A Unitarian Easter

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Opening Words

The opening words were read responsively.

“The Middle Path”

Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, said: “There are two extremes which a religious seeker should not follow:

“On the one hand, there are those things whose attraction depends upon the passions, unworthy, unprofitable, and fit only for the worldly-minded;

“On the other hand, there is the practice of self-mortification and asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

“There is a middle path, avoiding these two extremes—a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment.

“What is that middle path? It is the noble eightfold path: Right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct;

“Right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

“This is the middle path. This is the noble truth that leads to the destruction of sorrow.”

This noble truth was not among the religious doctrines handed down from the past.

But within the Buddha there arose the eye to perceive this truth, the knowledge of its nature, the understanding of it, the wisdom to guide others.

Once this knowledge and this insight had arisen within Buddha;
He went to speak it to others, that others might realize the same enlightenment.

[From the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra, trans. T. W. Rhys Davids. Adapted by Dan Harper.]

Story — “A Unitarian Easter”

This morning, I’m going to tell the Unitarian version of the Easter story. This is the Easter story I heard as a child, and I thought I’d share it with you this Easter. Why is our version of the story different? When we retell that story, we don’t assume that Jesus was God. And that leads to all kinds of little changes in the usual story so that in the end — well, just listen and you’ll find out how it ends.

After a year of preaching and teaching in the countryside, Jesus and his followers went into the great city of Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem — the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus noticed that there were a number of people selling things in the Temple (for example, there were people selling pigeons), and besides that there were all kinds of comings and goings through the Temple, people carrying all kinds of gear, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! The way I picture it, a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Then Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer — how could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

Imagine what it would be like if people were selling pigeons here in this church while we were trying to have a worship service. Very distracting… Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

Over the next three days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. We know he quoted the book of Leviticus, where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into fairly heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that he made those powerful people look bad. They didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem at that time. The Romans were also concerned about Jesus. When Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. The Romans did not want the people of Jerusalem to get any rebellious ideas.

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder.

After the Seder, Jesus was restless and depressed. He was pretty sure that the Romans were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder. He was given a trial the same night he was arrested, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion.

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so his friend Joseph of Arimathea put Jesus’s body in a tomb, which was a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill. There the body would be safe until they could bury it, after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, Jesus’s friends Mary, Mary, and Salome went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a young man whom they didn’t recognize, but who seemed to know what was going on.

When I was a child, my Unitarian mother told me that what must have happened is that some of Jesus’s friend Joseph of Arimathea had already come and buried the body. There must have been a fair amount of confusion that first Easter morning. Jesus’s friends were not only upset that he was dead, they were worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, or even executed. Because of the confusion, probably not everybody got the word about when and where the burial was. Thus, by the time Mary, Mary, and Salome had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body — and they left quickly, worried that they might get in trouble if they stayed around.

Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and following that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. But my Unitarian mother told me that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. It’s just that his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again. And that’s the Unitarian version of the Easter story that I learned as a child.

Now, the children are invited to stay for the whole worship service. It’s good for children to attend an entire worship service once in a while, so they know what it’s like. There are Easter coloring books and pipe cleaners at the back of the church, to help children sit. If your child gets a little too squirmy, you can take them into the vestibule by the front door, and there are speakers where you can listen to the service. Or you can take your child into the Parish House to child care in the Green Room — there’s a map of the building on your order of service, so you know where the Green Room is.


The first reading was read responsively:

“The Good Is Positive”

Certain facts have always suggested the sublime creed, that the world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one mind;

and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star, in each wavelet of the pool;

and whatever opposes that will, is everywhere balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not otherwise.

Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute: it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much death or nonentity.

Benevolence is absolute and real. So much benevolence as a man hath, so much life hath he. For all things proceed out of this same spirit,

which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes.

All things proceed out of the same spirit, and all things conspire with it. Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends,

he bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries; his being shrinks out of all remote channels, he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.

[From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address,” arranged DH.]

The second reading this morning comes from the Christian scriptures, the gospel of Mark.

“When evening came, since it was the preparation day (that is to say, the day before the Sabbath), Jospeh of Arimathea, a distinguished councillor, arrived who was also himself awaiting the Kingdom of God. He ventured to go to Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that he had died so quickly, and having sent for the centurion asked if he was already dead. When the centurion confirmed it, Pilate granted Joseph the corpse. After purchasing a linen winding sheet Joseph took Jesus down, swathed him in the linen, and laid him in a tomb quarried out of the rock: he then rolled a boulder against the entrance of the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary mother of Jesus observed where he was laid.

When the sabbath day was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (it was very massive) they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his disciples, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will se him there just as I told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


In the opening words this morning, we heard how Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment, and then went on to preach that enlightenment to others. And this is what all the great religious prophets have done. The prophet Mohammed received his great inspiration from Allah, and then spent the rest of his life preaching that inspiration to others. The great sage Lao-tze had his deep insights into the universe, and the place of humanity in that universe, and he not only taught his insights to others, he is said to have written the Tao te Ching to share his insights even farther.

Most of these religious prophets had years to preach and to answer questions from their disciples. But what happens when a great religious prophet dies at too young an age? This was the problem that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth faced. Jesus was only about thirty years old when he was tortured and then executed by order of a minor functionary of the Roman Empire on trumped-up charges of political agitation. At that point, he had only been preaching for a relatively short while — two or three years according to one story; but only one year according to most accounts of Jesus’s life.

Compare the trajectory of Jesus’s life with the trajectory of the Buddha’s life. Siddhartha Gotama became a monk at the age of 29; at the age of 35 he achieved enlightenment; and then he is said to have had another 45 years of life to preach the middle way, to travel far and wide through the countryside; until finally, at the age of 80, he departed this world to enter the state of parinirvana. Compare that to the life of Jesus. Jesus began his ministry when he was approximately 29 years old, after being baptized by John the Baptist; immediately thereafter he spent forty days in the wilderness wrestling with his inner demons and deepening his already deep spiritual insights; and then he is said to have had one short year to preach his message of love, to travel in the countryside around Jerusalem; until finally, at the age of perhaps thirty, came his untimely execution in Jerusalem.

Jesus lived too short a life. And perhaps that is why his followers felt his loss so keenly; and perhaps that is why they came to feel that Jesus was God. As Unitarians, we do not feel the need to think of Jesus as God; and yet, we still find immense inspiration in his religious and spiritual teachings.

Jesus said his core teaching was simple: first, to live out the Jewish shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” and to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and second to love your neighbor as yourself. [Mk. 12.28-30] It is a simple and profound teaching, and it has shaped my life for the better, and the life of many people in the Western world.

That core teaching sounds so simple, but the more you think about it, the less simple it appears. After he died, his followers wondered if non-Jews could also follow Jesus’s teachings, and they concluded that Jesus taught the Jewish shema because his audience was Jewish. His followers said that if Jesus had lived, he would have included non-Jews as well. Today, that leads people like me to wonder what, exactly, Jesus meant by the word “God” — did he mean to limit “God” to the old Jewish conception of God which is so eloquently stated in the Hebrew scriptures? — or would Jesus have felt comfortable with my understanding, that the word “God” refers to the totality of all the universe and all relationships, human and non-human, therein?

That simple statement seems to beg other questions as well. What does it mean to love our neighbors as ourselves? While this seems so straightforward at first glance, it is not a straightforward statement at all. My friend, and fellow Unitarian Universalist minister, Helen Cohen has pointed out that there are quite a few people who, quite frankly, don’t much like themselves — does that mean that they’re supposed to dislike other people as they dislike themselves? Maybe Jesus should have said: Love our neighbors as we ought to love ourselves. There’s also the reality that in the two millennia since Jesus was executed, his Christian followers have not done a very good job at actually living out this teaching; we can only wonder if Jesus had lived longer whether he would have been able to give us better instruction in how to actually live out his teachings.

Buddha had 45 years to explain his teaching of the middle way, to answer questions from his followers, to teach by the example of his own life. Jesus had a year or so to teach his idea of radical love to his followers, before he was executed. A year is too short a time.

I’m a Unitarian. I cannot believe that Jesus was somehow God. Yes, he was a great religious prophet; personally, I’d say he was the greatest religious prophet who has yet lived. And there are some Unitarians who would go farther than that, and say that Jesus was so great a religious prophet that he was more than human. But we Unitarians know that Jesus was not God.

Having said that, we can fully understand the impulse that led some of his followers to proclaim that Jesus was, in fact, God; we can understand why, nearly three hundred years after he died, the Council of Nicea proclaimed that Jesus was somehow God. Jesus died before he should have. Gotama Buddha had 45 years to explain his teachings; Jesus should have had long years to explain his teachings. When Jesus’s life was cut short, naturally his followers would want answers to their growing questions: if we are to love our neighbors, who is our neighbor? if we are to love God, how are we to understand God? His followers could not ask questions of the man Jesus; Jesus was dead; but if they understood Jesus as God, then they felt that Jesus would be with them forever, and so they felt they could converse with him through prayer.

To those of us schooled in the ways of scientific thinking, it sounds odd to say that Jesus became God. But this is not a scientific story, it is a poetic story. This old story makes poetic, but not literal, truth. It is poetically true to say that Jesus rose from death; from a poetic point of view, his idea of radical love is too important to die when his physical body died; and so it is that his teaching of radical love rose from the dead and lives on in us.

And this is perhaps the greatest contribution of us Unitarians: we know that Jesus’s teaching of radical love lives on in us. Radical love doesn’t live on us as individuals; it lives on in us as a gathered community. Our great genius has been to live out our covenant. Our covenant is the promise we make to one another to live up to the impossible ideal that we shall love each other, love our neighbors, as we ought to love ourselves. We come together in love each week, to seek together for the good; and in the spirit of love we care for one another, and we care for all our neighbors, human and non-human.

The great Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “All things proceed out of this same spirit, and all things conspire with it”; everything comes out of the oneness of the universe; and Emerson taught us that “Whilst we seek good ends, we are strong by the whole strength of nature.”

So it is with us here in this room this morning. Jesus’s teaching of radical love lives on in us, it is love that is lived out into reality through our mutual covenant with one another. This is the miracle of Easter: that what Jesus taught us about radical love lives on through us. As we seek the good, those teachings gain strength within us, and we spread them into the wider community beyond these walls. That which is good can never die die, but rises again, and again, and again, the product of the one will, the one manifold power of all existence, the power of love and goodness.

So on this Easter morning may radical love for all humanity rise up in us once again. Amen.

Buddha’s Sermons

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.

Responsive reading

Siddhartha Gotama, the Buddha, said: “There are two extremes which a religious seeker should not follow:

“On the one hand, there are those things whose attraction depends upon the passions, unworthy, unprofitable, and fit only for the worldly-minded;

“On the other hand, there is the practice of self-mortification and asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

“There is a middle path, avoiding these two extremes — a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to higher wisdom, to full enlightenment.

“What is that middle path? It is the noble eightfold path:

“Right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct;

“Right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

“This is the middle path. This is the noble truth that leads to the destruction of sorrow.”

This noble truth was not among the religious doctrines handed down. But within the Buddha there arose the eye to perceive this truth, the knowledge of its nature, the understanding of it, the wisdom to guide others.

Once this knowledge and this insight had arisen within Buddha;

He went to speak it to others, that others might realize the same enlightenment.

adapted from T. W. Rhys Davids’s translation of the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra [1881]


The first reading is from Dhamma-Kakka-Ppavattana Sutta, translated by T. W. Rhys Davids [1881]:

8. “Now this, O Bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning the way which leads to the destruction of sorrow. Verily! it is this noble eightfold path; that is to say:

“Right views; Right aspirations; Right speech; Right conduct; Right livelihood; Right effort; Right mindfulness; and Right contemplation.

“This then, O Bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning the destruction of sorrow.

9. “That this was the noble truth concerning sorrow, was not, O Bhikkhus, among the doctrines handed down, but there arose within me the eye (to perceive it), there arose the knowledge (of its nature), there arose the understanding (of its cause), there arose the wisdom (to guide in the path of tranquillity), there arose the light (to dispel darkness from it).

The second reading this morning is from an essay titled “The Historic Buddha” by P. Lakshmi Narasu.

“The [Buddha’s] method of exposition differed entirely from those of the brahmans. Far from presenting his thoughts under the concise form so characteristic of the Brahmans, he imparted his teachings in the form of sermons. Instead of mysterious teachings confided almost in secret to a small number, he spoke to large audiences composed of all those who desired to hear him. He spoke in a manner intelligible to all, and tried by frequent repetitions to impress his meaning on the least attentive minds and the most rebellious memories. He adapted himself to the capacities of his hearers….” [in A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, p. 16]

SERMON — “Buddha’s Sermons”

If you were here last week, you heard me tell about how Siddhartha Gotama sat in meditation under the Bodhi tree, and finally achieved Enlightenment.

Let me quickly review the story for you: Siddartha Gotama was the son of a king, a prince poised to inherit his father’s vast and wealthy kingdom. But Siddartha became troubled by the problem of suffering: why is it that we human beings must suffer? In search of an answer, Siddartha Gotama left the palace, left his life of ease, and went to live in the woods with the other religious seekers. At first he tried the usual methods of religious seekers in those days: he sought our religious teachers (none of whom he found satisfactory), he went to live in a temple (but was disgusted by the animal sacrifices and attendant cruelty), and finally he lived in the forest for six years with five other religious seekers who all worked hard at “keeping their senses in check, subduing their passions, and practicing austere penance” [Narusa, p. 7]. To put it more plainly, Siddhartha Gotama ate as little as possible, to the point where he almost died of starvation; at which point he realized that if he died from starvation, he wasn’t going to get any closer to whatever spiritual answer it was that he sought.

So Siddhartha Gotama went to sit in meditation under the Bodhi tree, or the tree of enlightenment. And while he sat there in meditation, he reached enlightenment. Not that I am altogether clear on what, exactly, enlightenment is; but it seems clear that Siddhartha Gotama somehow achieved a direct insight into the nature of reality, an insight which allowed him to understand the nature of suffering and allowed him to be released from further suffering. Upon which, he got up and walked back to where he had left his five companions.

When his five companions saw Siddhartha Gotama walking towards them, at first they didn’t want to talk with him. After all, he had broken their vows of austerity, and they assumed he had gone back to living a normal life. But when he approached, he seemed a changed man, and they greeted him by name. But he replied that they should no longer call him Siddhartha Gotama, for he had achieved enlightenment. Now he should be called a Buddha, an Enlightened One. And then immediately, according to ancient Buddhist tradition, the Buddha preached his first great sermon to these five religious seekers.

In this sermon, — which is known as the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra — Buddha gave the first comprehensive statement of how all human beings can achieve enlightenment, just as he did. He starts off by saying that there are two extreme approaches to spirituality. He said:

“There are two extremes, O Bhikkus [a “bhikku” is a follower of Buddha], which the religious person, one who has reunounced wordly things, should not follow: –on the one hand, the habitual practice of those things whose attraction depends on upon the passions, especially anything having to do with sensuality; –on the other hand, self-mortification and asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.” [paraphrased from the Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra].

To his five listeners, Buddha preached further that: “There is a middle path,… avoiding these two extremes… a path which opens the eyes, and bestows understanding, which leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment.”

So it was that almost as soon as Buddha had achieved enlightenment, he promptly went and told others how they, too, could find release from suffering. Not only that, but Buddha made it quite clear that he spoke from direct experience. He was not repeating to them some received tradition; he was not passing on what others had said. He spoke from what he knew directly, saying: “This… noble truth concerning sorrow, was not… among the doctrines handed down, but there arose within me the eye (to perceive it), there arose within me the knowledge (of its nature)….”

Somehow, Buddha got a direct insight into the way the universe works, an insight which did not come from tradition. It was an insight which came fresh from the universe. I won’t say it was a new insight never before realized by humankind, but it was an insight direct from what I’d call the light of the ages; and within Buddha arose the capacity with which to grasp this essential truth.

Buddha preached about this insight to his five friends in his very first sermon, and a remarkable thing happened. He told about his insight with much repetition, which of course is the natural thing to do when you are speaking aloud, for sermons and speeches should always be filled with repetition; although let’s just say that this first sermon of Buddha’s had rather a lot of repetition; this first sermon of Buddha’s was, shall we say, a little slow and redundant. Maybe even a little boring. Yet at the end of the sermon, a remarkable thing happened: Kondanna, one of the five people listening, achieved enlightenment.

Which is why Buddha ended his first sermon in a very unusual fashion, saying: “Kondanna has realized it. Kondanna has realized it!” The sermon may have been a little boring, but there was something in it that went to the hearts of his listeners, and led one of them, Kondanna, to instantaneously realize his full religious potential.

Speaking as a preacher, I would be pleased as Punch if one of my sermons ever led anyone to enlightenment. I would be just as pleased if one of my sermons would lead me to enlightenment. Indeed, I wish at least one of the hundreds of sermons I’ve listened to over the years could have brought me to full realization of my religious potential.

Yet even though sermons in my world don’t lead to instantaneous enlightenment, something powerful can and does happen when you sit together with other people and listen to a sermon. Something powerful can happen even when the sermon, or the preacher, is boring, or redundant. Some months ago, I sat and listened to a fairly boring sermon, yet I left that worship service feeling a million times better than I had felt when I went in; the experience is with me still. It wasn’t the content of the sermon that moved me; it wasn’t the preacher’s technique, for he was just an average preacher; but something moved me.

Here’s what I think happens when you listen to a sermon.

First of all, there is the feeling that comes to you when you sit together in a community of religious seekers — a community of people who have come together as they try to figure out how to make sense out of an absurd world. When you’re sitting together with such a community, you can put aside ordinary, mundane concerns; you can focus on your deepest spiritual concerns. Being with other people helps that focus. One of the most powerful worship services I ever attended was a Quaker meeting, a silent meeting for worship in which no one was moved to stand and speak; yet the silence of that group of people, that group of religious seekers sitting together, was as powerful as any sermon I’ve ever heard. So being together in religious community is the first thing that happens.

Second, there’s something powerful about sitting and listening to a real live person speaking to you. When you sit and listen to a real live person — when hear the words coming from their mouth, still warm from their breath — there’s this direct connection between you and that person that you just can’t get by watching television, playing video games, or surfing the web. Not that I have anything against those activities, for heaven knows I spend far too much of my spare time surfing the Web. Sitting and listening to a real live person speak is, or can be, infinitely more powerful; there’s a direct, embodied connection with that person’s words.

And finally, there’s something very powerful about taking the time out of your busy life to sit and listen to someone talk about what is most important in life. You set aside time to think upon what is most important; the preacher and the congregation consider that which is most important in the universe; between you and the congregation and the preacher, something happens that is worth listening to.

I don’t know what enlightenment is, but I’ll venture a guess: enlightenment is something that happens in the intersection of you; the light of the ages; and your religious community. To see how this might be so, let’s get back to the story.

Buddha finished his first sermon, and immediately Kondanna achieves enlightenment. The Dharma-Chakra-Pravartana Sutra tells us what happened next:

“The gods of the earth gave forth a shout, saying:

“In Benares… the supreme wheel of the empire of Truth has been set rolling by the Buddha — that wheel which no one, not any Brahman, not any god, not anyone in the universe, can ever turn back!

“And when they heard the shout of the gods of the earth, the guardian angels of the four quarters of the globe gave forth a shout, saying:

“In Benares… the supreme wheel of the empire of Truth has been set rolling by the Buddha — that wheel which no one, not any priest, not any god, not anyone in the universe, can ever turn back!…”

If you think about it, that’s quite a bit of shouting! But there was more noise to come:

“And thus, in an instant, a second, a moment, the sound went up even to the world of Brahma [who was considered the ultimate god]: and this great ten-thousand-world-system quaked and trembled and was shaken violently, and an immeasurable great light appeared in the universe, beyond even the power of the gods!

“And the Buddha gave this exclamation of joy: ‘Kondanna has realized enlightenment. Kondanna has realized it!'”

And what caused all this commotion? What caused this outpouring of religious enthusiasm? Three things caused this outpouring of the universe: the Buddha, the enlightened one, both as an actual person and as the potential for religious greatness in each of us; the Dharma, or Buddha’s sermon or teaching about truth; and the Sangha, or the spiritual community as symbolized in the enlightenment of Kondanna.

When we Unitarian Universalists think of religion or spirituality, we are tempted to think that religion and spirituality are things that we can do entirely on our own. We are religious individualists; we like to think we can be religious do-it-yourselfers. We like to think that we can sit down with a popular book about Buddhism, and achieve enlightenment on our own. But Buddhism, and indeed every great religious tradition, teaches us that the capacity for religious greatness which is truly within us is, in of itself, insufficient. Of course we know pretty well we can’t realize that capacity for greatness within, that inherent Buddhahood, without reference to the Dharma, the great truths of the universe. But no more can we realize the greatness within ourselves if we don’t have a spiritual community. That’s why we come to church. That’s why we invest all this time into maintaining and building a religious community. That’s what a sermon really is: it isn’t a lecture, it isn’t an intriguing title posted on the sign outside the church, it’s an embodied version of the great Truth of the universe, and of the potential within each of us to know that truth.

Before I close, I want to leave you with one last thought. Our spiritual community goes beyond the people who are sitting here this morning. Our spiritual community goes beyond the other members and friends of this church who can’t be here this morning. Our spiritual community even goes beyond the community of all humankind.

Remember that when Buddha finished his sermon, when Kondanna suddenly achieved enlightenment, the whole of earth shook and the gods of earth shouted in praise. The poet Gary Snyder, an American Buddhist, writes that “human beings… will wish to include the non-human in their sense of community…. Our community does not end at the human boundaries; we are in a community with certain trees, plants, birds, animals. The conversation is with the whole thing.”

Remember that Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha, the enlightened one, by sitting down under a tree to meditate. The tree was a part of his meditations; he was a part of the meditations of the whole forest; the conversation got taken up by the whole universe.

Though we are Unitarian Universalists and not Buddhists, this we can learn from Gary Snyder and other Buddhists: we are nothing without our community, and our community includes the human beings in this room, all of humankind, and indeed all living beings and the whole of earth. A sermon is nothing without a community; a community can meld Truth into a boring sermon making it into something truly enlightening. When we can finally expand our community to include all living beings we will expand what we can know of the truth to its fullest extent.

So may enlightenment come to us all — whatever enlightenment may be.

Buddha Sitting Alone

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon and story copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the Anapanasati Sutta, or the the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, translated from the Pali by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“What is the way to develop and practice continuously the method of Full Awareness of Breathing so that the practice will be rewarding and offer great benefit?

“It is like this…: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, and sits stably in the lotus position, holding his body quite straight. Breathing in, he knows that he is breathing in; and breathing out, he knows that he is breathing out.” [p. 6]

The second reading this morning is from a commentary on the Anapanasati Sutta written by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The second section is the heart of the sutra. This section elaborates the sixteen methods of Fully Aware Breathing in connection with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

“In [the first and second methods], the object of awareness is the breath itself. The mind of the one who is breathing is the subject, and his or her breathing is the object. These breaths may be short, long, heavy, or light. We see that our breathing affects our mind, and our mind affects our breathing. The mind and the breath become one. We also see that breathing is an aspect of the body and that awareness of breathing is also awareness of the body.

“In the third method, the breath is connected with the whole body, not just a part of it. Awareness of the breathing is, at the same time, awareness of the entire body. The mind, the breath, and the whole body are one.

“In the fourth breathing method, the body’s functions begin calming down. The calming of the breath is accompanied by the claming of the body and the mind. The mind, the breathing, and the body are each calmed down equally.

“In just four breathing exercises, we can realize oneness of body and mind. Breathing is an excellent tool for establishing calmness and evenmindedness.” [pp. 26-27]

Story for all ages — Teaching How To Breathe

After he had perfected the practice of meditation, Buddha taught many other men and women how to meditate. Soon he had followers, called “bhikkus.” At the time of this story, about four hundred of his followers lived with Buddha in a retreat center in the middle of Eastern Park, which was a beautiful open space, dotted with trees, located in the town of Savatthi. Here is how they lived together:

Every day, everyone who lived in the retreat center got up and sat together meditating. The more experienced bhikkus, who had lived with Buddha the longest, helped teach the newer bhikkus how to meditate. After the meditation time was over, all the bhikkus would take a bowl and head into town to beg for food. They would all come back to the retreat center before noontime. Before they ate, some of the older, more experienced bhikkus would give a lecture to any townspeople who came by. Then everyone would eat.

After lunch, Buddha and all the bhikkus would go find a cool shady grove of trees. They would all sit together in the shade of the trees, and Buddha would give a talk, telling them how to be better people. Sometimes, when the moon was full, they would all stay up late and Buddha would give another talk in the moonlight.

One day, hundreds more of Buddha’s followers traveled to the retreat center in Eastern Park in the town of Savatthi. Soon there were over a thousand bhikkus, over a thousand followers of Buddha, all gathered together. It was the time of the full moon, and that evening, all the bhikkus gathered together outside to hear Buddha tell them how to meditate. Of course, all the bhikkus were already learning how to meditate, and practicing meditation every day. But for the first time, Buddha described his whole system of meditation from start to finish.

Here’s what Buddha said:

“When it’s time for you to meditate, bhikkus, go out and sit at the foot of a tree; or if you don’t live here with us in Eastern Park, just find a nice quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.

“Then sit down on the ground. Sit in the lotus position, that is, sit with your left foot on your right thigh, and your right foot on your left thigh. Be sure you hold your body straight.

“As you sit there, pay attention to your breathing. When you are breathing in, know that you are breathing in. When you are breathing out, know that you are breathing out.

Buddha kept talking in his calm, peaceful voice, describing in great detail how to meditate. He said:

“As you are breathing in and out, become aware of your whole body.

“As you are breathing in and out, let your breathing make your whole body calm and at peace.

“As you are breathing in and out, let yourself be full of joy.

“As you breathe in and out, let yourself feel happy.

“As you breathe in and out, let yourself be aware that your mind is active.

“As you breathe in and out, let your active mind become calm and peaceful.

“As you breathe in and out, let your mind become happy and peaceful.

“As you breathe in and out, concentrate your mind. Liberate your mind.”

Buddha kept talking in his calm, peaceful voice for over an hour. Everyone sat in stillness in the moonlight and listened. Everyone, all Buddha’s followers, felt calm and peaceful.

This is how Buddha taught his followers how to meditate. There are many people in the world today who still follow Buddha’s teachings; they are called Buddhists. We are not Buddhists, we are Unitarian Universalists; but we Unitarian Universalists have learned a lot about meditation from Buddha. In fact, I think every Unitarian Universalist child should learn how to meditate, just as every Unitarian Universalist child should memorize a couple of simple prayers. When I was a Unitarian Universalist teenager, I learned how to meditate, I meditated regularly for more than a decade, and I still meditate sometimes.

In Sunday school over the next month or so, the children will be hearing stories about Buddha, and they will be learning how to sit quietly and do some simple meditation; and Emma and I will be sending home a little booklet to families with children that tells parents how to introduce silent meditation at home. And perhaps we should have an adult education session on how to meditate, because it’s not a bad idea for Unitarian Universalist adults to learn how to meditate, too!

SERMON — “Buddha Sitting Alone”

Let me start off by saying something not entirely popular: I am not a big fan of Buddhism. In some Unitarian Universalist circles, I think Buddhism seems less messy than Christianity somehow; for some Unitarian Universalists, Christianity carries with it all kinds of unpleasant memories, and so, I think, Buddhism has become more popular among us.

I find, however, that I am just as critical of Buddhism as of Christianity. Buddhism, historically, has inclined its followers to varieties of passivity and quietism; and thus Buddhism has something of a history of bowing down to dictators and tyrannical regimes. Buddhism has also led its followers to excesses of superstition that equal any of the superstitions promoted by Christianity; superstitions that seem to me to be designed in large part to keep poorer people docile and unable to alter their lower status. Therefore, I believe that we religious liberals have to look at Buddhism with the same kind of critical and jaundiced eyes that we use to look at Christianity.

Asking a Unitarian Universalist to be critical is a little like asking a hungry cat to eat a fillet of salmon. If you lay a nice piece of fish before a cat, he or she will not hesitate to begin eating; because the cat knows all too well that fillets of salmon do not appear in one’s food dish every day. If you give a Unitarian Universalist an opportunity to be critical, he or she will not hesitate to bring to bear the faculties of reason and critical thinking; because the Unitarian Universalist knows that such dainties are not always placed within easy reach. So go ahead, be critical, and enjoy it as much as the cat enjoys eating the salmon fillet.

Having said that, there is no reason for us to be too critical. I have found many things in the Buddhist tradition to be of great value. And perhaps the greatest gift that Buddhism gives to the world is its deep understanding of the practice of meditation. Now I suspect that meditation has been a human practice for at least some individuals for as long as human beings have existed. There is something in some of us that longs to sit in stillness; there is something in us that longs for the peace and clarity that meditative practices can bring. But the Buddhists, even more than the Hindus and Yogis, even more than the mystics and meditators in every religious tradition, seem to me to have found the deepest and simplest truths about meditation.

We heard the core of the Buddhist insight into meditation in the first reading this morning. It was Siddartha Gotama, better known by his religious title, the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, who formulated a relatively simple yet rich and flexible method for meditation. At the most basic level, Buddha taught us to simply sit and pay attention to our breathing. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Sit down, and pay attention to your breathing.

The story of how the Buddha reached this powerful understanding is worth retelling. Here’s what happened:

Siddhartha Gotama was born a prince, and the heir to his father’s vast kingdom. From his birth, everyone knew he was going to be a special person. His father was sure Siddhartha would grow up to be an even greater king than himself; but other people predicted that baby Siddhartha had all the marks of becoming some kind of religious genius. Needless to say, the king did not want his baby son to turn to religion, for in that land the religious personages were ascetics who renounced worldly things like palaces and kingdoms.

So the king protected his little son carefully. Above all, the king made sure that little Siddhartha never saw anyone who with a serious illness, anyone who was old and infirm, anyone who was dead, or anyone who had to beg for a living. (Sounds like the United States, doesn’t it? — hide away the sick, the elderly, the dead, and the homeless — that way we don’t have to think about difficult issues. But let’s get back to Buddha.)

Well, of course Siddhartha grew up to be a young man, and in spite of the king’s best efforts Siddhartha wound up seeing someone who was sick, someone who was elderly, a dead body, and a homeless beggar. Seeing people who were suffering, or who had suffered, raised all kinds of questions in Siddhartha’s mind. He felt the suffering of others so keenly, he found himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He decided he must go join one of the religious groups who lived in the woods, and in the dark of the night he slipped away from home, leaving behind his wife and his baby boy.

He went and lived in the woods with some pretty wild-eyed religious types, who believed that the truly religious person should sleep out in the open, wear rags, and eat as little food as possible. I don’t believe they bathed much, either. And they sat for hours in meditation, to the point where it must have seemed more like self-punishment than calming the mind. Soon Prince Siddhartha had lost so much weight he was little more than skin and bones; but he discovered that he was no closer to achieving deep religious understanding than before.

To make a long story short, Siddhartha gave up the more extreme religious practices, and began to work out some things on his own. He still meditated regularly, but he no longer tried to deny his physical body: no more starving himself to death. And he kept working on the problem of suffering.

One day, Siddhartha was meditating while sitting at the foot of a Bodhi tree. While he sat there, he achieved some kind of mental state that he later called “enlightenment.” Later, he tried to describe what it means to be enlightened. As I understand it (and I have to say that I do not understand it particularly well), enlightenment means a state of being where suffering disappears; enlightenment also means a state of being where one’s mind is always calm and peaceful. And once Siddhartha Gotama had achieved this state of enlightenment, he was entitled to be called the Buddha, which means, the enlightened one.

In this story, I find a few very interesting points. First, Buddha discovered that meditating led to some kind of release from suffering. Second, meditation helps you attain a calm and peaceful state of mind. Third, meditation is really something that anyone can do, something that requires practice but not inhuman devotion. Fourth, and this fourth point is a little vague but bear with me, Buddha discovered all this while sitting alone under a tree. Let me examine each of these points one by one.

Buddha discovered that meditating can help release us from suffering. Now, the Buddhist tradition as I understand it makes the large claim that you can train yourself to transcend all suffering by achieving “nirvana,” which means nothingness. I’m a little skeptical of this nirvana idea — sure, I can rid myself of all suffering by achieving nothingness; nothingness would logically imply nothing at all including both no suffering and no pleasure — yet I also admit that I don’t fully understand the concept of nirvana. Nonetheless, I know from having tried meditation myself that you really can be released from a certain amount of suffering through meditation. I don’t have a good explanation for why this is so, but perhaps meditation helps with suffering because it brings calm and peace to you.

Which brings us to the second point: meditation helps you achieve and calm and peaceful state of mind. I recall an extremely stressful time in my life: not enough money, personal tragedy, professional crisis, the works. I was so stressed out I couldn’t sleep at night. I hate to think of what my blood pressure was. This was when I was no longer meditating regularly, but finally the stress got so bad I decided to try meditation.

Now in my experience, learning how to meditate is a little like learning how to ride a bicycle: once you learn how, you never really forget; you may not be in shape to ride thirty miles the first time back on your bike, but you still know how to ride it. At that stressful time in my life, I went back to meditating, and immediately lowered my stress level, immediately became calmer and more peaceful. Indeed, this is why I think that every Unitarian Universalist kid should learn how to meditate: at some point in their lives, they will find themselves in a situation in which they will be glad to know how to meditate.

And that brings us to the third point: meditation is really quite simple, so simple even a child can do it. I’ve seen four-year olds who know some basic meditation technique. I’ve seen people well along in years take up meditation successfully. This is one of Buddha’s great insights: anyone can learn how to meditate. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. Of course, Buddha went far beyond the simplest meditation techniques, but it’s all based on the simple idea of sitting quietly and paying attention to your breathing.

Which brings us at last to the final point: Buddha made his great discoveries about meditation while sitting alone outdoors at the foot of a tree. Meditation is essentially a solitary activity. You learn how to do it from someone else; you can sit in meditation with dozens of other people, as happens for example in the Zen Buddhist Zendo; you can talk about meditation with others. But the basic act of meditation happens with you sitting quietly, in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Certainly you will meditate better if someone teaches you how first. I have found that meditating in a room with other people can be a powerful experience. And I find it helpful to discuss meditation, as I am doing here with you this morning. But the actual act of meditation is something you have to do yourself; and in some measure, you are always meditating alone.

Not only that, Buddha made his great discoveries about meditation while sitting alone, and outdoors under a tree. The Buddhist scriptures are careful to let us know that Buddha was sitting outdoors when he achieved enlightenment; he was not sitting in a meditation ahll, he was not sitting in some religious building, he was sitting outdoors. Not only that, but the Buddhist scriptures carefully inform us as to the species of tree under which Buddha sat when he achieved enlightenment.

Why is it so important that we know the Buddha was sitting outdoors under a Bodhi tree? I don’t have a firm answer to that question, but I do know this. I have found that I had the most powerful experiences meditating while meditating outdoors. I know I have found that sitting outdoors can make meditation a more powerful experience; and I think this is related to the importance of sitting alone, that is, sitting away from the distractions of other human beings. As human beings, we need other human beings; but being around other human beings seems to set our minds working in well-defined paths. By sitting alone, I think it’s easier to feel our connection with all living beings, our essential connection with the whole universe.