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January 6, 2013: “Buddhism Part One, Noble Truths and Training The Mind”

Reading 1

The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the world’s ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

Reading 2

From the Buddha’s First Discourse after His Enlightenment: “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth” Tradition says that this was a sermon given to his five former companions, the ascetics with whom he had shared six years of self mortification.

The Noble Truth of Suffering, monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering – in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.

The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering is this: It is this craving which produces re-becoming accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence.

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.

The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. (3)


Buddhism, it would seem, is on the rise. No longer just for Easterners or esoterics, its philosophy and practices are being embraced by people from the mainstream West in great numbers as well. In the United States alone, the number of self declared Buddhists went from 400,000 in 1990 to more than 3 million in 2001, and has steadily increased since then. And it is impossible to ascertain the number of people influenced by Buddhism because there are so many incorporating parts of its philosophy and practice into their lives while still remaining self described Christians or Jews or Humanists or Atheists. Indeed, there is much debate about whether Buddhism is actually a religion, per se, or a philosophy, but that is a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that Buddhism lends itself to universalism in that it can be incorporated into other religions. For example, the writer who first piqued my interest in Buddhism, Sylvia Boorstein, has a whole book entitled That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist. Boorstein is a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Buddhist Meditation Center in California, and a wonderful translator between traditional Buddhism and our American Culture of spiritual inquisitiveness. She is unapologetic about offering a version of Buddhism that is accessible to the mainstream, western mind, even though some call it “Buddhism light” and accuse its adherents of picking and choosing just the good stuff. Well, moderates in every religion get accused of that, it seems to me. And the truth is that the supposed purists who make these accusations are always doing exactly the same thing, they just don’t realize it. And from what I understand, Boorstein is very faithful to the essence of the thing. Still, like Sylvia Boorstein times a hundred, I will admit from the outset that my thoughts in this three week sermon series are going to be very much an Americanized, western, amalgamation. In fact, I was tempted to title this sermon series, “Bastardized Buddhism” but I thought it might not be terribly inviting to potential newcomers who might read the sign at the road.

So to begin with, a whirlwind version of the origins of Buddhism, which began with Siddhartha Gautama, born a prince on the border of what are now India and Nepal sometime between the 6th and 4th century BCE. Now as with any foundational religious figure, it is impossible to know how much about his life is actual history, and how much is tradition that has grown up around him from the devotional perspective of the believers. So I give you this background with that disclaimer. According to the tradition, then, Siddhartha was raised by his royal parents, in a palace with its comforts and ease, and shielded from all suffering and pain. As a child, he was observed to have intense powers of concentration and at least once entered a state of meditative absorption. He was married at age 16, and continued to live a royal, luxurious life until he was twenty nine, when he was on an outing from the palace and first confronted suffering in the form of an up close and personal interaction with people who were sick, aging and dying. It shook him to the core, and soon after, he stole away from the palace in the middle of the night, renouncing his royal life in order to undertake a spiritual search. He became a poor, homeless ascetic, practicing severe self denial including extreme fasting. He also studied with a Hindu spiritual teacher, and practiced extensive meditation.

After a long and exhausting period of searching and self-mortification, he finally became disillusioned with the Indian caste system, with Hindu asceticism, and with the religious doctrines of his time. He gave up the ascetic life, but continued his search for truth through the practice of meditation.

Eventually, while meditating under a Bodhi Tree, he experienced Enlightenment, including an understanding of the way to become free from suffering. He then meditated for seven additional weeks after which he found the five ascetics with whom he had previously been conducting his spiritual search. Once he found them, he gave them his first sermon wherein he taught them what would become the core of Buddhism. This first sermon constituted the beginning of Buddhist teaching, known as dharma, and his disciples became the first five members of the sangha, or community.

The combination of the Buddha, or awakened one, along with the dharma (teaching) and the spiritual community, sangha, are understood as the “triple gem,” and a practicing Buddhist is one who has “taken refuge” in the triple gem.

There are at least two, and up to four or five major branches of Buddhism, depending on who you talk to. There is also disagreement on its major texts, as different branches view different texts differently. Some of the key concepts in Buddhism are The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Middle Way, the Ten Precepts, Karma and Rebirth, Mindfulness and Meditation.

Now, on to some of its spiritual content: I want to start by offering a bit of a personal testimonial. I have to say that the reason I wanted to do this series is that I have found incorporation of some Buddhist philosophy and practice into my life to be enormously helpful in terms of daily well-being, which I believe then makes me a better person in the world. You see, I have a noisy, overfunctioning brain which, left to its own devices, can really create havoc for me. I remember being a very young child the first time somebody gave me a puzzled look and said, “You think too much.” And I could have written that marvelous Mark Twain line that says, “I have suffered much misery in my life, some of which actually happened.” And let’s just say I recognized a kindred soul the first time I came across Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pitched Past Pitch of Grief” where he writes,

“Oh the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall, 
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.”

Now, lest you think me totally neurotic, let me say that I have been willing to confess this before you today precisely because I don’t think I’m alone in it. At best, I suspect, most of our minds are like squirrels, darting here and there randomly, compulsively and with little ability to rest. And worse, they create that Hopkins kind of misery, frightful cliffs of fall. To a large extent (not totally, but to a large extent) I think its true that our own minds create much of our misery, and more, we usually don’t even know we are doing it to ourselves. Eckhart Tolle describes it well in a passage I have read for you before, but I think it is so good that I am going to risk repeating myself.

“The greatest obstacle to experiencing the reality of your connectedness with the universal Spirit is in over-identifying with your mind, which can cause all thought to become compulsive. Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness…It comes between you and your true self, between you and others, between you and nature, between you and God…The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. The instrument takes you over.”

Buddhist philosophy, simply put, helps loosen the cravings and attachments of the mind. It starts by acknowledging in the first Noble Truth that suffering (dukkha) is real, not JUST the suffering created by the mind, but suffering that is simply inherent in life: birth, aging, sickness, conflict, disappointment, etcetera; I like the fact that the first Noble truth acknowledges the reality of all this from the outset. There is something to be said for a religion that just tells it like it is. Life can be very difficult and includes, at times, unspeakable pain. And then the Second Noble Truth goes on to say that in addition to the suffering that is just a given in life, that we have a way of making it all worse for ourselves by being so attached to our thoughts about suffering, and not just our conscious thoughts, but especially by those instant thoughts that flash by so quickly that they don’t even have words, and we aren’t even aware of them. We increase the suffering by resisting it and craving any little thing that seems, for a hot second, like it might provide relief from it. We get attached to our ideas of how things should be and that very attachment exacerbates our suffering. And then comes the Third Noble Truth that says indeed there can be relief from it, but it doesn’t come from where we think it will. It comes not in setting up some external panacea situation, but in learning to detach from the craving, from the attachment to wanting it to be otherwise, from our reactions and judgments and perpetual inner commentaries ABOUT it. Now let me add a disclaimer here, this is NOT to say that we should stay in bad situations or decline to make changes in the circumstances of our lives. But it is to say that unless we learn to tame the mind, to recognize our perpetual monkey mind for what it is, and learn to release all the craving and attachment, that we can make all the situational changes in the world, and still be in the same misery.

So life is full of suffering, the source of much of that suffering is our mental over-attachment to thoughts and cravings, there is a way out of all this through learning detachment and learning to tame the mind, and the fourth Noble Truth tells us that the school for practicing is the Eightfold Path, which we will consider in the next 2 sermons on this topic, next week, and then on the 27th.

So there you have it: Brief, Boiled-Down, Bastardized, Broadly-Stroked, Bagley-Bonner Buddhism. And by way of commercial I will say that the additional two weeks of this series will include a deeper look at some of what was just mentioned today, specifically the eight fold path and mindfulness meditation. And I will leave you now with a brief couple of sentences, unattributed, but which really spoke to me when I came across them, as a vision of wholeness for those who take refuge, employing this or any consistent spiritual practice:

As a single slab of rock won’t budge in the wind, so the wise are not moved by praise or by blame. Like a deep lake, clear, unruffled and calm, so the wise become clear and calm, on hearing words of the Dharma.