Ask Sensei Tony

–or–Anthony Stultz, author of “The Three Principles of Oneness”, answers your questions!

Anthony “Sensei Tony” Stultz is an ordained Buddhist minister and internationally recognized mindfulness expert as well as author of The Three Principles of Oneness: How Embodying the Cosmic Perspective Can Liberate Your Life. He is also the spiritual director of The Dragonfly Sangha and founder of the Blue Lotus School of Mindfulness Arts. His website is: asksenseitony.com .Over the past few weeks, we have been gathering your questions both through our social media outlets and via email for Sensei Tony to answer. Thank you so much to everyone who submitted a question!

Anthony “Ask Sensei” Stultz
author of The Three Principles of Oneness

Ask Sensei Tony

What happens after we die?

Question: What happens after we die?

This is a question that I am asked quite often. And while there are many ways to approach this question, let’s try this one first:  What if we asked, “What happened before I was born?” This question can be even more mysterious because we have a harder time imagining what we were before we were born. So, this leads us to my first response:  We don’t know. Perhaps someone or something else does, but we don’t. What do we know? We know that we are the creation of billions of years of evolution. Somehow, everything began with mysterious elements like helium and hydrogen, which are tasteless, odorless and colorless, and we ended up magically with Hendrix and Hepburn. Our human DNA comes not just from our parents but from the life forms, human and non-human, that preceded them. I personally like knowing that 90% of my DNA is similar to that of my cat, Sir Basil! But what came before that? Even if we go back to the very beginning of our universe, we don’t know what came before. A black hole? A “bump” between two existing universes in a multiverse? An eternally reborn universe? These speculations are the domain of imagination. My second response is this:  What do we know? What is certain is that before I was born I was a part of the whole interconnected cosmos. So I’m pretty certain, given the laws of thermodynamics, the same will be true after my death. Once you wake up to the reality that you are not just in the universe but are the very cosmos knowing itself, your identity is no long limited to just this finite ego experience. But what about my consciousness? Will my story somehow continue? 

My own personal formula for answering is akin to a three-legged stool:

  1. The first leg is reason and science. While science can’t tell us for certain, there are many brilliant scientists who believe that our own consciousness is interconnected with a ground field of consciousness, which might replace the theory of dark matter and allow for the possibility of consciousness being a primary aspect of the cosmos. I’m personally drawn to the idea that sentience has varying levels, sort of like a radio that has varying levels of reception. The more highly evolved the sentience is, the more universal the possibilities. Perhaps the universe is more like mind than machine. 
  2. The second leg is tradition. In this case, I turn to the tradition of Buddhism, where there is no monolithic prescription about what happens after we die. The Buddha himself may have seen this query as an unnecessary pondering which distracted us from relieving psychological suffering. But doctrines abound, with many precursors to the ones found in science. Classical Buddhism saw consciousness as both preceding and continuing beyond this particular personal experience. There is room for a panoply of concepts, with everything from other dimensional realms to rebirth and ghosts.
  3. The third leg is my own personal experience. And while I can’t go into all the details here, suffice it to say that I have had experiences both privately as an individual and professionally as a minister that defy a conventionally materialist point of view.

So, I started my response to this question from the sacred and humble place of not knowing. I then bore witness to what we might know. I conclude with what I believe is the right or skillful action. When someone asks me this question, my intention is to offer words and actions that will relieve fear, provide comfort and consolation, and create a greater experience of Oneness. I will encourage those things that deepen our sense of connection and discourage those that do not. In my new book, I share several examples of how to actually do this. Please read and let me know your thoughts. Thank you and I hope that this was helpful.

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What is the difference between non-being and not being?

Question: What is the difference between non-being and not being?

This a pretty deep philosophical query. The first expression, “non-being”, to me means that anything that exists, and let’s stick to a human here, has its very being beyond itself in the interconnected reality of Oneness. In other words, being is what we might say is the existential characteristic that emerges out of non-being, which is primordial or the essential one. Together they metaphorically represent the dynamic of Oneness. In my Four Directions System of Mindfulness, we utilize mindfulness models that express this very pragmatically. You can find the details of its use in relieving suffering in my new book. In it, the Ego Self is a symbol of that which is finite, and the True Self is a symbol of that which is infinite, both flowing as the creative dance between being and non-being. 

The phrase, “not being”, points to the idea of imagining that which is not a being. I would simply offer that this is not really possible to answer because whatever image that we would come up with will just end up to be some-thing after all. It’s sort of like trying to imagine the numeric symbol zero. You can’t really do it without reference to other things. The concept of zero, which happens to be a transliteration of the Sanskrit term, Shunyata, is the Buddhist teaching of sky-like spaciousness. All things emerge from and have their existence within it, but it, like zero, can only be realized in relation. 

I believe that the Buddha’s call was for us to awaken to and live out of the ground of being, which, to borrow a phrase from the German theologian, Paul Tillich, means choosing the courage to live nobly as the self-affirmation of one’s being in spite of the threat of nonbeing from alienation, death and the loss of meaning. We can learn to do this through the practice of reorientation meditation, also found in my new book. I hope this was useful. 

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Is cosmic consciousness different than traditional Buddhism?

Question: Is cosmic consciousness different than traditional Buddhism?

Not necessarily, but it really depends on your definitions. The phrase, “cosmic consciousness” seems to have originated in popular parlance in the 20th century with the writings of early psychiatrist, Richard Maurice Bucke, who used the term to describe a higher form of consciousness.  It was also associated by the early premiere psychologist, William James, with the universal, unitive experience of the Absolute. 

In classical Buddhism, consciousness is described with great detail in a variety of ways. Some terms have differing meanings according to the interpretation of the school or denomination. Concepts range from the sensorial to the metaphysical. In one ancient Buddhist scripture, there is the description of the bright, shining, infinite, luminous consciousness of a Buddha. And what is a Buddha? One who has awakened to the cosmic perspective and knows that this cosmic state of consciousness is available to all sentient beings and within this consciousness, the cosmos is one bright pearl where one is all and all are one.

Relationship to this cosmic awakening is available to all of us in a way that it was not three millennia ago. Those who recorded the teachings then had no access to the wondrous knowledge that we now have about the universe. And while their insights were profound, they were conditionally limited by the culture they came from. We now have clear evidence that proves their insights and moves us beyond their limitations. We actually know that all life is interconnected, from the snails to the stars. We can actually show the changes that Mindfulness has on the brain and body. We are part of a revolution in understanding how things work, where the old mythologies are giving way to new vistas and new challenges to what it means to be human. Part of the inspiration for my new book was imagining how someone would share the Dharma in the 23rd century, to take this heavenly treasure and give it a new space age vessel. Please check it out and let me know how you think I did!

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What do you think of the idea of reincarnation?

Question: What do you think of the idea of reincarnation and how does it matter to us today?

The term, reincarnation, also known in philosophy as metempsychosis, is the transmigration at death of the soul of a human being or animal into a new body of the same or a different type. This idea was perhaps the most common belief in life after death, found among the Indians, Greeks, Jews and early Christians. This was somewhat contrasted by those who believed the soul transmigrated to other realms, sometimes becoming a resident in a heavenly or hellish realm. And sometimes these views were combined, with other realms being temporary states. Reincarnation could be understood as both a possible reward or punishment for not taking the right actions in this life, be they ritual or ethical. 

When we turn to science, our contemporary way of understanding how things work, we discover a fascinating number of possibilities. Some theorize that our DNA may inherit knowledge from its predecessors and create a kind of materialistic reincarnation. The Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics asserts that there are an infinite number of universes where every possible outcome is physically real and existing, thus resolving paradoxes like Schrodinger’s famous cat. In other words, I may be alive in this universe but dead in another. And this alive or dead scenario may play out in a variety of ways. If consciousness is primary and matter is derived from it, as Max Planck–one of the fathers of quantum theory–believed, then perhaps reincarnation is better understood from a different perspective. Where it’s not so much that we go somewhere or come back, but that we observe things from the primordial screen of a central form of consciousness that embodies a multitude of experiential roles, like an avatar in a computer game, each role leading to another level and another persona.

When looking over the history of Buddhism it seems that some believed in continual rebirth as an evolutionary process and expression of Universal Consciousness so that all might become One as was portrayed in the narrative of Shakyamuni Buddha, with each life experience a preparation for the next. Others believe that individual consciousness merges with the universal consciousness after death, becoming a Buddha.

To me, the way of the Buddha is not a call into just another incarnation but is an eternal lure into a whole new sphere of consciousness. The Buddha taught a concept called Nirvana, a word which pointed beyond itself to a state of being that could not be defined or limited by language. It referred to a personal experience of awakening to the Oneness of all life and realizing a process of being that was not limited by any human imagination and transcended all traditionally conceived notions of reward and punishment. Ultimately, if we live, move and have our very being in Oneness right now, why should it be any different in any other experience? I hope this response was helpful. Please see my new book for further explication of these ideas.

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What is your concept of god or goddess?

Question: What is your concept of god or goddess?

The use of the word god or goddess can usually be understood in one of three ways theologically. The first is literal, where the deity is real but exists somewhere beyond the human abode in another realm, usually with some sort of earthly intermediary. Some argue that all deistic persona theology began with the divination of the planets and stars, where, for example, Jupiter is the big, chief deity, being also the largest planetary body in our solar system. The second is as the personification of some force such as creation or destruction. For example, lightning was understood not as a natural phenomenon but as representing the actual entity behind the storm and the bringer of fire. The third way is as a symbol which means that the deity is a metaphor for some psychological energy. This third form is how it is classically used in Buddhism, where the deity is a meditational archetype and the practice is to learn to ultimately understand that the archetype represents an aspect of our own unconscious nature made consciously manifest through some sort of therapeutic practice. For example, in the teaching narrative of Shakyamuni the Buddha, the demonic figure of Mara who tempts him is actually a symbol for his Shadow or the darker and unintegrated aspects of his psyche. Mara can also be seen as an aspect of the inflated Ego Self where the finite makes a claim to unconditioned finality for itself.

Finally, the word God can be understood as an icon, referencing something that is ultimately ineffable and transcends all words, beyond the category of being and nonbeing. Not a being but the ground of all being itself. For me, this is just another way to talk about Oneness. I hope this was helpful.

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Is it possible there are beings who exist without suffering?

Question: Do you think it is possible there are beings in our universe who exist without suffering?

In this potentially multi-dimensional universe, anything may be possible; however, we must first define the word suffering and suggest its origin. One of the most important aspects of mindful living is to understand that words are the fingers that shape the mind. The etymology of the word suffering is “to bear from below.” Part of the practice of The Three Principles of Oneness is to bear witness to our suffering. What does this mean? It means that we become one with it. How do I become one with my suffering? There are three ways. First, become clear that suffering is different from pain. Pain is a seemingly unavoidable part of the process of sentience. Suffering is comprised of the thoughts and beliefs that we attach to pain. And while we can’t really escape the pain of living we can learn to let go of our own suffering. I know this is true, not just from my own experience but from those who have undergone extreme examples of pain. And this was the primary message of the Buddha: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.” His insights give us a spiritual technology that allows us to avoid being controlled by our thoughts, and further, to actually change the thoughts that are creating suffering. Secondly, from the First Principle of Oneness, we learn that suffering or “to bear from below” means that our suffering does not really separate us but actually connects us at the most basic level. It miraculously begets the practice of compassionate action, which means that we “burn with” each other and are not coming from an aloof or privileged place of pity; further, we act to end it within ourselves and others. Thirdly, we learn that if we do not embrace the pain of living we become neurotic, which means that our nervous system becomes exhausted from being overwrought with emotions both somatic and mental. And while we can try to mediate that exhaustion with rest and recreation, if we don’t change the source in our thoughts and beliefs, then we are sort of like a container of gasoline, always trying to avoid a spark. 

So, is there an end to pain? It does not seem so. Are there beings who learn to not only exist but thrive without adding unnecessarily to pain? Yes. And it can be us. 

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Is there a state between perfection and fear of change?

Question: Is there a state of being between perfection and fear of change? If so, what does that look like and how might you find it?

The pursuit of an impossible perfection is one of the most pernicious problems that humans confront. The other is the fear of change. In my book, I describe a mindfulness model that helps us to understand these issues and offers us a mindful alternative. The first thing we must become aware of is how deeply the unconscious drive towards a state of perfection is and how, upon deep examination, there is no such perfect reality. No person, philosophy or politic is perfect. The desire for this is rooted in a childish view of the world, which then is divided into good and bad, black and white. This desire causes an attitude of either/or in life and change becomes the constant enemy. Together, this conditioning brings about tremendous suffering. But we have another existential option. We can consciously choose Oneness over perfection. In the move toward wholeness we learn to integrate all aspects of our lives in a way that is harmonious for us. Our attitude becomes one of both, and change is transformed into the endless opportunity to create something new. How it actually looks when a person adopts this mature approach reveals a moving picture of someone who has embraced her shadowy sides with compassion, learned to bring new things out of the old, and when she gets hooked by her old conditioning, processes it mindfully before it lapses into congestive anxiety. She lives out of a daily awareness that allows her to move more gracefully through the vicissitudes of life. She is free of constant anxiety and develops an abiding sense of inner peace. Her overall sense of connection and constant creativity lures her into Compassionate action towards herself, others and the world. Please read my book for deeper understanding and contact me at asksenseitony.com if I can be of further help.

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What is the best way to start 2020?

Question: What is the best way to start 2020 from a place of cosmic Oneness?

There is an old saying that is attributed to a Star Trek character named Worf, who is a Klingon: “Today is a good day to die.” It may have originally come from Crazy Horse, the Lakota war leader. It’s been adapted by many as an existential “seize the day” idea but with more violent verve. It comes from a fatalistic place and I can dig it. But let me offer one that is a bit harder and takes even more courage: “Today is a good day to live fully, love freely and give completely.” This is my version of the Bodhisattva’s (enlightened being) way of life. Here’s how it connects to cosmic Oneness:

1. To live fully means that you are no longer willing to perpetuate a belief that creates suffering. Thoughts that keep propping up the delusion that you are a worthless accident and separate skin bag, rolling around a watery mudball of meaninglessness are no longer left unchecked. You decide, instead, to make the existential decision to hold no quarter with any belief system that makes you miserable or encourages a sense of separation. You mindfully engage a way of life based upon the evidence that the universe offers us, namely that you can never be disconnected from Oneness. In fact, you are integral to Oneness in a way that is only hinted at by the character of George in the beautiful Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There are no limitations to your happiness but the ones you make up.

2. To love freely means that you will not allow hatred to determine your actions, even when it serves your own sense of unfairness. You will practice trying to love others, even when they seem weird or offensive, because you now know that they are a part of you, and from a place of heuristic humility, you realize that the old saying, “There but for grace go I,” is just simply true. You will choose to, as the Robert Plant song, ‘All the King’s Horses’ says, “be a soldier of love,” embracing the courageous path of opening to the “beauty within.” You will sing the songs of the miracle that such a thing as love exists, the incredible offspring of the adaptive way of evolution.

3. To give completely means allowing your light to burn brightly, shining upon all without respect to person or place. You become like the sun which gives light to all beings without prejudice or plan, the natural gift of an awakened mind and heart. You will develop a new passion or burning for this transient journey, allowing your mind to create sustenance from clarity, the way plants photosynthesize chlorophyll from carbon dioxide and water to bring forth life.

I compassionately challenge you to confront your conditioning so that you might live in a way not prescribed by others but freely offered from the spacious and cosmic light of Oneness from within. 

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How can a mindful approach help depression?

Question: I have experienced episodes of depression periodically since I was in my teens.  I’ve tried numerous medications.  I’m wondering, in your opinion, how can a mindful approach together with other healthy choices such as exercise, meditation, diet, and positive thoughts, help maintain a depressed free lifestyle.  The medicine I take now in part has helped but the side effects have caused serious other health conditions that I’m trying to manage.  Any thoughts are most welcome.

In my Four Directions System of Mindfulness, which is based upon the interdependent reality revealed through the Cosmic Perspective, we theorize that each human being goes through five stages of development and four possible activating events. This theory is based upon the Buddhist understanding of the human personality as an aggregated process and the four signs recorded in the narrative of Shakyamuni Buddha. I explain them in great detail in my new book, but I will summarize some here. The first stage is related to our genetic inheritance. Sometimes clinical depression is related to either an inherited endogeny or can occur through injury, endocrine issues, or illness. This can then become comorbid with other factors of conditioning, related to the other four stages of development and also triggered via the Four Eruptions. In essence, our approach understands that the body and mind are one. To heal we must include all the stages of conditioning, remembering that the biological factor is only one-fifth of the problem. If we do not restructure the psyche via cognitive analysis, such as found in our 4D System practice known as the Four Questions of Mindfulness, then we will not be able to completely heal. This is why reliance on treatment of the first aggregate alone, rarely leads to psychological well being. I can’t tell you how many folks have come to me saying that their medication had stopped working. My own experience has taught me that this is usually not the case.  I have found that medicine can only do so much. But in order to put out a flame, you must remove the fuel that keeps it burning. Mental conditioning in the form of thoughts congealed into beliefs that are left unchallenged will continue to cause suffering. 

With regard to side effects, medications can sometimes interfere with the cholinergic pathway, and the absorption of important vitamins and minerals. An example of this is with anti-epileptic drugs which are utilized in treating seizure and bipolar disorders and can cause serious vitamin D and C issues. However, this can often be alleviated through supplementation of those things that are effected. 

Finally, the practices of the spiritual methods in our system must be practiced daily for therapeutic success. We will never reach a plateau and there is no place of panacea. To use an old Zen metaphor, everyday the glass is used and gets dirty. And every day we must clean it in order to be able to properly use once again. I hope this information has helped and please contact me for a more in-depth and personal approach.