Monday, April 18, 2011

Sermon - "Letting Go of Longing"

Letting Go of Longing

This month we are talking about freedom at UUFLB. We heard some about freedom of speech and religious expression with the ACLU. And we talked about how giving financial support can help people free themselves from turmoil after humanitarian crisis. Today we’re going to talk a bit about spiritual freedom.

We often assume that different religions are different ways of understanding God. Like you can just swap out a different name for God and suddenly you’re talking about a different religion. Well it’s not quite that simple. Different religions focus on radically different aspects of life. Buddhism deals very little with God in a way we might use the word. But, it deals a great deal with freedom, or liberating ourselves from suffering. Buddhist life is focused on achieving a sense of freedom. Not the type of freedom that you or I might think of. This isn’t about freedom to do what we please, or economic freedom. This is freedom as a state of mind, freedom from the sources of suffering in our lives.

I have explained the basic principles of Buddhism a few times in worship. But, I think this bares repeating because it is so radically different from the world view that we live in. In fact that’s what draws me to Buddhism most. It offers a direct challenge to achievement culture that America is steeped in.

The foundation of Buddhism comes in the Four Noble Truths. This was the great realization that Buddha had when he reached enlightenment under the Bohdi Tree.
The first Noble Truth is that “life is suffering.” At least that’s the way it is usually translated. Life is suffering. From the time we come into the world we experience pain sickness and death. Even as we enjoy things, there is a knowledge that they are for a limited time or quantity. We are never satisfied, we are always longing for something more or something different.
In fact, a better translation of this First Noble Truth that is “all life is dissatisfaction.” The Buddha wasn’t a complete pessimist, saying that life is just pain and suffering. But the essential experience of life is dissatisfaction. We always want something more or something different from what we have at this moment. We attach ourselves to something other than what we have or what we feel.
Which brings us to the Second Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is that the root of suffering, or dissatisfaction as I prefer to call it, is attachment. Life is suffering because of attachment. We get attached to material things that are fleeting. We also get attached to disappointments of the past, or anxieties of the future. We are attached to the way things could have been, or the way we didn’t quite make the mark that one time. We even get absorbed in how wonderful life used to be. We get attached to what is not here and now, and we long for a different experience. And thus we are dissatisfied. So the First Noble Truth is that all life is suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that attachment, or longing is the root cause of that suffering.
The third Noble Truth is the next logical conclusion. Ending this constant attachment is the way to end the state of suffering in one’s life. Suffering ends when craving ends. For that sense of craving to end we must remove the delusion of needing those things in our lives. And when we are able to achieve this freedom from longing and suffering, we enter a liberated state of being, or enlightenment.
But how, you ask, how does one make this great achievement of releasing all that we long for. Well, that’s the Fourth Noble Truth. Reaching this liberated state, or enlightenment can be achieved through the path laid out by the Buddha. Remember the wheel that we looked at earlier with the children. The eight spokes of the wheel are a reminder of the Noble Eight Fold Path. Those are the eight areas that the Buddha suggested focusing on to end our sense of longing and attachment.
I want to name these eight areas of focus, just so we get a sense of what they are and the broad focus of Buddhist life. Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. We certainly don’t have time to unpack each of these. Obviously there is a lot of ground covered.

As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to buck anytime someone claims to the THE answer, THE way to enlightenment, I know I do.
But Buddhism has an ability to hold this sense of offering an answer in a very gentle way. The teaching of the Buddha is considered useful and true only to the extent that it helps remove suffering in one’s life. This is the point of probably the most famous parable within the tradition.
In this parable, the Buddha compared his own teachings to a raft that could be used to cross a river.
A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty - but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.
The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’”
The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.
The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?”
The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.
The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with — not for seizing hold of.”

This is such a gem of religious teaching. It is so important to realize that truth, is not imbedded in a building or in books. The religious institutions are neither holy or perfect. It is a tool, a helpful tool, to be used on the path toward enlightenment.

Buddhsim is a path of freedom. It’s contrary to the assumption that we might have when we think of monks and meditation. It all looks very serious and from the outside. But really the goal of the Buddhist life is to let go. It’s about letting go of all the things that occupy our mind, the regrets, the hopes the fears, all that we cling to and suffer over.

One of the best lessons I have had about letting go was during a yoga class. I have done a little bit of yoga in my life. Every time I do it I think to myself “That was great! I should do that more often.” Then I don’t do it again for another couple of years. But in one particular class I was told something that made a tremendous difference. I remember this class was during the Santa Anna winds one October. Everyone was on edge, and tense. We started the class with a long period of just breathing together, and our teacher explained that doing yoga shouldn’t feel strained. I shouldn’t feel forced, or over-concentrated. In fact just the opposite is true. I should feel open and freeing.

It was fascinating to get such a physical lesson in this concept of Buddhism. Throughout that yoga class, I was able to be aware of my body in a new way. Was I straining, was I forcing this, was I cutting off, constricting? Or was I opening and letting go? I could feel it so acutely in my body. Our minds and our bodies are very similar and so deeply connected. Sometimes, without even realizing it, we can become totally clenched, totally constricted, forced in focusing on one little detail, whether good or bad. But if we pause to take a few deep breaths, we can choose to let go of some of that longing, some of that tension. We can choose to let go, and open up a little bit.

Yoga shouldn’t be an exercise in limitation and constriction. It should make us feel free and open. I think this is also true for much of life in general, including church life. We ask for a lot in our members here at UUFLB, and church can be a wonderful spiritual discipline. Coming to worship every Sunday, making time to volunteer in some way, learning with our children, helping maintain our beautiful facility, all of these take attention and can be seen as a spiritual practice. It is a way to take time to honor what is sacred to you. But, like yoga or meditation or any other spiritual discipline, church should leave us feeling more open and expansive, not forced or restricted. Hopefully you have found a niche to participate that does this for you. If not, if church feels forced or hard, try shifting a little. Lets talk and see if there’s some way it can be an experience of liberation.

Before we close our time together, I want to just make sure we’re on the same page about this “letting go of longing.” What kind of longing are we letting go of? Most obviously, letting go of consumerism and longing to keep up with the Joneses. But today I want us also to consider giving up some of the longing that we may think of as more noble causes. Maybe we long so deeply to be better people in some way. Maybe we long for a specific sort of social or environmental change to occur. Maybe we long to be perfect parents or spouses. Maybe we long make our world a better place in some other way.

Whatever the longing is for, for today, for a moment, I hope that we can take a deep breath and release some of that longing. Realizing there is a choice. If we pause, to breathe, if we can let go long enough to let your heart fill with compassion. Let go of longing for just long enough to accept that you are enough in this very moment. Here and now.

May that moment of satisfaction, the moment of compassion be available to you always.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Sermon - "A Gift Freely Given"

A Gift Freely Given

We have all heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” It’s actually an ancient Chinese proverb attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism in the 4th or 5th Century BC. Interesting that this little gem has held up for so long.

The meaning is pretty clear, sometimes it is more helpful to give a person the skills to help themselves rather than give a quick fix, or what the immediate need is. Today as we are talking about the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, this proverb comes to mind. The UUSC is committed not to providing a quick and easy answer to human suffering. Rather they are committed to the difficult work of uncovering what the source of that suffering is. They go upstream if you will, to discover the source, so that that the problem can be solved, not just mended momentarily.

Giving help isn’t just about giving a hand out to those in need. UUSC understands that giving help can also be an opportunity to empower and liberate those people who are most in need in a society. I initially called this sermon “A Gift Freely Given” because we had a newsletter deadline. A much more apt title for what we are talking about today would be “Giving the Gift of Freedom.” Because that’s what UUSC aims to do. That’s what we aim to do in the vast majority of our charitable giving. We aim to give the gift of freedom, to give tools and resources to help people to help themselves, especially those people who are most neglected around the world.

Many of you know that I was in the Peace Corps in 2001. I was serving in Cote d’Ivoire. Yes, that is the country that has been in the news quite a bit these past few weeks where the UN and French military are trying to unseat an illegitimate president. Because of the political unrest, I was only in the country for nine months, rather than the usual 27 months of service.

It was an amazing time of my life. People usually ask what I did there, and I explain that I was in the water and sanitation program. Our goal was to develop the clean drinking water in villages and to do education about sanitation issues. But that’s not what I really did. What I really did was walk around the village. Every day. I walked and walked. I met with elders and traditional leaders. I went to people’s fields. I went to the health clinic. I went to the market. For six months I walked around the village meeting people. There were no building projects, there was only learning and building relationships. Just as we were beginning to talk about building some latrines, that’s when the political situation became a mess and we were evacuated.

Of course people want to know what I did, how I helped people. And it’s much easier to tell them that I was there working on water and sanitation issues. But the truth is, I didn’t have time to do that sort of work, because it took six months to get to know the people in my village of only a few hundred people. It took six months to lay the groundwork for any meaningful help.

One of the things that we talked a lot about, one of the things that we tried to prevent was “cadeaux mentality,” or “gift mentality.” That’s the idea that helping is a matter of giving a gift, and walking away. Whether it’s the gift of a water well, a new school building, or a health clinic, we saw over and over again communities asked for, and Westerners were eager to give these quick solutions. No matter if there were no mechanics to fix that fancy well when it broke down, or if there was money to pay teachers at the school, or supplies for the medical clinic. We saw the run-down remnants of quick fixes that were just not the right answer. I think my favorite example of this was a bicycle powered water pump, in a region where it was unheard of for women to ride a bicycle, so it sat there, and rusted.

Maybe it’s human nature to want instant gratification. On both ends, the giver and the receiver want to make a difference, and make it fast. Well, what I learned probably more than anything in my time with the Peace Corps, is that real difference NEVER comes quickly. There is NO quick fix, no materially gift that can help a community overnight.

The alternative, and the type of work that UUSC is committed to is a much more imbedded type of aid. We know that concept of imbedded journalism, where they are on the ground and interviewing people in the thick of it. Well what we’re talking about today is imbedded giving.

One way that UUSC tries to do that is through working with social structures that already exist on the ground. They may be aid organizations, they may be collectives of women, they may be religious organizations. Like in Japan, the UUSC is seeking to help those most in need by channeling its support through Buddhist congregations, who presumably know exactly where and what kind of help is needed. And occasionally, when there’s no organization in a community to work with, the UUSC will call interested parties together, just to talk about their challenges. And they talk, and talk, and talk, until those people begin to understand themselves as a group of problem solvers.

They almost always partner with an organization made up of those who are in need. It’s the best way, perhaps the only way to be sure that the help goes where it is needed.

The UUSC calls their way of providing aid the eye-to-eye partnership model. It’s about partnering in a way that’s not paternalistic. It’s about building real relationships and learning from one another. The keys that they talk about are building a relationship that is equitable between partners and where listening and trust are central pieces of the relationship. They emphasize taking time for comprehensive analysis, because real solutions don’t happen overnight. Any plan must be adaptable to the current and changing situation on the ground. And perhaps most importantly, they are committed to providing ongoing support to the projects they start. For years they continue to encourage and provide technical support to the organizations they partner with.

I have talked a lot today about how to make change that really makes a difference in people’s lives. We all want to know that our donations of time and money are going to help those in need. There have been big discussions about it this past year, about who’s organization actually uses the largest portion of its finances to help the people in need. It’s a very big question. There are a lot of wonderful organizations doing great work in the world. I sincerely believe that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is among the best.

But there’s another way to get a bigger bang for your buck. And that’s by telling other people about it. That’s right. The best way to get the full leverage out of your giving is to share that news with others. Start with your children. Tell them why you give to the organizations that you support. It’s a critical lesson that they need to learn. This is what we do.

Telling other people isn’t about being boastful. It’s not about proving how wonderful you are. It’s about setting the norm, being a model. WE can create a culture of generosity. But for that to happen, we have to bring our giving out of hiding. We have to tell other people about it.

Is someone willing to say something about a financial contribution they have made in the past year? We don’t want to hear how much, we want to hear why you gave, and you it made you feel.

I said some time ago, I would not talk about justice in the abstract, I wouldn’t talk about justice at all without giving you some concrete way to respond. It would be wonderful if you donate money to help the UUSC provide relief to survivors in Japan. But there’s also an action to be taken much closer to home.

UUSC is partnering with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California, to help ensure that people everywhere, but especially here in California, gets access to clean drinking water.
Water is essential for life. Yet, nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation — more people have access to a cell phone than a toilet. The statistics are staggering. Even more surprising is how simple and cost-effective the solutions are. Roughly speaking, every $1 spent in the clean-water and sanitation sector creates on average another $8 in costs averted and productivity gained. That’s a pretty amazing investment if you think about it.
Assembly member Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) is sponsoring a six-bill package that, if passed, would make the human right to water into California policy. I know it’s shocking to think that here in California, in the United States, many many people cannot drink the water that comes out of their tap. In rural farming communities, the nitrogen from fertilizers has seeped into groundwater so much, that low-income farm workers are forced to buy bottled water to keep their families healthy. We’re not talking about the water tasting a little strange either. We’re talking about the government telling people that their tap water is unsafe and should not be consumed.

In 2009, grassroots activists, community organizations, and legislators made history here in California: the Human Right to Water Act of California (AB 1242) passed both the assembly and senate. Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2011, there is new governor, Jerry Brown; a new human-right-to-water bill (AB 685); and new hopes for the human right to water in California!
Today, we are asking that you sign a letters addressed to Jared Huffman, the Chair of Water Parks and Wildlife, Bob Wieckeowski, the Chair of Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, and Lois Wolk, Chair of Governance and Finance Committee, to ask them to lend their support to the Human Right to Water Bill.

Honoring the rights and dignity of all who survive humanitarian crises is tough stuff. UUSC Justice Sunday is a stop on the road. The concern for justice comes back to us Sunday after Sunday and all week long throughout our lives. Opportunities abound to make it happen. It’s up to you. It’s up to us. We give; we receive; we partner. Earlier we sang about when our heart is in a holy place, when we trust the wisdom in each person’s story, and when we share from the depths of our self. As we close our time together, I want us to think deeply about the partnership model that UUSC embraces. Consider who the experts are in the struggle for justice, the people who experience the challenge themselves. And, consider consulting with them, like UUSC does, until “them” becomes “us.” Consider not taking action until we can proceed hand in hand, to create meaningful change, together.