© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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There is an old Hindu proverb about a master who grew weary of his ever complaining apprentice. “Life is not fair!” the young man would say. “It is full of pain and there are so many people who hurt me.”
The master finally had enough and asked the apprentice to go and grab a handful of salt. When he returned, the master told him to put the salt in a glass of water and then drink it. “How does it taste?” the master asked. “Bitter.” was the reply.
The master then asked the boy to go and grab another handful of salt. When he returned, the master led the boy to a very large lake and told him to put the salt in it and swirl it around. “Now drink from the lake” the master said.
As the water dripped from the boy’s chin, he was asked how that water tasted. “Fresh!” was the reply. “Do you taste the salt?” the master asked. “No.” said the boy.
And then the master sat down with the apprentice and took his hands in his own. “The pain and hurts of life are always the same” the master said, “no more and no less. How you think about such pain and whether or not you choose to be a victim depends on the vessel you put the pain into. The thing we must do is to enlarge our sense of things……..stop being a small minded glass. Become a lake.”
Now, I often hate it when I read such parables and at first don’t really understand what they mean – especially those of eastern religions or philosophies which are difficult for a western mind to comprehend. How do we enlarge our sense of things? How do we become something we are not – like a lake? How do we change for the better – which seems to be the message of that parable – and thus find the peace and happiness we all seek?
In life, we each yearn to be free of pain, failure, anger, disease, injustice, worry, fear and poverty. We want to be perpetually happy and most of us want that for all humanity.
As we have spent the last two months examining a spiritual truth from each of various world religions, we might have lapsed into a common mistake. We can too often isolate one virtue or one ideal at the expense of an overriding principle – we can’t see the forest in the midst of trees. My purpose in looking to each of the major world religions – Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism – those that represent the beliefs of over 95% of the world’s population – is for us to realize that there are many truths, many ethics and many ideals we would be wise to learn from and adopt. In other words, each world faith calls us to reach beyond the selves we superficially know and aspire to the spiritual truth each promotes. Ultimately, they all point us to the same goal – total and complete peace.
Another Hindu parable, one which many of you may have heard, talks about five blind folks who are asked to examine an elephant and then describe what an elephant is. The first feels the trunk and exclaims that an elephant is like a hose. The next feels a leg and declares an elephant is like a tree. The next person touches the ear and says an elephant is like a giant fan. The final person grabs a hold of the tail and proudly says an elephant is like a rope!
We all know that an elephant is the totality of all those things, and more, but to isolate only one aspect and define it that way is to miss the larger picture. And the same holds true for spirituality and our quest for truth, peace and happiness. We will not find them just by grabbing a hold of a tail, or a trunk or an ear. We must strive to grow in ALL ways. We must be willing to continue learning about ourselves and our world from many sources. We must be willing to continuously change our perspective and understanding of life and the big picture – or elephant!
And, in that way, it is fitting that we conclude this series with a look at Hinduism which emphasizes the importance of constant change in one’s life – the kind of holistic and total change that will lead one eventually to perfect peace.
Hinduism is the third largest religion. But, it is often referred to as less of a religion than a way of life – a practice and tradition that is deeply embedded in Hindu cultures. There are two primary Scriptures for Hindus – the ancient Rig Veda and the more recent Bhagavad Gita. Both are compilations of stories, parables and wise teachings. Hindus are henotheistic- they believe in a supreme god – the Brahman – but they also believe in a multiplicity of gods which support, but are less than, the Brahman. As such, Hindus will refer to the Brahman as the one true god but still pray and offer sacrifices to thousands of minor gods – those who can help them in more minor ways.
The goal of Hindus is to undergo what they call “moksha” or escape from constant cycle of birth and rebirth which they believe all souls experience. Reincarnation for Hindus is the way by which human souls evolve, or devolve, over many lifetimes – into higher states of being and happiness or into lower states of hurt and misery. When one arrives at a place of true enlightenment about self, love and compassion for others, when one has the ultimate epiphany and can cry out, “I get it!!”, one enters eternal Nirvana. One then becomes a part of the Brahman. As imagined, this is not an easy process and a soul might spend many lifetimes before reaching this elusive goal.
The key theory in all of this is not that humans are controlled by the gods and goddesses. We can draw on their power but only to a limited extent. Human souls are NOT rewarded or punished by any Divine or supernatural force. Humans are in control of their OWN destiny through Karma – or a natural law of cause and effect. We reap what we sow, as the Bible says. What happens to us – good or bad – is determined by what we are BECOMING – how we are constantly changing for the good or bad. The goal, therefore, is to evolve and change and become a better soul – one that, as we have discussed over the last several weeks, does not simply DO good spiritual things but rather IS content, IS devoted, IS hopeful, and IS unconditionally loving.
Creating positive karma is thus not about doing acts of goodness. It is about BECOMING and then BEING good. It is about moving from one imperfect state of being to a better state of being – by learning more about the self and one’s flaws, by changing those flaws, by growing in compassion for all creation, by letting go of anger and hatred and learning to really love, by shedding the fear, guilt and shame of our past, by becoming a fully authentic human – a person who lives true to what he or she believes. Do you believe in love? Then become love. Do you believe in justice? Then become just. Do you believe in contentment? Then become content.
And, as I said, this is not a simple process. Indeed, Hindus were first aware of the human subconscious or hidden soul that really determines who we are. That inner soul or subconscious reflects our true nature – not the things we outwardly DO. That is the substance of who we really are. In other words, we as people are not defined by our outward appearance and actions. We are defined from the inside out. Our actions should be, therefore, reflections of the inner soul.
Good or bad Karma results from a willingness to change and grow our souls. If we continually seek after good energy, we will find such energy attracted to us. Good things will naturally happen for us.
And that is the essential point. We must always change. We must be ever transformed. We must never worship any belief or any part of ourselves as an idol – something that we refuse to question or change. Other than the one ethic to which we all agree, to love other people as much as we love ourselves, we should be willing to at least question and possibly change anything – our politics, our faith, our approach to life, our values. This is the cycle of birth and death, literal and figurative, which Hindus believe happens to every soul. As Bob Dylan wrote in one of his songs, “Those who are not busy being born, are dying.”
All of us may believe, for instance, that we are each loving people. But we also know that on some deeper, subconscious level, that we could be much better. We alone know of hidden hatreds we harbor, the hidden anger we hold, the hidden prejudices or hurts or unforgiving attitudes that can fester within us. The more we dig into ourselves, discover these flaws about ourselves and then work to change them, the more we grow. And the more we evolve toward finding that elusive total peace.
This takes us back to the parable about the master and his apprentice. If the boy continues to drink the bitter and angry water of a closed and small glass, that is how he will continue to experience life. He will be a bitter, angry and self-pitying man. If he chooses to instead drink the fresh water of a large and expansive lake – to see his pain in the totality of all life – he will come to realize his problems are not so bad after all. He will see his problems are much smaller than those of others. He might, indeed, develop more gratitude for the blessings he does have. He will be positive and hopeful that life is good. He will grow in compassion for the hurts of others – since he is so much better off.
The key is that he must BECOME something else, as the master tells him. He must change his outlook and his attitude. Strive to stop the anger. Strive to stop acting like a victim. Stop complaining. Start becoming. Be a wide, fresh and limitless lake!
Maya Angelou, the modern poet laureate, once said, “If you don’t like something, change it! If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain!”
And that also gets to a core belief of Hinduism. There are no victims in the world. We are masters of our own destiny and we create our own good or bad karma. We are responsible for our own lives. We must stop the complaining about our imperfect lives and set out, instead, to be people who overcome.
This does not mean that there are not hurting people in our midst or people who suffer profoundly – because of their own actions or because of forces acting against them – disease, poverty, or injustice. Even so, we also know people who, while they do hurt and suffer, they refuse to be victims or complainers. These are people who remain positive despite their pain. They harbor hope for a better life. They continue to selflessly give and love and serve. They never complain. They never give up. They love others as much as they love themselves. They know their own flaws and ways they can still grow. These are people who create their own happiness and good Karma by the attitude and outlook they choose to have. We are what we choose to believe and think – loser and victim OR person of great love, peace and ability to change. Those are inspiring people. Those are people I want to be like.
So often in life we set out to find the perfect experience or person for ourselves. We spend countless hours seeking the perfect spouse, the perfect lover, the perfect friend, the perfect doctor, Pastor, accountant, house, church, vacation or whatever. In doing so, we are wasting our time. Such perfection does not exist.
What we should pursue, instead, is the inner change – the ability to create a more perfect soul . How do we find the perfect spouse or lover? He or she is inside us. How do find the perfect friend? He or she is inside us. How do find the perfect experience that will give us happiness? That experience is deep within us. Quite simply, we must BE the change we want. As I alluded to last week, just imagine the kind of humanity that might exist if every person cared less about how others should change or life should change and focused more on how we ourselves should change?
My friends, the Gathering is a small church operating without big budgets or elaborate programs and buildings. All of those things are superfluous. The great prophets of history did not require such expensive trappings. It was the power and force of their ideas that drew people to them and propelled the change they sought. For us, our purpose is not to come here every Sunday and have a nice, simple time with friends. If all we are about is a club in which to feel good, we should close up immediately. If, however, we come here because we want to change and we seek growth, and we are committed to use what this place offers, then the Gathering is serving its purpose. And, indeed, as much as it is my role to help you and me think, reflect and grow, we each also have a personal responsibility to change on our own. Doing church is not a passive exercise. We actively choose to come here to listen and change. We actively choose to be a part of the change process that goes on here – serving on Sundays, helping in our outreach efforts, giving financially to our work, sharing our own growth insights. And, in some big and small ways, we should be inwardly changing as a result. We should be growing. We should not be the same people we were last month or last year. If we are not a bit wiser than we were before we come in on any Sunday, than we have either not listened, not participated or I have failed miserably.
I encourage us all to read, listen and learn about spiritual ideals. I encourage us to reflect, meditate and pray. I encourage us all to revisit the topics we discuss in here – to read or listen again to the messages in this series on contentment or hope or unconditional love. Our website and archive of written and audio messages is a resource for doing so. And there are other countless other resources, of much better insight, that we should also read or listen to.
As Hindus the world over know, change is an inevitable part of existence. The only thing that does not change is the reality of change. It will happen for good or for bad, but that is ours to create. Let us spiritually look out into the heavens to glimpse, from afar, those angels of our better natures – those angels we want to become. To do become like them, let us ever change our minds, our hearts and our souls.
I wish you all much peace and even more joy.