Monday, December 9, 2013

Celebrating Rohatsu! The Enlightenment of the Buddha

Message delivered on December 8, 2013 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro by Rev. Jane Page


You may say – “Jane, I’ve been awake since 7 a.m.”
But are you really awake?  Are you seeing things as they are? 

Most of us go through our days thinking we are awake and viewing the world realistically.  But eastern religions (and now psychologists and brain scientists) are telling us that what we take in through our senses is heavily filtered by the time we make meaning out of it.  Many of those filters are there because we don’t want to change.  We want things to be the way we see them now – and we make them fit into that subconsciously.  Occasionally though – some of those filters may be lifted, and we have an epiphany – an awakening.  Sometimes those awakenings are gradual.  But sometimes they come all at once and we wonder – "wow, why didn’t I see that before."

Most of my awakenings have been gradual, but I had one of those pivotal moments.  As I have shared with you all before, Decembers and Christmas time have sometimes been difficult for me.  For all practical purposes, my marriage of almost 30 years ended on Christmas Day in 1997.  But I am very grateful for that day too.  Because until then, I had been blinded by tradition, by my own image of myself, by family views, and quite frankly – by love.  I took my marriage vows very seriously and never thought that I would get a divorce.  Whatever it took – I would be there, no matter what.  But that Christmas was different.  I remember the spot where I was standing when I "woke up."  I was holding grandson JD who was almost a year old on my hip.  It was his very first Christmas.  My parents were there, and my sons John and Fred, and JD’s mom Michelle.  But my husband wasn’t there.  He had left the night before saying he was just too severely depressed to be with us.  I don’t need to go into details regarding why he was depressed, but his life was considerably troubled, especially because he was married to me but his love for me was gone.  It’s more complicated than that…but that description will suffice.  In any case, we were just continuing our marriage as we were supposed to do – and we were all depressed.  And it was Christmas.  My son – JD’s dad - was on the sofa in a fetal position.  I had my Santa hat on my head – trying to be joyful – but there was no joy.  Then... It just fell on me.  I woke up.  And for the first time in my life I realized that we didn’t have to live that way.  And I said it out loud. 

“You know what?  We don’t have to live this way.  We are going to get a divorce.” 

My marriage was already over – had been for about a decade -- and I felt like a fool for not being able to see it.  But I woke up that day.  It was a painful awakening.  But I'm so glad I was able to see more clearly.  Hallelujah!

So – because of that experience – I know this can happen.  I KNOW that we can be BLINDED – and just not SEE things as they are!  And I know that we can wake up.  So I have great appreciation for Buddhism. 

Now you heard the story of Siddhartha in our Time for All Ages – and you know that after lots of journeying, he finally woke up to some Truths that had been hard for him to see before then.  He called them the four Noble Truths.  Let me review them quickly for you.

1st – Ordinary Life brings about suffering.  Sh…. It happens.

2nd – The origin of suffering is attachment.
The joke goes – Why don’t Buddhists vacuum in the corners of their rooms?  The answer is they don’t have attachments. 
Now we know that attachments are necessary for survival.  If parents (humans and other mammals) didn’t become attached to their children, they would dessert them.  But some attachments are just unhealthy.  Even some that may have at one time good nurturing for us. 

The 3rd noble truth is --- the cessation of suffering is attainable.  Things can get better.

And 4th – there is an eightfold path to end the cessation of suffering.

Now this path is not linear --- sometimes you have to do two or three of these together, so perhaps path is not the best metaphor.  But it’s the one the Buddha used, so who am I to complain.

Here’s a graph that shows them in circles surrounding the Buddha.

Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration, Right Mindfulness

Of course – Erk Russell boiled it down to one rule – Do Right!

These noble truths and paths to enlightenment are lifted up in all Buddhist traditions – but they do have lots of different ideas about these, just as there are many ideas about other religions and philosophies.  Rev. Doug Taylor explains it well.  He says:

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, your affliction due to attachment and ignorance will successively be burned away through stages of enlightening experiences until the final stage when full enlightenment is achieved.  At this point Nirvana has been reached and the material “world of Forms ceases to arise.”  Which means a fully enlightened being will cease to exist from our perspective – and we will cease to ‘arise’ from their perspective.  Only a very few can achieve this state.  In this version of how it works, none of us here are ‘fully enlightened’ or anywhere close.

Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, is not interested in such a goal.  Or, more specifically, the goal is seen as unachievable until all sentient beings are ready and we can all transcend together.  However, the possibility of this being achieved by all sentient beings is, from our current perspective, so minimal that we can say this final goal is not really an attainable goal; therefore Mahayana Buddhism is not interested in such a goal.  Instead we say enlightenment is ongoing; there is no final point when someone can say, “I am fully enlightened.”  If you are enlightened, there will continue to be more breakthrough experiences because life is always evolving.  Or, as philosopher Ken Wilbur says, “In this sense, you are never ‘fully’ enlightened, anymore than you could say that you are ‘fully educated.’  It has no meaning.”  (Wilbur, Ken, A Brief History of Everything p216)

I can go along with that I think.  What I have a harder time going along with is any of the assertions of reincarnation or afterlife.  I’m not saying “it’s not so.”  I’m just saying – “I don’t know.”  I believe in life BEFORE death – and one is enough for me to work on. 

In any case, many of the values and ideals that we lift up as Unitarian Universalists – are good Buddhist ideals.  Of course Christians would say they are Christian ideals as well, and that they are.  But I think what we do not do in western religions very well – is the practice of letting go that Buddhism encourages.  We mainly suffer because we think that things are enduring – when things are really changing.   So how do we get to this state where we can see more realistically and let go.   

The best way to let go and really be able to take that first step of waking up is to do what the Buddha did – NOTHING.  He just sat down and did nothing.  And he attempted to think nothing as well. 

I came to understand this better while having trouble with using the internet.  If there are problems with my computer – or my modem – or my router – sometimes I just need to UNPLUG them – turn the power off – let them rest – then turn them on and allow them to RESET, so that they can allow me to see and connect. 

My brain is like that too – often with several programs running at once.  While I’m preaching this sermon, I’m listening out for the kids, and thinking about whether or not I’m wearing the best shoes for standing for a long time, etc. and noticing all kinds of things about all of you out there.  We know what happens to our computers when we are running to many programs.  Our brains are like that as well.  And sometimes we need to unplug.
Now I’m the first to confess that I am not a good meditator.  I’ve tried all kinds of things – even spending lots of money to go out to California and get trained by Deepak Chopra and get my own special mantra.  (Don’t bother.)  I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m one of those folks who needs a little help to allow my mind to slow down. 

Occasionally Greg has come into our bedroom and found me with the Catholic channel on listening to the nuns recite the rosary.  I don’t believe what they are saying.  But that repetition and drone helps me let that monkey mind go.  So does Buddhist monk chanting and meditation music.

There are some great tools on YouTube for this – and I thought I’d share one of my favorites today.  This includes monks chanting, bells chiming, and some music and nature sounds as well --- but it’s also woven into an enchanting meditation piece.  You can experience it with your eyes closed – or if you prefer, you can open them as be drawn in by the beautiful visuals of nature that are offered. 

So take deep breath.  Breathe in and out.  Place your feet on the floor for some grounding and for about several minutes – just be – just witness – just notice, your breath or the sounds – and just let go. 

Buddhist monk chanting meditation  (Yeah, you should really click this and do it.)

As we end this sermon time, I invite you to close join with me in another Buddhist ritual – sending loving kindness to ourselves and others.  First to ourselves – repeat after me.

May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be safe.
May I have peace.

Now I invite you to think of someone who especially needs some loving kindness today.  And as you have them in mind – repeat these words after me.
May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be safe.
May you have peace.

Now let’s send loving kindness to this congregation gathered here today.  Repeat after me.
May we be happy.
May we be healthy.
May we be safe.
May we have peace.

And now – let us send loving kindness to the world.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings have peace.