SERMON DELIVERED TO ASHEVILLE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CHURCH –
July 12, 2009
WHOLEHEARTEDNESS OF PRESENCE
I am so pleased to be addressing the Asheville Unitarians – to be in a church that is open to religious and spiritual teachings of many traditions. What I have to talk about today draws from the Buddhist tradition, even though I like to point out that there is nothing that will be said here that is in the least inconsistent with the seed of the mystical Judeo-Christian tradition gleaned of the chaff of religious overlay that in many cases contradicts the Zen-like instruction of the original intent. In fact, what I have to say today is reflective of mystical traditions from every cultural origin. It is Islamic Sufism, it is Native American, it is certainly at the heart of Hinduism and Taoism. It is the universal heart of spirituality.
Today’s sermon is built around a teaching by 20th Century Zen Master Dainin Katagiri that says, “In Wholeheartedness of Presence, the Buddha is realized, the Dharma is lived and the Sangha is shared.”
First – let me explain that Katagiri is referencing a foundational teaching of Buddhism known as the “Triple Gems”, which states, “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) and I take refuge in the Sangha (the community of Buddhism)”
In order to understand what is being said both in the Triple Gems and then in the derivative teaching of Katagiri, we must understand what “Buddha” means. Although the Triple Gems teaching is often taken literally, the spirit of Buddhism calls for a more nuanced interpretation. “Buddha”, as referenced here is not some savior-like figure that we are instructed to worship, and in whose infinite love and compassion we will find refuge, but rather, as the word “buddha” means “awakened”, it is in the awakening of Siddhartha Gotama, who became known as The Buddha – the Awakened One, that we are to find refuge, solace and instruction. It is the awakening that illuminated the person Siddhartha, and can illuminate the world that is important. Buddhist teaching has The Buddha’s awakening available not only to Siddhartha, but to every human. Every person is a potential buddha, an awakened being. This is the great revelation and hope.
With this understanding, we can then understand that “Dharma” is not about sacred texts, but rather, the means, the path, the practices and insights that lead to awakening. – And “Sangha” is not a church or religious sect, but rather, the human community of those who have awakened.
Now we have sound footing, not based in blind faith, but in a realizable transcendent experience within which to find anchorage and refuge. We find refuge from our suffering by awakening into the truth of who we are beneath the transitory forms of the world – – Let me repeat – We find refuge from our suffering by awakening into the truth of who we are beneath the transitory forms of the world. – – We cannot find true refuge in any faith, church, ideology or nation. And certainly we cannot find refuge in possessions, wealth, success and power, – they always and eventually slip beyond our grasp or fail to fulfill. We find that everything in the world, as desperately as we try to acquire or hold on to, – even health, always-satisfying love and relationships, or life itself – none of it remains as we would have it remain. We are always left with the knawing sense of something more being needed for our complete fulfillment.
And in our failure to acquire or preserve our desires — our imagined sources of fulfillment – we are caught in the world of insecurity, of un-fulfillment, of suffering. No – We must look deeper for our refuge, deeper than all the external and surface phenomenon and forms of this world. And certainly, our refuge is not to be found in anything otherworldly – as many religions promise. Remember – I said we are looking for the truth of who we are beneath the transitory forms of the world, not beyond them.
So – What is the truth that is the liberation from suffering that Buddhism teaches us to awaken into? What is the truth of who we are beneath the transitory forms? That’s the question. And it is what Katagiri answers. – He instructs us that the “awakening” is the realization of “wholeheartedness of presence” – Katagiri clues us that this is the secret to realizing the awakening – and to realizing what is awakened into. Then, this gem of simplicity also instructs us to find and give happiness in sharing the awakening, to find and share the discovery of living from wholeheartedness of presence. Fulfillment is in the realization, the living and the sharing of wholehearted, awakened presence. This is buddha.
Buddhism is built around the premise that every being wishes only to be happy, but has no idea how to achieve this happiness. The Dalai Lama has this to say:
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy. From the very core of our being, we desire contentment. In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being. Cultivating a close, warmhearted feeling for others automatically puts the mind at ease. It helps remove whatever fears or insecurities we may have and gives us strength to cope with any obstacles we encounter. It is the principle source of success in life. Since we are not solely material creatures, it is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.”
This teaching is pointing to the mistaken illusion that humanity has labored under since time immemorial. Because of the unique characteristic of humans – in all of creation – to create a sense of separate self in the mental realm that psychology calls ego, we exist within the delusion that happiness comes when we look to the world external to ourselves to provide for us the means to achieve happiness.
Our lives are spent caught in a time-bound story of ‘Me” with a history, a past, of fulfillment or frustration of finding the means to happiness, and of projecting into a future that we hope will fulfill that happiness – always, endlessly, needing more. The history of our individual lives and the history of humanity points to the futility of this perspective. Oceans of grief are the legacy of humanity seeking happiness through acquisition of external wealth, status, power, enduring exclusive personal loyalties, even immortality. As the Dalai Lama is pointing out, “It is a mistake to place all our hopes for happiness on external development alone. The key is to develop inner peace.” We must find the happiness within ourselves. But how are we to do this?
Again, Katagiri returns with his riddle, or in Zen language, his koan – that promises – “In wholeheartedness of presence.” – awakening into the truth of real happiness is experienced. If the ego represents, as Buddhism believes, a false sense of self, because it is constructed of fleeting form representations of self in a world of fleeting forms, what then is the enduring self that is beyond the impermanence and fleetingness that so frustrates our search for happiness? The true self must be discovered. Zen commands that we ask, “Who is this ‘I’?” – and we must ask – and discover – in order to experience the liberating awakening of the Buddha – “Who is this ‘I’?” – Again, Katagiri points us in the direction of the answer. “In wholeheartedness of presence, the Buddha (the awakening) is realized” – That which is our essence is found in total and complete presence, undistracted by the cravings, desires and fears of the separate individual egoic self.
Let us find out some more of what Katagiri tells us about this –
“To be a disciple or a son, or a daughter of the Buddha means we are people who accept the lives of all sentient beings as the content of our life. The universe is vast. The universe completely accepts us, accepts our lives as the contents of the universe. The universe never separates its life from our lives. The tree’s life, the bird’s life, our life, winter’s life, spring’s life, all are accepted as the content or quality of the universe. This is why the universe is buddha. We are children of the Buddha. If we realize this, then we can put this spirit into practice. When we accept others’ lives as the content of our life, then others’ lives become very close to us…If we see deeply the total picture of the human world, how transient the world is, how fragile human life is, then we can hear the cries of the world… we can see the path through which we and the universe are crossing. This is the manifestation of our wholeheartedness… if we sit with wholeheartedness, some part of our body feels it directly. We can feel peaceful because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place. This is what is called wholeheartedness.” – from Returning to Silence –
Wholeheartedness is the experience of our presence and the presence of the universe and all sentient beings that make up the universe as the same. – not the forms – for the forms appear as different, and are fleeting – but the consciousness – the unified field of energy – perhaps you will allow the term, spirit – that permeates the universe before the experience of separateness of form leads to the delusion of a separate self. We are the universe. The universe is us. There can be no separation. This has the feel of immortal soul that the Western religions are pointing toward, but miss terribly when interpreted as an immortal continuation of the individual personality, the “I” of form, not, the essential “I”.
Back to the question: “Who is this ‘I’?” – beneath your thoughts, emotions and actions – Who is this “I”? This is the fruit of real meditation – whether it is done in formal sitting, or in the living meditation when we stop running the surface story of me, when we step out of the mistaken self-referencing and endlessly needy egoic self in the midst of living and doing – to discover that this “I” is not the conditioned and transitory forms floating through the mind as thoughts and emotions – but rather – is consciousness itself – the consciousness in which the transitory thoughts and emotions emerge and pass. It is the consciousness that witnessed your birth, witnesses the hearing of the bird’s song, the experience of love, that sits here today witnessing these moments, that will someday witness the death of the form you have associated as you – but will not itself die. – “Who is this “I”? – It is the consciousness that is pure presence within the pure presence of the universe unfolding. This self is called the buddha-self – awakened. – As philosopher/theologian Alan Watts said – “We are the universe peering into itself from billions of points of view.”
To close – I share words from Thich Nhat Hanh
– on how to live discovering the happiness we all seek –
“Live your daily life in a way that you never lose yourself. When you are carried away with your worries, fears, cravings, anger, and desire, you run away from yourself and you lose yourself. The practice is always to go back to oneself.”… “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.” –
And so will we. Remember the self that is wholehearted – that feels peace because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place. This is the answer to the question, “Who is this ‘I’?” – It is the consciousness that witnesses and does not judge, that has no fear or aversion, for it realizes itself as the universe unfolding without a thought, and so, can give rise to thoughts not of fear and lack and separation, but of connection, unity and peace.
– This is what it means to be buddha – awakened.
With this awakening – we can begin to heal ourselves, to heal our relationships, to heal our communities, to heal our society and its politics, and finally, to heal the planet as we align self at the level of – I the individual, I within family, I within community, I within society and I on the planet with the awakened truth of who we are – The universe, containing all sentient beings, as one – separate in expression of form – but one in consciousness and ultimately – in destiny.
To reframe into another spiritual tradition –
Have you ever considered, what is the true spiritual meaning of the Biblical instruction that the Kingdom of Heaven will be realized in the End of Time?
What is – “the Peace that surpasses all understanding”?
Might it be- to end time with wholeheartedness of presence – now – not is some future apocalypse – but to end the frightened time-bound story of separate self as your reference point for who you are and where and how happiness, fulfillment, eternity will be found ? –
Might it be – to enter fully as a conscious being into the eternal present moment – thus ending time – where, as Katagiri said, “our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place” – Awakened – free of self in our turbulent and insecure surface identity, and the experience of the world that was constructed – that was implanted by social, cultural, family and personal experience at the level of our separate egoic identity?
Might it be – to be wholeheartedly present – a consciousness within an unfolding universe asking only – How can I be one with all that is – this moment? – and answering – with wholeheartedness of presence.
Might it be to never lose your essential self, the consciousness that shares presence with the universe exactly as it is – moment-to-moment? Awakened – realizing the Buddha, living the Dharma and sharing the Sangha?
Might this be the peace that surpasses all understanding – In the end of time?
I bless and thank you for your wholehearted presence this morning.
CLOSING WORDS – to Asheville Unitarian Church service July 12, 2009
There are many problems facing us today – as individuals managing our lives, and as a society attempting to find exactly what is the meaning of the words we as a nation celebrated a week ago, written into our Declaration of Independence – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As the Dalai Lama’s words indicated that I shared with you earlier, perhaps the root of our problems is in an inappropriate assignment of importance to our isolated, individual and small selves for the procurement of these rights, and the search for them external to ourselves.
We have become a profoundly materialistic society focused primarily on the objects, stations and entitlements of the world to bring us life, liberty and happiness. This focus has failed us. We as individuals are more insecure, aggressive and selfish than ever, and we as a society have built a house of cards in unsustainable consumption and wealth acquisition.
I would venture that what we have lost is our soul. And by that I mean our ability to be profoundly present and honest with ourselves, with each other and with this world that is our home.
Wholeheartedness of Presence is an invitation to come home. To rediscover our soul. To know to our deepest, cellular level, “Who is this I?” – and to know that the answer is, as Katagiri shared, “we are people who accept the lives of all sentient beings as the content of our life.”
With this vision, the support of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” that we are dedicated to as a society, can begin to become the real fruit of our lives. As the Dalai Lama said, “the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well being.”
The Declaration was the founding statement of a society, a society that was believed to be the hope of humanity. Remember the final words of the Declaration:
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
We mutually pledge to each other.
What is a pledge? A statement of wholeheartedness. This is a pledge to find our well being and happiness in shared wholehearted presence with our fellow beings accomplishing life, liberty and happiness in knowing our presence and the presence of all sentient beings are together in this place, this world, this universe.
This is what buddha means.
Thank you all for your presence this morning. Perhaps , increasingly, wholeheartedness of presence can begin to be who we all are as we more and more deeply realize that our life and the universe are never separate. We belong here – completely.