This sermon was given on December 8, 2019, at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cookeville.
December 8, 2019
Happy Bodhi Day! This day, Rōhatsu in Japanese, is the Mahayana and Zen Buddhist celebration of the anniversary of Buddha’s day of enlightenment, but not all Buddhists celebrate it on December 8. The year of Buddha’s enlightenment is not something agreed upon, but if the date I saw is correct, it is the 2547th anniversary of that day. It’s a low-key holiday, celebrated mostly by meditation. Some Buddhists spend the entire night of Bodhi day in meditation. Some Buddhists decorate a ficus or fig tree with colored lights and strings of beads and three ornaments to represent the three jewels of buddhism: the Buddha, the Dharma or teachings, and the Sangha, or community.
I know that I told you that I was going to change the practice of reading stories to you, but as I reflected on how to present this information to you about what Bodhi Day is, I couldn’t think of a better way to tell you the origin of this holiday than to read you the story out of this little book, Sacred Stories. So, you get a story today. But don’t worry, you’re going to get a brief meditative moment, as well, a little bit later.
Summary of story: The prince Siddhartha Gatauma lived in a palace. His parents protected him from witnessing any kind of suffering, to ensure that he led a happy life. They didn’t let him out of the palace. But he got curious about what was outside the walls, and one day, when he was an adult, he snuck out of the palace and saw the suffering in the world, and was shocked. How could anyone be happy? He decided to leave his family behind and seek the answer. He tried various religious and ascetics paths for several years, but one day, starving, he decided that asceticism was not the way. He came to a huge Bodhi (fig) tree, and sat beneath it, determined that he would not rise until he attained enlightenment. The Master of Illusion, Mara, and his hideous minions, grew concerned that Siddhartha would find the answer to suffering, so they attacked him, coming at him one after another. But Siddhartha’s light was his shield, and they could not harm him, and eventually they ran away. Siddhartha continued to sit, and eventually attained enlightenment and became The Buddha.
This reads as a fable, doesn’t it, with the monsters and sort of Demonic/Satanic Mara coming at the Buddha as he sat trying to attain enlightenment. And of course, it is that, it surely has undergone some mythification in the 2500 years since Siddhartha Gautama was alive. But many Buddhists believe that Mara is not a literal demon in the way a Hindu or those of us who come from a Christian background understand a demon, but that he exists in the mind. He is the mental torments that plague us.
And doesn’t that one fact, that Mara is in the mind, change the meaning of the story entirely? Now, suddenly, we can relate to what the Buddha endured. Because I don’t know about you, but I have mental demons. Buddhism, which loves lists, calls these plagues 5 hindrances: 1) craving or clinging 2) anger or ill will 3) sloth and torpor 4) restlessness, worry, anxiety, and 5) doubt and inner critic. I know you know these demons as well as I do. In fact, a 2014 study at the University of Virginia administered to hundreds of subjects showed something fascinating: We don’t like being alone with our thoughts. Participants were put in a sparsely furnished room with blank walls and no devices or things to fidget with. There was only one thing in the room besides table and chairs: a button that would administer a harmless electric shock to them, if they chose to press it. Rather than sit and think quietly for 15 minutes, the duration of the experiment, the majority of participants chose to shock themselves, even though they’d said before the study that they’d p pay money not to be shocked. The way it’s divided by gender is interesting, as well: 65% of men self-administered shock, compared with 25% of women. So I’m not surprised that for the last several years, 100% of the participants in our Tuesday meditation sessions have been female or nonbinary. That’s an interesting little phenomenon I’ll leave for another day’s study.
But now we imagine the Buddha sitting, swearing that he will stay there until he attains enlightenment. And if you’ve ever spent more than two minutes sitting in meditation, you’ll relate completely to the thoughts coming at him like swarming hordes of multi-headed beasts, because the minute you try to get quiet, your mind tends to go crazy, and you end up saying to yourself, Dude, seriously? We’re thinking that right now? The Buddha’s answer: keep sitting. Stay with it. His light was his shield. His sitting was his battle plan. If you’ve sat and had a cramp in your leg or anxiety that you thought was going to drive you mad, you’ll completely understand the fear that Mara — our thought-demons — is going to KILL YOU.
But the Buddha sat, and he prevailed, and he attained enlightenment. And he gifted the world with this religion/teaching/dharma/philosophy/psychology/practice that can have really positive effects on our lives if we learn how to apply it skillfully, even 2500 years later.
So what is this teaching? I have about 10 minutes to give you the highlights, which, obviously, is not enough, but I’ll be drawing on Buddhism in sermons again and again, so this will give us a good foundation.
As I said earlier, the Buddha loved lists, and there are two that are foundational for the practice. You can’t talk about Buddhism without discussing the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention of learning the answer to this fundamental question: Why is there suffering? It could even be said to be the central question of most of our world religions. And he came away with this list to answer that question, which is called the Four Noble Truths.
1. To be human is to suffer. The Sanskrit word for this is Dukkha, and it is commonly translated suffering. But some think it should be, instead, “dissatisfaction.” This seems obvious to us, maybe, but the Buddha’s situation was unique, having been protected from any knowledge of the existence of suffering for most of his life and then going out into the world and being struck by the universal ness of it.
2. The second Noble Truth is that the cause of our suffering is not the event that we’re reacting to, but our reaction to it, our desire. I’ll put that in a practical context in a minute.
3. The third NT is that it is possible to overcome that desire, to change our thoughts about the thing.
4. The fourth NT is the way to do that: the Buddha gave us an eightfold path to show us the way to change our thoughts. Again, more on that in a minute.
So let’s put this in practical, everyday terms. Let’s say you are driving down the road and someone cuts you off. You’re already in a hurry, and a bit anxious because you have to give a presentation when you get where you’re going. So he cuts you off, and you have to slam on your brakes and narrowly avoid an accident. You start telling yourself a story about what an idiot that other driver is, and that people like him are responsible for people dying every day, and that you’re going to be even later now because of him, and it’s going to be hard to focus because you’re all worked up about this near miss. So you go ten miles down the road muttering and swearing to yourself, and then you think, This is NOT helping. It’s having zero effect on the other driver, and I’m just getting myself all worked up about what happened, and I could use my energy more skillfully by thinking about my presentation or even just being in the moment driving so that I can pay better attention, be a better driver, and have better reaction time. You then take a deep breath, settle your hands on the wheel, and try to get present.
The driver in our example had an inciting incident that caused suffering. The suffering could have been momentary, but because they chose to ruminate on it and tell themselves a story about things that they had no actual knowledge about, they suffered for ten miles instead of one moment. Then, they saw that all of this rumination was unhelpful, and instead chose right mindfulness and to be in the present moment, or perhaps right effort and to be thinking about their upcoming presentation.
For our meditative moment, we’re going to find in our recent history an incident that we had a strong reaction to. Get yourself grounded with feet on the floor. You don’t have to close your eyes, but kind of unfocus them in the middle distance, or close if you’d rather. Think about something that upset you in some way in the past week or so, and how you dealt with it in real time. Rather than judging how you dealt with it, think about how your reaction contributed to or eased your suffering in connection with the incident. Is there some way you could have reacted more skillfully?
You’ll notice that I keep using the word Skillful. Buddhism’s dichotomy isn’t sinner versus saint, but usually it’s a foolish person versus a sage or wise person. We don’t look at it as right or wrong, but what would have been the more skillful or useful way to react. You’ll maybe have noticed that Buddhism’s tree of knowledge is a blessing, whereas Christianity’s Tree of Knowledge was forbidden.
If we look back at Buddhism’s Noble Truths, they’re almost a scientific process. Some even speculate that the Buddha built this concept on ancient Indian medicine. The first is the illness, the symptom: suffering. The second is the diagnosis: suffering is caused by desire. The third is the prognosis: it can be healed. And the fourth is the healing.
So let’s meet the eightfold path. The fourth step on the path of noble truth is the Eightfold Path itself. Maybe you’ve seen the eight-spoked Wheel that is one of the few symbols of Buddhism, and the spokes represent this path. Once again, we have some issues with translation. These are often translated: right understanding, right intention or resolve, right speech, right action or conduct, right livelihood, right effort or diligence, right attentiveness or mindfulness, and right samadhi, translated concentration or meditation. And the word “right” might be a bit misleading in this context. We’re not talking about right as in, versus wrong, a moralizing. Few Buddhist sects make rules about what lay practitioners can and cannot do. We could put the word “skillful” here, as well, and say skillful understanding, skillful intention. I could give a sermon on each one of these and expound on them at length, and in fact, the Buddha spent forty years of his teaching discussing these concepts.
But instead of expounding on them, I want to recommend the practice. Whether you do meditation in the context of Buddhism or not, the time you spend on the cushion or doing whatever other form of meditation seems best to you — it can be walking meditation, mantra meditation that has its roots in Hinduism, coloring, dancing, or whatever else places you in the moment and works for you as a focus — it is training. We call it practice because spending those moments teaching our mind to walk away from those demons forms neural pathways that stand us in good stead when that driver cuts us off, or when we run into other forms of frustration, or the bigger catastrophes in life that we don’t have the first clue how we’re going to deal with. This realization hit me one day while I was listening to a Dharma talk about how sitting in meditation is great training for those sleepless nights when your mind is spinning constantly on everything and nothing. A light bulb went on. OH, that’s what meditation is for! It’s brain training! And when we’re suffering we can sit with those four Noble Truths and and name, diagnose, prognose, and cure — or sometimes, maybe just ease — the suffering.
In each sermon, I try to offer a blessing at the end of it. This week, as a way to celebrate Bodhi Day, I’d like us to offer the blessing together in the form of a Buddhist Metta meditation. I know I’ve talked about Metta practice before, and you’re probably familiar with it in one of our hymns, but I thought we would walk through one together as both blessing and mindful moment this morning. So here’s how this works: you don’t need to close your eyes, but try to feel the resonance of each sentiment as you say it. You can look at the screen as you follow along, but do ground yourself with both feet on the ground as normal for our meditative moment.
Generally in Metta practice, we think of three to five sentiments of good will, and then we offer them, first to ourselves, then to a dear one, then to an acquaintance, then to someone it might be challenging to offer loving-kindness to, then finally, to “all beings.” Normally in meditation this is done silently, but we’re going to speak these sentiments aloud this morning.
May I be gentle with myself.
May I forgive quickly.
May my suffering be eased.
May you be gentle with yourself.
May you forgive quickly.
May your suffering be eased.
May all beings be gentle with themselves
May all beings forgive quickly.
May the suffering of all beings be eased.
My friends, may you go joyfully into your week and the season.
U of V Study
Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions
Gil Fronsdal Zencast Dharma Talk about the Four Noble Truths