Seeking the Buddha

January 21, 2001

In the first reading this morning, Tangerine Meditation, we heard the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk whose writings are popular in the West. He wrote in a surprisingly eclectic way about religion: "I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions... It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is mango. ... We cannot say one is a real fruit and the other is not."

I’d like this morning to share with you one of the great religious and philoso-phical fruits of the world. Buddhism is now 2,500 years old and has about 300 million followers worldwide. Until a century and a half ago, Buddhism was mainly an Asian philosophy, but increasingly it is gaining adherents in Europe, Australia and America. Today there are over 100,000 Buddhists in the United States alone.

American interest in Buddhism dates back to the 19th Century with the Unitarian Transcendentalists of New England. In 1844 Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published a translation of a Buddhist sutra in the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial. This chapter, "The Preaching of Buddha," was the first Buddhist text published in the English language. Since that first publication in 1844, many Unitarian Universalists have been drawn to Buddhism, studying its sacred writings, practicing its spiritual disciplines, and even taking the vows to become Buddhists. There is now a UU Buddhist Fellowship. What is it that has attracted so many UUs and other Americans to Buddhism?

The name Buddhism comes from the word 'budhi' which means 'to wake up' and thus Buddhism is the philosophy of awakening or enlightenment. This philosophy has its origins in the experience of the man Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, who was himself awakened at the age of 35. We begin with the story of the Buddha himself. I draw part of my sermon from one given once by Jan Knost, which he was kind enough to share with me.

Buddha is what may be called an "Exemplar of Life," among other great inspirational leaders. He is an exemplar simply because he has been a tremendous factor in human history. He has lived... and continues to live... in the heart and minds of unnumbered millions. The stories about his life and his teachings have made his memory, like those of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, virtually immortal.

You may ask what exactly do we mean by an "exemplar"? An exemplar is a person of such powerful personal influence that he or she is able to awaken deep stirrings in the lives of those around them. Thus the memory of that figure lives on in those same people after the exemplar is gone. That deathless image is exalted and modified as time passes, because, by human nature, people who come after must shape their own examples.

Since this process of revering the Buddha’s memory has gone on for so many centuries, many stories have grown up around him, which fill the hearer with awe and imagination as they are told. The legend concerning his conception and birth are as incredible as those about Jesus.

In the year 563 B.C. Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in northern India. In the birth legend, his mother, Queen Maha-Maya is taken in a dream in which four angels lift her up on her couch and take her to the Himalayan mountains. There she is bathed, clothed in divine garments, anointed with perfume and decked with flowers. Now the future Buddha leaves his heavenly abode and approaches her in the shape of a superb white elephant. (I should note here that there’s more than one Buddha. A buddha is any sage who has reached perfect enlightenment and as a result has supernatural powers.) With a white lotus blossom in his silvery trunk, he walks three times around her couch, trumpeting loudly. He strikes her on the right side, entering her womb. When the queen awakens, she tells her dream to the king who only wants a humble heir to this throne and not an exalted buddha.

Shocked and mystified by this singular train of events, the king consults with his wise men, the eminent Brahmans. They inform him that in order to guarantee that his son will never leave, he must be sheltered from every encountering a beggar, a diseased person, a dead body or a monk. The king orders guards placed around the boy, who grows up in the palace in wealth and luxury. But the gods have a different intent. They make sure that Siddhartha will encounter the realities of life—decrepitude, disease, death and monkhood. Supernatural beings take on the semblance of the four "signs" the Brahmans had warned against and appear where they can be seen by the prince, who has become a young man.

When the word arrives that the prince has seen these signs, the king makes one last desperate attempt to keep his son home. He brings beautiful women to the palace. They assail young Siddhartha with every imaginable tactic. But something extraordinary happens. We read that, "Although thus attacked, he, having his sense guarded by self-control neither rejoiced nor smiled, thinking anxiously, ‘One must die.’" What had struck the young prince all at once was the absolute transiency of things. All things, living and nonliving, are continually coming and going. Change is constant like a flowing stream. He realized that worldly comforts and security do not guarantee happiness. After being deeply moved by the suffering he had recently discovered, he resolved to find the key to human happiness. And so he decided to leave the palace.

Instructing his servant to saddle his horse, he goes first to bid a silent farewell to his sleeping wife and son. He then departs on a journey through three neighboring kingdoms where he joins a group of ascetics. With them, he proceeds to renounce the material pleasures of the world, including food, comfort or anything of a sensual nature. He becomes a virtual living skeleton, emaciated and near death. Suddenly, the brightness of enlightenment is upon him. He thinks, "This is not the way to passionlessness, nor to perfect knowledge, nor to liberation – how can these be attained by one who has lost his strength?"

To this point, then, the Buddha had known the world of the sensual; the world of pleasure and material wealth – which he rejected. He had also known the pain of renunciation in denying himself anything. Neither had brought him the insight he so devoutly sought. So he "strengthened himself with food and joy" and returned to the world.

The next chapter in his quest for enlightenment comes when he arrives in the city of Benares. There is a majestic Bo tree that seems to draw him to sit at its base. There he sits, with new resolution. "I will not arise from this position on the earth until I have obtained my utmost aim."

One version of the story is an astonishing parallel to the story of Jesus’ temptation for 40 days in the wilderness. The Buddha under the Bo tree is assaulted by Mara, the personification of death and evil and is tempted to enter Nirvana (or heaven) immediately. But he replies, "I will first establish in perfect wisdom worlds as numerous as the sand and then I will enter into Nirvana." The evil Mara leaves the place shrieking.

Another version of the Buddha’s temptation goes like this: He meditated under the Bo tree for a very long time and finally burst the shell of ignorance and attained perfect knowledge. The path to blissful absorption, or Nirvana, was there to take. He was, indeed, tempted to take it immediately. However, it is written, the gods watched him anxiously. Finally, the great Brahma himself came to him and pleaded that he not enter Nirvana. The Buddha, with his all-seeing eye of compassion, suddenly realized that the world was filled with suffering. He must do something about it. So he turned away from eternal peace and took on the difficult task of imparting to others what he had learned.

The golden inconsistency of the Buddha may be just this: that he who taught detachment and peace should have renounced them out of love for humanity. One Buddhist branch called Mahayana Buddhism does, in fact, stress the virtue of compassion and sacrifice for the sake of all sentient beings. The image of a savior appears in this parable: A man, struggling through the forest of this world, comes to a beautiful garden. Instead of entering it, he turns away to help others lost in the forest of this world so that they can find their way to that same garden.

From the day of enlightenment onwards, Siddhartha Gautama was called the Buddha, the Awakened One. Leaving what was now the Bodhi Tree, or Tree of Enlightenment, he proceeded to the Deer Park north of Benares. There he preached his first sermon to five ascetics who had been with him and who became his first disciples. The first sermon contained the basic doctrines of the Four Noble Truths. This Deer Park remains, to this day, the most sacred shrine of world Buddhism.

There the Buddha taught the Middle Way – which consisted of avoiding the two extremes of sensual materialism and asceticism, both of which the Buddha had come to know so well. One extreme, sensual materialism, was to be the slave to one’s lusts and pleasures. The other extreme, mortification, was the opposite, but somehow the same; it made one a slave to one’s lusts and pleasures by trying to completely mortify that same flesh.

The Buddha lived for another 45 years, in which time he traveled all over the northern India teaching others what he had discovered. Here, too, there are parallels to the social justice ministry of Jesus. He taught all who came to him, regardless of caste or religion. This was quite radical in caste-ridden India. Buddha’s compassion and patience were legendary and he had thousands of followers. In his eightieth year, old and sick, but still happy and at peace, he finally died. He had no appointed successor, but on his deathbed told his disciples to maintain the sangha, or community of monks, and to achieve their own liberation by following his teaching.

The Buddha taught a very simple message based on the Fourth Noble Truths that he discovered and exemplified himself. I’d like to briefly explain his message. The First Noble Truth is that the world is full of suffering, both physical and spiritual, and of sorrow. In all forms of being there are grief and pain, longing and disappointment. Life for a time may appear to be happy, and things one has grown fond of seem lasting, but what is loved has to perish as well as the person loving it. Parting and suffering are the inevitable course anyone must take, the learned as well as the ignorant, the rich as well as the poor.

The Second Noble Truth is simple. The cause of this suffering is rooted in desire, craving, and clinging to things of this world. Humanity is the victim of its own selfish desire – and pride – and the wish for power. The more one gets, the more one seems to want. Our ignorance causes us to look for illusory happiness that does not last forever. Desire, therefore, is the arrow in the side of humankind. Remove it and the wound will heal itself.

The Third Noble Truth follows. One can never have true peace of mind by trying to satisfy these selfish wants and desires. Neither can one find peace in the other extreme – by indulging in the pain of asceticism. The path to peace lies in simplifying one’s wants and wishes and working to become detached from them. By ending desire, suffering comes to an end.

The Fourth Noble Truth is this: The way to end desire and hence to end suffering is to follow the Middle Way, also called the Eightfold Noble Path. It is called the Middle Way because it avoids the two extremes of indulging in pleasure or indulging in pain, neither of which bring virtue, insight or wisdom.

The Eightfold Noble Path is divided into three sections: Morality, Concentration and Wisdom. It seeks to develop morality, then from that basis – a clear conscience. In the next stage, one develops concentration, and with a sharp mind, develops insights into oneself or wisdom. With wisdom, one learns to work with oneself and starts to transcend pain and pleasure, transcend cravings and Ignorance. One then gains Enlightenment. Following the path will lead one, eventually, to the peace and tranquillity of Nirvana.

There is, despite its emphasis on the universality of suffering, a real optimism to the Buddhist message. By following the Middle Way, one can find deliverance. At the end of the journey, there is the blessedness of spiritual happiness... which is available to anyone who resolves to follow the path. The Buddha’s message was universal. It applied to all people equally. One branch of Buddhism teaches that all human beings (and other "sentient beings") have an element of Buddha-nature or enlightenment within them, which Westerners have called the Divine Spark. According to one scholar (Jaspers), the birth of Buddhism was the first time in history that the ideas of a common humanity and of a religion for all humankind became a reality.

In his travels, Buddha converted the great emperor Asoka to the Middle Way. As a result, Buddhism became the world’s first missionary religion. First came orders of monks who lived together in sanghas. Then came orders of nuns, who lived in similar communities. Buddhist disciples believe that to be an effective teacher of the Middle Way one must teach according to the understanding of the hearer. This is known as using "skillful means." Such methods include using instructional scripture, poems, parables, pictures, statues and Zen koans. In ancient legends, buddhas with magical powers took on the form of beggars, dogs and other unfortunate beings to teach lessons about compassion. This great religion also has adapted to many different countries, cultures and eras, showing wonderful flexibility... even into modern times.

One of the most touching stories about the Buddha is the one about Gotami, a young woman who had lost her infant son. Demented with grief, she carried the little dead body clasped to her bosom, going from house to house, asking for medicine for it. Finally, an understanding person sent her to the Buddha. "Dr. Gautama," he said, "will give you some medicine." When she asked for it, the Buddha replied, "Yes, I can send you for some. What I require is a handful of mustard seed taken from the house where no son, husband, parents or servant has died." The girl said, "Very good" and went off asking at every house. But here a son had died, there a parent, there a servant. She gave up at last and buried her son and went to Gautama to tell him: "The people of the village told me, ‘The living are few, but the dead are many.’ She learned the law of death: that among all living creatures, there is no permanence.

From his seat of grass under the Bodhi tree, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the Enlightened and Compassionate One, set in motion one of the great world religions. The Buddha became, in the hearts of his followers, a serene and radiant, gentle and patient, majestic superhuman being... who desired an end to suffering for all living things. In the pantheistic ancient world, he rose even above the gods, who were often petty, boastful and who fought with each other. The Buddha, whose image has grown beyond its original human form, is truly an exemplar who can awaken deep stirrings in all of us who hear his teachings and stories about him... and the words of his disciples such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dahli Lama in our time.

His final words to his disciples before his death were reportedly these, "Therefore, o brethren, having made yourselves masters of the truths I have imparted to you, practice them, meditate upon them, and spread them abroad; in order that pure religion may last long and be perpetuated; in order that it may continue for the good and happiness of many, out of pity for the world, to the good and the blessing and the peace of all mankind."

It is fortunate for humanity that the disciples carried out his instructions ... spreading his teachings around the world. In the West, it has experienced wide appeal. To humanists and rationalists, it is a nondogmatic, reasonable religion, teaching that we must rely on our own efforts to reach enlightenment. To Catholic mystics and to New Agers alike, it holds appeal in its teaching that deep meditation is a way to connect with ultimate truth and the eternal source of all creation. To psychologists, it holds truths about the human psyche. To those activists working for social justice and peace, it teaches love and compassion. To environmentalists, it teaches about the interdependent web of existence.

In the words of Unitarian minister Jacob Trapp, "I see him as the Lord of the World holding out a beggar’s bowl to me, a mere nobody, that I may become somebody by giving.

I see him serene and majestic above all quarreling gods and quarreling theologians.

I see him with everlasting patience and far vision encompassing all worlds, all forms of life in all transformations through inconceivable aeons of time. I see him as whatever understanding and compassion have done, and may yet do, until every creature, down to the last blade of grass, shall have entered Nirvana."

And I say to you may wisdom, compassion and peace, the Buddha nature in you, blossom like the lotus. Blessed be.