Tag Archives: spiritual practice

Intimacy With The Spirit

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

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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Experiencing Our Natural World As Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

When we reference the Buddhist cannon, especially the Nikaya’s, we learn that Siddhartha Gotama placed a great deal of emphasis on action and the natural energy associated in both a meditation and a contemplative spiritual practice. The poems of the Korean Zen Master T’aego also expresses this reality. They challenge us to discover something about meeting the phenomenal world in a particular way as spiritual practice. It happens when we make the unknown knowable to our aware state of body-mind. As teachers, the only thing that we can impart to you when teaching about spirituality is the “how to begin” element. In other words, we can teach you how to walk, but it is up to you “where you walk”. Because, you see, how spirituality is manifest is unique to the individual. So spirituality is a journey too. Today is my continued attempt to awaken your inner self to this reality.

There are four poems, all only four lines each. Zen had an important formative influence on the way many Chinese and Japanese poet-monks thought about writing poetry. One thing these poets had in common was there use of nature, or worldly themes, to awaken the mind to the richness of an inner spiritual life.
The first is called: How Can I Speak?
All phenomena are beyond names and forms
The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest
What is “closest”?
You can only please yourself: how can I speak?

The first line, “All phenomena are beyond names and forms,” offers an interesting statement. It reminds us of the Heart Sutra, a fundamental sutra for both Ch’an and Soto Zen traditions. Usually, when we think about spirituality and meditative practice, a certain erroneous notion arises that we should get to a place of complete silence and stillness, a place apart from and beyond all names and forms. But here T’aego says that all phenomena themselves are already beyond names and permanent forms. Think about it, the sun never says ‘I am the sun’ or the moon says ‘I am the moon’. So all phenomena are beyond names and permanent forms. I ask you now, are we different from the sun and the moon? Are not we, the sun, and the moon expressions of the same Universe? We learn in science class that we humans are also made from stardust. Why then do humans want to make a distinction?

The poems’ second line says, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are closest.” Sometimes we see the word closest used in this kind of poetry. Closest has the connotation of intimate connection, of becoming ‘one with’ sort-of-thing. To become completely ‘intimate with’ is to become close. So we might read that line as, “The sounds of the streams and the colors of the mountains are most intimate.” Closer than the word stream or mountain, or the pictures we hold in our minds of them. Just hearing the sounds of the stream and seeing the color of the mountain, brings the image into thought and makes it more real, much more intimate. We don’t literally take a stream or a mountain into our being like we would an apple. However, we experience them though sounds and color. This is when the inner observer steps aside and lets the spiritual process take over.

This is all nice talk, intimacy, and closeness. But then T’aego throws in one more line: “What is ‘closest’?” Now this is when the poem becomes a koan. What is closest is, in fact, the very not-knowing, the question itself. Great doubt is given space to arise in our reasoning efforts. If you use the word closest, what is that? If you talk about intimacy, what does that mean? I bring up frequently the teaching associated in Indra’s Net to explain relationships. In this poem, and in T’aego’s use of the word closest he is talking about relationships. In fact, when we have spiritual moments, we are experiencing some kind of relationship.

The last line of the poem reads: “You can only please yourself: how can I speak?” You have to find it yourself, I have no words to give you about this. Look deeply into it. My spiritual moments can only come from my ripe body-mind. Mine are different from yours, and yours are different from mine. There is no words I can use to express that microsecond of realization I experienced when the bird landed on the fence before my mind recognized the implication of the event. And in that split-second, I was closest to my true nature expressing itself. Looking at it’s self. You will have to find these moments on your own. Continue reading

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Spiritual Practice: Potential For Inner Change

David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

All over the world engaged individuals are actively living an intentional spiritual practice. In some areas of the world, dedicated monastic’s are living the spiritual life in secret, while others are directly engaging their spiritual or religious beliefs for the selfless benefit of others. Spiritual practice assumes many forms. In my own Order, for example, we say that the world is our monastery, as we have taken vows to engage the dharma outside the walls of a traditional temple, which is becoming more common here in the West. Many Buddhist and Christians monks and nuns rise at 3am every morning to begin their day. Trappist Christian monks are completely dedicated to the inner experience, pursued through community prayer in the chapel, and private contemplation in their monastic cells. Jewish contemplatives keep aware of their god on the Sabbath and daily acts of engagement in remembrance of and conversation with him. The Dalai Lama wakes every day between 3:30 and 4 am to meditate and perform his prostrations. Stephen Batchelor told me once that he often wakes at 4 am to meditate for two hours, exercise, eat breakfast, and then write for the next six hours on subjects that are awakened in his mind during those early morning periods of contemplation. It is not just those that have dedicated their lives to a full-time traditional practice that develop spiritual-based lives, but many lay people have also found ways to engage their beliefs and practice too. In doing so, they have enriched not only their own quality of life, but those of others as well. But it does start with an awakening that you also can do this. It is not just Buddhist or Christian monks that have found this particular path of commitment. The common thread of all these diverse practices is the inner work that is slowly changing them from within. Each has embarked on the journey to the place of realization that promotes human flourishing. All are exploring who they really are beyond mere social identities and roles assigned by society, family, or even their faith. The vast majority of them will not give up the struggle but will press on until they are freed from within and set loose from this world of illusion. Set loose even from the need of a structured traditional platform, which only acts as a supporting frame until the spiritual structure is established. As for myself, I have been on this journey for a long time, in fits and starts. Constantly seeking the path even if it was not in the forefront of my consciousness. After years of searching and study, I have found the answer I have been looking for, and have taken the step onto the path up the mountain, a mountain with many paths. And in the end, for me, it was a natural step, and an easy one at that. My Buddhist practice, and the various ministries I pursue, is as natural as breathing. You do not need to take vows to have a spiritual life, but you do need to have a clear vision of your inner landscape that awakens you to action. This is the task for each one of us. We are all challenged by the call to plunge into seeking the ultimate roots of our identity in the great mystery which is sometimes called “our true natures.” Continue reading

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Building A Spiritual Practice

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been speaking recently about the importance of living a life by vows, either as lay Buddhists or especially for those of us that have taken monasticism as a life’s vocation.  Our monastic vows is a way of intentionally committing us to a social life of rigorous action honoring the Bodhisattva ideal above other competing personal responsibilities.   We are beginning to see in the West, however, a new secular teaching community arise that reflects, perhaps, a more realistic attitude to an ordained life within our communities beyond the walls of a monastery/temple.  In addition we are seeing monks that have decided to live outside of these “walls-of-practice”, but still adapt the monastic precepts as a guiding force for daily living.  No matter how we see our Buddhist practice developing, however, building the spiritual dimension to how we see the world around us is critical for having a well balanced life and worldview.  For after all, seeking the wonder of our Universe and spiritual wisdom to understand our role in it, is what it means for us to be human.  A spiritual life is both one of interior riches, and exterior displays of wisdom.  We must learn to balance these two aspects of practice in order to have a mature spiritual life.

I am reminded of the story of an elementary school teacher that gave her students a drawing assignment.  As she went around the room looking over the students work and giving encouragement and help, she was absorbed in the joy of the assignment as well.  As she approached Stephen totally entranced and furiously working on his picture, she was confused at what she saw on the paper.  When she ask him what he was drawing, he replied, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”  But she reminded him that no one knows what God looks like.  “They will in a minute!” exclaimed Stephen, as he returned to his work.  What Stephen is teaching us is a can-do, I’m on top of this, I know what I am doing spirit of the intrepid spiritual seeker.  He was lost “within himself”.  He is reflecting the “Buddha with-in”, or the natural nature of what is possible when committed to an ideal.   Then I suppose we grow up and loose the clear mind of the child.  Building a spiritual practice is like stepping back on the path we use to have before cultural influences cloud our minds.

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