Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds. Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.
Let us be aware of the source of being, common to us all and to all living things.
Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let us fill our hearts with our own compassion-towards ourselves and towards all living beings.
Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be the cause of suffering to each other.
With humility, with awareness of the existence of life, and of the sufferings that are going on around us, let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.
-Thich Nhat Hanh
This morning we have heard a variety of references to Buddhism. We’ve listened to words attributed to the Buddha himself, words from a contemporary Buddhist monk, words from the Dalai Lama, and words from a modern poet reflecting on the Buddhist tradition.
Buddhism is a complex and diverse religion. Although I am going to talk about Buddhism, I will absolutely not try to give you a comprehensive overview of Buddhism. To ask “what is Buddhism” is something like asking “what is British culture?” British culture has in common its association with this land, just as the many different schools and traditions of Buddhism share their connection to the teachings of the Buddha, a man who our best estimates say lived in the 5th or 6th century BCE. From there, different variants of Buddhism sometimes seem to have about as much in common as trifle and jellied eel.
Today, as we mark the celebration of Vesak, I would like to highlight two of the central strands of Buddhism’s rich and multihued fabric: its teachings about suffering and about interconnection.
To begin, a story:
A Buddhist student asked a Zen master why the Japanese make their teacups so thin and delicate that they break easily. "It's not that they're too delicate," answered the master, "but that you don't know how to handle them. You must adjust yourself to the environment, and not vice versa."
At the heart of the Buddha’s teachings are four assertions known as the four noble truths. These truths, which the Buddha is said to have realized during his enlightenment, speak about the nature of human suffering. The Buddha tells us, first, that life contains suffering of many kinds: “birth” he said, “is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering.”
While we may find the focus on suffering a bit bleak, we will certainly recognise that life exposes us to many causes of suffering. Even if our lives were perfect, if we had everything we wanted, if we were loved by everyone we knew, if we were never ill and never lost anyone close to us, we would still have to bear the suffering of knowing that this wonderful life must eventually end.
The second and third of the four truths speak about the causes of suffering. The Buddha taught that the chief cause of our suffering is our own cravings or attachments and that the cessation of these attachments is the route to the end of suffering.
What does this mean? If we are attached to having perfectly smooth skin, the development of a first wrinkle will cause suffering. If we are attached to money, losing it will cause suffering. Similarly, all attachments will eventually cause suffering. Importantly, this is not an instruction to be detached from life. Indeed, the Buddha also said “Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” The Buddha teaches that we must avoid becoming attached to the pleasures of life in a clawing, craving, “I can’t live without it” kind of way, for this is the root of suffering.
Finally, the last of the four noble truths offers a practical means to end personal suffering. This is a path that involves mindfulness, ethical action, and learning. Together, these disciplines allow us to turn away from suffering. In the Buddha’s words: “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.”
And so, the Buddha taught that suffering is a part of the reality of human existence. No matter how protected, comfortable, or affluent we may become – no matter how fair and just a world we live in – the causes of suffering will remain. His wisdom seems so very relevant today, when the craving for things has become a central focus of our culture and where the message that having the right car or clothing, living in the right place, landing the right job, or looking the right way will bring us true and lasting happiness. The Buddha taught that it is not these external things that bring happiness.
On the face of it, we may see the Buddha’s message as pessimistic: Life is suffering. The Buddha does not hold out the hope of an ideal world where all will be ease and joy. We should not, he cautions, look toward a heavenly realm of eternal life, without illness or death, and where our every desire is met.
Instead, he points to the reality of this life where, in most ways, we can not adjust our environment to suit us. Instead, the Buddha taught the means of eliminating suffering by changing ourselves. He taught that we each can choose how we will react to the realities of this life. It is not that the teacups are too delicate, but that we must learn to handle them. Happiness is available to us if we can learn to be happy with the reality of the present moment. The Buddha said: “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”
And so, this first major strand of Buddhism teaches a personal path. It offers each of us a way out of the inevitable suffering that life brings. It is an empowering teaching. The Buddha said “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.” The Buddha’s way is not to pray for better circumstances but rather to work within ourselves to prevent life’s inevitable challenges from causing us suffering.
You may detect a somewhat individualistic flavour in this first strand of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is sometimes criticised for being self-centred. Is the Buddhist way a selfish one, divorced from attention to others? If we each have the means of ending our own suffering, then do we imagine then that the Buddhist response to suffering is an uncaring “stop suffering. It’s your choice to suffer?”
On the contrary, Buddhism also focuses outwards. In the humanitarian disaster that now afflicts Burma, the religious community in that mostly Buddhist country has taken a lead in aiding the afflicted. Homeless Burmese have gravitated to the monasteries, and there, monks have sheltered them and shared their own meagre supplies of food and fresh water. And as we saw last year when Monks took to the street in opposition to Burma’s oppressive military regime, Buddhists are not necessarily accepting or passive in the face of suffering and oppression.
Our readings this morning introduced this second great strand of the Buddhist tradition: our interconnectedness. We recited together the guidance to “Display a heart of boundless love for all the world in all its height and depth and broad extent.”
We heard the words of a great contemporary Buddhist teacher, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who said “Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion, let us fill our hearts with our own compassion-towards ourselves and towards all living beings.”
To the Buddha, all things are interconnected. His words: “All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”
And so we find ourselves holding onto two strands of the Buddhist tradition. One seems to be entirely self-centred while the other emphasises the importance of offering compassion and love throughout an interconnected community of beings. Are these aspects of Buddhism separated or do they somehow relate to one another?
A classic Buddhist story tells of a woman called Kisa Gautami.
Kisa Gautami grew up in a poor country family. As a child, she was malnourished and spindly. She was often mocked and looked down upon, but her fortunes changed when she married and bore her first child. At last, Kisa Gautami knew great joy. Her love for her newborn son knew no bounds. Her very world revolved around this young life.
Not long after her son’s birth, though, the child fell ill and soon died. Kisa Gautami was overwhelmed with grief. In her desperation, she rushed from house to house, begging anyone who would listen for some miraculous means to bring her baby back to life. Of course, no one was able to do anything, but one person suggested that perhaps the Buddha could help her.
And so, she went to the Buddha and poured her despair out to him. The Buddha listened patiently to her plea and saw the great depth of her anguish. He thought for a moment and then said to her, “Mother, I can do as you ask. Bring me just one mustard seed from any household in which no person has died and I shall revive your child.”
With her hope rekindled, Kisa Gautami went off in search of the mustard seed that would bring her son back to her. She went throughout the town and wandered to neighbouring hamlets asking at each door if that house had known death. Again and again the response came. It may have been a child, a husband or wife, or a parent, but she could not find a single house that had not known death. At each entryway, there was shared sadness as Kisa Gautami experienced the sorrow of the inhabitants and they experienced hers. As she continued on, something began to change with Kisa Gautami. Within her heart, a deep sense of compassion began to grow that extended outward toward all beings. When Kisa Gautami returned to the Buddha empty handed it was not to beg him for a miracle, but to ask to become his disciple and to learn and share his teachings.
Kisa Gautami’s story helps us to bring together our two strands of the Buddhist tradition. Suffering is a reality. Sorrow and grief and loss will be with us all so long as we live.
Human beings are connected one to the other by so many things – by shared stories and values, by national affiliation, and by a kinship that is shared throughout our entire species. Our own happiness depends on the happiness of others. Lama Zopa Rinpoche offered these words:
"All the peace and happiness of the whole globe,
the peace and happiness of societies,
the peace and happiness of family,
the peace and happiness in the individual persons' life,
and the peace and happiness of even the animals and so forth,
all depends on having loving kindness toward each other."
But we so often lose sight of that connection – a connection that we must embrace if we are to survive. Compassion, literally suffering with another, is a key to recognising our unity.
The two strands of the Buddhist tradition that we have considered today are very practical. They do not tell us about the origin of the world or a higher power. They do not tell us the meaning of life or explain why it is as it is. Instead, they offer us a way to live happily and peacefully in this world.
The Buddha’s apparently pessimistic declaration that life is suffering leads us to two essential teachings:
First, our suffering arises from our cravings and attachments. We can not always change our environment, but we can determine our reaction to it. When we live with appreciation for what our life is now, here, in the present moment, we can find happiness.
Second, suffering is a signpost leading us toward a greater understanding of our deep connectedness. Once we recognise the commonality of the human condition, we are freed to offer compassion and loving kindness to all beings.
Today we celebrate the life and teachings of the Buddha whose insights from his experience of human suffering speak to us still today.
Live in the present moment with appreciation and gratitude, and know that you are not alone.