Siddhartha was born a prince in the region of Nepal sometime in the 6th century Before the Common Era. When he was born, the story is told that astrologers told his parents that Siddhartha was destined to either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted his son to become a great king so he insulated Siddhartha from all awareness of suffering in the world. As long as he would live within the palace walls, he would never see someone sick, nor someone old or dying. He would only see the abundance of the world. Siddhartha we are told married a princess and had a son. They were happy. Life was good.
But Siddhartha had never been outside of the palace and he insisted to see the world. His father ordered the city to be cleared from anyone old or infirmed so Siddhartha would only see happiness and joy. However, Siddhartha did see someone who was feeble and old and he was very moved by this. He went out into the city a few more times and saw someone sick and someone dead. And he saw someone who was considered a sage, a seeker of the truth.
Siddhartha realized that this was the fate of all people to grow old, sick, and die. He needed to find a way to handle this realization. Siddhartha renounced his family and privilege as a prince and left the palace forever. He wandered the countryside joining the various groups of seekers to understand. Eventually, he settled under a Bodhi Tree and meditated for a long time. And during his long meditation he had hallucinations of demons tempting him but he stayed true to his quest. And then one day, he had a realization. It is said that he attained enlightenment and was thereafter called the Buddha. He spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned.
But what was his realization? And how is this realization still relevant today.
The Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths.
1) There is Dukkha—a word that is really untranslatable into English. Dukkha has been translated as suffering but this word alone does not capture the fullness of this word. It also includes the notion of impermanence, emptiness, imperfection.[i] A recent conversation I had with friend of mine who is a Buddhist Abbott suggested that a better word to use to translate the word Dukkha instead of using the word suffering is to use the word Stress.[ii] We all experience it. And in our country of privilege, it is perhaps a more prevalent an experience than suffering. So the first Noble Truth states there is stress.
Stating there is stress does not negate that there is suffering, or happiness or joy, only that there is stress. There are three aspects of stress; there is ordinary stress, stress caused by change, and conditioned states. Not getting what one wants, the death or separation from a loved one, these are examples of ordinary stress. The being downsized at work, the beginning of a marriage, these are examples of stress caused by change. We are saddened when a love affair ends. The conditioned state of stress refers to the notion of a being, of an individual self, this conditioned state is made up of the flow of energy that differentiates you from me. The Buddha refers to five aggregates that make up the self. There is Matter, Sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These are the things that define this being from any other being. They include the physical characteristics, the ability to sense and form ideas about the information those senses deliver, the ability to act in word and deed, and the awareness. All of these work together to make up the self which as a conditioned state results in stress. All three aspects of stress is the result of attachment. How does one cling to this moment, to this moment, now to this moment? One cannot, no matter how enjoyable that moment may have been, it is now gone.
2) The second Noble Truth states there is an origin to Stress. Stress comes from desire, or thirst for something. That something can be tangible like wanting a nice house to live in to something more intangible like will my retirement fund be solvent or cover my living expenses when I retire. It is easy to see how the desire for power can be a source of stress but even the desire for peace can also be a source of stress. Not having peace or rather the lack thereof is stressful.
The continuance of the thirst or drive or volition “denote the same thing: they denote the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.[iii]” All of this desire is stressful.
The notion of karma arises in this second noble truth. Because this thirst, drive, volition is the cause and its actions have an effect. It may either be good or bad in its effect, but it continues in the direction set forth and additional stress is the ultimate result.
3) The Third Noble Truth is There can be a cessation to Stress. The answer is rather simple. This reminds me of a childhood joke. A person goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor my arm hurts when I do this.” The doctor said, “Stop doing that.” The cessation to stress is to stop craving and desiring. Part of this stopping is to no longer be attached to what is craved or desired. If we must have something to be so in order to be happy, then we will never be happy. If we are in a state of want, we are not happy. If we should receive what it is we want, we are fearful we will lose it, and therefore we are not happy. So letting go of attachment to the desired state be it tangible or intangible is the key to ending stress.
4) We do this through the fourth noble truth which is the middle way in between the two extremes of pleasure seeking and avoiding stress. It is also known as the Eightfold path.
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
This Eightfold path is combined into three categories of ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom. This path is not like an AA step where one focuses on Right Thought this week and then next week focuses on Right Speech. These are meant to be worked on simultaneously.
Ethical conduct is based on love and compassion. It includes Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood of the Eightfold path. Right speech is abstinence from lying, slander, gossip, maliciousness, and hate speech. Speech is to be truthful and kind, purposeful and meaningful. My mother would say to me when I was a child, if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all. This is practicing right speech.
Right action is promoting moral and peaceful living. We are to abstain from destroying life, stealing, dishonesty actions, and sexual misconduct. We are to help others to lead a peaceful life.
Right Livelihood means to work in a profession that will not lead to harm of others. There are many professions today that while the professions themselves might not lead to harming others, the way they are being embodied are leading to harm. Today we have extended the concept of harming the lives of others to contain the entire ecosystem in which we live and breathe.
James Ford, Unitarian Universalist Minister and Zen teacher puts it another way. He states[i] we are to
- “Foster Life
- Speak truthfully
- Respect boundaries
- Respect your body and others’ bodies
- Remain clear and open”
The next category in the Eightfold Path is Mental Discipline. This encompasses right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Right effort is to focus on thoughts that foster life, respect self and others. Right mindfulness or right awareness is also known as being attentive in the moment. Attentiveness is not only to the activities of mind; but also to the sensations of the body, the sensations of the heart or emotions, and to ideas and thoughts. It is to be aware of what is without pushing away or pulling towards oneself. One of the exercises that Buddhists use to strengthen this ability of right awareness is sitting meditation. This is the meditation practice that allows one to become attentive to ones breathing. How the air flows in and out of the lungs. Thoughts that arise are to be noticed and then let go.
In order to strengthen one’s ability to be aware this meditation needs to be done daily. This is where the work is in Buddhism. It is one thing to have a philosophical understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and it is another to allow it to transform one’s life. The person doing sitting meditation applies right effort and right mindfulness into the process of sitting. They notice their thoughts, their emotions, let them go and as they do they raise their awareness towards equanimity. “To be rightly aware on the absolute level is to be aware of the true nature of reality…no-self, impermanence and the nature of stress.[i]” This is training the mind towards becoming open to the enlightenment the Buddha experienced.
The final two aspects of the Eightfold path fit into the category of Wisdom. These are right understanding and right thought. Right thought includes detachment, love and non-violence towards all beings. Right understanding refers to seeing the true nature of everything.
So here we are, 2600 years after the Buddha lived on this earth. He has attained nirvana. Another word that is hard to translate. Nirvana is the moment when the burning wood is no more and the fire that was held to it is then set free. Nirvana is the mind set free.
The teachings of Siddhartha are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. This is especially true when we use the notion of stress as being a more accurate translation to Dukkha. We are always hearing the warnings of stress on the physical body. Obesity and heart disease have been connected to the forces of stress in our lives. There is stress in our workplace, in our households, in our families. We live in a world where the possibility of a new war is one day away. Terrorism is no longer just something that happens over there. It is happening in our schools, in our communities. Stress is mounting. Many people are at the breaking point.
What are we to do?
Thich Nhat Hahn describes the self as being a garden filled with weeds and flowers. The weeds are anger, jealousy, fear, discrimination. The flowers are love, compassion, and understanding. If you water the weeds you strengthen the negative seeds. If you water the flowers, you will strengthen the positive seeds. Which kind of garden will you grow?
Another way of looking at this is that we are all addicts to our emotions. And like addicts when the craving of an emotion wells up we frantically look to find something to quench it before we get the shakes. We do not know how to handle them when they rise up. Some of us run away from what we are feeling. Others seek to subdue them with drugs and alcohol. And still others push other emotions up front as an act of bravado to hide the true feelings felt inside. The truth is emotions are not permanent. They will rise and fall away. We already know this. Perhaps there is a way to release the negative emotions sooner through meditation.
Meditation has been used as an anger management tool for decades. Not only does it help relieve stress, it also can help a person who is angry to take a pause and regain their sense of control so they do not lash out in a harmful manner. Be attentive. Take some time out of your day to go and do some focused breathing. Use the song we sang as a chant to guide your breathing—”when I breathe in, I breath in peace—when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” Or simply just count your breaths, 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale. Etc. And if you lose count, and you will, simply begin again, 1 on the inhale. And if your mind wanders, and it will, notice that it did and begin counting your breaths again.
Those who meditate everyday have noted they are more attentive throughout their day. Not only do they have lower blood pressure they are more able to cope with the stressors of the day. Aim for ten minutes a day and then in time stretch that towards 30 minutes over time.
Siddhartha found a way to help the world be together. The fact this has lasted for over two millennia is testament that it is a viable way. Unlike some of the faddish methods that one finds in the self-help section of the bookstore, this middle way has worked in and out of season.
This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 3 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond
[i] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT
[i] James Ishmael Ford, If you are Lucky, You’re Heart will Break, Wisdom Boston, 2012