Editor's Note: Along with a congregational service on Buddhism, our Religious Education programming is devoting time to learning more about this major world religion. Youth in their Sunday classes will spend time this year on the religion, its tenets and practices - and adults are welcome to attend the five-week course led by Rev. Tom starting January 18th. Details available HERE
The Path of Buddhism
By Reverend Tom Capo
Preached on 1/11/2015
How many of you know the story of Siddhartha Gautama or as he came to be known, the Buddha? Well, just so we start in the same place, let me tell you the Cliff Notes version of his life. His father was a king, who believed that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great religious leader, and since he wanted his son to become a great king, he kept his son secluded on their castle grounds. One day Siddhartha went outside the grounds, and saw old people, sad people, and sick people. He was greatly moved by this exposure. So he left the castle and started studying with great spiritual teachers and tried many spiritual practices to find how one might cope with the problems of this life. Eventually, he found himself sitting under a Bodhi tree meditating, and he realized, that is, he became enlightened, that there was a path to deal with suffering in the world. He realized that there will always be suffering; our lives have ups and downs—that is the way life is. And suffering is not intended to convey a negative view of the world or of life. Tibetan Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron (choe drun), wrote: “When we resist change, it’s called suffering. But when we can completely let go and not struggle against it, when we can embrace the groundlessness of our situation and relax into its dynamic quality, that’s called enlightenment, or awakening to our true nature, to our fundamental goodness.” In order to deal with suffering, one needs to have a down-to-earth, reasonable understanding of suffering, and see the world as it is—not as we want it to be. In other words one day or another there will be suffering in your life—so it is best to learn to cope with suffering without letting it control you.
And, to flesh out the Cliff Notes version I just gave—here is a parable: a man came to the Buddha, hearing he was a great teacher. Like all of us, this man had some problems in his life, and he thought the Buddha might be able to help him straighten them out.
He told the Buddha that he was a farmer. “I like farming,” he said, “but sometimes it doesn’t rain enough, and my crops fail. Last year we nearly starved. And sometimes it rains too much, so my yields aren’t what I’d like them to be.”
The Buddha patiently listened.
“I’m married, too,” said the man. “She’s a good wife…I love her, in fact. But sometimes she nags me too much. And sometimes I get tired of her.”
The Buddha listened quietly.
“I have kids,” said the man. “Good kids, too…but sometimes they don’t mind me. And sometimes…”
The man went on like this, saying all the problems and worries that he had. Finally, he wound down and waited for the Buddha to say the words that would put everything right for him.
Instead, the Buddha said, “I can’t help you.”
“What do you mean?” said the astonished man.
“Everybody’s got problems,” said the Buddha. “In fact, we’ve all got eighty-three problems, every one of us. Eighty-three problems, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it—but if you do, another one will pop right up into its place. For example, eventually you will lose someone you love, and eventually you will die. Now that is a problem, and there is nothing you or anyone else can do about it.”
The man became angry, “I thought you were a great teacher!” he shouted. “I thought you could help me! What good is your teaching!”
Buddha said, “Well, maybe it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem.”
“The eighty-fourth problem? What’s that?” said the man.
The Buddha said, “You want to not have any problems.”
Buddha did teach one practice to help people cope with suffering--meditation. If you get too attached to or want something or someone too much—like your playstation, your ipad, your girlfriend, even your parents--you are likely to have more suffering. Now I am not saying you can’t love people. But if you want something or you want someone in your life so much that you can’t live without it or them, if you believe you need them in order to be happy, then you have a problem. And Buddha suggested meditation helps you get some perspective on attachment, and suffering. Meditation can help you stay in the moment in order to deal effectively with suffering.
One of the first lessons that I ever had on how to meditate had to do with a boat—some of you may have heard of this. Probably many of you have tried meditating, but became frustrated by all the thoughts and distractions that kept you from getting your mind to calm or quiet down. Well, meditation is not about forcing your mind to be calm or quiet. I invite you for a moment to close your eyes. Now imagine a boat on the distant horizon. You see the boat float by from the far left of your perception, gradually moving along in front of you until it reaches the far right of what you can see, and then disappears. Try this one more time: imagine this boat, far away, floating across your line of sight, appearing on your left and disappearing on your right. OK, now you can open your eyes. You have been meditating. Now let’s expand this a little. Next time you try to meditate, think of all your thoughts and distractions as little boats crossing your mind. Do not dwell on the thought or distraction, just watch as it floats across your consciousness. Meditation is difficult and frustrating when you become attached to certain thoughts or you let your emotions get too much of your attention. It is important to remember that meditating is not clearing your mind, it is an attitude you have while you sit and breathe. The attitude is this: all that comes into your mind will come in and go out if you let it, if you just observe it, like watching the boats on the horizon. This is true in life as well. If you notice all your experiences, and are mindful of them, they too will pass through your life at some point. Now this passing through without getting too attached to things doesn’t mean you don’t deal with problems, or that you don’t love people in your life, or that you don’t work to make money to have a nice home, but with meditation you keep some perspective. You don’t let circumstances outside of you or perceptions inside of you control how you feel. Some of Buddha’s last words were about guarding your heart. It is just too easy for your heart to be controlled by people or events around you, and thoughts and feelings inside you. So be mindful about what you let into your heart and trust yourself that you will be able to deal with whatever you face. Deal with the problems you face practically, without expectation that whatever you do will fix everything or even fix the problem in the way you thought it would be fixed. You will still feel anger, grief, frustration; you will still have to face the stresses and media manipulation around you; you will still have money problems, health problems, relationship problems. But, by stopping occasionally, meditating, and guarding your heart from the superficial, from the really not important stuff, and knowing that every problem, every distraction will pass, you get some perspective on how to live a happier and more content life.
So far we have considered two of the three-fold divisions of the Buddhist path—wisdom, understanding that resisting life’s inevitable change results in suffering and that there is suffering in everyone’s life; and meditation, practicing mindful reflection. The third division of the Buddhist path is ethics. Now, while the Buddha did not lay down any commandments about how we should live in the world, he did feel there was a “right” path. One day as he was walking, the Buddha passed a fisherman and his son, who was playing a harp. The son was playing the harp very harshly, and the father directed him to play more gently. So the son began playing the harp so quietly that the notes were indiscernible. The father then directed his son to apply a moderate force to the stings to produce a pleasant sound. At this point the Buddha realized that the key to calmness, ethics, and understanding in the physical world is moderation.
I am sure many of you have had friends who worked hard, 16 hour days, and played hard, drinking too much, taking lavish vacations, etc. This is not living a life of moderation. The work hard/play hard philosophy is inherently abusive to one’s mind, heart, and body, and also negatively affects those around you—and your relationships. Moderation in work, play, drinking, eating, life is not only a ethical way of living, but it will result in a heathier way of living in the world.
One other very important aspect of Buddhism that means a lot to me is the concept of lovingkindness. As the legend is told, the Buddha first taught lovingkindness to a group of monks who were practicing in a forest haunted by tree spirits. The monks were terrified and wanted to leave, but the Buddha sent them straight back to the forest with instructions to cultivate lovingkindness. As the monks became skilled in living lovingkindness, the tree spirits stopped the harassment and began to appreciate their presence, even serving the monks during their retreat. The Buddha taught lovingkindness as a method for gladdening the mind, as a way of strengthening concentration, as an offering of generosity, as a way of meeting both verbal and physical abuse, as a way of overcoming fear, and as a way of living in concord in community. And Buddha taught the highest good and the greatest happiness comes from expressing lovingkindness and compassion for the world and working for the benefit and happiness of all people.
If you consider the path of Buddhism, you might reflect on this passage from Jack Kornfield, a teacher in the vipassana movement in American Theravada Buddhism (in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path). “It is easy to get caught in the notion that there is a goal, a state, a special place to reach in spiritual life. Accounts of extraordinary experiences can create ideas of how our own lives should be, and lead us to compare ourselves with others. In Tibet, one famous yogi had lived for years practicing ardently in a mountain hut supported by the villagers below. Then one festival day he heard that all his supporters were going to visit him. The yogi carefully swept his hut, polished the offering bowls on the altar, made a special offering, and cleaned his robes. Then he sat back and waited, but an unease came over him. Who was he trying to be? Finally he got up, scooped up several handfuls of dirt, and threw them back onto the altar. Those handfuls of dirt were said to be his highest spiritual offering.
When we enter the gateless gate, we come to the end of all seeking. Before this in our life we may have tried many ways to find enlightenment or become something special. Finally, we enter the gate of the eternal present and discover that we are not going anywhere. Where we are is the place, the only place for the perfection of patience, peace, freedom, and compassion.”
I leave you with one final parable. A man who had known the Buddha for some time met him on the road as the Buddha was walking away from the Bodhi tree, having achieved enlightenment. The man noticed that Buddha seemed somehow different.
The man asked, “Are you now a god?”
The Buddha answered, “No.”
“Are you a magician, then? A sorcerer? A wizard?”
Again the Buddha answered, “No.”
“Are you some kind of celestial being? An angel, perhaps?”
Again the Buddha answered, “No.”
“Well, then, what are you?”
The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”
My friends as you reflect on this time we have shared together, may you too become a little more awake, restoring a flower, mountain, calm water, and space within you. Feeling beauty and love within you. Feeling solid and stable within you. Feeling calm and serene within you. Feeling freedom, generosity, and happiness within you.