The Zen Studies Podcast

Recent Episodes

52 – Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 2

In Soto Zen Buddhism, “Dharma Transmission” is a ritual in which a qualified Zen teacher acknowledges the ability of one of their students to carry on the lineage tradition of Zen. In this episode I give you a sense of the significance of Dharma Transmission in the history and development of Chan and Zen Buddhism, and the ongoing utility of the tradition in terms of teacher authorization.

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51 – Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 1

In Soto Zen Buddhism, “Dharma Transmission” is a ritual in which a qualified Zen teacher acknowledges the ability of one of their students to carry on the lineage tradition of Zen. In this episode I introduce you to the practice, including a description of my own experience of it, the criteria for giving it, the great variability in how it’s viewed and used, and the sense in which it’s about  two individuals mutually recognizing awakened mind in each other.

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50 – Buddhist History 8: Aśoka, First Buddhist Emperor – Facts and Legend Part 2

Legends of King Aśoka, the first Buddhist emperor (3rd century BCE), have long guided and inspired Buddhists, particularly rulers. In this second episode of two, I continue the story of Aśoka’s exploits: sending missionaries to spread the Dhamma, building a large number of stupas, and sponsoring the Third Buddhist Council. I also discuss the debate about whether Aśoka championed and spread Buddhism as a religion, or kept his public life non-sectarian and used the term “Dhamma” to refer to general principles of morality and righteousness.

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49 – Buddhist History 8: Aśoka, First Buddhist Emperor – Facts and Legend – Part 1

King Aśoka was an Indian emperor in the 3rd century BCE. According to legend, he was a devout Buddhist who explicitly and publicly governed in accord with the Dhamma, or Buddhist teachings. Aśoka has been important to Buddhists – particularly Buddhist rulers – ever since his reign. In this episode I tell you the story of Aśoka according to legend, and then contrast that with what we know from his extant rock edicts (deciphered in the 19th century). In the next episode I’ll continue with the stories of Aśoka's exploits.

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47 – How to Guide Your Own Meditation Part 1: Do Something, Don’t Just Fall Asleep

We sometimes get stuck in simplistic meditation instructions and therefore sell our meditation short. It's valuable to learn how to guide your own meditation - being mindful of your experience, arousing determination to do your best, and then being creative and diligent in finding ways to stay alert and focused. In this episode I explain this approach to meditation, and in the next episode I'll offer first-person stories about meditative experiences to illustrate the process.

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46 – Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 5: Birds Fly, Fish Swim, a Zen Master Waves a Fan

In this episode we finish up the Genjokoan, focusing first on the rather long passage comparing our path of practice to the way a fish swims in the water, or a bird flies in the sky. Then I’ll talk about the story at the end of the essay, where a monk asks a Zen master why he uses a fan when the nature of wind permeates everywhere, which is really a question about why we practice if reality ultimately lacks nothing.

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44 – The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 2: Aid-Seeking If There’s No God

I continue our exploration of Buddhist prayer with a discussion of "aid-seeking" prayer, or prayer for a positive result. In particular, in this episode I cover the long-established traditions of Buddhist prayer for positive physical or external results, such as protection from danger, recovery from illness, or plentiful rain for crops. (In the next episode I'll talk about prayer to affect change in our own practice, experience, or behavior.)

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43 – The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 1: Paradox of Prayer in a Nontheistic Spiritual Tradition

You might be surprised to know many Buddhists pray, given that Buddhism is fundamentally a nontheistic religion. It’s possible to be an avowed atheist and a devout Buddhist at the same time. In fact, such a Buddhist might even pray! I’ll explain more about how this works in this episode, which will be the first of two. I’ll introduce you to three basic reasons Buddhists pray, take you through the first two reasons, and then finish up next week by going into more detail about the third type of prayer.

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42 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 4: Right Speech – Factual, Helpful, Kind, Pleasant, and Timely

Right speech is an essential part of Shakyamuni Buddha’s very first teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path, his prescription for spiritual liberation and insight. This teaching can be very useful to us in daily life, and recommends we avoid lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle (unmindful) chatter. The Buddha also gave us five things to consider before speaking: Is what we're about to say factual, helpful, kind (spoken with good-will), pleasant ("endearing"), and timely?

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40 – Being Beneficial Instead of Right: The Buddhist Concept of Skillful Means

The Buddhist concept of “upaya,” skillful or expedient means, arose around the dawn of the common era – about 2,000 years ago. It emphasizes that even if we possess wisdom, when we want to share it with other beings and help them, it’s not so easy to do so. We need to be patient, creative, and compassionate so they will be able to hear, accept, and act on what we have to share.

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39 – Buddhist History 7: Indian Buddhism After the Buddha – The First 200 Years

This episode, the 7th in my sequential Buddhist History series, covers the first 200 years or so of Buddhism, beginning with the traditional account of events immediately after the Buddha’s passing. Then I describe how the ordained Sangha met to compile and codify his teachings and their code of discipline, and eventually began dividing into different sects and schools. This is a fascinating story that reflects what really mattered to early Buddhists.

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38 – The Two Sides of Practice: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship

Buddhist practice can be seen as consisting of two sides, and both are essential. The first side is cultivating “samadhi power,” or our ability to perceive – or be awake to – the absolute aspect of reality. We do this through practices including meditation, mindfulness, and studying teachings such as impermanence and emptiness. The second side of our overall practice is working on “karma relationship,” or learning to live our daily lives in an enlightened way. We do this by working with our karma, keeping precepts, honoring relationships, and understanding how the absolute aspect of reality corresponds to the relative aspect. If we neglect either side, our practice can stagnate or go awry.

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