On the full moon, during the eighth month of the year, that was July 15 this year, the Buddhist religion celebrates one of their most important holy days. The holiday is known as Dharma Day. Dharma is the Buddhist word that means the basic truths, the founding principles, the core teaching. The holiday is also know as Asalha Puja – Asalha being the name of the eighth month, and puja meaning a religious festival. So Asalha Puja is the religious festival of the month of Asalha.
Asalha Puja or Dharma Day celebrates the anniversary of the day when the Buddha, after achieving his enlightenment, first spoke of what he had discovered. He gave a short sermon teaching the basic principles, the Dharma, of Buddhism.
In a place called the Deer Park in the Indian city of Benares, or Varnasi, the Buddha came upon a group of 5 holy men, Brahmans. They recognized that the Buddha had achieved something profound and they asked the Buddha to share his experience. The Buddha gave a short sermon that lays out the core principles of Buddhism:
the Middle Way,
the Eight-fold Path,
and the 4 Noble Truths.
Buddhists regard this little talk of the Buddha to the five Brahmans as the founding of the Buddhist religion. Before the Buddha made his discovery no one had known the secret to the end of the suffering in life. And before the Buddha shared what he had discovered with the 5 Brahmans, no one but the Buddha himself knew that a reliable solution to the problem of suffering could ever be found. When the Buddha shared his discovery with the 5 Brahmans, suddenly the religious secret was out of the bag and Buddhism the religion began.
It is said that one of the five Brahmans, who’s name was Kondanna, realized, even as he stood there in the Deer Park the remarkable truth that he was hearing. Listening to the Buddha, he had his own insight in response to the Buddha’s words, and Kondanna immediately became what the Buddhists call a “stream-enterer”. That is, he entered the spiritual stream that would carry him inevitably to enlightenment like a leaf being carried down stream to the sea. Thus Kondanna became the first Buddhist, and the second person to achieve enlightenment after the Buddha himself.
Now last Sunday, I preached about the idea of arranging the 52 Sundays of our worship calendar into an organized Unitarian Universalist liturgical year. The idea is that our worship would move through seasonal themes, where one Sunday would link to the Sundays that follow it, and that through the course of a year, we would experience a complete introduction to the important aspects of our Unitarian Universalist faith: our stories, traditions, basic principles and religious goals.
And I compared this holistic, year-long approach to worship, to the usual practice of Unitarian Universalist churches, which is to regard each Sunday as an completely independent event: random worship topics based on the inspiration of the speaker with no connection to the Sundays before or after, no direction, no larger goal.
This summer season is “Ordinary Time” at First Church, the season that comes in the space between the beginning of the liturgical year in September and the end of the liturgical year in June. The spiritual theme for this space between is rest. Our spiritual summer job is relaxation, and vacation, peace and quiet and silence and taking time off.
So what am I doing suddenly interrupting our peaceful summer with a sermon about Buddhism? How does Dharma Day fit into the flow of one Sunday following another?
The challenge of creating a Unitarian Universalist liturgical year is that in our pluralistic approach to religion, we do want to honor and explore the wisdom of many different spiritual traditions from around the world. And because each of those spiritual traditions create their calendars independent of each other it can easily become a mess trying to cram them altogether in a Unitarian Universalist church. Which is why we have the scattered and confusing calendar that we do.
But behind the multiplicity of religious traditions, I’m convinced that there is a rather small number of shared spiritual truths. The differences between religions have more to do with cultural and historical context, and are each really responding to the same spiritual reality, and the same needs of our common human nature. So with a little creative imagination I think it is possible to find the common themes in all the religious traditions and all the holy days we want to honor, and weave them together into a coherent liturgical year.
Here we are in a spiritual season devoted to rest and relaxation. Isn’t there something in the Buddhist message, even in the very core principles of the Dharma that encourages us to find rest and relaxation? I think there is.
The sermon that the Buddha gives to the five Brahmans in the Deer Park is actually very simple. In three sections he lays out the entire structure of Buddhism: The Middle Way, the Eight-fold Path, and the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism is obviously much more complicated and detailed. But here, in brief, and in the first ever Buddhist sermon, is the everything you need to know. It’s also very short, much shorter than this sermon.
The first thing the Buddha says is that the path to spiritual health follows what he calls the Middle Way. To be spiritually healthy we have to follow a path through life that avoids over-indulgence on one side, but also avoids over-denial on the other side. Enjoy the pleasures of life but don’t get addicted to them. Say yes to the joys of life but don’t get so wrapped up in pleasures that you miss the larger goals. It’s easy to get lost in pleasure, which leads some people to try and avoid the pleasures of life altogether lest they find themselves trapped in the pleasure. But the Buddha points out that complete denial is just another way to be trapped. We become the person who is constantly obsessed about the sin that we aren’t enjoying. And that obsessive denial just as damaging to our spiritual health.
The Buddha was born into a royal family. He was a prince. He lived at a palace. His life was filled with all the pleasures available to a young, wealthy, privileged man. But his pleasures did not completely protect him from the pain and suffering of life. Filled with compassion, he saw that people in his kingdom suffered from ill health, and death, and grieved at the loss of loved ones. And he knew that eventually he would also suffer the same pains of life, no matter how wealthy he was.
So seeking true freedom from the suffering of life the Buddha left his palace and moved into the jungle, on a religious quest. He lived as a monk, never speaking, having no contact with other people, barely eating or drinking. But the Buddha discovered that the path of denial didn’t work either. His suffering only led to increased suffering. Instead of freeing his spirit, all he could do was feel his hunger and think about how miserable he was.
The story goes that when the Buddha reached the point when he nearly died from starvation he was saved by watching of a musician putting a string on an instrument. First the musician put the string on too loosely and it wouldn’t play. Then the musician wound the string too tightly and it broke. Finally, the musician put a string on the instrument and gave it just the right amount of tension and he was able to play a beautiful tune.
With that insight the Buddha gave up trying to starve his way to spiritual health. Nor did he go back to his palace. He began to follow the middle way. And thus Buddhism.
The Buddha says that the path to joy comes in following the Middle Way. And what is the Middle Way? He tells us that the Middle Way is to follow the eightfold path:
Later, Buddhism would explain in detail what it means to follow each of these eight paths the “right” way. But what the Buddha simply means is that the Middle Way consists of doing all of the things that people need to do in life: looking, speaking, acting, thinking, meditating, working and resting and so on, but doing them in such a way that each receives only the proper amount of attention, not more, not less.
Sometimes we give life to little attention. We fail to see the beauty that surrounds us. We fail to experience the joy of the moment because we’re thinking about something else. And sometimes we give a small part of life too much attention. Any part of life can become unhealthy if given too much attention. We obsess about problems we have no control over. We ignore the wonderful banquet of life because all we can think about it is the one thing we don’t have.
The right way to move through life is to give every moment exactly the attention it deserves. This is called mindfulness. Focus your mind on where you really are and what you’re really doing. Pay attention. Live in the reality of the world rather than your fantasies and worries and fears and dreams.
From that insight the Buddha, in his first sermon, lays out what he sees as the four noble truths of human lives and what we must do to achieve spiritual health.
The first noble truth is that life is filled with suffering. We suffer when we are born as every crying baby proves. We suffer when we get old and our bodies lose their strength and mobility. We suffer when we get sick. We suffer when we watch our loved ones suffering. We suffer with pain, grief, despair. We suffer when we get stuck in places that annoy us. We suffer when people we love are apart from us. The first noble truth of Buddhism admits that life is not always fun.
The second noble truth is the observation that our suffering arises from our desires. We suffer when we desire something we do not have. And we suffer also when we have something we desire because the achievement of a desire doesn’t lead to satisfaction but to more desire. We want the good things in life. And once we have the good things in life we want them again and we want more of them. Desire is never finished and so, in poverty or in wealth, we suffer.
The third noble truth, then, is that the end of suffering, comes only with the end of desire. This doesn’t mean that happiness means never wanting anything. But it means finding happiness in the present experience of joy, and avoiding that feeling that then makes us immediately want to do it again. Let your joy in life come entirely from the present experience, at every moment. So when a joy comes to its end, as everything does, you have no feeling left over that says, “I can’t be happy unless I have that again.”
And the fourth noble truth answers the question of how we achieve the kind of mindfulness that allows us to take complete joy in the present moment, and not be the slave of unsatisfied desire. And the Buddha’s answer again is the Eightfold path:
The Middle Way. Follow the middle way. Give all parts of your life exactly the attention they deserve, not more, not less.
The Buddha’s first sermon in the deer park ends with him describing how, when he saw clearly how suffering is caused and how it can be ended, that the whole universe responded with admiration. The divine beings of every level of all the heavens realized what the Buddha had accomplished and the whole universe rocked and quaked. A “wheel of truth” had been set rolling, and from then on nothing would stop the enlightenment of the world that the Buddha had put in motion.
This summer, the season of rest and relaxation, we are trying to make a spiritual practice of vacation, time off, chilling out, goofing off, taking it easy. How do we take seriously our need for rest? Our need for quiet? Our need for emptiness? Our need for peace?
If, during the rest of the year our lives are filled with work: things to do, goals to accomplish, headaches, and worries, and frustrations, and ambition. If we finish one year at the church in June, and then have just a few months of peace, before we start again in September with the sound of construction next door, and inside the church: new bathrooms, a new roof, a school meeting in Channing Hall during the week. How do we make of this precious time off, not just a complete, exhausted, collapse, but a spiritually healthy exercise that leads to joy? And how, when the work begins again in September, do we are approach our season of work and needing to get things done, with the same attention to spiritual health and the goal of joy?
The Buddha warns that either mode of living can lead to suffering. We can work ourselves to suffering, and burnout, and anger, make ourselves sick with stress, and miss the joy of life. And we can also vacation ourselves to suffering, and boredom, and sun burn and making ourselves sick on too much beer and hotdogs, and miss the joy of life. Some people love work so much they don’t know how to take vacation. And it’s also possible to have so much fun doing nothing that we set ourselves up for suffering when the demands of work return in the fall.
For this summer, then, the path to joy, is to experience every moment with the attention it deserves. Don’t let a moment of joy go by unnoticed. But don’t hold on to joy so tightly that you kill it. Experience every moment with full enjoyment. But hold each moment lightly, ready to let it go, and with trust in the loving abundance of the universe that new joy will surely come in the next moment as well.
Whether you have the chance to take a vacation this summer, or whether you continue to work and July and August are much the same as March and April. The spiritual strategy is the same. Live fully into the moment you are in. Experience fully the content of every moment, whether it is sun and a pool, or a cup of coffee, and a desk, a ride on a plane or a ride on a bus or subway, picking up a book, or picking up a phone, wiping the sweat of hard work from your forehead, or wiping the sweat of a strong sun. What changes in work and play, is the content of the moments, but our attention to the moments should be the same, and either is an opportunity for joy.
Rest will come this season, and relaxation will come this season, and peace will come this season, if we remove our anxious desires, and give it a chance. If we remove our desire for something different and love what is. Remove our desire for something more and love what is. The world of joy is ruined by our ceaseless wanting. Instead, when we stop wanting, we can experience the joyful world that already is.
I love you all.