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a sermon by the Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak

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Hold On - Let Go a sermon by the Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak preached on May 31, 2015 First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, a Unitarian Universalist congregation Tomorrow - June 1st - is the celebration
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Hold On - Let Go a sermon by the Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak preached on May 31, 2015 First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, a Unitarian Universalist congregation Tomorrow - June 1st - is the celebration of Vesak also spelled Wesak. Because of differing traditions and use of a lunar calendar and not actually knowing the month and day of Siddhartha Gautama s birth - the date varies from country to country - but I m going with the date the United Nations has chosen.. Vesak is a celebration that commemorates the Buddha s birth and many people think of it as something akin to Christmas in the Christian faith. However, it is really a little more than that - perhaps more like Christmas and Easter and Ascension day all rolled into one. Because of the nature of Buddhism, this day celebrates not only his physical birth as a baby but also his death and enlightenment, his rebirth. It celebrates the totality of the Buddha, honoring the Buddha himself, the Dharma (his teachings) and the Sangha (his disciples). It offers Buddhists a special opportunity for rededication to the teachings and to practice. The Buddha did not set out to start a religion. He did not invent a church system or an ecclesiology. He simply taught. He shared his struggle toward enlightenment, toward understanding this life on earth why we suffer, what death means. We may not share all his conclusions, but understanding suffering or discomfort as an integral part of life is important stuff. We do so many different things to get rid of uncomfortable feelings. We try to escape unhappiness. We fight negativity. But in doing that we are throwing away significant avenues toward wisdom. Everything in us every joy or sorrow, every misstep or achievement, every question and every answer, every feeling or emotion, every positive and negative is creative energy. This discomfort is the first of the Four Noble Truths - the essence and root of the Buddha s teachings. Like most things in life, a short list of four truths will leave an awful lot unexplained. It is up to us, students of life, to see how these truths unfold. They are: the truth of suffering (Dukkha) the truth of the cause of suffering the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. Some think of Buddhism in rather simplistic terms - that all Buddhists do is meditate, silently, and that they see life as filled with suffering and pain and the aim of meditation is nirvana - an escape from suffering. But Nirvana - enlightenment and the release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth - is not easily attained and it only comes to a few. In the meantime, we must live our lives as best we can, and these truths can help us do that. May 2015 Page 1 of 5 Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak People will tend to focus on this first truth - the word Dukkha; dukkha, which is everywhere. It is part of our lives from the day we are born. So maybe this first Nobel Truth is stating the obvious. And it does not sound too cheery. But that is why we need to go a little deeper. Dukkha is usually translated as suffering - but it is more than that something more subtle than our simple English word. When we think of suffering, we sometimes go to extremes [pain, the ragged poor begging at the curb, the survivors of natural calamities, victims of violence, etc. - these people truly suffer]. But dukkha can also mean unsatisfactoriness clearly that is not an elegant turn-of-phrase. But I think this starts to get out how we can recognize this suffering, this dukkha in our lives. The notion of suffering is not intended to convey a negative world view, but rather, a pragmatic perspective that deals with the world as it is, and attempts to rectify it. We re not denying the concept of pleasure, nor is it that life is somehow empty of beauty and joy. But this first truth reminds us that such things are fleeting. So if you make the focus of your life attaining pleasure, feeding the ego with notions of fame, then you will end up with an unquenchable thirst. This is dukkha. The Four Noble Truths are a contingency plan for dealing with the suffering humanity faces -- suffering of a physical kind, or of a mental nature. These four noble truths will not end the suffering of the world s injustices but those who have the power to bring happiness or contentment or safety or health to others need to be awakened and strengthened to do just that. This First Truth sets us on the path - states what might be obvious - the presence of suffering. The Second Truth says, okay, so we suffer - what is it s cause? Desire and ignorance lie at the root of suffering. This desire is not lust but craving pleasure, material goods, and even immortality - wants that can never be satisfied. Desiring or ceaselessly craving what you cannot have only brings suffering. Ignorance, the second part of the cause of suffering, is not lack of intellect but is the inability to see the world as it actually is. We are urged to develop our intellect, our ability to discern, to weigh experiences, facts, insights and make voices and judgements based on paying attention. Mindfullness is not only a meditation technique, but it is a way to train ourselves to see the world as it actually is through paying attention. When psychotherapist and author Sylvia Boorstein teaches the Four Noble Truths, she puts it this way: I. Life is challenging. For everyone. Our physical bodies, our relationships-all of our life circumstances-are fragile and subject to change. We are always accommodating. II. The cause of suffering is the mind s struggle in response to challenge. May 2015 Page 2 of 5 Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak III. The end of suffering - a non-struggling, peaceful mind - is a possibility. IV. The program for ending suffering is the Eightfold Path. Really, every step of the practice path is an ordinary, everyday activity of human beings. The more we understand the causes of suffering, the greater our intention; the wiser and more compassionate our behavior, the clearer our minds; the deeper our understanding of suffering, the stronger our intention; over and over and on and on. Maybe you aren t personally seeking enlightenment - you are not Buddhist and do not practice. yet the wisdom of the tradition helps us still. Because we know, all too well, that there is pain in life. No matter how good it is; no matter how much we have success we have experienced - whether it be an enriching career, a well-paying and interesting job, a terrific family, raising wonderful talented children who follow our success with their own... if we are not living this life mindfully, if we are not prepared to let it all go, we are living an illusion. Whether we are seeking Enlightenment or not, we experience it along the way in the shattered illusions and multiple losses that litter our lives. Sp here's a story: One day some people came to the master and asked 'How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness and death?' The master held up a glass and said 'Someone gave me this glass, and I really like this glass. It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.' This wisdom from the great Theravandan meditation master Achaan Chah Subato reminds us about life s fragility, its preciousness... and in those few words, tells us how to live with this knowledge: I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it incredibly.' . Appreciating life as it is, for what it is now, for the beauty that is there at this very moment... because it is already broken, gives us the fortitude, the power, to go on. All that we hold precious in life will end. it will break. We may not know how, or why, or when but it is inevitable. Thinking always about that loss or those endings will send us into despair. But grasping at life, wanting more and holding on leads to even greater suffering - it is a death-grip. This one of life s great lessons that I find myself turning to over and over again. I ve packed and moved households more than enough times to see the wisdom of that story. I had to deal with a lot of fragile things - crystal stemware, china plates, things from my grandmother and mother. Things that are beautiful to me but also carry meanings and associations and memories with them that I cling to. They represent people and moments in my life that I cherish. So I pack them carefully - tissue, crumpled paper, bubble wrap. I carefully place them in a large enough box and after taping it shut, mark it with a bold, red marker: Fragile. Handle May 2015 Page 3 of 5 Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak with care. Maybe I add some exclamation points. That is our life - boxed up, marked fragile, handle with care. But will the cheerful young men who are the moving us read the labels and follow my warnings? Who knows. But I had to let it go. And everything arrived at our new home, safe and sound. For all that preparation and worry, I might have just as easily dropped them in taking them out of the box and putting them into the cabinet. Anything can happen. I could chastise myself into not caring: Get a grip, Susan it s just a nice drinking glass. You have plenty already. Or, rather than try to dampen or negate all pleasure with such grasping attachment, I could let that already broken knowledge encourage my enjoyment of the present moment. And remember that wisdom every time I set the table and place these glasses there for people to enjoy and use. This Buddhist teaching is essential to our lives it lets us truly live. What is it like to go through life with the realization that what is precious to us is already broken, already gone? Does it mean we do not care? That we abandon affection and all concern because, heck, we re going to die anyway, or the beauty of those lilies/flowers will not last beyond the few days, so why bother. We all feel the passing-ness of things - the fragility of everything. We are, at this moment, broken and whole at the same time. We contain within us all the dukkha, all the suffering. But we also contain all the possibility of joy. The end of suffering - attaining nonstruggling, peaceful mind - is a possibility. To do that, we have to be able to know when and how to let go. We may think about and feel loss but not just the misery and loneliness of separation... no, but how precious it all is... and how precarious. How iffy. How on-the-vergeof-being-broken. Glasses, relationships, pets and people, children and strangers. This is the passingness of things - the fragile lives we live, the precious delicacy, the brittleness of it all. Wonderful... beautiful... transitory... life-and-death. All tied within this web of interdependence. Like the monkey, we will get trapped by grasping, by trying to hold on to something that cannot be held. We need to be able to live fully in the knowledge that the glass is already broken. We must still savor life enjoy it immensely in this moment today, tomorrow. Hope bursts within us do not be beguiled by despair. Yes, the glass is already broken but this frees us, empties us (as is the aim of Zen Buddhism) to genuinely appreciate and love what is here and to let in whatever insight and wisdom and courage there is here, now. Hold it all lightly this achingly beautiful world that surrounds us, the painful reminders of indignity and evil that abound, too. Let every gesture of appreciation and love be felt to be able to do this in the face of harsher realities is one of the great capacities we have as human beings. Even the smallest appreciation, the short moment of aha, yes! - let this awaken us to what is possible. May 2015 Page 4 of 5 Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak Let it fill our hearts will beauty and possibility, courage and hope. We must hold everything lightly, for everything passes. And then we can more fully embrace the world. Unlike the caught monkey, unwilling to let go, we can unfold the grip in our hearts not just letting go but perhaps letting go of something we yearn for. The truth is that food is everywhere. Though the stubborn monkey believes in its moment of hunger that there is no other food, it only has to let go for its life to unfold. In our moment of hunger we may believe that there is no other possibility of love, of acceptance, of possibility. Yet we only have to let go of what we want so badly loosen our grasp and our life will unfold. For life and love abound, everywhere. Reading - Let Go of the Rice by Mark Nepo ( The Book of Awakening, 2000) So much more can happen with our hands open. In fact, closing and stubbornly maintaining our grip is often what keeps us stuck, though we want to blame everything and everyone else, especially what we re holding on to. There is an ancient story from China that makes all this very clear. It stems from the way traps were set for monkeys. A coconut was hollowed out through an opening that was cut to the size of a monkey s open hand. Rice was then place in the carved-out fruit which was left in the path of the monkeys. Sooner or later, a hungry monkey would smell the rice and reach its hand in. But once fisting the rice, its hand could no longer fit back out through the opening. The monkeys that were caught were those who would not let go of the rice. As long as the monkey maintained its grip on the rice, it was a prisoner of its own making. The trap worked because the monkey s hunger was the master of its reach. The lesson for us is profound. We need to always ask ourselves, What is our rice and what is keeping us from opening our grip and letting it go? It was upon hearing this story that I finally understood the tense ritual of rejection that exists between my mother and me. Like any child, I ve always wanted her love and approval, but suddenly I realized that this has been my rice the more it has not come, the tighter my grip. My hunger for her love has been master of my reach, even in together relationships. I have been a caught monkey, unwilling to let go. I have since unfolded the grip in my heart, and humbly, I can see now that the real challenge of surrender, for all of us, is not just letting go but letting go of something we yearn for. The truth is that food is everywhere. Though the stubborn monkey believes in its moment of hunger that there is no other food, it only has to let go for its life to unfold. Our journey to love is no different. For though we stubbornly cling, believing in our moment of hunger that there is no other possibility of love, we only have to let go of what we want so badly and our life will unfold. For love is everywhere. May 2015 Page 5 of 5 Reverend Dr. Susan Veronica Rak
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