by the Rev. Roger Bertschausen
Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
2600 E. Philip Ln.
P.O. Box 1791
Appleton, WI 54912-1791
(920) 731-0849
Website: www.fvuuf.org
February 2-3, 2002
Call to Gather: by Thich Nhat Hanh
It is really beautiful to begin the day by being a Buddha.[1]
by Jack Kornfield
This life is a test--it is only a test.
If it had been an actual life, you would have received futher instructions on where to go and what to do.
Remember, this life is only a test.[2]
Meditation: from Thich Nhat Hanh
Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.[3]
Readings: by Thich Nhat Hanh
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud there will be no water; without water the trees cannot grow; and without trees, you cannot make paper. So the cloud is in here. The existence of this page is dependent on the existence of a cloud. Paper and cloud are so close. Let us think of other things, like sunshine. Sunshine is very important because the forest cannot grow without sunshine, and we as humans cannot grow without sunshine. So the logger needs sunshine in order to cut the tree, and the tree needs sunshine in order to be a tree. Therefore, you can see sunshine in this sheet of paper. And if you look deeply, with the eyes of a bodhisattva, with the eyes of those who are awake, you see not only the cloud and the sunshine in it, but that everything is here, the wheat that became the bread for the logger to eat, the logger's father--everything is in this sheet of paper...
This paper is empty of an independent self. Empty, in this sense, means that the paper is full of everything, the entire cosmos. The presence of this tiny sheet of paper proves the presence of the whole cosmos.[4]
From Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
Siddhartha sits by a river and listens deeply.
He was now listening intently, completely absorbed, quite empty, taking in everything. He felt he had now completely learned the art of listening. He had often heard all this before, all the numerous voices in the river, but today they sounded different. He could no longer distinguish the different voices--the merry voice from the weeping voice, the childish voice from the manly voice. They all belonged to each other: the lament of those who yearn, the laughter of the wise, the cry of indignation, and the groan of the dying. They were all interwoven and interlocked, entwined in a thousand ways. And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world, all of them together were the streams of events and the music of life. When Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen only to the sorrow or laughter, did not bind his soul to any one particular voice and absorb it in himself, but heard them all, the whole, the unity--then the great song of a thousand voices consisted of one word: perfection.[5]

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that Buddhism is not one religion, but many.[6] This is true because at its heart Buddhism is a religion focused on the individual spiritual journey--so it is as various as the number of individual spiritual journeys. And there are also many different strands of Buddhism. This is evident right here at the Fellowship, where we have two very distinct meditation groups--one that expresses the Tibetan tradition and the other the Zen tradition. Want to see how different two strands of Buddhism can be? Attend both these groups.
Buddhism started in India, then spread to Sri Lanka and then north and east into Tibet, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. In recent years it has begun to spread in North America. I heard somewhere lately that Los Angeles is the second largest Buddhist city on earth! Everywhere Buddhism has traveled it has changed as it interacts with new nations and local cultures. Like it's close relative Hinduism, Buddhism is a very flexible religion and so easily adapts to the local cultural environment. It is also fair to say it has changed every new land it has encountered. The ways it will change North America will become evident in the years to come.
Today I am confronted with a huge task: summarize the most important ideas within Buddhism. How can anyone do this in twenty minutes? And on which Buddhism would I focus? The Theravada tradition that is most prevalent today in Sri Lanka and Thailand? Or the Mahayana tradition that is embodied in the Tibetan and Chinese and Japanese variations of Buddhism?
I'm not going to pick either of these alternatives. Rather, I will talk about Buddhism as I see it--as an American in 2002 who engages in some Buddhist practices. I've called this sermon "What the Buddha Taught." A better title might be "What the Buddha Taught Me." In fact, I would argue that because of Buddhism's focus on the individual and because of how much it evolves from country to country, this is the only possible title for a sermon like this. So what I will do in this sermon is talk about the ideas that in my view lie at the heart of Buddhism, and how these teachings illuminate spiritual truths for me.
Buddhism begins with mindfulness. Paying attention to this moment and this place: this is the heart of the Buddhist path. The North American Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn titled one of his books Wherever You Go, There You Are. Buddhism tries to bring one's attention to the truth expressed in this title, and to the importance of being present to the reality of where one is and what one is doing at the moment. As Kabat-Zinn writes, "It is all too easy to remain on something of a fog-shrouded, slippery slope right into our graves."[7]
How often this is the story of my life, with my eyes fixed on the past or the future, or an eye on each but with no attention paid to this particular moment. Yet this is all life truly is: a succession of particular moments. What a shame it is to miss them! I'm washing dishes and worrying about getting the taxes done or the bills paid. I'm driving the car and worrying about something I screwed up at work. I'm trying to fall asleep and I'm dwelling on something I said to my wife or child or friend that didn't come out right. Too often I go through life inattentive, taking everything for granted: a loving wife, wonderful, healthy kids, the beautiful outdoors as close by as a window. It is so hard to be fully present in the moment. What a waste! This moment is the only one I can do anything about, but I'm not here. Wherever I go, there I am not. Too often my life is like a play in which the leading actor hasn't shown up--and there's no understudy ready to jump in.
Buddhism sometimes gets the rap of being an otherworldly, esoteric religion. In a very important way, nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhism, with mindfulness its starting point, relentlessly focuses one's attention back on the real, often practical and physical and very ordinary moments of one's life. Thich Nhat Hanh makes everything part of the practice of mindfulness: washing the dishes and walking and standing still and drinking tea and talking with friends.[8]
On Friday night I delightfully practiced mindfulness with my children. After watching a movie, we lay around on the family room floor for an hour or more talking, sharing stories, and arm-wrestling. For once I was not thinking of something else or trying to do two things at once. I was there, and they were there, and we connected in a deep and a fun way. This is mindfulness.
The point is to be mindful of the moment that is now, connected with what you are doing on the outside and what you are thinking and feeling on the inside. Buddhism is not about withdrawal or detachment from this world but is instead about living each moment fully.[9] The term "Buddha" means the Awakened One. More than anything else, this means being awake to this moment. Each of us can be a Buddha--for at least this moment. All we have to do is be aware. All we have to do is be here, now.
In Buddhism the principal way of sharpening the practice of mindfulness is meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh defines meditation succinctly: to meditate "is to be aware of what is going on--in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world."[10] When you meditate, you check in with yourself. Without judgement and without editing, you notice what you're thinking and feeling. And you observe what's going on in the world around you, too. Meditation is not ultimately meant to transport you to someplace else or to some other time, but to focus you on the here and now of this moment.[11]
There are many varieties of meditation: sitting, walking, lying down, to name a few. When we are truly mindful, we can meditate anytime, anywhere, doing anything. Our whole life can become a meditation.
Meditation is a simple thing, but it is not always easy. Just being attentive to my thoughts can be dizzying as my mind flits from one thought to another. Most of us suffer from what Buddhists aptly label "monkey mind." Meditation--particularly for beginners--is a constant effort to refocus back to the thought or feeling that is at hand. Meditation, Jack Kornfield says, should be like training a puppy. Rather than punish or yell at the puppy--"Stop chewing on my shoes, you stupid dog!"--you gently redirect the puppy to something non-destructive. Rather than yelling at your mind for wandering, in meditation you gently redirect your mind back to the present.[12]
Kabat-Zinn likens meditation to watching the torrent of water from a cave or depression behind a waterfall.[13] Well, as a kid I watched Niagara Falls from a cave behind it, and was absolutely terrified. In spite of feeling slightly too old to cry--especially in front of strangers--I wailed. Sometimes I have the same feeling when I watch my thoughts cascade by while meditating.
Then I come back to the need to be attentive without judging. Observe each thought gently. Meditation teaches me to notice the thought, not deciding if it's good or bad or in need of censorship, not letting my fear of it take over. This is what meditation is all about.
Meditation can be terrifying for another reason, too: sometimes the moment one is being attentive to is, well, terrifying. In life we have peaceful and joyous moments and thoughts as well as terrifying moments and thoughts. The trick, according to Buddhism, is to be present to both. Both are inextricable parts of life. And ultimately it does no good to live in denial of the reality of the hard parts of life--as the Buddha learned when he discovered the lie of his pleasure palace childhood. Buddhism asks that we address rather than flee our pain.
Because of Buddhism's unblinking look at the difficult aspects of life, it often gets criticized for dwelling on suffering. But this is only part of the picture. Buddhism also shines a light on the beauty and the good in our lives, helping us notice and appreciate and not take for granted all the miracles great and small that bless us. There is pain and death, but there is also love and beauty and connection evident in so many particular moments of our lives. This is the reality of life. "All--is the price of All" writes Emily Dickinson.[14] You won't appreciate or even see the beauty as much if you ignore the bad.
There is another great paradox at the heart of meditation: as Jack Kornfield writes, meditation brings us "face to face with the profound mystery of our own identity."[15] Our identity is a mystery because two opposite things are simultaneously true about ourselves: we are everything, and we are nothing. One of Kornfield's teachers warned him that his "head will probably explode" if he tried to understand this truth intellectually.[16] I'm hoping that as we get into this none of your heads will explode! You might be well served to turn your mind off for a minute and instead try to understand this paradox with the help of your experiences.
Think of your experiences of wholeness and oneness with all that is. For many of us, we have had these experiences most powerfully in nature or when we deeply connect with another person or community. At such moments, we see that we are not alone at all but are interconnected with all that is. We see that as a part--albeit a small part--of the whole, we are important. We see our inexplicable value. Right smack in the midst of the particulars of our life, we find the universal. Surprise! Well, this is your Buddha nature. Meditation can help you get in touch with your Buddha nature--with your oneness with all existence--on a more regular basis.
But then meditation also gets you in touch with an opposite reality that is equally true: at the core of our individual being, we are nothing. This is the Buddhist understanding that there is no self. This concept tells us that the individual ego, or what Kornfield calls the "individual small self,"[17] is an illusion.
Again, think about experiences in your own life where you've caught glimpses of this truth. Probably the most graphic for many of us are times when we glimpse the transitory nature of ourselves. Change is a basic fact of our bodies and even our personalities. As we grow and age who we are at a basic level changes. If we cling to who we are at a particular time--in terms of personality or body or even soul, we will inevitably run into frustration. For example, if I cling to my young adult self now as I move into my middle age self, I will be frustrated. The truth is: the young adult Roger is gone. Who we are at a given moment simply doesn't last. And then of course there is the great exclamation point of our transitory nature: each of us will die.
Saying we have no self also expresses a truth many of us realize when we ponder our life compared to the magnitude of the universe of time and space. Here we are, alive for maybe eighty years if we're lucky in a timeline that has gone on for some fifteen billion years already. We live on a small planet in a solar system on the edge of one average galaxy. How important is any one of our lives on this universal scale? How can we conclude anything other than Mary Oliver's statement in last week's poem: "Clearly I am not needed."[18]
The individual self is unreal on one more level as well: none of us live apart from our relationships and connections. Like the paper in Thich Nhat Hanh's reading, who we are is the complex array of relationships in which we participate. Take away my wife and kids and friends and you and the environment and there is nothing left. I don't exist separate from my connections. I have no independent self, no identity separate from the web of relationships in which I exist.
And here the concept of no self suddenly merges with its opposite--that if you look inside your core and see nothing, you will see everything. Both realities point to the same thing: each of us is an important and inextricable part of the interdependent web of all existence. Meditate on your emptiness or meditate on your Buddha nature and you will come to the same understanding! The Buddhist statement that there is no self is really a radical, profound expression of the reality of the interdependent web. Emptiness is a path to understanding this reality--just as meditating on our Buddha nature is a path to understanding. "The emptiness is not empty, but contains all things," writes Jack Kornfield.[19] The paper is empty and full of everything--full of the entire cosmos.
Whether you come to an understanding of the interdependent web by meditating on emptiness or Buddha nature or both, you arrive at the underlying center of Buddhism's ethic: whatever we do effects the web. And we arrive at the central ethic: compassion for ourselves and for every other part of the web. This ethic tells each of us that we are important to the cosmos. This is the meaning of karma. What we do and what we think and feel are important because they all effect the web. We live with the consequences. The web lives with the consequences.
In the response to last week's sermon, someone shared that she was troubled by the Buddha's apparent need to leave his family--including his wife and infant son--to find truth. Was this an ethical act? Of course, this was the act of the Buddha before he became the Buddha--before he became Awakened. I would call it an immature spiritual act. What he eventually discovered is that you find the truth not somewhere else separate from your life, but right here in the midst of your life. Enlightenment can be found right here--within your particular self, in the midst of the real, everyday world in which you live.
It is interesting to note that after his Enlightenment, the Buddha didn't live as a recluse, as a solitary man meditating on some remote mountaintop. He lived in the midst of the world, and in the midst of a human community--the Sangha, or monastery. And mostly he lived in urban settings.[20] In fact, he lived in same urban monastery for twenty-five years.[21] Among others, he lived in this monastery with a monk named Rahula--the son he had abandoned years earlier.
So how do we live in relationship? Buddhism provides a metaphor for this: the Sangha. The Sangha was not then nor has it ever been a perfect community. Human community is never perfect. The Buddha's monastery had its share of challenges and squabbles. Even for the patient Buddha, he found some people easier to live with than others.[22]
But that is where the Buddha lived: in the midst of the world as it is, in the midst of an imperfect human community. For me this is the heart of the heart of the Buddhist message. Our task is to live mindfully and compassionately--as the Buddha did--in the midst of this world, in the midst of human community with all of its joy and all of its pain and all its challenges. This is where Enlightenment is to be found.
Closing Words: by Kabir
Don't go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don't bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.[23]
Copyright 2002 by Roger B. Bertschausen. All rights reserved.

[1]Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1987), p. 115.
[2] Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), p. 112.
[3] Being Peace, p. 5.
[4] Quoted in Kornfield, p. 202.
[5] Quoted in Kornfield, pp. 322-323.
[6] Being Peace, p. 84.
[7] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are (New York: Hyperion, 1994), p. xvi.
[8] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), pp. 23-24.
[9] Kornfield highlights this, p. 16.
[10] Being Peace, p. 4.
[11] Being Peace, pp. 45, 50; Kabat-Zinn, pp. 233-235.
[12] Kornfield, p. 59.
[13] Kabat-Zinn, p. 94.
[14] Quoted in Carl Seaberg, ed., Great Occasions (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association 1988) , p. 404.
[15] Kornfield, p. 198.
[16] Kornfield, p. 200.
[17] Kornfield, p. 199.
[18] Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 68
[19] Kornfield, p. 212.
[20] Karen Armstrong, Buddha (New York: Penguin, 2001), p. 122.
[21] Kornfield, 174.
[22] Armstrong, p. 122.
[23] Quoted in Kabat-Zinn, p. 97.