Confidence Trumps Understanding In Our Practice

By: Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor

The Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said, “Instead of having a deep understanding of the teaching, we need a strong confidence in our teaching, which says that originally we have Buddha nature. Our practice is based on this faith.” This statement which comes form his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind got my attention. I have not thought of my practice in this way before. Not knowledge, but confidence is what we should cultivate is what Suzuki is stressing. This emphases on confidence over knowledge can be a strong agent for change. It asks the question, “Do we really believe what we know?“ I speak often about how Buddhist practice and study can be viewed from a philosophical, psychological, and spiritual perspective. As a philosophy, Buddhism is a very comprehensive and profound system of thought-processing. But traditional Zen practice is not taught or practiced with a great deal of philosophical explanations. Focusing rather on our personal experiences, the exercise of breath control and meditation, are considered more essential for coming to a realized state of body-mind.

I have not considered the term confidence before when expressing how one should consider their practice, I use other words. Although without confidence the student/teacher relationship is in jeopardy. What I like about exchanging the word ‘understanding’ to ‘confidence’ is that it places focus on the importance of acceptance of what we are learning as we practice. Not just on knowing by analysis something about Buddhist thought. It is more about acceptance, assurance, and certainty that the path we are on can achieve insight. That insight may also awaken the body-mind to the bigger picture of how we are in this world. We can be aware, but the subject of this awareness must transition into acceptance. When that happens we have gained confidence of its value, and our practice is strengthened as a result.

There is a danger in relying on invalidated knowledge alone. The human system for acquiring new information is complicated and involves some degree of interpretation and filtering on our part as we go about the learning process. Sometimes we get out of the way and let another’s thoughts and ideas replace our own. This, of course, is not a bad thing because we always rely on another’s expertise for guidance. This in fact is very pragmatic. But without validating new knowledge with our own personal experiences, we are only taking what we are learning as a state of faith. But when we have gained the experience of validating what we are learning, and thus acknowledging its reality, we gain the confidence that our worldview is on solid ground. This gets the ego out of the learning and acceptance process when it makes choices for us by using preconceived notions of what it thinks reality is.

Confidence should be the cornerstone of our practice, and also it’s main human ingredient. When we truly believe in our way, the path becomes more clear. But when we have not developed unwavering confidence in the meaning of our practice, each moment presents the possibly of us walking around with a monkey-mind in the weeds. The Buddha talked often about this possibility from his own experience both before and after enlightenment. He was not entirely free of causal-life consequences either, he was only human after all. But he continued to walk the path of liberation with absolute confidence. His view of life was not shaken as he continued to experience awakened moments, and watched what was happening around him. He observed with great intent and awakened body-mind state of awareness how the Universe is. He had a very scientific understanding of Universal reality for his day which contributed to confidence-in-practice.

So our Buddhist practice is not just based on informative and intellectual understanding, metaphysical beliefs, or faith alone. It is through actual action-practice, not by reading or contemplation of philosophical constructs that we reach awakening, and the confidence to know the difference. Master Suzuki put it this way, “Our understanding at the same time is its own expression, is the practice itself.” This practice stands on the very surface of our confidence, moment after each moment.

Note: Re-posted from the Order of Engaged Buddhists website

Karma: Where The Ideal Meets The Real

By: David Xi-Ken Astor

Karma is one of those terms that is in popular use, but interesting enough, not by many individuals that know anything about what it really is.   Most of the time when I encounter the term it is not how I have come to understand it’s meaning at all.  Karma is also know as the law of cause and effect.  As a Buddhist principle, it is know as Dependent Origination, or Relational Origination, or Co-dependent Origination.  So as you see, karma is know by many names.   Buddhism does not own the term.  What is most unusual, is that karma is not unusual at all.  It fact, it is in most moments evident when we know how to look at the world around us.  Karma is seen in action, and also what is behind action.  Karma is not linear, but is multi-directional.  In fact, it might be helpful to consider karma as circular.   When we think about interconnectiveness, we should think that karma effects all points of a single connection, and possibly throughout the net of connections.  When you come to think about it, when we turn on a light, switch on our computers, or turn the ignition key in the car, we demonstrate the karmic consequences of these actions.

Everything in the material world acts in accordance with this law.  Nothing is caused by chance.  Nothing.  This is also the case with our minds.  Every thought we have, every word we say, every intentional action we take, creates a cause.  Over time these causes ripen to become effects.  Time being a relative term.  Our thoughts emerge as words; the words we use can manifest into actions; these actions develop into habits; and our habits hardens into character.  We should watch our thoughts and their results with great care, and let it arise for the compassionate concern for self and others.   Remember the adage: “As we think, so we become.” Continue reading

Announcing A New Opportunity in Training

Announcement By David Xi-Ken Astor

The Engaged Dharma Insight Group was founded on the mission for bringing the dharma to those that do not have a Buddhist practice center or temple available to them in their community, or are prevented from attending those centers for other reasons, by using the power of  modern technology to engage the dharma in study.  Our experience has been beyond our expectations, and has become international in scope.  Another example of the causal-chain and karma in action.  Our many students have taken advantage of the courses we offer, and some have taken the additional step of study necessary for receiving the Precepts.  EDIG’s focus is, and will continue to be, on lay training and community engagement.

Over the years, however, there are a few students that have voiced an interest in a more formal training program.  Formal Buddhist training brings a different challenge that EDIG, as a secular training Sangha, considers outside it’s mission.  There is a major difference between lay and formal (monastic) training and formation.  In addition, some of our students have come from other religious affiliations and training that developed an active ministry, that now is in transition of becoming Buddhist.  These individuals have also voiced an interest on how to transition to a Buddhist formal study and practice.

I would like to announce that I have formed a new monastic training path separate from EDIG for those with an interest in developing a formal study based on a contemporary monastic model.  The Order of Engaged Buddhists has been formed for this purpose. If you are interested in exploring this new opportunity, and talking to me about how this might be a good fit for where you want to take your developing practice, please visit us on and learn what we are about.  You will find our contact information there.

EDIG will continue to engage it’s Buddhist lay training programs by expanding our course offerings as we grow and learn together.   Both Wayne Shi and I are humbled and honored by the continued response we get from our readers and students that will only strengthen our commitment to serve you in the many years to come.  We can only bow and give thanks for your dedication.

Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor

The Power of Karma in “Middle-Earth”

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei 曦 肯

Listen to This:  “I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days — quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice.  If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens!  And the products of it all will be mainly evil — historically considered.  But the historic version is, of course, not the only one.  All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their “cause” and “effect”.  No man can estimate what is really happening at the moment.  All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is the evil labors with vast power and perpetual success — in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.  So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives.”  Now I ask you, who wrote that?  It was J. R. R. Tolkien to his son Christopher in April 1944.

We may not consideration reading as a form of meditation, but it can be.   Reading as meditation is going beyond the words to find meaning.  It is about contemplating what we read in order to find new useful and productive lessons to support our practice and understanding of the dharma.  Nothing is off limits (well almost nothing).  Finding the subjects of Buddhist thought does not need to come from Buddhist texts.

Can we ever consider The Lord of the Rings as a modern Buddhist myth, or a story that can teach dharma?  That may not be very plausible, on the face of it.  As is well known, Middle-earth is derived largely from the Nordic and Germanic sagas that Tolkien knew so well.  Although god is never mentioned, the tale also expresses some Christian influence, according to Tolkien’s own admission.  There is no hint, either in the story or in the sources, of any Buddhist influences.

Tolkien’s fantasy world is built on a radical and quite un-Buddhist dualism between unredeemable evil (Sauron, Saruman) and uncompromising goodness (Gandalf, Frodo).  The good as well as the bad use violence in pursuit of their goals, and we are entertained with plenty of it.  Stupid and cruel as they may be, orcs remain sentient beings.  From a Buddhist perspective, they must have the same Buddha-nature as all other living beings, with the potential to “wake up” from their greed, ill will, and delusion.  The Bodhisattva vow to “save” all sentient beings, in the sense of helping them to realize their true nature, can apply here too.   In Middle-earth, no one has any interest in helping orcs awaken.  The only good orc is a dead orc.

And yet … Tolkien’s masterpiece achieves what he intended, which was to create a modern myth; and myths as we also know have a way of growing beyond their creator’s intentions.  The Lord of the Rings is much more than an endearing fantasy about little hobbits, gruff dwarves, and light-footed elves.  What is it about the tale that makes it so compelling, so “mythic”?  For those of you that have read the saga, have you stopped to consider its potential in teaching the dharma?  One answer, is that despite its European origins it resonates with Buddhist concerns and perspectives.  So, indulge me if you will and let me take you through this mythic story with my Buddhist perspective.  An example of reading as meditation. Continue reading

Multi-Dimensional Aspects of the Four Noble Truths

By: David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯

The following lesson on the Four Noble Truths was first published on the website Order of Engaged Buddhists.  It is re-posted here for our lay students and followers.  

There is an interesting dimension to Buddhist teaching which is both inspiring and fascinating, but which is not always apparent to either the beginning student or even the more experienced ones.  That is, how often do we hear specific Buddhist lessons presented that often mysteriously reflect other aspects of Buddhist thought other than the one presented.  Specifically I am thinking about the Four Noble Truths.  I have awakened to how the whole Buddhist path is a macrocosm that can be expressed and understood through each element of teaching within it, starting with the Noble Truths.  Consider for a moment the lessons inherent in the Jewel Net Of Indra.  Where each jewel reflects all the other jewels in the net of co-dependence,  and that this net is a metaphor for the nature of our Universe.  This is somewhat a revelation for some when they come to realize how Buddhist lessons can be studied and are often capable of showing how our practice reflects the essence of the entire Buddhist dharma.  This is also an example of the transformation of ideas that reflect how we must encounter and understand the lessons from different traditions in order to give us a chance for a clearer meaning to our understanding of the dharma in our contemporary lives.  Even if we do not adapt them to our own platform and practice.  The Dalai Lama expressed it this way, “Buddhism is more than an Asian religion.  As the teachings of the Buddha (dharma) become better know and practiced in Western countries, it is vital to understand their place in Western history and culture.”

The challenge of this realization comes when we consider that each Buddhist tradition has developed over time their own interpretations, selected and adopted suttas, and external concepts and practices outside the Buddhist Cannon.  But at the same time these external concepts become a part of the Cannon within their tradition, and are reflected along with the standard teachings that are common to all the other traditions.  For example, some traditions are more comfortable relying on mystical and metaphysical interpretations and beliefs and finding ways to integrate them into their common teaching, than are other traditions.   Yet, the underlying message is basically the same.  The Buddhist practitioner must decide which tradition best reflects their own worldview and practices, and then commit to follow the path according.  But we must always work to find the lesson that reflects Universal reality, or Dharma.  We must also remember that this is a mutual-causal Universe and we must leave room open for change as our own experiences, and expert research by others, points to a clearer understanding of the Dharma as time evolves.

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Our Yearning To Find Meaning In A New Year

By: David Xi-Ken Shi

Human beings seem unique in their yearning to find meaning, and what better way to contemplate this practice than the beginning of a new year.  I’m reminded that  Dr. Nuland called this very human characteristic as “seeking the spirit and wonder” of this world.  In the morning I open my eyes, look in the mirror, and see someone I call myself.   I look around and observe space and place and I call that my world.  I interact with others and call those my relationships.  And into all of this, I attribute meaning: what does this thought, emotion, situation or event mean?  How do I interpret that meaning to obtain what I want or think I need right now.  Our Buddhist training challenges us to ask the deeper question, the real question: who is this person, what is the  reality of this world the best I can become awakened to it, and how do I live my life without creating suffering?

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Finding A New Life-Theme For 2014

By: David Xi-Ken Shi 

A new year is almost upon us.  Many of us use this time to reflect on our past year’s experiences and contemplate what we need to do to continue our practice with refreshed energy.   This generally takes the form of making New Years resolutions.  But I have a different thought for you this year.  Consider, rather than making resolutions, creating a personal-life-theme for the year.  A theme that encompasses a life-changing set of actions that can be deployed throughout the months to come.  Take time to contemplate how this might be accomplished.  Look for inspiration both within yourself as well as from others.  Take time to polish your thoughts.  Look for a deeper meaning that underwrites your theme.  Here are some thoughts of mine that might start you thinking as you begin a year of greatness and beauty in practice.  Perhaps this is the year for you to change lanes in order to get around all that life-traffic that has been slowing you down.

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The Zen Art Of Teaching a Bird To Fly

By David Xi-Ken Shi

In teaching Buddhism, and especially zazen, I am constantly reminded of Dogen’s statement that “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.”  This is not only the essential ingredient in his Genjokoan, but also the driving force that moves us along our encounter with the Buddha’s primary teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The Zen Master Shohaku Okumura Roshi tells us that the word study that Dogen uses in Japanese is narua.  Okumura tells us, “Narau comes from nareru, which means: to get accustomed to, to become familiar with, to get used to, or to become intimate with.  This is not simply intellectual study.”  He continues to tell us that the Chinese character for narau is written in two parts.  The first character means “bird’s wings” and the second one means “self”.   1

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Tribal Differences And Prejudicial Behavior

Tribal Differences And Prejudicial Behavior
David Xi-Ken Astor 

This past week’s developments relative to the Boston bombing has yet again exposed this ongoing world dominating cultural issue of “tribal identity” surrounding how we confront our human differences.  As a consequence we are given an opportunity to consider race/gender/religious differences and the role of prejudicial behavior that can arise from distorted dispositions.    This is not an easy lesson to present, either from a Buddhist perspective or from a pluralistic one.  Pragmatic philosophy as a model when coupled with Buddhist thought can be a guide for our ethic and moral outlook relative to this social reality.  This tragedy is, yet again, an example of an opportunity to apply situational ethics to our practice.   So, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts that might give you an idea on how, as a Buddhist, we might approach a discussion on these events.  Both Jesus and Siddhartha spoke in a very clear voice that can guide us through these very real, and very divisive, situations with lessons on our obligation as social-selves to act with astute and applied compassion.  A compassion not just extended to one side.  That would just ignore the causal-chain culminating in an act of violence.  Acts of violence often cloud the underling emotions of suffering.  We are challenged to find the interconnective lessons that bring all of us as subjects to these events.  From my perspective, no one has the luxury of being a bystander.

Buddhists are naturalists, and naturalists are first of all champions of causal accounts of the Universe.  As such, we look for naturalistic accounts to help us understand “why” something expresses itself the way it does.  This allows us to plan, take and succeed through deferential action aimed at undoing what is unhealthy, destructive, and promoting discontent while promoting that which is instead healthy, harmonious and satisfying in the psycho-emotional sense.  The person who is bound by his racism/prejudicial disposition is in need of help and intervention as much or more than the victim, as it is easier to tell a new story to oneself about a wrongdoing done to us than it is for a perpetrator to change his actions.  It is easier to think differently than to act differently.  It takes a deep understanding and appreciation for causality to see this, because we are, in a liberal democratic society, “wired” today to feel strong disgust first and foremost at the individual of negative attitudes and actions before we feel the urge to make it better.  The feeling of disgust is protective of cultural values because if we don’t feel this way, who will preserve the values?  However, it is not sufficient, and is far from sufficient, for anyone seeking to make the world qualitatively better just to feel disgust.  If one person is a “political or attitude racist” we all still have work to do to promote change.  It takes practice, but Buddhists as well as Christians (and especially leaders) living in their communities aim to develop a sense to stop the immediate repercussions of negative attitudes and actions, such as scolding someone’s extreme bias remarks or standing in the way of an angry boyfriend ready to hit his girlfriend (this is the disgust part), followed up immediately by the ethics of the Bodhisattva ideals:  asking ourselves how do we reform these circumstance for the better?

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Buddha Is Not Dharma

Buddha Is Not Dharma
David Xi-Ken Astor

“We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha”.   If we follow Buddhist thought, and not accept a duel state of being, we may come to realize that while we make distinctions of the Three Jewels in practice, in reality they are not separate phenomena.  They are interdependent and connected as one reality, and are components of the principle of Inter-dependent Origination.  So, we come to ask the question, “how can ultimate reality be embodied in the form of a person (Buddha)?”   I would argue that if we strictly apply Buddhist logic, it isn’t.  It is a kind of paradox, and what is “ultimate reality” anyway?

We use the term “Buddha nature” rather freely sometimes without a clear notion of what we are talking about.  Yes, as human beings (and the historic Buddha was that) we are both Universal and unique expressions of the Universe at the same time.  Buddha nature is an expression that points to our inclusion in the Dharma; we manifest an image or reflection or intimation of that which can not be separate from all the other expression the Universe is.  Life as we know it can be considered as a large fabric woven of all the various expressions that in totality makes up what we know as reality.  Remember that science tells us that we have only identified about 8% of what makes up the Universe.  We have a long way to go yet in our exploration.  Dharma goes beyond this limited notion of reality to encompass both what we can know, and that which is unknown.

Some Buddhist traditions acknowledge the passing of the Buddha into nirvana, as an act of absolute deliverance from suffering as though it is a place or dimension somewhere.  They suggest some kind of termination of his manifestation in the human form to something “other”.  The danger in this belief is that it suggests a duel nature, something Siddhartha denies in his doctrine of not-self.  Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said, “For whatever can be named leads to dualism, and Buddhism is not dualistic.  To take hold of this notion of non-duality is the aim of Zen’.   Hui-neng’s teacher said, “One will not get rid of birth and death if one constantly thinks of other Buddha’s.  However, if one retains one’s mindfulness, one is sure to reach the further shore.”  In the Vajraccedika-parajnaparamita Sutra the Buddha states, “If any one wishes to see me in form, or to seek me in sound, this person is treading an evil path and he cannot see the Tathagata.”  His meaning here is only clearly understood if you also understand the term “further shore”.  Our practice must bring us to understanding and liberation from all attachments that act to distort our awakening to how the Universe is and we are in it, including the form of the Buddha too.  This recalls to mind the Zen expression “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

From a contemporary point of view, away from medieval logic, it can’t be said that the Buddha is revered and worshiped in either his human form or a Universal metaphysical expression.  Dharma is beyond all of these states of thinking.  So if we consider our human Buddha nature appropriating a specific definition, then it can not really be the Dharma.  On the other hand, if Buddha nature is given emptiness of definition and possession of absolute suchness, then we have an opportunity to awaken to Dharma.  Only from the Dharma we come to see the Buddha as he is, and not vice versa.