Tag Archives: Zen Buddhism

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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Samsara As Seen By The Four Schools Of Zen

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

The term samsara simply means the nature of the life that we are born into in this human form, experience the world around us based on HOW we are influenced to see it, and then die. It refers to all aspects of the various functions of our lives plus the body-mind psychodynamic events encountered along the way. Considering the causal nature of this world of ours, our body-minds are in constant change as we are influenced by the cultural, physical, and karmic realities from moment to moment. Each of us is conditioned by our unique experiences, our education, and our place in the social network of the community we find our birth has put us in. Thus, we must make choices based on limited information and the perspective we have adopted of the world around us.

The Buddha awakened to this reality and it is reflected in the first of the Four Noble Truths. He taught that to move from this state of suffering and unsatisfactoriness (samsara) to one of liberation (nirvana) we must walk the Eightfold path; not just walk it but to become it. As we gain knowledge and wisdom we awaken to the reality that samsara and nirvana are really two aspects of this “one-mind” state we are working to cultivate from our cushions. Both are inescapable no matter the degree of an awakened body-mind. No matter how hard we work to elevate all delusion, we still have some deluded and egocentric states of being. Humans can never become perfect. That would suggest a state of being beyond the causal way the Universe expresses itself. There will always be encounters with unexpected situations that have the potential to bring suffering into our lives. So, how can one live in nirvana? The answer is that we can’t, either some or most of the time. We work to do our best, the rest is out of our hands. But the various answers to this question differ based on how the four Zen school’s teachings have manifested basic practices that work to achieve perfecting states of nirvana that can only be recognized by one’s reduced states of suffering. You see, nirvana is hard to recognize, suffering is not. That is why all Zen schools focus on suffering, and let states of nirvana naturally appear. It is a matter of achieving balance and equanimity.

I will use as a way of explaining how the four “base-line” schools of Ch’an/Zen reflect on the teaching of refining our lives away from causes of suffering by using the analogy of a multifaceted jewel. This image of a jewel is often used to symbolize Buddha-nature. In the Southern school (Rinzai), when this transparent jewel is illuminated by light of a particular color, it takes on the color of the object (physical or mental) being reflected. So, when placed on a black piece of paper, it will become black. On yellow, it will become yellow. Same is true with our human body-mind. Various situations we encounter in our lives will reflect the experiences and preferences our jewel-mind has become. If our life becomes really dark and foreboding and full of delusion and harmful desire, our body-mind will reflect back this attitude in each situation. We work to discover the true nature of this jewel which will be revealed in a sudden moment of practice-experience. Yet the jewel itself is transparent and does not change from its natural state of reality. It is transparent from the very beginning of our existence, and only becomes “colored” by how we respond to life experiences and develop filters from which to view it.

In the Northern school (Soto), it is taught that the black color is really false. For us to become awakened and to reveal the bright jewel, we have to remove the black from our minds. This process will be gradual and take possible decades to reveal. We practice to erase the darkness from our deluded states of being. We sit to polish our minds, and thus polish this jewel that has become discolored. In order to do this, we must constantly practice and live in consistent awareness of every moment in order to keep the jewel clear and bright, or it will become dirty once again.

Hongzhou’s school of Ch’an Buddhism maintained that everything we do, whether we are awakened or deluded, is the function of this transparent jewel. The school taught that without color we could not really experience the presence of the jewel. So we do not need to eliminate a particular color to reveal the jewel. Buddha nature does not exist independently of particular situations. Even when we our deluded in our actions, it is nothing other than the functions of Buddha nature. So this idea of samara or nirvana is equality present in our Buddha natures. So we do not need to polish anything or engage in any particular practice. We just work to accept each moment as it comes, and practice the Three Pure Precepts. In this way, our Buddha natures will shire through in our actions. It is not about the jewel, but about how we experience it that matters.

Finally in the Heze school (An historical Japanese tradition), a more pragmatic approach to the question was considered and believed that each of the others schools was partially correct. This school taught that each color caused by various conditions is really false, and was an imperfect reflection of reality. The fact that we can be aware of various colors of states of being is just empty delusions without distinctions. It just means that our minds are not empty after all, but we can not grasp the nature of this jewel like reality in any clear way, but we can nevertheless sense it’s influence. We must realize this interconnectiveness and see the bright jewel as covered with delusions and then practice to free ourselves form delusions that brings an enlightened state of being. When that happens after a long period of practice we experience sudden awakening. In this way, this school combined the elements of gradual practice with the possibility for sudden awakening. It takes time but is revealed to us in an instant.

Pragmatic Buddhism’s perspective: Frequently the study of Buddhism involves trying to subtract something from who we are. We practice to become “one with the Universe” as though we are not that already. In this way some students of Buddhism believe they are going to find real Buddha nature. This does not seem to me a practical or useful approach to a strong Buddhist life. It is interesting that when we stop looking, that which we are seeking has been right under our noses all along. In the example above, let us not get all caught up in trying to solve the riddle of “the jewel”, as though we need to get rid of something in our internal make-up so we can see the “magic stone” these Zen teachers are trying to point to, but never use words we can understand clearly. Zen practice does not have to be mystical, but it does need to encompass a solid understanding of how this world of ours is reflected back to us when we come to clear away the mind-cobwebs from years of misuse and distorted ways of seeing. That process is what brings into clearer focus the realities of this wonderful creation we call “world”. Zen practice is a series of steps. Through study and practice we begin to crawl out of the weeds of misunderstanding and distortion. It is like coming from a dark place into the bright sunshine. It takes our sight away for a period of time and we do not know what we are seeing. With guidance and a great deal of rigorous self-honesty, we begin to adjust our practice-sight that begins to teach us that what we have been looking at all along were shadows and not the real thing. To be free from our ego-clinging existence we have to see that “emptiness” of all things. This is the objective of seeing this emptiness through describing it like a jewel. When we make things full of self-interpretation, we are giving them color. And that distorted interpretation can hide the jewel of what they really are. We have to return to see things through the eyes of our human form before our sight became clouded. But even that way of considering our practice is distorted. For me, Dogen said it best when we taught that there are no steps in practice. That practice and awakening are actually the same thing. While there is no place to go, there is a space free of delusion. Zazen is the tool that works to polish this Buddha-nature-jewel in order that it reflects back things as they really are. Zazen is the most natural thing for us humans to do, but achieving this natural state of being is the most difficult thing for us humans to accomplish.

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