 肯

I greatly respect the life experience reflected in the teachings of Master Dogen, especially when I open my mind to what he is pointing at when I get his 13th century language out of the way. This is the challenge that all serious students have when reflecting on what our legacy teachers have transmitted to us. It is the nature of their karma. Master Dogen taught that zazen is the key to our awakening. I bow to his wisdom. But why do I say then that “zazen is not the better way?” This is yet another lesson of when the ideal meets the real. Some Zen teachers may even have said that zazen is not the better way, it is the only way. The problem with this statement is in using the words better or only.

The important point here is for us to understand what zazen really means. Zazen is pointing to our universal natures, or that we are expressions of the universe. The practice of mindful meditation can be a bridge to zazen, just as what we “do” in each moment off the cushion can be a bridge to awakened moments when our body-mind is ready. Zazen is expressed in how we are when we do enough work on the cushion to establish a clear and abiding mind transformation without making unnecessary distinctions, or thinking. I express this as saying that Buddhism is about subtraction not addition. We learn to subtract from our ordinary mind-state so we can become ready to move beyond it to an extra-ordinary mental experience. This can achieve a body-mind state that is natural to our human-beingness. The reality of this universal self is not to run away from either the good or unsatisfactory situations we may encounter in the moment. When we establish a mental attitude of life where our Buddha nature lives from states of reality rather than self imposed notions of a set of ideals, we awaken to acknowledge that a healthy worldview accepts a world just as it is. While ideals may be a part of our worldview platform, they are only blueprints that we take with us into the real world experience. Reality reflects a life lived with varied scenery. These various scenes unfold as they have been driven by the causal-chain of events we are honing in our practice on the cushion. A healthy and harmonious mind accepts things as they are. No better, no bad, no only. It just is when we get ourselves out of the way and move into a mental state capable of “becoming.” This is why I say that zazen is not the better path. The reality of our lives that zazen wakes us up to is really a life that comes from our natural self, and a now that is only the now we can fully trust as being real. Our past experiences, and any thoughts of future expectations, only can prepare us for the present moment. All else is an illusion. When we base our lives on distinguishing between the better way and the worse way, we will never find a peaceful mind that whatever happens is all right. There is no end in looking for “the better.”

Zazen is pointing us to the lessons of interdependence, universal connectiveness, impermanence, and a way of moving away from floundering in desperation. Shikantaza means just sitting and Dogen used both expressions to teach the nature of meditation as a vehicle for transformation beyond the ordinary. However, zazen as Dogen Zenji used it in a broader sense indicates the reality that is manifested in practice. Zazen is about refining how we are. A delineated best path does not exist for universal life. There is only the direction of natural causal forces as they influence our life. This is equally true of zazen as a practice we may choose. So how can it be better, when how we are is our natural state of being all along. We just must come to realize this reality. So zazen is like a mirror too. How we come to see what is reflected is up to our ability to awaken to what is real. “Just like this.”

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Intimacy With Unity Of All Things

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

 In a wonderful Tibetan Buddhist story, a man tells his friend about an extraordinary spiritual teacher he has met. Although this friend is curious about this teacher, he is also somewhat skeptical, so he decides to seek out this holy man and put him to the test. After asking around, he discovers the master is living and teaching nearby, so the young man goes to see him and manages to obtain an audience with him. He defiantly walks before the teacher, and before he can catch himself, blurts out a challenge: “Show me God! Prove to me that he exists!”

The saintly master calmly extends his hand and, in a soothing, inviting tone, says, “Come with me.” The young person takes the teacher’s hand, in the Asian sign of friendship, and off they go to the neighborhood lake. As they reach the place, the teacher leads the man into the water and tells him to dive in. Then the master does something even stranger. He holds the mans head under the water. As the minutes pass, the man tries three times to come up, but the Lama holds his head firmly submerged. Finally, on his fourth attempt, the teacher lets him out of the water. The poor soul bursts out of the water, gasping for air. “What are you trying to do, kill me?” he yells at the saint. The holy man looks at him with infinite compassion and lovingly, patiently responds: “Forgive me if I caused you undue anxiety, but when your desire for God is as desperate as your desire for air, for your very breath, then you will find the source for Creation!”

This powerful story dramatically illustrates the importance of commitment in the spiritual life. No genuine progress is possible without it. Such a commitment expresses itself in the discipline of regular, daily spiritual practice that paves the way for breakthroughs, for the miracles of grace to happen.

Spiritual practice is the core of our transformation, and it requires what can be called the contemplative attitude, a disposition to life of mystical depth. Spiritual practice often means meditation and other forms of inner exploration. It can also mean prayer. Silence and solitude – the seeking of illumination and wisdom – are further parts of the contemplative experience, a process of our ultimate evolution, our unfolding to higher states of awareness. To understand how this process can unfold in our lives, we need to explore its elements.

This is what I hope we are doing here at OEB. Our personal experiences provides us an opportunity to gain knowledge. Application of knowledge, when done in the spirit of right intent, is wisdom. We live in a mutual causal world. Everything happens as an effect of another action. Either human or not. It started at the moment our Universe was created. We are here as a result of that original event. Everything we think or do is a continuation of that action. Even our deaths contribute to this Universal expression. It is up to us to discover the contemplative dimension of life and experience what it means to be human on a mission to understand the unity of all things.

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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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Red Bird On The Fence

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

Buddhist philosophy and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, but there is a real difference, especially in how we internalize them in our practice. The term spirituality for me refers to an individual’s solitary seeking for and becoming awakened to the deeper nature of the relationship between self and the greater reality of the Universe. Spirituality is about reflecting on the mystery of life. A mystery is beyond language to explain, no matter how hard we try. One reason we developed mathematical symbolism to express complex thought. It involves direct experience or realization of vast awareness beyond language to express. Spirituality carries with it a conviction that how we view the world around us is limited by our human limitations, and it requires some sort of spiritual transformation that acts as a catalyst for us to achieve an inner awakening in order for us to achieve our full potential. It is primarily personal, but it also has a social dimension. Spirituality derives from inner contemplation, and can be awakened at any time during our lifetime.

For thousands of years before the dawn of the world religions became social organisms, man’s spiritual life thrived. I can just imagine one of our early ancestors stepping out of his cave one dawn morning and encountering an intense sunrise. That experience could have sparked an inner awakened moment that many have caused intense emotions; emotions that all humans are capable of experiencing, even for pre-historic man. This human experience which underpins all genuine spiritual practice, is what the Buddha also experienced that special morning when he became transfixed on the morning-star; his moment of enlightenment. But we can also find similar stories of awakening to something special in the life of Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed. It is interesting that Siddhartha and the others experienced there life changing spiritual revelation when absolutely alone, and most likely in deep contemplation.

Our minds are awakened, or jarred awake, when we too begin to comprehend the significance of Siddhartha’s new worldview, as we begin to validate our experiences with those of an extraordinary man that lived 2500 years ago. It is therefore quite natural and appropriate that spirituality should become more primary in our practice as we grow in our understanding of the Buddhist teachings and discover more substantial and ultimate nourishment in the living reality of the dharma. We need the Buddhist teachings, yet we need direct inner spiritual development in order to strike a balance in our practice. A philosophical and academic Buddhist education are valuable carriers supporting an ethical and moral platform for our personal and community life, but they must not be allowed to choke out the breath of the human drive to seek spirit and wonder that acts as the driver for enriching the human hart. Continue reading

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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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Ideas Aren’t The Real Thing

by: David Xi-Ken Astor

As we engage mindful meditation and insight practice in the beginning of our encounter with zazen we are taught that there are different ways of understanding the states of mind that can be realized during periods of meditation.  If our initial study of meditation is gained through books, we quickly read about terms like no-mind, quiet the mind, oneness, and realize your true nature.   Unfortunately, all these terms can add to our confusion about a contemplative practice because we come to think about them as things to be acquired or achieved.   We Westerns feel comfortable with this approach because we know how to go about getting something that we consider substantial, either as a material object or a tangible achievement.  No problem, because with a little bit of hard work we earn the right to grab the golden ring.   Then we have something to show for our efforts, an object, even if that object is a certificate.

Because of our mental confusion, we quickly trap ourselves by trying to make our experience match our ideas.  The notion of a quiet mind is a good example.  We think we know what “quiet the mind” means.   We assume there is a mind, that it can be made quiet, and that if we work hard we can do it.  Usually when we think of a quiet mind, we have some notion that we have stopped the thinking process and that this state of mind is sustained over time.  This would suggest that we have stopped being aware too, because thoughts come from awareness.  With this idea, individuals can spend years trying to get rid of thoughts so that their experience will match their idea of quiet mind.

For those of us that have dedicated ourselves to zazen for years (decades even), it is kind of sad to see others mired in a helpless quest for the experience they think they should be able to get, but can’t.  True, from the perspective of noisy mind there is a state of less noise for them.  But in experiencing a deep sense of quiet, there is no awareness between quiet or active mind.   Old Zen masters would say we come to realize mind as “Just like this.”  It exists only from the perspective of the knowing mind.  Enlightenment is as well, existing only as an idea held by the mind of separation.  Oneness exists only from the perspective of two-ness.  We must awaken to the lessons that point to no-mind found in understanding the difference between the dual and the non-dual.

It is essential that we have aspirations in our Buddhist practice.  But these are only pointers, like the North Star helping us to point the spiritual path we tread headed in the right direction.  Experience can’t always be expressed with words.  What is the experience of eating an orange for example?  How do you put in words the feeling when you look into a baby’s eyes.  What is loving kindness feel like?  If we think our conceptual understanding touches the real thing, we are like someone watching a video of someone ascending the Himalaya Mountains who thinks they understand mountain climbing.

Instead of trying to match your conceptual understanding with what you imagine as real, cultivate great doubt.  To do this, let go of ideas.  When we have no ideas, we position ourselves for the potential of realizing our unique Universal expression.  The Buddha nature that encompasses the spirit and wonder inherent in the face we see in our mirror.  Or is it the face behind the face reflected back to us like the reflection in a clear pond?

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