Becoming a Simpleton

April 12, 2009
Stuart Twite

Easter Sunday

Several years ago, I was a schoolteacher at an excellent private school in Phoenix Arizona.  The teachers at this school were very dedicated and an inspiration to work with. They did, however, have one propensity that was, in my view, not so positive.  I called it the complexification syndrome and it went like this. We would be in a Teacher's Meeting and a problem would come up.  After discussing it for awhile, someone would come up with a simple and brilliant solution designed to reduce our work load and provide an even better educational experience for the children in our charge. 

So far so good. But inevitably, someone would say, "Well that's a great idea, but if we also did such and such, it would be even better" and someone else would chime in with, "It we added this or that…"  Well you get the picture.  By the time we were finished, we had a whole new layer of work, new policies, and new procedures and the original, simple idea was lost. The complexification syndrome.  

This syndrome is hardly limited to schoolteachers.  In fact the examples are so pervasive and so obvious that its hard to speak of just one.  Think of all the things we have created to make life simpler.  Email for instance.  Now I use email and think it very valuable but I can't really say it makes life simpler.  Email and cell phones and other devices of electronic communication make work, for many, perpetual.   It is no great insight that we as human creatures tend to make things more complex, not less.  It is true in our business lives, our home lives, our emotional lives and our spiritual lives.  And much of this impulse is based on our power as creative beings.  We make things more complex because we can. 

It is just this tendency that I want to address on this Easter Sunday. My words this morning are inspired by one of my favorite poems, "On the Road to Buddhahood" by David Budbill.  It reads: "Ever plainer. Ever Simpler. Ever more ordinary.  My goal is to become a simpleton. And from what everybody tells me, I am making real progress." 

This is most emphatically not a sermon on how to simplify our lives…Along with our penchant for complexifiation, has sprung up a veritable industry promoting simplification.  Thoreau famously wrote Simplify, Simplify and we put it on bumper stickers, t-shirts and coffee mugs.  Dozens of books have been published teaching us how to get back to basics and live a simpler life.  Simplification gurus abound promising one or another sure fire method to make our lives less complex.  Unfortunately, as I said earlier, almost all of our efforts to simplify end up having the opposite effect. 

No… this morning I want to concentrate on one kind of simplification, the simplification of our spirits, of our spiritual lives.  I want to speak on the virtue of becoming a spiritual simpleton.  And this is the natural season to do it. 

We are, of course, in the midst of the Jewish season of Passover, a time that commemorates liberation from bondage, the exodus of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt.

Buddhists, depending on the nation and the type of calendar used, celebrate the Birthday of the Buddha this year either on April 8th or on May 2nd

For Christians, Easter Sunday is, of course, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus following his execution.  And if you hold no "religious" tradition of your own, it is also, and finally, the season called Spring-time.  Liberation, enlightenment, resurrection, and renewal, it is indeed the season of the spirit. 

So how do we go about becoming spiritual simpletons?  Maybe the first step is to define or identify what is meant by the word spirit, or by living a spiritual life.  But I am not going to do that.  And that, in fact, is our first step. 

I have spent many years studying religion.  I have read a veritable mountain of words written by men and women over the course of thousands of years.  At various times I have immersed myself in Liberation theology, evangelical theology, the church fathers, puritans, pilgrims, Unitarians, transcendentalists and everyone in between.  I have read and studied Buddhist texts of various schools, scholarly and popular.  I have read of probably hundreds of practices that have been used by millions to get closer to god or to achieve enlightenment.  To, in short, live a more spiritual life.  I have been a part of Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopalian, Quaker, and Zen Buddhist Communities.  A part of me has always believed, or maybe just hoped, that the next book or the next idea or the next practice would do the job.  I would finally get it…

This phenomenon is well described in Zen Buddhism which has an uneasy relationship with verbal teachings.  Enlightenment is seen as existing completely outside of teachings and preachings and yet of course, words must be used.  A famous illustration of that dilemma comes from the Lankavatara Sutra: "Fools say things like this," it reads, "Meaning accords with words. Words and meaning are not separate, because meaning has no existence of its own. There is no meaning outside of words.:  these benighted people do no know the nature of words.

They do not know that words come and go, while meaning does not come and go. Words are subject to birth and death. Meaning is not... if someone points to something with their finger, and a foolish person looks at their finger, they won't see what it is pointing at. In the same manner, foolish people become so attached to the finger of words, they refuse to abandon it to grasp the truth, even at the point of death."  Ralph Waldo Emerson put it like this, "Books are for the scholar's idle times."  It is far too easy to make an idol out of the finger of words.

What is the remedy?  "Then retire and hide" writes Emerson elsewhere, "and from the valley, behold the mountain.  Have solitary prayer and praise.  Real action is in silent moments, in a thought which revises our entire manner of life.  Be the lowly ministers of the pure omniscience…If he listens with insatiable ears, richer and greater wisdom is taught him.  He who knows this most, he who knows what sweets and virtues are in the ground, the waters, the plants, the heavens, and who knows how to come at these enchantments is the rich and royal man."  In other words, we need to become spiritual simpletons. 

Emerson called himself a rocket launcher-his goal was not to create disciples or followers but to cause little intellectual explosions that would launch his readers or hearers to new planes of existence. To be a pointer, not the object pointed to.  It took me over 25 years of Emerson reading to catch even a glimpse of what that means but then I am a little slow… and yet these "silent moments that revise our entire manner of life are true resurrection moments.

Easter Sunday, of course, celebrates the resurrection of Jesus following his execution.  I am often asked if I believe in the resurrection, usually with respect, but sometimes with incredulity, and my answer is always the same.  I don't only believe in the resurrection, I know it to be true just as I know it is true for each and everyone of us all the time.  Life is full of crucifixion and resurrection, loss and recovery.  Cherished ideas, visions of ourselves, idols of various kinds crash about us and we struggle to carve out new ones.  When we think ourselves farthest from the spirit, we are, in reality, the nearest. 

When do you experience the resurrection?  I think of walking my crazy dog Dogen (paradoxically named after a 13th century Japanese Zen Master) at the Two Mile reservation in Marshfield on early mornings in springtime.  From one low vista, I can lean against a tree and look over the marsh, cut through by the North River.  Sometimes even Dogen sits and listens to the breeze in the trees, the birds and the mosquitoes, and the cars crossing the bridge in the distance.  It is not hard at such times to feel a part of the interconnected web of all existence.

Or I think of certain moments as a parent when, in the midst of the hectic and often truly annoying reality of every day life, I catch a glimpse of one of my children.  It always takes me by surprise. Maybe one of them is sleeping, or trying to figure something out, or just playing, unaware that I am looking at them, and for a moment I am overwhelmed by their vulnerability and terrified by the responsibility-their separate yet dependent humanness becomes achingly present…It is crucifixion and resurrection at the same time. 

These are ordinary moments.  Common and easily missed.  In fact most of our resurrection moments come upon us when we stop looking for them and simply experience the reality of our ordinary life.  And that is the heart of becoming a spiritual simpleton.  Doctrine, Creed, Idea, or Experience can only point to what we are looking for, yet we all too often stop with the pointer. 

This was brought home to me one day a couple of months ago while walking in Boston.  I was very cold, hurling myself down the street and on a mission, but I happened to see a tourist with a camera pointed down an alley.  I had to stop and look at what he was taking a picture of.  That tourist at that moment, became all the books in the world, he became this church, he became all methods of meditation and prayer, he became, in short, the pointer, making me stop and look up, to see the deep value of the ordinary, the seen-every-day.  For that moment he woke up my dead senses.

In our reading this morning, Henry David Thoreau laments that we use a pitifully small part of our senses as we go through life.  "We need," he wrote, "pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life.  The ears were made, not for such trivial uses as we are wont to suppose, but to hear celestial sounds." 

The Buddhist writer and translator Bill Porter tells the story of one such celestial sound in his book Zen Baggage.  He speaks of visiting Big Bell Temple in China which, amazingly enough, is a Buddhist temple that houses a Big Bell…A very big bell.  Rung for the first time in 1421, it is 20 feet tall and ten feet at the base.  But its most interesting feature is that it is inscribed with all the major Buddhist Sutras or scriptures.  Nearly 230,000 once inch characters were carved into the clay mold before the metal alloy was poured in.  The bell is struck externally by a log held by two chains. 

Bill Porter reports, and I quote, "From the very beginning, bells have been used to communicate with the realm of spirits, regardless of how that realm and its inhabitants might be envisioned. 

Only lately have they been used for their musical qualities.  Prior to modern times, they were used to reach distant and invisible realms where sound was the medium of communication, but sound far purer and more resonant than any earthly language…According to Pure Land Buddhism, everything in the world vibrates with the Dharma-the water, the wind, the trees, the birds, the sunlight and moonlight-everything vibrates with the teaching of suffering, impermanence…

He reports that the bell can be heard for over 30 miles and through the vibrations it is thought that the hearer receives the teachings of the Dharma at the most fundamental level.  Celestial sounds indeed. 

In our second reading this morning Gordon Hempton says "To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it.  Silence is a sound, many, many sounds. I've heard more than I can count." 

And this is my hope for everyone on this Easter morning, that we may experience the deep and powerful resurrection that is ours in becoming spiritual simpletons, in fully experiencing the sounds of silence that encompass us in the common, ordinary living of our daily lives.  The celestial bells sound always if we but have ears to hear and are simple enough to listen.  Amen