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A Lesson Contemplating A Contemporary View Of Agnosticism

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been ordained as an American Ch’an Buddhist monk, and trained in both the Chinese view of Buddhist principles, as well as influenced by Japanese Zen traditional styles of transmitting the dharma.  My Ch’an root teacher, the Venerable Shi Yong Xiang, was very scholarly in his approach to Buddhist philosophy, as well as teaching the importance science plays in informing us of universal realities, especially life-sciences.   I spent much time in discussing with him, and the other senior formal students, the logic and critical analysis of Buddhist doctrine.   I cherish those moments even today.  I came to understand how reason and my own experiences can form a new worldview based on these Buddhist lessons, both directly from primary sources, and through the legacy material that came down to us over the centuries after the death of Siddhartha Gotama.    What I was not aware of at the time, is just how future change works in this personal transformation.  I thought once I came to an understanding of a specific doctrine, that it became somewhat static.  Boy was I wrong.  The causal universe had some hidden lessons in store for me down the road.

What attracted me to Buddhism as a logical and spiritual path was that it did not rely on simple faith as my Christian one did, but required me to critically evaluate my own conclusions, and the importance of experiential verification.  The Buddha said, “…you should examine my words, and not just accept them because you have faith in me.”  The problem with this honest statement for me was in the reality of working with some of the principle doctrines.  How was I to achieve understanding when some of them were unknowable.  Like rebirth.  Being agnostic about it seemed a cop out.  Obviously in Buddhism there is no such kind of permanent entity that can go from one body to the next.  The principle of impermanence and not-self is very clear on this.  There seemed to be a contradiction in the very basic set of core doctrines.

Japanese Zen does not focus on the notion of rebirth all that much, like do some of the other Buddhist traditions, including Tibetan.  The early Chinese Ch’an practices did specialize on ritual practices associated with notions of how to comfort the dead, some in complex ways.  But anyone that reads both past and contemporary Buddhist literature will encounter the doctrine of rebirth frequently.  Over the centuries various traditions have developed ways to explain rebirth, generally in ways that consider how consciousness survives physical death.  These early dogmas also found ways to explain the continuity of individual karmic actions that come back to confront us as we appear in another universal expression.   A large majority of Buddhists see the idea of rebirth and individual-karma as simply non-negotiable elements of Buddhism.

Right from the beginning, I found a natural acceptance of Buddhist philosophy and practices.  But some of the doctrines when studied from a contemporary perspective became inhibitors.  Maybe because of my past spiritual training, and natural philosophical mind, I did not have a problem with selecting what principles to “set on the back burner” and work with those that had the most meaning for me.  In the first monastery where I studied, this set me apart from most of my follow formal students that took the position that you had to eat everything on the plate.  I spent many hours with my first teacher pursuing scholarly training analyzing the concepts and terminology of Buddhism through the Socratic method (as I did with my root teacher later).   They did not push my reluctance, and sometimes out-right skepticism, but worked to build a solid platform from which to explore deeper topics.  But this one area of Buddhist thought that stems from its pre-Buddhist encounter with  Hinduism was, for me, the elephant-in-the-room.  When I read how eminent masters ask us to accept rebirth it sounded like, “Don’t worry about understanding it, of course it is not obvious, but when you experience deep states of meditation, everything will become very clear for you.”  In other words, it is a mystical spiritual state, beyond normal experience.  There are practices in both Tibetan and Dzogchen traditions that help one to experience knowing this nature of consciousness and how the mind has to arise from a previous moment of mind.   What was interesting to me that after some time studying the Pali Nikaya’s the idea of brain was barely mentioned.

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