Friday, June 10, 2016

Daoism

Part I
There are times in the history of our civilization when there are great changes.  We think of our advancement as linear, but really it is more fits and starts. I think some of us can see that in our own lives as well, the ebb and flow, the hills and valleys, the asymmetrical changes that happen. Often changes happen during times of crisis. Usually at such times, religion as well undergoes, and perhaps in some ways lead and in other ways adapts to the changes that are occurring.  I believe with the advent of technology we as a society are at the beginning of such time now.  Looking backwards we see the time of the Renaissance coinciding with the Protestant reformation and the printing press. A time when the human consciousness was awakened.  
            Moving even farther back into history we see an amazing time called the Axial Age from approximately 8th to 5th Century BCE.  It was during this time that many great thinkers and new religious thoughts emerged.  In Hinduism, the Upanishads were written as a reaction to the loss of belief in the older Vedanta traditions, In Judaism it is believed this is when the Torah was actually put into writing and was deeply influenced by Zoroastrianism concepts of good and evil.
It was the time of the great Greek Philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It was the time of Buddha in India. It is amazing that in such a short time span, in different parts of the world, so many unique thinkers and religions emerged.  It was as if  human consciousness was dawning.  And in China at during the axial age, two new streams of thought were being developed, Daoism and Confucianism. 
This was a time when there was tremendous unrest and civil wars in China.  These two religions or philosophies took two very different approaches to the problems of the day.  Confucianism set down specific rules for a society to follow. It is ethics based, focused on justice with the goal of creating harmony within a family, a community and a country.  Daoism takes a different path.  In fact Daoism is translated simply as the Path. Or the Way. Very similar to the Greek word logos used in the Christian Scriptures.  The Way, from a time before time, or as the Upanishads stated wisdom beyond wisdom, or as Paul’s letter to the Philippians “the peace that passes understanding.” As the first verse which I read earlier speaks to the Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.  As if I were to point my finger and say look at the beautiful color of the leaves.  The writing is my finger. We are meant to experience what the book is pointing to. Yet to pass on wisdom requires us to write things down. 
And so it was with Daoism.  The Dao De Ching is the sacred text of Daoism.  It is 81 verses that has been translated more than any other book except The Bible. The story goes, the book was written by Lao Tzu.  The translation of the name Lao Tzu is old man or wise man or honored one. Although there is no actual proof of his existence, tradition says he was a Librarian at the imperial court, and at an elderly age he decided to leave China due to ongoing civil war.  It is said when he left the gates of the city, the gateman asked him to write down his philosophy, which became the Dao De Ching.  De means virtue or human goodness. Ching means Classic. So Dao Te Ching means the Classic path to virtue.  
Daoism originated in more of a rural and mountainous region of China and has its roots in the Shamanistic tradition where truth is found in nature and in our nature, not by laws created by humans. It is why for many centuries there was conflict between the Confucians and Daoists, which left Daoism suppressed.  As a Unitarian Universalist Daosim look to nature resonated with me.  It is both a look inward and outward.  It is why the symbol of the ying yang is so prevalent in Daoism. (PPT)

Yin is associated with the feminine, Yang the masculine, Yin the dark, Yang the light, Yin the moon, Yang the sun, Yin the soft, Yang the hard, Yin receptive, Yang the dynamic, Yin the valley, and Yang the mountain.  According to the Dao the goal is to keep the yin and yang in balance. To keep our lives in balance.  To balance  times of action with times of quiet and meditation to balance the masculine and feminine within ourselves, to balance intellect and intuition, to balance the left hemisphere of our brain and our right hemisphere, to balance our spiritual practice with our commitment to social justice.
And when we lose our balance, not only do we go out of balance but the world becomes out of balance.  The Dao asks us to use effortless action in all that we do.  We might use the phrase going with the flow, or the Buddhists might use the phrase living in the present moment.  But effortless action also means being efficient with time and energy, not doing too much or too little.   I read one explanation of using too much energy as trying to make corn grow by pulling on the stalks.  You have to let things take its natural course. 
I think about this when I am writing my sermon.  Often if I get stuck, I stop and take a walk around the block or watch ½ hour television show and then come back to it with a fresh perspective.  I recently read Natalie Goldberg’s book “’writing down the Bones” where she suggest you write for 20 minutes whatever is in your head, never lifting your pen from the paper, even if you are writing “I cant think of what to write” as a way to bring out our thoughts from our unconscious mind, and that if we do not filter ourselves (at least in our writing) we will find our true selves. 
It is the same with intuitive thinking. It is not about being impulsive but rather trusting our deepest intuitive nature. And the more we do this the easier it gets. What may appear as effortlessness to the outside world also doesn’t just happen by magic.  Yes we each have natural inclinations in some areas and not others, but practice is needed to create great effortlessness. I think of Malcom’s Gladwells observation that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something and those that do it will reach excellence compared to those that don’t. 
If you don’t have a natural talent in something, although you can improve with practice and reach your potential,  you will not reach excellence in that given area, but natural talent alone without practice will also leave you short of reaching your potential and excellence. The Dao also asks us to live lives of simplicity not using more then we need and giving away our excess.
As Verse 81 of the Dao De Ching states
“The wise one has no possession. The more she does for others the happier she is. The more she gives to others the wealthier she is.” In the spirt of practicing giving and generosity,  we will now take our morning offering.

Part II
I first encountered the Dao in my twenties in the early part of my spiritual journey. It was quite esoteric then.  I was searching and searching trying to find my place in the world, trying to figure everything out, knowing I was unhappy doing what I was doing, realizing I did not fit neatly into the box that was made for me, The Dao spoke to me. Verse 20 says
“Stop thinking, and end your problems
What is the difference between yes and no
What is the difference between success and failure
Must you value what others value?
Avoid what others avoid?
How ridiculous
Other people are excited,
As though they were at a parade
I alone don’t care
I alone am expressionless
Like an infant before it can smile
Other people have what they need
I alone possess nothing
I alone drift about
Like someone without a home
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty
Other people are bright
I alone am dark
Other people are sharp
I alone am dull
Other people have purpose
I alone don’t know
I drift like a wave on the ocean
I blow as aimless as the wind
I am different from ordinary people”

So maybe you can see why I liked this as a young adult.  Being counter cultural, undirected, drifting, I found a text that said, it is ok not to have your whole life planned out for you at this point. I think that is good advice at any age.  It is ok to not accept the norms of society. It is ok to be different. We don’t have to fit into other peoples expectations of us. I don’t have to get caught up in the latest and greatest bandwagon that everyone is joining.  And when it says my mind is empty, it means my mind is open, open to new ideas, open to new ways of thinking, and open to new ways of being.
In some ways the text can be challenging as well. There are some parts of the text that read like a manual for libertarianism.  It rails against rules and government interference with our lives.  It assumes humans given its freedom will rise up to our best selves. We should allow the world and our lives to take their natural course.  When we try to control the events of the world, we face unintended consequences.  
In verse 57 it states
“Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.
The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.
Therefore the wise person says:
I let go of the law, and people become honest.
I let go of economics, and people become prosperous.”

Well we know when this country had prohibition of alcohol, we had a significant increase in crime.  We see the same outcome with the War on Drugs which has devastated our Communities of Color and in addition continues to treat drug use with punishment instead of caring and treatment. I am not sure about this verses laissez faire attitude towards economics.  In our history we have seen society correct itself when we have excess, but commerce often goes to excess.  Daoists seems to idealize the self sufficient farmer. Yet we know 2,500 years removed from its writings, in our global world economy, with large urban centers, this is not likely to come about. But we can and must be more aware of how we create food, how we distribute food and how we care for the earth or the earth will govern us out of existence.
Lastly I will share with verse 74.
“If you realize that all things change,
there is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
there is nothing you can't achieve.
Trying to control the future
is like trying to take the master carpenter's place.
When you handle the master carpenter's tools,
chances are that you'll cut your hand.”

Now I took this very literally when I lived in Florida and after a hurricane had blown a tree down in my front yard, my neighbor a very nice guy, asked me if I wanted to borrow his chainsaw. 
Now as I said before we all have natural inclinations, using a chainsaw is not one of mine.  Last week I spoke about the Buddhist concept of impermanence, and it is interesting to see the same line of thought in this verse. The most important thing to let go of in addition to the way things always were is to let go of our fear.  Fear that we will be alone. Fear that we will not be accepted, fear that we will not achieve what we hope to, or worse fear that we will.  This Congregation and humanity itself has such untapped potential, we have within us compassion, learning, justice, welcoming, I know this because I have seen this within you.
With these skills, practiced effortlessly, we can achieve anything, we can bend the arc of the universe, we can allow the world we dream about to come into being.  And so I ask you as you leave here today to think back from whence we came and how far we have come. If the Axial Age some 2,500 years ago was our consciousness dawning, and the Renaissance was our consciousness awakening, what will this next chapter in human evolution with technology lead to?  Will our consciousness be unleashed.  What would that mean for us as individuals and society? What kind of world will we usher in. May we find our best selves

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Encountering Grief

Part I
"At the time of the Buddha there lived a monk named Tissa.  Every morning he walked to the village and accepted whatever food people offered him.  After doing his chores he sat quietly in meditation, and in the evenings he recited prayers and studied.  One day tissa fell sick. His body was covered with open sores and the stench from the infection filled the room. At that time the Buddha happened ot visit the monastery. He heard that Tissa had been abandoned by his fellow monks. Who were repulsed by sight and smell of his sick body. The Buddha and his cousin, cared for Tissa and taught him so when he died soon after he was free in mind and body.  The monks bowed their heads in shame, Tears fell like rain from their eyes, Tissa was our friend, We should have helped him…after all we are monks.  The Buddha didn’t judge them, but reminded them, Monks your father and mother are not here to take care of you. If you do not help one another who will?  Later the Buddha told his followers to help the sick with boundless loving kindness compassion, joy and equanimity." Let us do likewise.

Grief is something everyone experiences.  When I thought about how I encountered grief, I found it came in different waves, and forms throughout my life. Often I think particularly when we are young, we think we are the only ones who experience grief.  Or as we get older we think our pain is unique, and no one can experience what we have experienced.  What I have found over my life is that everyone at some time in their life experiences deep and profound grief.  It is a natural response to loss in our lives.  Each person based on the context and history of their lives reacts differently to different types of grief at different times in their lives, but we all have it.  Victor Frankel, Holocaust Survivor in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” wrote

“Everything can be taken from us but the last of our freedoms, to choose one’s freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s course”

Grief in most cases involves a loss.  Some losses are abstract, such as missing the winning shot of a basketball game or breaking up with the love of your life.   Some grief is tangible, such as when someone we care deeply about is dieing or dies. Grief comes to us because we deeply care about something or someone.  IT is a natural outcome of losing something or someone.  No one I have known has reached full Buddha status and can have total equanimity when they lose something they care about.
I think of the many losses in my life.  Again some are more abstract, such as losing my innocence.  That happened as soon as I entered school and entered the Hobbesian world of the schoolyard. Some grief is short lived, and in some cases imagined. When I was 5 I remember vividly going in for an eye operation and waking up not being able to see, not realizing there were patches on my eyes. It was the thought of not seeing that made me suffer. I sat there awake a long time before I called out to anyone.  I was ten years old when after finishing a stickball game at the schoolyard, my friend and I discovered a junkie who had overdosed.  There was an ignorance and impotence in our actions.  I grieved my inaction in not helping him. At a young age I found grief was more transitory.  Something was there and then it was gone.  I never really had enough context to understand the scope of what it meant to lose something or someone.  This is why history can guide us in regard to grief and our resiliency to it. 
As I grew older, I grew a greater understanding of the context of time and loss, as ideas, things, and people I knew for longer periods of time moved and died, and then of course the realization of my own mortality and the fear that raised in me.  Even death has a sense of time and history. There was a time, when I thought I would die before my life even got started, then there was a time as I aged, that I worried that life would pass me by, and now in the third or maybe fourth act of my life, I don’t fear my death as much as I have in the past as I live my life as I chose to and always try to be my authentic self.
But now as I age, I realize that my own current actions and eventual death could leave others in grief. And so I try to act accordingly to open my heart to those I love holding nothing back. Death is something that always haunts us. Again I think timing matters. I had a friend who died suddenly from an undiscovered heart defect, when I was fifteen.  Here one day gone the next.  My father’s parents particularly my grandfather who was a major influence on me in my youth, died when I was in my teens, but they had moved and had been living in Florida for a number of years. So time and distance loosened those relationships.
The first real grieving for a tangible loss came when my grandmother came to live with us when I was in high school.  After a couple of years, she developed pancreatic cancer, and since my mother was a nurse our home became her hospice before any of us knew what that word meant, but for millennium families had been participating caring for their elderly. Whereas previously, I could walk away or look away from death, in this case I could not turn away and was forced to confront it.  I think distancing ourselves from grief, or trying to stave off death by extending life through mechanics would have diminished the experience for my grandmother and our family caring and loving her.
This once vibrant human being whose selflessness, socialist ideals and resilience in the face of hardship, who had a large impact on my life, I watched decline day by day, and saw her suffering day in and day out.  and as well I saw my mother’s attempts to alleviate her suffering, and I saw how that time impacted my mother. And lastly there was my realization that I was helpless to do anything about it.  When people are far away and die, I imagined to myself there was something I could have done to help, but here in front of me, I first realized, that really all I could offer was my presence. And I know in some way my being there that brought her some joy, and for me that experience deepened my connection to her and her ideals. 
And after my mother passed and her brother, my uncle, also a formative figure in my life, lay dying in the hospital, his adult children no where to be found, I sat vigil with him for four days just being a presence there so he knew he wasn’t alone in his final moments of lucidity. I waited until his children consented to let him go home so he could end his life.  Their grief was so deep they could not let him go, and in their pain, they could not see his deep pain.
That is what grief does to us.  It blinds us to the world around us and blinds us to the pain of others. One way to deal with grief is to realize that we are not alone in grief. We need to join others who might be suffering. By opening our hearts and trying to alleviate the suffering of others we allow space for healing to enter into us.  And we have to accept that what was broken and lost will never be put back together again in quite the same way. 
The Japanese, have a word, Kintsugi. It has a two fold meaning.  It is art form of repairing broken pottery.  But philosophically it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. We move forward step by step, not ignoring the past, but incorporating it into who we are, but we have to keep moving. I am reminded of the lines in Leonard Cohn’s song anthem
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 

Part II
They say time heals all wounds.  I like the use of the word heals.  It doesn’t mean we don’t forget a wound, or the pain it caused.  Usually we have a scar that is there to constantly remind us of the wound.  We cannot change the past. But we can move forward, a little bit more wise, and maybe even little bit more compassionate towards others. We can be compassionate because we know how much it hurts and we want to comfort others who are in pain. We can be compassionate toward someone acting out because having felt pain, we can more easily realize that others are experiencing pain, so instead of getting defensive, we have the opportunity to be curious and give them an opportunity to share what is causing their pain.  When we are in grief we imagine many things, many things that may or may not be true about the past and the future.
One of the greatest benefits to me of my meditation practice is the realization that I am not my thoughts.  When I sit quietly, just breathing in and out, thoughts go racing around my head.  Things I have to do, conversations I imagine I might have, conversations I wish I had, then I stop, and remember to focus on my breath, and those thoughts just drift away.
And I realize those thoughts are not who I am but just thoughts.  But if I am not my thoughts then I have to face who I am at the core of my being.  In the realization of impermanence of my thoughts, I realize the impermanence of all things. And in the realization of the impermanence of all things, I learn compassion for myself and for others. When we realize the impermanence of life, we learn to value our life more, and we learn to value our time in this world.  If I value life, I realize I must take care of myself and others. And due to this I realize that compassion and caring requires action That is difficult to do when we are in the middle of grief.
Caring for others requires effort to bring ourselves out. We can walk with others on their journey, but ultimately we have to do the work ourselves. Roshi Joan Halifax recognizes  

“the effort to bring energy and commitment to everything we do.  Effort gives our practice depth, character, strength and resiliency.  Can we hang in there when the situation is hopeless? Can we return again and again to our intention?  Can we be wholehearted in the midst of a heartless world? How do we find wholeheartedness in a heartless world?”

First is the recognition that it is not all heartless. This is story we just tell ourselves. What if everything we were ever taught was wrong.  Maybe our true nature is not a Hobbsian world of brutality and nastiness. Perhaps we have just been conditioned to believe that by a society that benefits from conflict.  Perhaps our true nature, is that of love, compassion and kindness, and that we need to re-condition our minds to remember that. And we recondition it through intentional spiritual practice.
I was moved recently by an interview Krista Tippett did with writer Rebecca Solnit. Solnit looked at hope from a historical perspective as well. Just as grief has a historical context to it, so does hope. When we look back over the course of time, actions taken by people did shift the course of history. We can see examples of people who have overcome grief, perhaps we can see examples when we ourselves have overcome grief. Or changed the world positively due to their grief.  Solnit recognizes that hope is tough. She states

“It’s tougher to be uncertain than certain. It’s tougher to take chances than to be safe. And so hope is often seen as weakness, because it’s vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability of being open to the possibilities.”

We can see over the course of history how the world has changed. From abolition, to women’s suffrage, to civil rights to marriage equality. And within those larger movements are the stories of many many individuals who struggled, and lost and struggled and overcame, but they continued to struggle. Solnit goes on,

“sometimes we win, and that there are these openings, but an opening is just an opening. You have to go through it and make something happen. And you don’t always win, but if you try, you don’t always lose.”


So let us take heart, and open our hearts, and risk being vulnerable, knowing you are loved by all of us here. Knowing you are loved, that if you fail we will pick you up and travel with you, on a journey to healing your heart and soul. As the Buddha told his followers to help the sick with boundless loving kindness compassion, joy and equanimity, Let us do likewise.