Monday, March 18, 2013
"Four Noble Truths" - Sermon
"Four Noble Truths"
As you may know, the theme that we are working with for the month of March is “letting go.” There are a thousand and one ways to approach this great spiritual endeavor. But Buddhism addresses the challenge more directly and more eloquently than any other that I know of. In fact, this isn’t just another component of the Buddhist tradition. Letting go is what Buddhism is all about.
The core of the Buddha’s teaching, and the place we are starting today is with the Four Noble Truths. These are actually the ideas that the Buddha shared in his very first sermon after enlightenment. Before we dive into those though, I want to be clear that Buddhism is more about a lifestyle and a mindset than it is a set of beliefs. In many faiths the lynchpin is in believing the right things. In Buddhism however, it’s all about finding your own way to enlightenment through an appropriate and balanced life. Buddhism is about living, not believing. But to start out with, we need to take a look at how the Buddha saw our experience as human beings. In the Four Noble Truths he describes our human experience and the opportunity to do something better.
The first Noble Truth is Dukkha, or “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. I know, you are thinking, but there is more to life than that. But, even as we enjoy things, we know that that they are for a limited time or quantity. We are never satisfied, we are always longing for something more or something different.
But as often is the case, a great deal of meaning is lost in translation. The actual for the First Noble Truth is Dukkha. A better translation of this is “all life is dissatisfaction.” The Buddha wasn’t pessimistic, saying that life is just pain and suffering. Quite the contrary, he is almost always depicted with a pleasant smile. But the essential experience of life is dissatisfaction. Some other words to describe this might be imperfection, impermanence, emptiness, insubstantiality. It’s impossible to capture in the one word “suffering”. But today we will keep it simple. So the first noble truth is, Dukkha, all life is dissatisfaction.
Which brings us to the Second Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is that the root of dukkha is attachment. Life is imperfect 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 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. The root of dissatisfaction is attachment.
There is another type of attachment that is a little more difficult to describe, but it is critically important. Part of our longing is a commitment to perpetuating a sense of self. We cling to our identity, to our personhood and we perpetuate a sense of self. But as you and I know life changes us; we change as people every moment of every day. So clinging to a sense of self is a dissatisfying experience. Not to mention the fact that we are mortal, and try as we may to prevent it, this life, this identity will come to an end. And thus we are dissatisfied. The First Noble Truth is that all life is dissatisfaction. 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 dissatisfaction in one’s life. Dissatisfaction 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 dissatisfaction, we enter a liberated state of being, or enlightenment. The Third Noble Truth is that to end dissatisfaction we must end attachment.
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 liberation or enlightenment can be achieved through the path laid out by the Buddha.
You have probably seen this wheel with eight spokes. Often this wheel is used to symbolize the Buddhist tradition. The eight spokes of the wheel are a reminder of the 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. The Buddha gave basically an entire framework for living a life that moves toward liberation. Over the centuries different schools of Buddhism have focused on different aspects of the eight fold path. But they are all there for the taking. So there you have it, the path to letting go in Four Noble Truths: All life is dissatisfaction. The root of dissatisfaction is grasping. The way to end dissatisfaction is to stop our grasping. And the eight fold path is the journey to help us let go.
As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to buck anytime someone claims to the THE answer, THE way to enlightenment, I know I do. But Buddhism offers its answer to the challenges of life 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. The Buddha was perhaps one of the most humble religious teachers of the world. He never claimed that he was from God or that his teachings were divinely inspired. He simply offered a path for people to find liberation in their lives. And the teachings were only as good as their ability to provide a path for the follower. That is the point of probably the most famous parable within the tradition.
In this story, 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.”
You see Buddhist teaching exists in a bit of a paradox this way. The teachings are profoundly life-changing ideas. They give a sense of direction and understanding. But the whole thrust of the tradition is to let go, of every sense of grasping, even grasping at the teachings themselves. The teachings are only a raft to the other side, a pathway that any person can follow to achieve his or her own enlightenment. Neither the Buddha nor his teachings are to be clung to forever.
There is a famous Zen koan that points to this reality in a very pithy way. It is, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” It sounds like half like a joke. But the point is, if you ever get to a point in your journey when you think you have come upon the ultimate truth, it’s time to radically challenge those ideas, because you are clinging onto that idea. And clinging onto anything, be it a new car or a religious doctrine is the source of suffering. “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
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. Religious institutions are neither holy nor perfect. They are simply tools, helpful tools, 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.
I want to close our discussion today by talking about a major misunderstanding in our common language about Buddhism. It is the word Karma or Kamma. I want to explain the misunderstanding not for the sake of vocabulary, but because the way we understand this word is a very good window into how profoundly different Buddhism is from most of our ways of thinking.
I hear people talking about Karma, good Karma and bad Karma as the way the universe responds to our actions. If you do good, you will get good in return. If you bad then you will get bad in return. This is NOT how Karma works in Buddhism. Not at all.
Karma is not the result of divine judgment or cosmic response to our moral actions. In Buddhism there is no God that dolls out punishment and reward. Quite the contrary, Karma is simply the law of cause and effect. Through our actions we perpetuate ourselves in a particular way. We can do morally good things and perpetuate ourselves as a good person, or we can do bad things and perpetuate ourselves as a bad person. The distinction between good and bad karma is simply about the version of ourselves that we perpetuate in the world. Karma is about perpetuating ourselves as good or bad.
But rewind with me for a moment. Everything I have said so far is that the point of Buddhism is letting go, letting go of attachment to this world and this life in order to find liberation. The whole point is to not perpetuate our sense of self.
So whether we are acting for good or for bad, karma is a bad thing, because we are acting for the sake of perpetuating our sense of self. Karma is all about acting with our self as the primary focus.
Let me put this in real world terms for you. Just last week, Bud was talking about this exact challenge. He described his personal ethical conundrum. He said that he has no problem doing good deeds, acting the right way. But his challenge is that when he does these things, he does it for a sense of feeling good about himself, feeling proud. His growing edge is to do the good in life, not for the sake of feeling proud, but simply because it is the good.
That very enlightened endeavor, Bud, is what Buddhism is all about. Buddhism is all about letting go of attachment, not just of material things or memories. It is about letting go of attachment to our self. Letting go of self-righteousness.
So this is the challenge I leave you with. It’s a different sort of challenge. Not simply to do good in your lives, but to do so for the sake of good and for the sake of others. In the week ahead let us let go. Let us act with sincere disregard for our self. Let us act according to what we think is best, and let go of the outcome.