I changed the title of this sermon from ‘Becoming a Buddhist’ to ‘Becoming the Buddha,’ in response to the quote I found: “When I’m a Buddhist my family hates me; when I’m the Buddha they love me.”
I don’t want you to hate me—of course.
In the introduction to his collected poems Carl Sandburg writes:
“All my life I have been trying to learn to read, to see and to hear, and to write. At sixty-five I began my first novel, and the five years lacking a month I took to finish it, I was still traveling, still a seeker. I should like to think that as I go on writing there will be sentences truly alive, with verbs quivering, with nouns giving color and echoes. It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did (the Japanese poet) Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: ‘If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer.’”
Forty years ago, after reading enough about Buddhism to make a presentation to a graduate school class at Northeastern University, I declared myself to be a Buddhist. I was an ‘instant Buddhist.’ Since most of us identify as a member of a certain gender, race, religion, political party or club, and I had let go of my early religious identity, I was glad to have a religion I could affirm.
There’s an old question used in a promotional ad for Unitarians: “Are you a Unitarian and don’t know it?”
I understand the spirit behind that question. There are millions of folks for whom our Unitarian approach to religion and spirituality would fill a void—the void they feel as a result of leaving the religion of their childhood, or one they picked up along the way, and thinking there’s no place where they fit in. They just don’t know about us, about the alternative path up the spiritual mountain.
The problem with that old question is the idea that you can declare yourself to be a Unitarian without any affiliation or association with other Unitarians, and feel no need to support the institution. Indeed, our approach to religion and spirituality is somewhat paradoxical in that we have a kind of built-in anti-institutional bias.
For the past forty years I’ve felt an affinity for Buddhism but have had very little contact with Buddhist culture—aside from taking yoga classes and visiting some Buddhist temples and shrines.
I’ve tried not to make a big deal of the Buddhist label I attached to myself, but I’ve grown uncomfortable with it, especially since I bumped into that insightful quote: “When I’m a Buddhist my family hates me; when I’m the Buddha they love me.”
You’ll let me know if I achieve my goal of becoming the Buddha—but I’ve decided to remove the self-designated label of being a Buddhist. It’s about time!
I’ve known a few Christians who became the Christ, and, of course, I loved them. (My grandmother was one of those who became the Christ. Characteristics of Christ include things like humility, humor, kindness and compassion and equanimity, and a special love for the poor and those who are marginalized.)
I’ve also known some whose commitment to Christianity seems to begin and end with trying to convince me to join them by insisting that they are right and I am wrong; that they have the truth and I don’t. You know what I mean. “When they are Christians I turn away from them—when they are the Christ I’m drawn to them.”
That’s why I changed the title of this sermon. Maybe that is the sermon—at least the part you’re most likely to remember.
There’s more, however. I want to review the story, or the legend, actually, about the man whose name was Siddhartha and who became the Buddha, the man who woke up. (See Huston Smith: The World’s Religions; and Buddhism, A Concise Introduction, by Philip Novak.)
Most of us are asked the question, “Who are you?”
Siddhartha Gautama was asked, “What are you?”
The legend says that they asked, ‘Are you a god?’ He said ‘no.’ Then they asked, ‘Are you an angel?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you a saint?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you a prophet?’ ‘No.’ ‘What are you?’ He answered, ‘I am awake.’
His answer became his title—the Sanskrit budh denotes both ‘to wake up,’ and ‘to know.’
To become the Buddha, then, is, first and foremost, ‘to wake up.’ (Sounds easy, so far.) To be awake is to pay attention–to be aware of what’s going on around you, and to be aware of what’s going on inside you.
A high degree of awareness indicates what’s referred to as enlightenment. Rather than saying that someone achieved enlightenment, perhaps we should talk about the degree of enlightenment—from the 25-watt bulb up to the 300-watt flood light!
Buddhism begins with a man who lived and taught 500 years before the Common Era. The story says that his father was a king—so this made Siddhartha a prince. There were many so-called kings on the subcontinent of India at the time, so it might be more accurate to call his father a feudal lord.
He grew up in the lap of luxury. He married young—at 16 he fathered a son and raised him for the next 13 years. But, in spite of living in the lap of luxury, he was not content.
The basic legend, referred to as the Four Passing Sights, goes like this:
When he was born his father summoned the fortune tellers to ask about Siddhartha’s destiny; they said that he was not the usual or common child, that he was destined for greatness, either as a politician who would unite all of India, or a great redeemer of the world.
Siddhartha’s father wanted him to become a great Chakravartin, a ‘wheel turner,’ or conquering king, so he did all he could to steer his son toward that end. Strict orders were given to all those in charge of his care to keep him from confrontation with the world of the spirit, and to keep him tied to worldly things, with worldly pleasures.
Even more specifically, the prince was to be kept from any contact with sickness and death, with old age, and with monks who had given up worldly pleasures for the religious life.
One day, the legend says, Siddhartha was out riding his great white horse when he saw an old man, bent with his years, broken-toothed and gray, leaning on his staff. Obviously this old man had been miraculously incarnated by the gods for Siddhartha’s education. He was shocked and asked what this meant.
He learned about the inevitability of aging and decaying.
On another ride outside the palace gates he encountered a man wracked with pain, filled with disease—so he learned about vulnerability to illness and disease. On another journey he saw a corpse, and had his first encounter with death.
Finally, on the Fourth Passing Sight Siddhartha encountered a monk with a shaved head, saffron robe and beggar’s rice bowl, and on that day he learned about the possibility of a way of life that was not materialistic or centered on gaining power over others—the religious life; this was his burning bush experience–what some refer to as a calling.
The story says that in his twenty-ninth year he made his break with the world into which he had been born and set out on a spiritual journey—this is referred to as his Great Going Forth.
He shaved his head, put on the ragged clothes of a beggar and set out on the road to enlightenment. He spent the next several years learning all he could about Hindu philosophy, studying raja yoga—meditation for the quieting of the mind, and hatha yoga, physical postures that help to integrate mind, body and spirit.
He went to the extreme of asceticism, nearly dying from his self-deprivations, and by so doing he discovered the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. This was his first, most basic step on the road to enlightenment. ‘Easy does it.’
Eventually he has his Bo Tree experience, short for bodhi, which means ‘enlightenment.’
The story says that the Evil One saw Siddhartha sitting under the Bo tree and realized that he was about to succeed in his goal of attaining enlightenment, so, being the Evil One his task was to disrupt Siddhartha’s concentrations. He attacked first in the form of desire, parading three voluptuous women. Siddhartha wasn’t tempted. Then the Evil One came as Mara, the Lord of Death, trying to frighten him out of his concentrations with hurricanes, torrential rains and flaming rocks, but he endured.
During his forty days under the Bo Tree the Buddha saw his thousands of previous lifetimes, one by one; he saw the death and rebirth of the whole universe and the law of karma, that good actions lead to happy rebirths.
Then he saw “…what made the whole thing go: the universal law of causal interdependence. He called it dependent arising, and later identified it as the very heart of his message.” (Novak)
When his time under the Bo Tree came to an end he was free; he had achieved enlightenment—he was transformed, and he emerged as the Buddha. The whole universe responded to this great event—the galaxies shuddered, the trees bloomed.
For the next half century the Buddha went all over India preaching “…his ego-shattering, life-redeeming message.”
Continuing the pattern of withdrawal and return, the Buddha was fully engaged in his work for nine months of the year, then he would withdraw for three. His daily cycle had the same pattern of withdrawal three times a day, for meditation, then he would return to his work of preaching, listening, guiding and teaching.
The basic lesson he taught is summarized in the sentence attributed to him: “Work out your own salvation with diligence.”
There’s a lot about the religion attributed to the Buddha that I appreciate. It offers a balance to the theologically-based Western religion in which I was raised.
The story says that when his disciples asked him about God and the afterlife he responded, “Do not speculate.”
I’m attracted to Buddhism because it does not require me to believe things that do not meet with my experience—I don’t have to take it on someone else’s word.
A statement attributed to the Buddha summarizes his teaching on this point:
“Do not believe in what you have heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe anything because it is rumored and spoken of by many; do not believe merely in the authority of your teachers and elders. After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
This is very much like those lines in Walt Whitman’s signature poem, Song of Myself:
“Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
And from Song of the Open Road:
“Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it, Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents…
And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)”
To become the Buddha you must, first of all, have your own experience—encounter the realities of life—the inevitability of aging and death, the possibilities of illness and loss of one’s faculties; then there’s the need to re-examine all the old ideas you’ve had—not only the religions you were taught, but to re-examine your own perceptions, testing old ideas against new insights. (It’s called growth.)
Thus the story says that Siddhartha’s first step toward becoming the Buddha was to leave home—which is symbolic of leaving the ideas and beliefs that were implanted in the early years.
Siddhartha became the Buddha by encountering the realities of life: aging, disease, death and an alternative life style—in his case, the professional religious life.
I know you are awake—but how awake are you? How much enlightenment have you achieved? Are you up to a 75-watt bulb? Maybe more!
The essence of Buddhist teaching is summarized in The Four Noble Truths: First: Life is suffering (dukkha); that is to say, all life involves suffering…pain of various kinds; second: the reason for suffering is ‘desire’ (tanha) which translates to the ‘wish that things were not the way they are.’
The third Noble Truth is that ‘there is a solution.’
The fourth Noble Truth is the way to accomplish the cure, which is the Eightfold Path:
- Right views: an understanding of the Four Noble Truth; and, in a more general sense, a right way of seeing life…
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right conduct: do not kill, steal, lie, be unchaste, drink intoxicants.
- Right livelihood – occupation
- Right effort – will power – adjust strings of lute
- Right mindfulness – Dhammapada opens: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought…we become what we think
- Right concentration –
These eight are divided into three categories: the first two are about wisdom, (right views/intention) the next three are about ethical conduct (right speech, conduct, livelihood and effort) and the final three are about mental development (right mindfulness and right concentration.)
Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority—each person must be his or her own authority; he preached a religion devoid of ritual, of trying to petition the gods for special favors; he preached a religion ‘that skirted speculations;’ he preached a religion devoid of tradition; he preached a religion of intense self-effort—the life-long task, in my way of interpreting it—the life-long task of becoming the Buddha; he preached a religion devoid of the supernatural: “By this you shall know that a man is not my disciple—that he tries to work a miracle.”
The religion he preached was empirical—personal experience was the final test of truth—you must know for yourself.
The religion he preached was scientific, dealing with the laws of cause and effect, not only in the material world but in the world of the spirit or the inner life.
The religion he preached was pragmatic—he kept his attention on the real, down-to-earth problems and predicaments we all encounter in life. He said that his teachings should be tools, they had no ultimate value beyond how they were used, like a raft that takes you across the river but are no further value as you continue the journey beyond the shore once you’ve landed.
The religion he preached was therapeutic: “One thing I teach: suffering and the end of suffering.”
The religion he preached was psychological—not in any way metaphysical; it was egalitarian—he rejected the caste system of his India—he himself broke caste, having been born in the warrior caste and becoming a Brahmin.
And finally he preached a religion directed to individuals; while at the same time he affirmed the value of community or the ‘sangha,’ he emphasized the individual: “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.”
All the things the Buddha feared—things like speculation and superstition—came crashing into the religion that grew up around his name.
That’s why I’m not interested in becoming a Buddhist. To paraphrase the Japanese poet cited by Sandburg:
If God grants me thirty more years I may become the Buddha. Becoming the Buddha is about becoming your true self; it’s about authenticity. It’s about being awake and aware. But the distinguishing characteristic of the Buddha is compassion. (He’s often referred to as ‘the compassionate one.)
The essence of all good religion comes down to that one word: compassion. We have a built-in sense of sympathy for those who suffer; and a wish to relieve the pain. To reach out in kindness is the path to becoming the Buddha.