a sermon by the Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak – preached on 14 May 2017
The celebration of Vesak ( way-sak) occurred this past Wednesday. The day commemorates the Buddha’s birth and many people think of it as something akin to Christmas in the Christian faith. But it is really a little more than that. This day celebrates not only his physical birth as a baby but also his death and enlightenment, his rebirth. It celebrates the totality of the Buddha, honoring the Buddha himself, the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (his disciples). It offers a special opportunity for rededication to the teachings and to practice. The Buddha did not set out to start a religion. He did not invent a church system or an ecclesiology. He simply taught.He shared his struggle toward enlightenment, toward understanding this life on earth – why we suffer, what death means. In this he taught these four, foundational Noble Truths – the essence and root of the Buddha’s teachings. Like most things in life, a short list of four “truths” will leave an awful lot unexplained. It is up to us, students of life, to see how these truths unfold. They are:
the truth of suffering (Dukkha)
the truth of the cause of suffering
the truth of the end of suffering
and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.
There are people who think that this means that all life is filled with suffering and pain and the aim of meditation is nirvana – an escape from suffering. But Nirvana – enlightenment and the release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth – is not easily attained and it only comes to a few.In the meantime, we must live our lives as best we can.
Dukkha – suffering – is everywhere – it is part of our lives from the day we are born. We human beings do so many different things to get rid of uncomfortable feelings, to run away from sorrow and suffering. We try to escape unhappiness. We fight negativity.
But this suffering we experience can lead us to wisdom. Everything in us… every joy or sorrow, every misstep or achievement, every question and every answer, every feeling or emotion, every positive and negative, is creative energy.
Dukkha means more than “suffering” – something more subtle than our simple English word. We think of suffering in big ways: writhing in pain, the homeless and ragged poor begging on the street, the survivors of natural calamities, victims of violence, etc.
Yes, this is suffering. But dukkha can also mean un-satisfactoriness… clearly that is not an elegant turn-of-phrase. But it this starts to get out how we can recognize this dukkha, in our everyday lives. And it can make it easier to deal with the world as it is.
Dukkha does not deny or negate the concept of pleasure. We aren’t asked to claim that life is somehow empty of beauty and joy. But this first truth reminds us that such things are fleeting. So if you make the focus of your life attaining pleasure, feeding the ego with notions of fame, then you will end up with an unquenchable thirst. This is dukkha.
When psychotherapist and author Sylvia Boorstein teaches the Four Noble Truths, she reminds us:
I. Life is challenging. For everyone. Our physical bodies, our relationships –
all of our life circumstances – are fragile and subject to change. We are always accommodating.
II. The cause of suffering is the mind’s struggle in response to challenge.
III. The end of suffering – a non-struggling, peaceful mind – is a possibility.
IV. The program for ending suffering is the Eightfold Path.
Really, every step of the practice path is an ordinary, everyday activity of human beings.
The more we understand the causes of suffering, the greater our intention;
the wiser and more compassionate our behavior, the clearer our minds;
the deeper our understanding of suffering, the stronger our intention;
over and over and on and on.
We know, all too well, that there is pain in life. No matter how “good” it is; no matter how much we have or success we have experienced – an enriching career, a well-paying and interesting job, a terrific family, raising wonderful talented children who follow our success with their own… if we are not living this life mindfully, if we are not prepared to let it all go, we are living an illusion.
Whether or not you think you are seeking Enlightenment, we are all on this path, and along the way we find the shattered illusions and multiple losses that litter our lives.
An old story tells about a day when some people came to the master and asked, “How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?”
The master held up a glass and said “Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings!
One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this beautiful glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.'”
This wisdom from the Theravandan meditation master Achaan Chah Subato reminds us about life’s fragility, its preciousness… and in those few words, tells us how to live with this knowledge: “I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly”.
Appreciating life as it is, for what it is now, for the beauty that is there at this very moment – because it is already broken – gives us the fortitude, the power, to go on. All that we hold precious in life will end. It will break. We may not know how, or why, or when…but it is inevitable.
Always thinking about that loss or those endings will send us into despair. Grasping at life, trying to avoid loss, wanting more and holding on with all your might, seeking permanence, leads to even greater suffering – it is a death-grip. So we practice letting go.
This one of life’s great lessons that I find myself turning to over and over again. Thinking about Subato’s story, I’ve packed and moved households more than enough times to see the wisdom there. I’ve had to deal with a lot of fragile things – crystal stemware, china plates, things from my grandmother and mother. Things that are beautiful to me but also carry meanings and associations and memories with them. They represent people and moments in my life that I cherish – and I cling to them.
So I pack them carefully – tissue, crumpled paper, bubble wrap. I carefully place them in a large enough box and after taping it shut, mark it with a bold, red marker: Fragile. Handle with Care. Maybe I add some exclamation points.
That is our life – boxed up, marked fragile, handle with care.
But will the cheerful young men who are moving us read the labels and follow my warnings? Who knows. I had to let it go. And everything arrived at our new home, safe and sound. For all that preparation and worry, I could just as easily have dropped them while taking them out of the box and putting them into the cabinet! Anything can happen.
I could chastise myself into not caring: “Get a grip, Susan… it’s just a nice drinking glass.
You have plenty already.” Or, rather than try to dampen or negate all pleasure with such grasping attachment, I could let that “already broken” knowledge encourage my enjoyment of the present moment. And remember that wisdom – each and every time I set the table and place theses glasses there for people to enjoy and use.
This Buddhist teaching is essential to our lives – it frees us up to truly live.
And it is what helps us be effective parents. Today is Mothers’ Day, as people honor, celebrate, remember, mourn, cherish, or turn away in pain at the memories. Perhaps this idea of letting go can help us get a healthy understanding of how we have been loved into existence in one way or another, as Mark Nepo reminded us in this morning’s reading.
Today, as we celebrate our young adults, leaving high school and entering a new more independent phase of their lives, we can remember the importance of not clinging, offering a looser, generous embrace that allows them to flourish…
hold on and let go.
What is it like to go through life with the realization that what is precious to us is already broken, already gone? Does it mean we do not care? That we abandon affection and all concern because, heck, we’re going to die anyway.
We feel the “passing-ness” of things – the fragility of everything. We are, at this moment, broken and whole at the same time. We contain within us all the dukkha, all the suffering. But we also contain all the possibility of joy. The end of suffering – attaining non-struggling, peaceful mind – is a possibility. To do that, we have to be able to know how to
gently hold on to what is good, and not grasp at life, and learn when and how to let go.
We may think about and feel loss… but not just the misery and loneliness of separation… no, we have to let ourselves feel how precious it all is… and how precarious, how iffy, how on-the-verge-of-being-broken. Glasses, relationships, pets and people, children and strangers. This is the “passingness of things” – the fragile lives we live, the precious , the precious delicacy, the brittleness of it all… wonderful… transitory… life-an-death. All tied within this web of interdependence.
Like the monkey, we will get trapped by grasping, by trying to hold on to something that cannot be held. We need to be able to live fully in the knowledge that the glass is already broken. We must still savor life – enjoy it immensely in this moment – today, tomorrow. Hope bursts within us – do not be beguiled by despair.
Yes, the glass is already broken… this frees us, empties us to genuinely appreciate and love what is here… and to let in whatever insight and wisdom and courage there is here, now.
Hold it all lightly – this achingly beautiful world that surrounds us, the painful reminders of indignity and evil that abound, too.Let every gesture of appreciation and love be felt…
To be able to do this in the face of harsher realities is one of the great capacities we have as human beings.
Even the smallest appreciation, the short moment of “aha, yes!” – let this awaken us to what is possible. Let it fill our hearts will beauty and possibility, courage and hope.
We must hold everything lightly, for everything passes. And then we can embrace the world… unlike the caught monkey, unwilling to let go, we can unfold the grip in our hearts… not just letting go – but perhaps letting go of something we yearn for. The truth is that food is everywhere. Though the stubborn monkey believes in its moment of hunger that there is no other food, it only has to let go for its life to unfold. In our moment of hunger, of desire, we may believe that there is no other possibility of love, of acceptance, of possibility.
Yet we only have to let go of what we want so badly – loosen our grasp -and our life will unfold.For love is everywhere. If we let go…
Let Go of the Rice by Mark Nepo (“The Book of Awakening,” 2000)
So much more can happen with our hands open. In fact, closing and stubbornly maintaining our grip is often what keeps us stuck, though we want to blame everything and everyone else, especially what we’re holding on to.
There is an ancient story from China that makes all this very clear. It stems from the way traps were set for monkeys. A coconut was hollowed out through an opening that was cut to the size of a monkey’s open hand. Rice was then place in the carved-out fruit which was left in the path of the monkeys.
Sooner or later, a hungry monkey would smell the rice and reach its hand in. But once fisting the rice, its hand could no longer fit back out through the opening. The monkeys that were caught were those who would not let go of the rice.
As long as the monkey maintained its grip on the rice, it was a prisoner of its own making. The trap worked because the monkey’s hunger was the master of its reach. The lesson for us is profound. We need to always ask ourselves, What is our rice and what is keeping us from opening our grip and letting it go?
It was upon hearing this story that I finally understood the tense ritual of rejection that exists between my mother and me. Like any child, I’ve always wanted her love and approval, but suddenly I realized that this has been my rice– the more it has not come, the tighter my grip. My hunger for her love has been master of my reach, even in together relationships. I have been a caught monkey, unwilling to let go.
I have since unfolded the grip in my heart, and humbly, I can see now that the real challenge of surrender, for all of us, is not just letting go – but letting go of something we yearn for. The truth is that food is everywhere. Though the stubborn monkey believes in its moment of hunger that there is no other food, it only has to let go for its life to unfold.
Our journey to love is no different. For though we stubbornly cling, believing in our moment of hunger that there is no other possibility of love, we only have to let go of what we want so badly and our life will unfold. For love is everywhere.