Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist
for January 21, 2007
by Rev. Emily Burr
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Buddhism – Striving on with Awareness
One aspect of Unitarian Universalism that is important to me is that not only are we not told what we have to believe, neither are we asked to give up a belief system that we have come to hold. Thus we have UU Pagans, UU Christians, UU atheists, UU humanists and UU Buddhists to name a few. Various facets of Buddhism, in particular, seem to be meaningful for many of us.
First let’s look at the Buddha, the Enlightened One. He never claimed to be anything other than a human being like all men and women. He did not claim to be divine or the recipient of any special knowledge from a God. He firmly believed that anyone could come to the realizations and achievements that he had, through human endeavor and human intelligence. Many UUs seek to live as simply as we can. Buddha was the simplicity movement to the max.
Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama about 560 BCE in what is now Nepal. His father was King of a small kingdom. Few of the details of the Buddha's life can be independently verified since much of what is told of his life wasn’t written down until about 400 years after his death. However, the story goes that several braham scholars predicted that Siddhartha would grow up to be either a great king or a great holy man. His father wanted him to become a great king and so shielded him from religious teachings and human suffering. At 16 his father arranged his marriage to a cousin of the same age who shortly gave birth to a son. He had three palaces, one for evey season. Siddhartha was provided with everything he could want or need but felt that something was missing from his life. The legend continues that when he was 29 he left his palace for an excursion and, seeing an old man for the first time, realized that eventully every person grows old. On further trips outside he saw more human suffering – a crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. Deeply depressed by these sights, he sought to overcome old age, illness, and death by living the life of an ascetic. Siddhartha left his palace, his possessions, and his entire family to take up the life of a wandering monk. From the extreme of luxury he swung to the extreme of deprivation. After nearly starving himself he found what is now known as the Middle Path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-deprivation. It was only then that he found enlightenment.
Another reason Buddhism may be appealing to UUs is that it is based on a principle of individual responsibility. We must each find our own way to the truth. This necessitates a freedom of thought, unheard of in any religion before Buddha’s lifetime. Hmm, a free and responsible search for truth – does that sound familiar? This freedom of thought leads directly to the recognition that doubt is essential to a valid search for truth and to a tolerance of those who may reach truth by a different path.
What was this Truth (with a capital T) that the Buddha realized? Actually there are four truths that are at the center of Buddhism. They are known as the Four Noble Truths. All four have to do with the word “dukkha” which is most often translated as suffering. The concept of dukkha certainly contains the concept of suffering but that is too simplistic a translation. Dukkha also includes impermanence, imperfection, emptiness and insubstantiality. Because of this, I will often use the term “dukkha” rather than “suffering” when talking about the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are:
1. Life is dukkha
2. Dukkha is caused by our desires
3. Dukkha ends when desire ends
4. There are paths that lead to that possibility,
The first Truth – Life is dukkha does not imply that there is not happiness in life, as is sometimes misunderstood when the First Truth is stated as “all life is suffering.” In fact, in one of the five original collections of Buddha’s discourses there is a list of happinesses, including happiness of family life, happiness of attachment and happiness of detachment, happiness of sense pleasures and happiness of renunciation, both physical and mental happiness. All these are included in dukkha because everything that is impermanent is dukkha. To explain how both happiness and suffering can be included in the concept of dukkha the following example may be helpful. If you meet a person you like, you enjoy being with that person, become attached to that person, but if the situation changes and you cannot see the person again you become sad – you experience pain and suffering.
There are three aspects of this suffering that are important to understanding this first truth – ordinary suffering, suffering produced by change and suffering as a “conditioned state”. All kinds of suffering in life like birth, old age, grief, not getting what we want are considered ordinary suffering. When a happy feeling or condition in life changes we become unhappy. These two are easily understood. The third aspect is much harder to describe and understand but is an important part of the First Truth. To understand suffering as a conditioned state, we need to grasp what is meant by a “being” or “individual” in Buddhist thought. “I” is only a combination of ever-changing physical and mental forces or energies that Buddha divided into the five Aggregates of Attachment – collections of what we think of as our “self”. The first is the Aggregate of Matter – the physical world, our five senses and some thoughts or ideas, which are considered mind-objects. The second and third are the Aggregates of Sensations and Perceptions – what we experience through interaction with matter and the perceptions we create from those sensations. The fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Formations – things we choose to do such as attention, concentration, desire, will, hate, conceit, idea of self – to name a few of the 52 mental activities that constitute this Aggregate. These are what give rise to karma. The fifth is the Aggregate of Consciousness – our awareness of things. This is not the same meaning we often attribute to consciousness as “self” because in Buddhism there is no permanent, unchanging “spirit” or “soul”. In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula explains:
What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’ or ‘I’, is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these five groups. They are all impermanent, all constantly changing….They are not the same for two consecutive moments. Here A is not equal to A. They are in a flux of momentary arising and disappearing. (pg. 25)
The second Noble Truth – dukkha is caused by our desires – means that there is in us a craving or thirst that gives rise to suffering. According to Buddha all the troubles and strife in the world, from family quarrels to great wars, come from this selfish thirst. This thirst is also what is responsible for re-becoming or rebirth. The cycle of death and reincarnation can only end when this craving is stopped, when one attains the wisdom to see reality – this occurs with the realization of Nirvana.
The Third Noble Truth – dukkha ends when desire ends – means that there is freedom from suffering, which is Nirvana. To eliminate dukkha completely we must eliminate the source of dukkha, which is the craving of the Second Truth. An understanding of the Five Aggregates of Attachment becomes important in understanding the attainment of Nirvana. Both the source and cessation of dukkha are within the Five Aggregates. They are within ourselves. There is no external power that is the cause of or that can eliminate our suffering. We are responsible. We, ourselves, can attain the wisdom according to the Fourth Truth.
The Fourth Truth is most often referred to as the Eightfold Path. It is the Middle Path the Buddha found between self-indulgence and self-deprivation. The eight elements give us practical advice on how to live. They can be grouped according to the three essentials of Buddhist training and discipline: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Discipline. The first two parts of the Eightfold Path, Right Thought and Right Understanding are the path to Wisdom. The next three, Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood constitute Ethical Conduct. Mental Discipline includes the final three parts of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Although listed in this order, the elements of the path are not intended to be sequential but, ideally, are developed more or less simultaneously.
Rahula wraps up his discussion with the following summary of the Four Truths that includes the function a Buddhist’s has to perform for each.
The First Noble Truth is Dukkha, the nature of life, its suffering, its sorrows and joys, its imperfection and unsatisfactoriness, its impermanence and insubstantiality. With regard to this, our function is to understand it as a fact, clearly and completely.
The Second Nobel Truth is the Origin of Dukkha, which is desire, ‘thirst’, accompanied by all other passions, defilements and impurities. A mere understanding of this fact is not sufficient. Here our function is to discard it, to eliminate, to destroy and eradicate it.
The Third Nobel Truth is the Cessation of Dukkha, Nirvana, the Absolute Truth, the Ultimate Reality. Here our function is to realize it.
The Fourth Nobel Truth is the Path leading to the realization of Nirvana, A mere knowledge of the Path, however complete, will not do. In this case, our function is to follow it and keep to it. (pg. 50)
I find the concepts I’ve talked about today absolutely fascinating. A number of them seem to have some bearing on my 21st Century life in our Western culture and some of it does not compute. I have difficulty accepting the Buddhist “Truth” that there is no “I”, no “self” and that the goal in life is to realize Nirvana – a state of no pain but also no joy, since there is no self to feel any emotion good or bad.
However, I can find much about Buddhism that does have meaning to me. It makes a great deal of sense that we should be more aware of the impermanence of all things. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, our one human life is less than a grain of sand in a desert. Although I believe we are each a “self” of some kind, it is a far less important self that most of us seem to think. Knowing and understanding this can put a different perspective on much of the unhappiness our lives.
At the same time it is important to be able to appreciate and be as fully aware as possible of the life we do have, as we live it. We humans spend much of our thoughts, feelings, and awareness on regrets about what might have been, if only something in the past had been different, or on worrying about what might happen in the future that would be difficult. We would be calmer, happier people who lived fuller lives if we spent more time being aware of what we were seeing, hearing, feeling, being now, this very moment. Being fully aware is an extremely hard thing to do for more than a very few seconds. It makes sense to me that the practice of meditating, paying attention to our breath, and trying to keep thoughts of past and future at bay can help us live more of our time in the present, even when we are not ”meditating.” I like the idea of everything we do having the possibility of being a meditation, if only we pay attention to it in ways we usually don’t.
Regardless of our beliefs about an ultimate reality, practicing elements of the Right Living described in the eightfold path can lead to a happier, more serene life lived to the fullest in the here and now. Perhaps you could meditate on it?