Tag Archives: questions to the Zen Master

Ask A Monk: Questions From the Cushion

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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