Tag Archives: pragmatic buddhism

What Does Buddhism Mean To You?

By: David Xi-Ken Astor

I get ask frequently to explain the basics of Buddhism. This is normal for a teacher and Buddhist monk. I’m use to it. But it is never an easy question, because I don’t have easy answers. When I’m ask, I try to quickly determine what the person “really” wants to hear. What is their perception? Because you see, everyone has some sort of idea of what they think Buddhism may be. After all, Buddhism has been in the West, and especially in America, for over a century now. Words like Zen, Tibetan, Dalai Lama, mindful meditation, karma, rebirth, and causality have been in the English language for quite awhile. Not to mention the iconic images of the Buddha. Buddhism is not a foreign word. It is one of those words that you think you know what it is until you are ask to explain it.

For years now I and my dharma brother, Wayne Ren-Cheng Shi, have been at this task as is evidenced in our effort on our EDIG site, my teaching here on this site, in our public speaking, our interfaith outreach, and our published works. We work hard each day to help others to understand Buddhist thought and practice. We learn much along the way that nourishes our own practice too.

Now it is your turn to give us feedback by posting a comment in a few sentences of what Buddhism means to you. We are most anxious to hear from you as we get energy from our readers open dialogue. If you have personal questions, or wish to speak privately, you may email me directly at orderengagedbuhhdists@gmail.com.

We don’t get many comments posted on this site although we have many subscribers.  We would really like to hear from you as it gives us a chance to know what your interests are and how we may offer teachings that address your interests and concerns.

Thank you, and I send positive thoughts your way.

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Changing Weeds Into Nourishment

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

According to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life report a growing number of people while not considering themselves as affiliated with any particular religion do not, however, consider themselves as atheists or agnostic either. The report indicates that one in five American adults now have no religious affiliation. While some do consider their spiritual interests as agnostic, a larger number have no interest in identifying themselves in any way when it comes to how they identify with their spiritual thoughts. Pew has been doing this survey for some years now, and they have found that those considering themselves as “non-affiliated” has risen to 19 percent from 15 percent just five years ago.

The number breaks down like this: there are 46 million religiously non-practicing American adults including 13 million self-described atheists or agnostics, and 33 million who don’t identify with any organized religious or spiritual practice. What is interesting is that two-thirds of those non-practicing individuals do not deny that there is a God, and feel some feeling of a deep spiritual connection with nature. These people think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. A major factor for this growing trend is the aging of America, where there is a growing number of younger adults that have been raised in non-religious households. The younger generation is less religious, but yet not totally disconnected from a sense of spiritual thoughts either. What is interesting to me is that this younger generation are not seekers. When the researchers ask this generation if they had thoughts that humans have been pondering for centuries about some of the really hard question, they seemed to have little interest beyond immediate interests.
Another interesting trend being reported is that less then half of Americans now identify with any Protestant religion. So while America is becoming less religious, it is, however, one of the most religious among the developed countries. While may Americans seem to be dropping out of more organized religious interest, they seem to be changing also how they talk about religion. Today, we are more comfortable talking about our religious and spiritual beliefs, or disbeliefs, and how we interpret the world around us without any sense of shame or fear of cultural backlash. It is becoming the new norm. The one religious group that has remained consistent are the Catholic faithful. But this group only makes up 21 percent of the religious community.

This growing non-religious community is developing across all income, education, gender, and social class groups. But the younger generation is not the only segment of our society that is becoming less faith-based associated, many older Americans have increased their numbers too. Now 21 percent of “generation-X” and 15 percent of baby boomers call themselves unaffiliated. This growing trend will have unknown impact on future political and social justice issues. We are seeing cultural transformation taking shape in our lifetime.

As Buddhism in America, and in the West in general, gains cultural authority, and integrates into main-stream acceptability over time, opportunities for alternative spiritual interest based on a different philosophical construct rather than a theological one may attract attention among this group that has turned away from beliefs stuck in the past. The challenge for Buddhism is to not forget that Buddhism is by its very nature causality based and subject to change and renewal. We must take Siddhartha’s enlightened experience and put it into contemporary language in order to give it a chance to reflect back to us the modern lesson that science can teach. Buddhism thrives in this enriched soil of modernity. It is up to the growing number of American Buddhist teachers now to touch the spiritual nature residing inside all of us in the language that our contemporary society can recognize, and spark the flame waiting to be lit to burn down the weeds obscuring how we can nourish the self within. This may be what is missing for those growing up in a static religious experience. It is an uphill struggle for sure, but my experience is that when given a chance to present Buddhist principles to those discouraged by their past religious experience, a different worldview can emerge that just may be the spark that shines light on a new path that is as natural as breathing. Master Shunryu Suzuki put it this way, “…it is not to difficult to give some philosophical or psychological interpretation of our practice, but that is not enough. We must have the actual experience of how our weeds change into nourishment.”

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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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A Pragmatic Approach To The Search For Reality

By: David Xi-Ken Astor

Philosophy and truth is not that tightly linked. Its important to remember that seeking and identifying truths without correspondence to reality is not understanding that any philosophical view is only a tool which can result in varying conclusions depending on ones worldview, ability for conceptual thinking, and personal presuppositions, among other dispositions. It is interesting that many individuals come to expect a more significant connection between their philosophical thought and knowledgeable references to “how their world seems to be” than a more rigorous self validation of personal experiences that can expose the actual nature of universal realities as they are. There is a big difference between reality and appearance.

In the 21st century we are greatly influenced more then ever by scientific explanations of how universal realities are being understood and explained that gives an opportunity for us to pause and examine our own beliefs that drive how we see the world around us. This is especially relevant to our spiritual convictions, but not limited to just the interior life either, as all elements of human flourishing can/should be examined through the lens of modernity. If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that a large part of the “realities” we take for certainty are still those based on concepts considered truths and given language developed centuries ago before a clearer understanding of the human condition relative to the dependent nature of universal expressions as is now being reflected in ongoing research and discoveries. We should also keep in mind that the sciences are very good at explaining how and what something is, but has limited language to explain why something is the way it is.

This, in my view, calls for a pragmatic approach to the study of the self. If Buddhism is anything, it is pragmatic and has as one of its key principles the need for self-study in order to understand the self, and with that refinement of practice, we have the chance for deeper insight into the world around us. Our higher state of consciousness is awakened. If there is anything distinctive about the pragmatic nature of Buddhist thought and practice, it is the ability to substitute the notion that humans will evolve toward a better future for the notion of reason, goodness, unity and reality. This calls for a new metaphysic of man’s relation to the universe. Yet we must resist trying to define all aspects of transcendent realities at the same time. Siddhartha himself stopped at the wall of unknowing, and focused on the realities that promoted human flourishing as is reflected in establishing a life of harmony, health and happiness.

There is no one way to understand the world around us, and thus no one way it is to be accurately defined. But there are many ways to intentionally act to realize human expectations for happiness. Therein is the human challenge. From a pragmatic perspective, we can realize that thinking about how we come to understand something and gain knowledge makes truths as certainty unlikely. To avoid this paradox we must resist the need to define what we/others consider universal certainties as absolute Truths. We must be extremely careful when we make distinctions between scientific fact on the one hand and metaphysics, ideology and religion on the others. Having faith in something without validating them with our own experiences can be a quick path to delusion. In science the distinction is made between the theoretical and the experimental.

Validated realities is what is supposed to distinguish knowledge from well grounded opinion. Else those truths are only justified beliefs. But a “true” reality differs from one that is merely justified. Justified truths are only relevant to a specific audience and generally targeted toward a specific social or cultural agenda. While making these distinctions between justified beliefs and “validated” truths can be an interesting philosophical debate, it does not get us to a better place either. Science and religion are both respectable paths for acquiring a deeper spiritual wisdom, yet beliefs which are good for quite different purposes. There is no human thought or activity that can be called “knowing” which has a unique nature for us to discover. Although critical reasoning skills we posses is apart of what makes us human. When we speak about justified truths we are really speaking about a set of beliefs that are rules for action rather than an attempt to represent a set of realities. Although those that hold such beliefs most likely see them as absolute truths, thus universal realities too. One that believes will always be able to produce justification for their beliefs that also adheres to the world view of the community of followers. Justification for a specific set of beliefs has many mutual aims, but may not have an overarching aim called reality.

As a dedicated practicing Buddhist, where does all this leave us? It focuses us on how we come to understand how we know something, and how we care to define that knowledge. Siddhartha pointed the way when he spoke often on the need for us to “trust but verify” what he was teaching. He admonished his formal students to not just take his word for something, but to first work to understand the concept of what he was speaking about, then contemplate in quite mental thought its usefulness and then work hard in practice to validate what he was teaching through our own experiences. In that way we come to realize its true meaning. Just don’t take the Buddha’s word for something, or a specific sutra, or a venerable teacher. In other words, we are challenged to think for ourselves and not rely on trust or faith alone. We either make it our own or not. Of course, in the beginning of study we must trust our sources. As we begin to validate the lessons as constructive and real we step on the path to Wisdom. And that path gets us ready fore awakened moments. We stand on the shoulders of our teachers that acts as support to see beyond the horizon we could not experience until we become ready.

The pragmatic philosopher, Richard Rorty, put it this way, “The only point in contrasting the true with the merely justified is to contrast a possible future with the actual present.”

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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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Master Dogen: A Pragmatic Mind

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

It doesn’t take long for anyone new to Buddhist inquiry to encounter the name and lessons of the thirteenth century Japanese Zen Master Dogen. He is referenced all the time in Zen/Ch’an publications today. He is a Zen superstar, and is credited for establishing the Soto Zen school. His work is referenced by both Chinese, Japanese, and contemporary Western Zen Buddhist teachers today as representing how important mindful meditation (zazen) and a common sense approach for a serious practice is. He is very pragmatic in his approach to Buddhist thought. “Useful and productive” seems to be an underling theme throughout his teaching. He, of course, had no notion of the term ‘pragmatic’. While the term has been around for quite a few decades, it is also a modern philosophical construction arising from the American pragmatic movement in the nineteenth and twenty centuries. But Dogen’s path to development of a pragmatic perspective to life, and his subsequent worldview, was one that he cultivated over a period of years, especially in his travels and study in China.

Dogen was one of the major leaders in the Kamakura period’s revitalization of Buddhism in Japan. It was not an immediate consequence of his influence on the cultural changes that took place during this dynamic period in Japanese history, but one that required decades to accomplish. These changes, and the new Buddhist schools that emerged, had either direct or indirect roots in China. These new schools, including what was to become know as Soto Zen, emphasized the practical actions to be undertaken by both lay and monastic students stressing individual practice that was supported by a Sangha open to all. It was no longer just a monastic practice that was required for coming to a realized state of body-mind. What was more important was establishing a strong student/teacher relationship. In order to do this, authenticated teachers were encouraged to make themselves open to those outside the walls of a temple. This was a revolutionary change. In the past, only the best educated and aristocratic families contributed to the monastic communities. In the type of militaristic culture Japan had at the time, it was only possible for the samurai class to participate in the traditional style of education like offered in monastic communities. There were exception, but they were rare. Dogen himself came from an aristocratic family, but early life circumstances provided him a chance to move away from what was expected of him and instead followed his developing awareness that was calling him to step on the spiritual path.

Dogen was driven to find answers to one nagging question, “If we are all enlightened beings, why is it so difficult to achieve this understand?” To get answers that could be useful and productive to his own practice, he decided to travel to China where he thought he would find a teacher that could work with him on this question. He was taking the bull by the horns, and his life would never be the same again. On this first trip to China he stayed for four years and worked on his meditation technique that was stressed in Chinese Ch’an practice over what was emphasized in traditional Japanese Buddhism in the thirteenth century. He experienced a breakthrough that was authenticated by his teacher. When he returned to Japan it was with a new pragmatic approach to practice that was outside conventional structures of his day, and placed emphases on personal experience that acted as the basis for self-realization when combined with a strong zazen practice. Continue reading

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