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.


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