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.