Wherever You Go, There You Are

A Sermon by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
January 7, 2001

We talk about the Principles and Purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association a lot in this church because they are very important in understanding our unique approach to religion.

A part of this important document is the section regarding the "sources" of our faith, our "living tradition." The sources remind us of the roots of our faith, roots that continue to nurture us to this day.

One of these important sources is the one that suggests we can draw "wisdom from the world's religions" in order to be inspired "in our ethical and spiritual life." We may be unique among modern religions today in explicitly honoring the other religions of the world that have taught–and continue to teach us much about how to live and who we are as religious people.

Yet, to honor the world's religions is not as easy as it sounds. People who grow up in other religions often spend their lives immersed in it. To honor a religious tradition is not the same as being a part of that religion. I don't believe we can just try on religions like we try on clothes. But, if we don't explore the gifts other spiritual traditions offer us, we can far too easily get stuck in our own narrow perspective, something that we in this global world can no longer afford to do.

So, our liberal faith does its best to grapple with the way we can learn from other religions, without assuming we truly understand them or can be just like them. Last spring, when a group of us gathered to brainstorm ideas for service themes, the suggestion was made that we look at the sources of our faith, in particular at other religious traditions. This sermon is a result of that process.

I have chosen, this morning, to talk about Buddhism and I do so with fear and trepidation. You may ask, "Barbara, why is Buddhism so hard for you to talk about?"–a very good question. Buddhism is hard for me to talk about for two primary reasons. The first is that Buddhism, like Christianity, is truly a world religion, spanning many nations, peoples, tribes, and cultures. There is no one Buddhism any more than there is one Christianity. It's hard enough for me to get inside the Christian perspective, and I grew up in a land where Christianity is at the very least the dominant religious language. I know people who have spent entire careers trying to get inside what Buddhism is. My experience with Buddhism has been very narrow, and it's truly impossible for me to understand it except on a very shallow level.

The other reason that I find it hard to talk about Buddhism is that its practices, as I understand them from my limited encounters, are perhaps the hardest for me to get my spiritual self around. I am not a very Buddhist kind of person. Unlike many of my peers in Unitarian Universalism, I find Buddhism, to be extremely challenging. So, why do I talk about it today? Well, the older I get the more I realize that it is those things which challenge us the most–which we often try to avoid–that are probably exactly the direction we should head in our spiritual development. As hard as it is, going towards what challenges us is usually what the spiritual life demands. And my spiritual life said to me: look at Buddhism.

But, in the limited time available to me and to us here on Sunday morning, I can’t look into everything there is to know about Buddhism. That can literally take (at least one) lifetime. So, instead I asked myself, "What is it about Buddhism that might challenge and enrich my faith and the faith of those I minister to?" And the answer came back to me in a word I had read about long ago from the great modern Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: mindfulness.

In 1975, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a little book called "The Miracle of Mindfulness." Not surprisingly, Beacon Press, our Unitarian Universalist publishing house, printed this collection of thoughts and stories from a Vietnamese monk. It was to have a profound affect on many people, not just the American Buddhists to whom it was primarily written. For a religious book, it became a best seller.

Why? Why did a this little book, written over twenty years ago in simple language and only 140 pages long, make such waves in America? My guess is because it, in extremely humble and loving ways, challenged Americans to radically rethink how they approached life. It asked us to slow down, to pay attention, to become mindful of everything we do. Most importantly, Thich Nhat Hanh said to his readers, unless you find peace within, you will never find peace outside yourself.

For you see, Thich Naht Hanh is no ordinary Buddhist monk. He, along with many of his fellow monks, chose, in the midst of the madness that was the Vietnam War, to passively resist the fighting and to take no side in the conflict. For this, these peaceful, religious people were tortured, their monasteries burned, and many of them killed. Yet, they continued to resist, based on a deep-seated belief in the Buddhist principle of the sanctity of all life. They also believed that peace came not from fighting evil, but from finding peace inside and seeing peace in others.

This perspective was both challenging and intriguing to the many Americans who were opposing the Vietnam War, including many Unitarian Universalists. In contrast, much of what characterized the peace movement in those days was an aggressive approach to what they saw as the evils in society, the evils of war. Along comes Thich Naht Hanh who says to them: Stop, look around. See the peace in yourself. See the beauty in your enemy. Resist not with anger and hatred but with love and peace. Sometimes doing is the wrong thing to do.

When Thich Naht Hanh came to this country in 1966, at the request of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, he left Vietnam, the country of his birth, not to return. For he was not allowed to re-enter since both sides in the conflict saw him as an enemy to the people. Instead, he moved to France and started a community called Plum Village, where he has spent the past 30 plus years teaching his form of Buddhist practice to people from all over the world.

Since he came to the west, Thich Naht Hanh has tried to interpret his perspectives on Buddhism to our culture. In another of his books, "Being Peace," he speaks of the three gems of Buddhism that should guide our living. The first gem is the Buddha. When most of us hear that word, we think of "The Buddha," the great teacher, Siddhartha, who was the founder of Buddhism centuries ago. But Thich Nat Hanh reminds us that it is in each of us to be the Buddha, for the term comes from an ancient word meaning to wake up. Everyone who wakes up is a Buddha and everyone has the potential inside them to be a Buddha. To wake up is to be always mindful, aware, and appreciative of the wonders and mysteries of life.

The second gem of Buddhism is the Dharma, the way of understanding that The Buddha taught. Our Dharma is the path each of us must take, unique to us. Yet, on each path we can take the teachings that are given us and use them to deepen our understanding of what we have chosen to be and do with our lives. Thich Naht Hanh says that all of life can be our teacher. Even the oak tree can teach us about stillness and harmony. How we use the teachings is our Dharma, our path and way in life.

And the third gem is the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness. Your Sangha are the people who enter your lives, who are with you in loving relationship, who offer you peace and acceptance. Anyone and probably everyone you meet can be a part of your Sangha. For in community the power of mindfulness becomes manifest in the way we live and respect each other.

Thich Naht Hanh says all these three gems are the same, that being the Buddha, living the teachings of The Buddha, and living in harmony with others are totally interconnected. This perspective can't help but remind me of the pillars of our faith, written in our first and seventh principles. Every person has worth and dignity and all of existence is interconnected. What Buddhism says–that our principles are not explicit about–is that we need to remind ourselves of this reality by being mindful.

As I read it, Buddhism to Thich Naht Hanh, is a way of being peace, and the primary way of being peace is to be mindful, to pay attention. Now, you may ask: What's the big deal? We all pay attention don't we? Ah, but we don't. Or at least, I don't. I find being mindful extremely challenging.

In a famous story from the "Miracle of Mindfulness" (p.5), Thich Naht Hanh tells of sitting down under a tree with a friend. While his friend regaled him with his plans, the friend popped tangerine sections into his mouth. He was hardly aware he was eating a tangerine. Halfway through the fruit, Thich Naht Hanh said gently, "You ought to eat the tangerine section you've already taken." His friend was startled into realizing what he was doing. It was as if he hadn't been eating the tangerine at all. If he was eating anything, he was "eating" his future plans.

To be mindful, he would eat the tangerine simply to eat it. To feel its texture, taste its tart sweetness; savor the juice flowing down his throat. To be mindful is to experience each moment as the gift that it; to be present to the great miracle of life; to feel the feelings as they exist for us; to simply be with the self we are, instead of racing ahead to the future or dwelling on the past.

And it is this quality of being mindful that I find so very difficult. Like Thich Naht Hanh's friend, I find it difficult to just eat a tangerine. I am one of these people who tends to read through meals, gets distracted at the drop of a hat, often thinks about something other than what I'm doing, and tends to be off in the future or back in the past when being in the present would really be enough. I find being mindful extremely challenging. And yet the idea of it intrigues me.

In a recent article in our denominational magazine, The World, author Philip Simmons gives another good example of the power of this kind of mindfulness. He tells of an experience at his New Hampshire town’s "old fashioned ice cream social." His first experience of it was cynical for he saw it as an unrealistic attempt to re-create the past. But, as he reflected, his opinion changed. He writes, "We ate ice cream and strawberry sauce out of plastic cups and did our best, I suppose, to feel old-fashioned. Then something happened, a shift from my ordinary way of seeing to what I can only call mystic vision. Suddenly…I saw that this moment, graced with ice cream and artificial preservatives and the ordinary talk of friends and neighbors, was as authentic as any in the town’s history."

Simmons then concludes, "My point is simple, in a way. If eternity includes all time, then we are living in eternity now. When we see this, we feel in touch with the bedrock beneath the flowing stream. We enter the eternal life beneath the surface of this passing one." Without intentionally calling himself a Buddhist, but by allowing himself to be mindful of the moment he was in, his view of creation expanded and he found himself living the compassion that Buddhism teaches.

Recently, as I reflected on the principles of being mindful, I found myself walking around Greenbelt Lake, something Jaco and I do with our dog Stella almost every day. Most days we walk together and talk–usually about work! But, on this day, Stella and I were alone. As we walked on the path, I found myself looking across the lake. For a moment, I felt rather than saw the lake, the geese, the ice, the dark trees, and the sky. I felt the cold air and Stella tugging at the leash. It was as if all these familiar things were saying to me, "Wake up, notice us, be here with us at this moment."

And for a moment, I let go of worry about future or past, busyness, or concern for others or myself. I just looked at the lake–maybe even, in a small way, became the lake. My own life, for a moment, was totally caught up in the life of the lake. As I was mindful of it, I became one with it.

And that's the power of mindfulness. To be present in the moment is to experience it fully. How many of us go through life missing most of it, focused as we are on other things? Life is what is happening right now. As John Lennon once was supposed to have said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." Or as a former co-worker once reminded me about church meetings, whenever our meeting started was the right time. Whoever was there was who was supposed to be there. And whatever happened was what was meant to be.

But it is not only Buddhists who have practiced mindfulness. One of our own great Unitarian forebears, Henry David Thoreau, was perhaps the greatest western practitioner of this perspective. Not surprisingly, he was influenced by some of the early translations of Hindu and Buddhist scriptures in the mid 1800s. These famous lines from Walden are a testament to this approach to life: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived" (p27).

Thoreau had the luxury of taking two years off to live in the woods in deep reflection and contemplation. Most of us lack that opportunity. But Thich Naht Hanh, and other modern Buddhists like Jon Kabot-Zinn, author of the popular book, "Wherever You Go, There You Are," believe that we don't need to take two years off to find the power in being mindful. It can begin as simply as my discovering the lake while walking the dog. It needn't take the form of structured meditation, though that certainly can be helpful. It can be as simple as breathing in, and breathing out, paying attention only to the breath and the life it gives you for that single moment.

Being mindful is very hard for me but I find the challenge good. As I reflect on what it means to be mindful, I discover that it really isn't so hard or at all painful to spend a few moments just being. Although I am not a Buddhist, I find that the practices of modern Buddhism are fine reminders of the value of slowing down, waiting, being still, being. If, regularly, I really see the lake, or the birds, or myself or my neighbor without the need to do anything, my life is greatly enhanced. And so I'm trying. Trying to be. Trying to listen. Trying to stand still. It isn't easy, but no one said the spiritual journey would be.

The challenge of modern Buddhism is summed up beautifully in Kabot-Zinn's book title. Wherever you go, there you are. I am here. You are here. With each other, in this place at this time. Maybe that really is enough. To be in the present moment, awake to all there is to be. I don't know. But I'm willing to follow the precepts of my faith and let this world religion inspire me both ethically and spiritually. And I hope it will inspire you as well.

But it isn't enough to just talk about it. Occasionally Jaco invites us to take part in a meditation that he learned from Thich Naht Hanh’s book. We call it a "moment of mindfulness." So to close my sermon this morning, I want to invite you to participate in just a few moments of mindful meditation.

This meditation comes from Thich Naht Hanh's book, "The Blooming Lotus." I invite you to get comfortable. Begin to notice your breath. As you breathe in say to yourself, "Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment." Then, as you breathe out say, "Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment." I will say these phrases for a few moments to help you stay focused. Just experience whatever you experience. We will then be silent together for a few moments.

Closing Words

And so, may we keep the windows of our hearts open to the beauty of this day; May we seek not afar but close by for the splendor that is our world, the magnificence that is our life;

And may we celebrate the eternity which is to be found in this moment together, and find harmony in the language of music and poetry which touches the true spirit of our lives.

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