16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
What Makes You NOT a Buddhist
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 01/23/2011
This sermon is entitled What Makes You NOT a Buddhist, after a book by the same name written by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, who is a Tibetan Buddhist lama who travels and teaches internationally, and runs monasteries, colleges and meditation centers around the world. The title of the book caught my eye, and I used it for this sermon a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It caught my eye because I thought it could address what I see as the particularly unusual relationship between many Unitarian Universalists and Buddhism – an unusual relationship that I am certainly a part of.
That relationship between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism is evident when you speak to many UUs about either their spiritual life or their religious history. UUs, more often than not, come from pretty traditional western religious backgrounds, or, nowadays, no religious background at all. I was like that too. But then, as you ask them about their religious history, suddenly, up pops Buddhism! You might hear quotes like “I drifted away from Methodism in my teenage years, but really got into reading about Buddhism in college.” Or, “I grew up as a secular Jew, and I spent a summer at a Zen monastery as a young adult” or, “I’ve never really practiced any religion, but if I did, I’d probably be a Taoist.” It’s almost as if dabbling in Eastern religions is a prerequisite step in the UU religious journey for those of us more from a western religious past.
Even more common in Unitarian Universalism than studying Buddhism is the use of Buddhist spiritual practices. In fact, I would argue that spiritual practices such as centering techniques, sitting and walking meditations and so on are universal spiritual practices for us UUs – almost everyone is familiar with them, and few people have a problem with doing them. It’s my opinion that it would be easier to drop into a group of unknown UUs and get them going through a guided meditation than it would be to lead them in something like intercessory prayer, for example, despite the fact that such prayer would likely be more in line with most UUs’ religious backgrounds than Buddhist techniques would be.
That’s the crux of it, right there, I think – Buddhism is often treated by Unitarian Universalists as exotic but true, a lofty goal, a way to be if only we had the time or had our priorities in line or weren’t so very…western in our orientation. In the back of our heads we might say or think that if we were to lead devout lives of some sort, we might well do so in alignment with Buddhist principles. And it follows that it might be easy for us to say that we are sort of Buddhist in our thinking, that many of us UUs think we are somewhat Buddhist in nature, without really knowing what that really means.
In truth, Buddhism’s main foundational teachings veer far from the lived experiences of many UUs – many Americans, in fact. For example, while all sorts of UUs might get a lot out of Buddhist meditation practices, we tend to think of the purpose of meditation as making us feel relaxed, helping us to “let go” or “be at peace.” The purpose of meditation for Buddhists, however, is to come more in alignment with Buddhist principles, and when most of us westerners contemplate following Buddhist principles or teachings, we can be in for a bit of a shock, because they are so different in orientation from what we’re used to. That’s the point that Dzongsar is making in his book. In the book, he talks about what Buddhism really is, and what it would take to follow it, not a temporary or westernized version of it, but for real.
And that’s what I’d like to talk about today as well. We can’t go terribly in depth about Buddhist teachings in just one sermon, of course. In some ways I want to point out how far apart Buddhist thinking is from our typical UU thinking, just in case we are inclined to conflate the two. But mostly I want to call attention to two of the ways Buddhism talks about the same things that UUs talk about, but from an entirely new angle. There are actually several of these intersections, but for today we’ll be talking about two: Interdependence and Transformation.
Looking at these UU ideas of interdependence and transformation from the Buddhist vantage point can illuminate and underscore them, make them fresh and more visible to us. And while we shouldn’t confuse our very western, somewhat quirky religion with Eastern philosophy, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn about new ways to think and to contemplate that can shine a light on the ways we do want to go forward.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Buddhism – the real Buddhism.
Buddhism’s goal, as it were, is to talk about why there is suffering in the world. This was the question that drove the prince who was to become the Buddha from his castle and his father’s protection out into a struggling world and eventually under the Bodhi [boh-dee] tree, where he became enlightened and began his teachings about suffering and the true workings of the universe. And the most important of the Buddha’s teachings was this – stick with me here – “All compounded things are impermanent.”
All compounded things are impermanent. Huh?
That is to say, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that is or ever was in this universe that is just itself. Everything is the product of two or more things coming together - compounded. And everything that is compounded is always changing.
Take me, for example. When you think about it, I don’t stand alone as an independent thing. At the very least, I am the product of my mother and father coming together, not only to create me but also to raise me. The person standing in front of you right now is not a single sovereign entity but a compilation of everyone I ever met, every food I ever ate, every book I ever read. I am even the product of the expressions I see on your faces right now. If _______ here were looking at me all cranky instead of cheerful the way s/he actually is, I would be a slightly different person right now, with different emotions and a different outlook.
So I am made up of innumerable different influences, some known and many unknown. I am compounded. If any of those past influences had been different, I would not be the same. I would change along with the influences, no matter how small. So the me that you see here is certainly not permanent. In a minute I could get tired or concerned or elated. In a minute I will certainly be older, and my body will have deteriorated that much more. Or I will be stronger, having stood up here for a length of time. Any number of changes will have occurred. I am impermanent, because I am the product of so many influences that are always moving around. You can’t rely on me to stay the same – in fact, if you are depending on me to remain the same, you will be shortly be disappointed or upset. You will come to suffer.
In the same way, this pulpit here that I stand behind is also not permanent. You may love to come here each Sunday and see this beautiful piece of furniture, which you mistakenly think is the same one you saw last week and the time before that. You may mistakenly believe that the pulpit is something, a particular thing called a pulpit, and it never changes.
But this pulpit is not itself at all, but a compound of a million countable and uncountable things. There was a tree somewhere that grew the wood, depending on rain and wind and sunshine and so on. A lumberjack cut the tree down and turned it into wood; a craftsman decided the design of the pulpit and made it in just this way. It could have been otherwise, in any number of ways, and if any of those factors had changed, this pulpit would be different, or wouldn’t be here at all.
Next Sunday when you come, the pulpit will not be the same as it is today. It is an organic material, so it will have decayed a little bit. My sticky hands will have worn away at the corners just a little bit more. The sun will have faded it. There will be a few more little stinkbug footprints. This is not the same pulpit it was yesterday or last year, and it won’t be the same even this afternoon as it is now. The pulpit, like I am, is impermanent, always changing, because it is a compound thing, like I am.
Buddhist teaching would, at this point, veer off into a discussion of suffering, and say that all human suffering comes from your attachment to these constantly shifting things. But your UU teacher wants to take a moment to talk about the notion of interdependence, of our interdependent relationship with each other, so important to UUs that it has become our seventh principle. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part sounds decent enough, and is easy to agree with, but we don’t always have the chance to fully understand it. But if you take the opportunity to contemplate the compounded nature of all things, then you can’t help but open your eyes to how interdependent everything on this earth really is with each other.
If this pulpit needs the bounty and functioning of our earth AND it needs human labor AND human talent AND inventions like stain and shellack AND someone to plan for it AND someone to pay for it AND someone to handle it and sweat on it every week just for it to be itself, then imagine how much more we need each other to be OURselves, or how much more we need each other in order to do anything more complicated than just being a pulpit.
Imagine if we spent some time meditating in this way, not on how to relax or to let go, but on the interdependent web that goes into each thing we see, each thing we interact with, each thing we are. That would be a thoroughly UU meditation practice; and, as it turns out, a thoroughly Buddhist one as well.
The other Buddhist notion I want to capture has to do with a UU idea that is not in our principles, a UU idea that might be a little more newfangled than some of our others. If you hang around our denominational leadership a bit, you’ll hear a lot about transformation.
We want to transform our faith into one more relevant, more accessible, more welcoming. We want to transform the way we do church to make it more compelling, more exciting. We want to transform our communities with our passion and ideas and good news of inclusion and freedom. We want our congregants to transform their lives. It’s all a very lively and energetic way of striving for a radical change in ourselves, a way of making ourselves, either as a religion or individually, something new and better.
Buddhism offers an interesting contrast to the UU notion of transformation when it talks about how one might be changed by Buddhist teachings or practice, or really, any religious journey. Buddhism compares the unenlightened person, the person who is just starting down the path, to a dirty glass. The glass started out as clean and clear, but along the way accumulated the dirt and fingerprints of living, which include our attachment to compounded things that aren’t real, our tendency to forget our interdependence, our inability to practice love and compassion, and so on.
In our UU way of thinking about transformation, if you regard a person or situation that needs transforming as a dirty glass, you may fall into the habit of thinking that the glass needs to be something completely different than it is in order to be made better. Sure, it might contain some of the qualities that it had before after it changes, but the typical UU view is that in order to be transformed it needs to turn into something completely altered – maybe a crystal bowl, or something equally shiny and radiant and, most of all, new.
Buddhists will warn you, however, not to confuse a glass with dirt on it with a dirty glass. A dirty glass has dirt embedded with the glass, and it can never be made clear again. But no matter how unenlightened or untransformed you are, say the Buddhists, you are never a dirty glass.
Most of us, however, are glasses with dirt on them, which is a radically different thing. First of all, simply being a glass with dirt on it means that your true nature, your ideal or what might be called your buddha nature, is with you all along. You were clear glass the day you were born and you always have the potential to be clear glass again, once you learn to wash the dirt and fingerprints off.
Now, washing the glass is no small thing, and some could say that moving from the state of being a glass with dirt on it to a state of being clean and clear glass is a change, a transformation. It certainly would feel like a big change if you were to do it. But cleaning your glass, if you think about it, doesn’t really change you at a fundamental level. You always were the clean glass, underneath the dirty glass. When you become enlightened, according to Buddhist principles, you haven’t been transformed at all, no matter how different you feel. You have simply been restored, to what you already, always, were.
This notion of the clean glass is somewhat different than what we UUs currently think of as transformation these days, but it is very much in line with our early Unitarian and Universalist thinkers about the nature of humankind. You’ll remember that one of the first ways in which Unitarians differed from their parent Calvinists was that Unitarians claimed that human beings weren’t by nature depraved, but instead had the spark of the divine in them. Our great ancestor William Ellery Channing said that we all have a likeness to God, which was a big change from what folks were hearing at the time about being full of sin and irredeemable.
At the same time, Universalists were preaching that God wasn’t waiting for us to be clean and pure before God would bother loving us. Universalists preached that God loved all of us all the time, regardless of how good we were. So here, in our own Unitarian and Universalist history, we see a parallel to the idea of the clean glass, our basic inherent purity beneath all the dirt and fingerprints – an acknowledgement of what Buddhists would call our buddhanature.
Maybe we UUs aren’t so far away from Buddhist philosophy as I might have suggested, after all. Maybe if we practice a little Buddhism, we’ll be able to see the ways in which our own UU spiritual practice and journeys might be enriched and enhanced.
I’d like to bring us into a time of meditation now, so please get comfortable in your seats and place your feet on the floor, your hands in your laps. For our meditation today I’d like to you pick from one of two options.
The first is to contemplate interdependence. You may think about something in your life, a person or a thing, and contemplate all the factors and influences that went into making it what or who it is. Think about the thing you chose in all the ways it is inextricably wrapped up by the interdependent web of which we are all a part.
You can contemplate transformation. You may spend the time contemplating your own clean-glass-nature that lives beneath the dirt and fingerprints of daily living and your less than helpful habits. You are all clear and shiny under there. What would help your glass get cleaner?
We’ll spend a few minutes in contemplation, and our choir will lead us out at the end.