Posts Tagged Zen Buddhism
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.
Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.
108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)
Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”
How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.
I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?
I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.
At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.
Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting. If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.
If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.
And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified. As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.
We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, “Help!” And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”
The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.
I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.
As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.
This updated sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington on 1/12/14. It wrestles with the meaning of worship in a pluralistic world.
When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings were led by one of our faculty Buddhist scholars and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now eight years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.
…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to services at the ungodly hour of 10:30am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)
The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.
Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 200 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying or meditating as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say “encounter” because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for this new Minister, our community was split 53/47 on the question of God.
With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.
Take our opening hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.
Hymns like that one, tend to also be very popular at youth con’s (weekend youth retreats). You might not have 60 spare hymnals when you’re out camping, and it’s hard to read the words on the page if it’s night time and you’re leading an evening youth worship on the floor of a Fellowship Hall. Plus the message often fits where we are. It gives space for the breadth of meaning that represents who we are and all the places where we come from.
Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists, more than our small convictions, more than our ego. As I was working on this sermon this week, one congregant shared a quote on my Facebook wall that read, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.” I think most of us intuitively fall into this line of faith. It’s not our beliefs, it’s our works. This is one of our many major departures from modern Christianity. When we talk about religion or faith, we privilege works over belief. But I think that sometimes, internally, we still hold onto the “belief script.” If we really had let go of connecting belief with our faith, we wouldn’t always get so worked up if someone we love sees the world differently but lives the same good life.
A good coffee hour exercise this week might be to watch when you’re feathers get ruffled. Was it over a difference of opinion? Or was it over a difference of values that are being applied to the world we live in? (Maybe you might be starting that exercise right now – during this sermon – because of the crazy things I’m saying. I wouldn’t know… so it’s ok.)
The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.
We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. (We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn.) Sometimes though, we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts. We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. … One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, (any fellow readers out there?) defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people (…) and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.” … He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time. It’s the classic trinity that I’ll invoke in many of my sermons. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Openness to difference enables us to be mindful of the world around us so that we become able to revere the gift that is before us once more.
Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) (And you may think your family is tough!) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.” Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.
“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our chairs this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.
Now, I know that we call what we’re doing here every week – “Sunday Programs” or sometimes “Services.” We’ll still be calling it that. SPC – otherwise more helpfully known as Sunday Programs Committee, will still be leading Sunday programs. But when you hear me off and on referring to this as worship – keep this sermon in mind.
All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.” Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.