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

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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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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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.

Buddhism’s Journey Into Modernity

Buddhism’s Journey Into Modernity
David Xi-Ken Astor

I have been viewing John Bush’s wonderful and acclaimed trilogy entitled Journey Into Buddhism.  It is more then just a documentary that highlights the practice of Buddhism around the world.  Bush, a long time practicing Tibetan Buddhist, has produced and directed a visual work that goes beyond words to bring a broad brush introduction of Buddhism through images and explanations that at times are quite profound.  He has no agenda other then to hold up a mirror that reflects how Buddhism appears today through action and iconography.  My only regret is that he has not brought the camera lens to reflected Buddhism from a Japanese perspective.  But that in no way diminishes the value of this work of art.

What this work does do for me, as do books in general, is to raise questions relative to how Buddhism WAS and how it is NOW.  One striking fact that this work brings up when looking at all the abandoned Buddhist structures built in antiquity, is what happened to make Buddhism vanish?  The Buddhist religion was so prevalent in both practice and political dominance for centuries throughout Asia. Now it is like an island amidst a sea of third-world bustle.  The work is a direct confrontation of the old meeting the demands of modern cultures.  I say cultures, because modern Buddhism is not only about the West, but about how Eastern cultures also confront the realities of change.  There is an old Tibetan saying that “when the iron bird flies, Buddhism will go to the West”.  One glaring difference between the West and East is that in Asian countries, contemporary society still has the very ancient imagery, architecture, and practices that go back centuries.  While in the West we have a clean slate on which to set Buddhism down that reflect our Western cultural values, as well as our concepts of artful display of how we wish to show our belief in a spiritual practice.  This trilogy confronts these differences head on, it seems to me, especially from my monastic point of view.

In many ways this is not that different from how Christianity has emerged from the dark ages, but the big difference in the Christian migration into modernity is that it started in the West.  Nevertheless, we have today very ancient Christian iconography sitting along side modern Christian-based structures of both architecture and practices.  And this progress has been so slow that from the modern Western perspective it seems that what we see is very natural.  But when it comes to our confronting Buddhist practice in our contemporary communities, Buddhism seems quite foreign.  It has yet to meet the qualifications necessary for cultural authenticity in a way that overcomes it’s Eastern appearance.  This is like “birds of a feather” kind of thing.  But progress is being made as more Western Buddhist teachers move into leadership roles and bring fresh perspective that blows away the cobwebs of time.

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Pragmatic Buddhism: A Common Sense Approach To The Path Of Awakening

Pragmatic Buddhism: A Common Sense Approach To The Path Of Awakening
By David Xi-Ken Astor

The overwhelming reality that I hope emerges from the study of Buddhism from a pragmatic perspective is what does our contemporary worldview require to be cultivated from what the Buddha taught over 2500 years ago.  The primary result of walking the Buddhist path is toward cultivating awakening to how the Universe is and how we are in it.  In the 21st century we are challenged to understand what elements of Buddhist thought is of vital importance for our attention, study, acceptance, and engagement that promotes the survival of a dharma practice that is not obscured by ancient visions of how the world looked to medieval minds.  A good example of this would be the turning away from the metaphysical concepts of reincarnation, and what is the true meaning of karma that moves away from the notion of determinism producing an attitude of fatalism.  Considering the modern advancements of science that inform us of how the Universe expresses itself, any conclusion of what is a truth is still at risk of being wrong.  Yet, we work to improve our perspective of each situation we encounter recognizing our responsibility for the choices we make that have real consequences for ourselves and others.

Not only is this awakening a human endeavor, but a cultural one as well.  This cultural transformation is reflected in acts of social justice, spiritual and religious practices, situational ethic guidelines, artistic expressions, as well as how the culture interacts with others on this very diverse planet of ours.  As Buddhism has an opportunity to merge into the mainstream of a human-enriching practice both here in America and the West in general, it will assume features of our contemporary language and cultural moral and ethical norms that will vitalize specific dimensions of it’s traditional practice that will allow it to assume a perspective of legitimatization.  How this will happen is yet to be seen, but the transformation has begun.  The concern we must be conscious of is that it must not become a marginalized subculture at risk of losing it’s inner vitality.   This is a crucial period of Buddhism’s cultural transformation in the West, in which the traditional schools of Buddhism are being uprooted from their ancient environments and directly confronting the realities of modern science, communication technology, and social unrest.  It is unrealistic to assume that as Buddhism develops roots in the West, that it will remain unchanged.  It is up to those in the West that study and teach the dharma to define a Western orientated path up the mountain as Buddhism struggles to find its voice in a new language.   Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is to emphasize Siddhartha’s humanity.

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Meaning Of Buddhist Altar Elements & Ritual Practice

Meaning Of Buddhist Altar Elements & Ritual Practice
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯

In our post Setting-up A Buddhist Altar & Scared Space, we have giving you a guideline on how to set up a practice altar representing elements common to both the Soto Zen and Pragmatic Zen school’s construction.  Each Buddhist tradition has developed over the ages a specific set of standards for what elements should be found on an altar.  The variations can sometimes be overwhelming, especially when considering how the Asian communities have incorporated indigenous elements into their ritual practice that have taken on great value over the centuries.  It can even vary depending on whither it is for temple or private practice.  For Zen Buddhists, a simple and refined look has been adopted in the West that might reflect it’s Japanese influence perhaps.   Each item we place on the altar has a specific meaning and represent aspects of the reality we are awakened to that points directly to how the Universe is.  These elements are both symbolic, and useful at the same time.  No duality in either purpose or intent.   It is another example of the lesson on “Appropriate View” incorporated in the Eightfold Path.

The following altar elements and their meaning are standard for Zen ritual practice, but are not the only ones to be found on Zen Buddhist altars around the world.  Cultural and individual school tradition can dictate variations to these standards that is only to be expected when we value the ever changing nature of human expectation.   Altar elements are tools of ritual practice, and are used with intentional action as we engage them to bring meaning into our daily practice.

Buddha Image:  While it is true that many altars have a statue of a Buddha, generally the Historical Buddha Siddhartha Gotama, it is not necessary.  If not a Buddha, than a representation of a natural element is placed on the altar as a central focus.  This image is consider the “reflective” and translucent” element.  Yes, it is a Buddha image generally, but it is not ABOUT Siddhartha directly.  It is not an element of worship from a Zen perspective.  The central meaning of this element is one of pointing directly at our own true potential for awakening to how the Universe is.   It is a reminder of our universal-being.  We find that many of these images of an “altar Buddha”  are made of reflective or translucent material, like metal, jade, or glass.  This is done so it reflects all that is surrounding it including ourselves; it is empty inside.  It represents that idea that when our practice is clear you can see right though us.

Incense:  Incense is the transformative element.  It is an excellent representation of the causal nature of the Universe.  Everything is in the state of change, nothing remains the same for long.  A stick of incense represents this reality.  It starts out being a solid, and when introduced to the natural element of flame, it “transforms” to its original substance(s) and returns to the environment, to become something else.  It also represents the lesson “form to emptiness to form”.  This is why concentration on incense during meditation is a good practice.  Before our vary eyes we can see the causal nature of the Universe unfold.   As we light and perform the incense offering, we use this element to recite our vows of refuge.

Candles:  We use three candles on the altar to represent both an earth element plus the Three Pure Precepts.   As we light each of the three candles we should recite the Three Pure Precepts: do no harm, do only good, do good for others.  So you see, lighting both the incense and the candles is an intentional ritual practice, as well as having them represent meaning on the altar.

Salt:  We place an open bowl of salt on the alter to represent the meaning of purity in practice, as well as reminding us of the importance of preserving the vows we have undertaken to live a life of flourishing for ourselves and others.  After lighting the three candles and performing the incense offering, we raise the bowl of salt and recite the Salt Offering Gatha.  By the merit of this offering we are sending positive thoughts for all sentient beings to find success on the path to liberation.

Individual Personal Objects:  We may choose to include personal items on the altar to remind us of what we also value that supports our practice.  These elements connect us to others, or to other natural expressions of the Universe.  These elements are the “connecting” element that remind us of how inter-connected and inter-dependent we are to all worldly expressions.  We are Universal beings, connected to all other Universal expressions.  It is the objective of our practice to become awakened to this reality.

21 Strikes Of The Ching Bell Begining A Meditation Session:

We strike the ching bell 21 times to begin our meditation session both in the Meditation Hall and in our private practice.  The meaning behind the number 21 is based in Chinese culture.  The number 7 is the luckiest number, and the spelling of it in Pinyin is “qi3”.  The name for seven has an auspicious number PLUS a reference to the power of Qi.  The number can have the meaning of “perfectly completed cycle”, or “arising”.  The number 3 does mean birth, but it also can have a meaning in the Tao which tells us of the Great Triad which can be loosely translated to mean the “path from obscurity into manifestation”.  The Chinese like to combine numbers to create even amore auspicious meaning.  So, there is a relationship of 7 to 3 with its name “qi3” and three 7’s = 21.  Combining the meanings we could come up with this phrase: “Arise to awareness (obscurity to manifestation) and complete the cycle of practice to an aware state of mind through mindful meditation”.  Thus we invoke 21 strikes of the ching bowl.

© EDIG-Astor 2012

Samsara As Seen By The Four Schools Of Zen, And The Path Out

Samsara As Seen By The Four Schools Of Zen, And The Path Out
Ven. David Xi-Ken Shi

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.

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