A sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth, Jan. 3, 2016
- From Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Rebel Buddha, A Guide to a Revolution of Mind, Shambhala Publications, Boston, Massachusetts, 2010: True wisdom is free from the dramas of culture or religion and should bring us only a sense of peace and happiness. However, we’re often addicted to our dramas and fearful of the truth. If you want to see real drama, you don’t have to turn on your TV – it’s right there in your life, which is full of emotions, anxiety and depression.
- Excerpts from “What Narcissism Means to Me,” a poem by Tony Hoagland: There’s Socialism and Communism and Capitalism said Neal,
and there’s Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism
but I think Narcissism is the system that means the most to me;
and Sylvia said that in Neal’s case narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking.
… And Ethan said that in his opinion, if you’re going to mess around with self-love,
you shouldn’t just rush into a relationship, …
We humans are fascinated by drama. Just think of some of last year’s headlines. In 2015 extramarital affair dating website Ashley Madison faced a class action lawsuit after the breach of customers’ personal data; Rachel Dolezol, a woman of Swedish, Czech, and German ancestry, but passing as black, resigned as president of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP; Tom Brady did not have to sit out any NFL games despite under-inflated footballs; Journalist Brian Williams lost credibility after stories he told about himself turned out to not be true; Bill Cosby’s downfall continued as more women accused him of sexual assault; and – I will be blunt – Donald Trump used insults, lies, crude remarks, and bigotry to rise to the top of the Republican presidential field. We are fascinated, titillated, and repulsed by these dramas, and we keep watching. What is this all about? It’s not just celebrities. Our own lives are too often full of drama. Why do we tend to
make the same mistakes over and over again? And why are we humans so preoccupied with issues of self-esteem, power, entitlement, prestige, and vanity? Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, “If you want to see real drama, you don’t have to turn on your TV – it’s right there in your life, which is full of emotions, anxiety and depression.” The fact is, our egos are very demanding! Our minds keep creating drama, a disturbing story line about the past and the future. Our lives are full of conflict, emotion and action. Ordinarily we don’t question our confusion; we just go along with it. We are all narcissists to a certain extent; that is, we are all at the center of our own little universe. We think that we can be happy if we have more of the temporary things of this world, money, pleasure, sex, success, status, excitement, possessions. Our understanding of self wants to put “I, me, and mine” in the center of everything.
Drama and dharma ~ So if you are still looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2016, consider having less drama and more dharma.
Let’s define our terms. What do I mean when I say “drama”? Drama is an illusion that acts like truth. Our personal dramas are fueled by our emotions, expectations, and mistaken concepts of how the world really is and who we really are. We create dramatic story-lines, and our story- lines tend to lose track of reality, even though we may think the story-line is very real.
And dharma is both a Hindu and Buddhist term – to Hindus it means “natural law,” or “the natural order of things.” In this sense, we might associate dharma with the Chinese concept of the Dao [Tao], “the Way and power of the universe.” In Buddhism, dharma refers specifically to the teachings of the Buddha. Dharma, says Dzogchen Ponlop, is “the way things are, the basic state of reality that does not change from day to day according to fashion or our mood or agenda.”
Dharma, in other words, is reality; drama is something we mistake for reality. Drama, our story- lines – and dharma, the way things really are – may look very much alike. Because we become so wrapped up in the story-line, we often have difficulty seeing the difference between our personal dramas and reality.
Who am I, really? I stand here in my ministerial robes, but is that who I am? I’m a man, a husband, a step-father, a brother, an in-law, a friend, a former teacher, a neighbor, a customer, a taxpayer, a religious and political liberal, an omnivore, a baby-boomer, a Cornish-American, a native Michigander, an adopted Mainer and Bay-Stater. Are any of those things who I really am? I am all of those things and none of them. I am temporarily able-bodied, temporarily alive, someone on a spiritual journey, looking to finding my true nature.
Over the past week I was able to be with my wife, Mickey, at home in Maine. I tried to set up a new TV set on New Year’s Eve. But I ran into a problem. It’s been said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. Well, I kept trying to load the program, over and over, eight times, but it would not load. We are using Roku, so I called tech support at Roku. After another couple of hours, she and I gave up for the evening. On New Year’s Day I spent a couple more hours talking to tech support at Fairpoint, our internet provider. Finally we found the problem!
Throughout all of it I never lost my temper, although in the past I would have. It was good to get through New Year’s Day, at least, without breaking my 2016 resolution of less drama, more dharma!
Sometimes I get wrapped up in my own sense of self-importance. Maybe I’m a bit like Kitagaki, who was the governor of Kyoto in Japan in the late 1800s. One day Kitagaki went to visit a great Zen teacher, Keichu. Kitagaki was, of course, regarded as a very important person. In order to introduce himself to Keichu, he handed his card to an assistant.
The assistant presented the card of the governor, which read: “Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto.” “I have no business with such a fellow,’ said Keichu to his assistant. “Tell him to go away.” The assistant carried the card back with apologies. “I understand my error,” said the governor, and with a pencil he crossed out the words Governor of Koyoto. “Ask your teacher again,” said Kitagaki. The attendant brought the card to the teacher. The card said only, “Kitagaki.” “Oh, is that Kitagaki?” exclaimed the teacher when he saw the card. “Yes. I want to see that fellow.”
A Spiritual Journey ~ What does the spiritual journey look like? Let’s consider the spiritual enlightenment of two men, Jesus the Christ, and Siddhartha the Buddha, two men who traveled spiritual paths and passed on their wisdom to disciples.. Jesus was the child of poor parents. When he was a young man he left his work as a carpenter, left home, and began a spiritual journey. He found a teacher, John the Baptizer, and became John’s disciple. When John was arrested, Jesus set out on his own to pray, meditate, and fast in solitude in the desert. Eventually, when he understood his true path, he returned to Galilee, began eating and drinking again, gathered disciples, and began to preach. His disciples called him the Messiah, the anointed one. He taught that we should be peace-makers, forgive, show mercy, love God, and love our neighbors. He taught that clinging to wealth could be a barrier to spiritual growth. He told his followers to not try to store up treasures in this world where thieves can break in, and moths and rust destroy material goods, but to store up treasurers in heaven. He accepted the fact that his life and his ministry would be brief as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” And he told his followers, “You are the light of the world.”
Siddartha was born to wealth and social prominence. As a child he lived a protected and luxurious life. But as a young man he grew dissatisfied with material possessions, social status, and political power. He longed to discover life’s meaning and purpose in the face of our human limitations. Like Jesus, Siddhartha left home, left his family, sought the advice of teachers, meditated and fasted. Eventually he found his path, started eating again, rejoined society, and gathered a group of disciples. His disciples called him the Buddha, the awakened one. He taught that our lives are brief and full of change, and that suffering is caused by clinging to the things of this world; but the awakened mind is ready to face whatever arises. He taught a way of wisdom, compassion, loving-kindness, meditation, and the freedom that self-control and self- understanding can bring. And he told his followers, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”
The Buddha Within ~ Although there are parallels, I am not saying that Jesus and the Buddha, or Christianity and Buddhism, teach the same thing. Christianity tells us we have an eternal soul, an incorporeal essence that temporarily inhabits an Earthly body. Our destination is to return to God, the
Source of Creation, our Sustainer in the Present, and our Destiny at the End of Time. Buddhism, on the other hand, teaches that rather than an eternal soul, we have no-self; we are not today what we were yesterday or will be tomorrow; everything is impermanent and temporary. The words “I” and “me” don’t refer to any fixed reality. They are simply convenient terms that allow us to refer to an ever-changing entity.
But, are these journeys, the journey of the Christian soul and the journey of the Buddhist no-self, really so different? Both Christianity and Buddhism depend upon religious symbols and metaphors. I believe there is a danger in taking religious concepts too literally. Literal concepts easily become exaggerations and distortions. I think that an open-minded yet agnostic stance to religious concepts allows us to learn and grow, and not be misled by mistaking metaphors for literal truths.
So I see the Buddhist teaching of no-self as a valuable metaphor. In our lives we cling to the ego, our concept of self. We cling to our youth, yet we will lose it some day. We cling to our health, but we will lose that, too. We cling, finally, to our lives, but even our lives will be gone some day. Who we are, what we are, is constantly changing. Whatever we think we are, that will be gone some day. In a sense, there is never any there, there. If we think and act as though things are permanent, we will not be prepared for inevitable losses, and so we will suffer. So the concept of “no-self’ is a helpful metaphor, a useful tool that can help us get away from our destructive concept of self-importance, and help us to find our inner buddha.
The word “buddha,” of course, means “awake” or “awakened.” The Buddha, when asked if he was a god or a holy man explained simply, “I am awake.” He didn’t just mean that he was not asleep, he meant that he saw things as they really are. To find your inner buddha, then, is to find the awakened mind. The awakened mind is always a good mind, never dull or confused. It isn’t distressed by the doubts, fears, and unhelpful emotions that so often distress us. Your awakened mind does not cling to ego-driven drama. Instead, the awakened mind follows the path of dharma. Your inner buddha is a mind of joy, able to accept whatever life brings. It is a mind full of compassion and loving-kindness for others. It is less drama, and more dharma.
A Thorn in the Flesh ~ The Apostle Paul, who some have called “the first Christian,” seems to have had a lot of drama in his life. He always had to be the very best or the very worst. He claimed that he had been the very best Jew, the best student of the greatest rabbi of the day. He also called himself “the least of the Apostles,” because he had not personally known Jesus during Jesus’ lifetime, and had originally persecuted the followers of Jesus. Paul argued with the other Apostles. He constantly scolded the churches when he wrote to them in his famous Epistles. His life was full of drama, much of which he seemed to have created. In fact, “Saint” Paul was a drama queen!
And Paul tells us that he had been given a “thorn” in his flesh, some kind of problem that always seemed to be with him. Was it a weakness for alcohol? Was it a limp or a lisp or a stutter? An ulcer? Gum disease? Migraine headaches? He never married, and recommended celibacy – could he have been struggling with issues of sexual orientation? The fact is, we just don’t know. But he says that his “thorn,” whatever it was, taught him humility. It caused him to have self-doubts, and those doubts led him to ask questions about who he really was and what kind of
person he wanted to be. And in this way, he finally understood his weakness, his thorn, as a source of strength. When we are able to look clearly at ourselves we have taken an important step toward being ready to make the changes we wish to make, to develop personal character and become self- aware in order to live the kind of life we want to live. Buddhism helps us to see our dramas for what they are – illusions. Buddhism is a method of training the mind, so we can see things as they really are, and develop mindfulness, so that when we face life’s inevitable losses and disappointments, we will be able to accept them and face them with equanimity and wisdom. Both Jesus and the Buddha taught us to not obsess about the things of this world, to not be invested in ego, to think more of others and not be so worried about the “self.” Less ego. Less drama. More dharma. That is my New Year’s resolution for 2016. Maybe it will be yours as well. … Amen.