(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Eight months after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan and killed over ten-thousand people, the Dalai Lama travelled to one of the most ravaged towns. He visited one temple that had miraculously been spared ruin. Hundreds of people gathered to see him. He was greeted at the Temple gates by three children who were orphaned by the disaster. Lined up in the Temple were hundreds of boxes of victim’s cremation ashes. The town had brought them to be blessed by the Dalai Lama.
When he personally greeted those in the assembled crowd, many of them sobbed uncontrollably. “Bless these victims, bless us” they cried. The Dalai Lama was deeply moved. All around him was human tragedy on a massive scale. As he often does, he held the faces of many in his hands while he looked into their eyes. “Please,” he asked, “help everyone else and work hard. That is the best offering you can make to the dead.” As he turned to walk back to the altar, tears were in his eyes.
This great man of peace and wisdom was himself struggling with grief. It is likely he related to their pain. At age 23, only days after ascending to be spiritual and civil leader of six-million Tibetans, the Dalai Lama was forced into exile to stop the killing of his people by mainland Chinese invaders. He left behind close friends and even his small dog – one he cherished. Two days later, he heard they had all been killed. In the fifty-nine years since, he’s never been able to return to his beloved Tibet.
In times of suffering, the Japanese often turn to one of their most revered poets – Issa – who lived and wrote in the 18th century. Issa’s life story is almost mythic in the extent of suffering. His mother died when he was two. Later in life, his first son, a daughter and then his father all died in a typhoid epidemic. Still later, his one-year old daughter died, he became partially paralyzed and then his wife died in childbirth. He remarried but his house was destroyed in a fire. That wife soon became pregnant and all signs pointed to a healthy birth – but Issa died a month before his last child was born.
Issa’s most famous haiku poems compare life to droplets of dew. Appearing as sparkling jewels that dot a morning landscape, dew drops nevertheless quickly vanish with a rising sun. Life is like that, he implies. There are great bursts of beauty and happiness, but then all is over. We disappear into vapor. In a poem entitled “On the Death of a Child”, Issa wrote, “Dew Evaporates, And all our world is dew…so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.”
Issa captured a common Japanese mindset toward pain. Outwardly stoic, many Japanese bottle up their grief until it is too much and they pour it out. Instead of finding ways to understand and be at peace with what befalls them, the Japanese suffer like all people. We perceive tragedies all around us, we realize we are not immune, and we spend life working to avoid hurt or putting bandaids on our fears. In the end, we die without ever understanding what brings lasting joy.
As many of you know, Buddhism identifies four noble truths which are its foundational beliefs and designed to address the pattern of human existence. The first of Buddhist noble truths is that tragedy is a fact of life. Whether it be physical or emotional injury from acts of nature, or the hurt caused by other people, nobody can escape the unfortunate circumstances of life. They happen to everyone and we are fools if we think otherwise.
The second noble truth is that humans suffer because, in an effort to avoid the inevitability of tragedy, they put their trust in things that do not last. We desire houses that will protect us or make us happy because they are large and well decorated. We seek foods that please our palates and offer momentary pleasure. We do the same with alcohol, drugs, cars, clothing, cell phones and romantic relationships. We somehow think we can acquire happiness and thus inoculate ourselves from the inevitability of the first noble truth.
But this second noble truth is what causes us to truly suffer. It’s our minds and not our circumstances that makes us feel sad, anxious or fearful. Consuming a good meal or glass of wine may grant us momentary happiness, but their pleasurable effects are fleeting. The same with a big house, expensive car or sex. As soon as we get it, we usually want something better or we find the toll such things cause in terms of anxiety – we have to maintain a house and worry about whether it will be broken into, cars break down and need repair, they get scratches and are even destroyed. We eat food, have a drink or engage in sex – the pleasures of life – but we soon want more only to find what we once desired brings us instead frustration, worry and more desire. We want, we get, but then we want even more. We embark on an endless cycle of pursuing happiness because we never discover the keys to satisfaction with life itself.
Our desire for things that don’t last is thus the cause of most suffering, Buddhists believe. The third noble truth of Buddhism, however, offers us those keys to finding contentment. We can eliminate our desires by meditating on and practicing what is permanent and universally good – peace, compassion and generosity. This third truth logically follows from the first two. Most importantly, it is the way to find lasting, soul deep satisfaction. Pleasing our physical selves is the way to instant gratification – but long term misery. Pleasing our essential humanity, our inner selves, offers us the possibility of infinite joy.
And that concept, finding lasting joy, is the theme for this message and my next two. As I’ve announced over the past month, I’ll use as the touchstone for these messages The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If you have not read the book, that’s perfectly fine. I hope there will be insights you gain and thoughts you can share. If you did read the book, I trust you will offer your own interpretation of its primary points.
While it might seem odd that a Buddhist monk and a Christian Archbishop could agree on something as significant as lasting joy, they do. And that speaks to the broad agreements most forms of spirituality have. It also speaks to our Unitarian Universalist belief that people take different paths to find ultimate Truth – be that nirvana, Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Brahmin, the unifying scientific theory of the universe, or whatever. Many paths, as we say, all heading toward the same One goal.
What I related earlier about the beliefs of Buddhism are remarkably similar to those of Christianity and, for that matter, to Judaism and Islam. Dysfunction in the world, these religions believe, comes from selfishness. Our inclinations often lead us to think only of our wants. But when we focus on that which is greater than ourselves – on the essentials of good in the world like love, compassion, peace and gratitude – we approach the ultimate Truth we all seek. For Christians, that is understanding the heart of God and the example of Jesus; for Buddhists its nirvana, for Pantheists and Pagans, it’s oneness with all creation.
As Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama relate in their book, focusing on things that last is how we can find lasting joy. It’s not found in the material things of this world but in the mystical satisfaction of letting go of self and experiencing communion with other people, with nature, and with a deep love for all.
In the first section of the Book of Joy, one that is labeled “the Nature of Joy”, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama quickly find common ground about the definition of joy. It’s not being happy they agree, which is fleeting. Joy is a kind of contentment, satisfaction and peaceful way of life that exists whether we are happy or in pain. It’s an overarching demeanor that continually defines how we talk and act. Desmond Tutu compared it to the kind of deep joy mothers often find after childbirth. Emerging from a cloud of suffering comes a deep wellspring of love for the newborn and satisfaction in nurture and compassion for the child. In some ironic way, suffering is the springboard to real joy – not the momentary happiness at first seeing and holding the infant, but in the contented moments of caring for and serving another human being. If we think about it, raising a child is one of the great sacrifices a human makes. Parents discover lasting treasure in the act of pouring their lives into another. Others discover it in similar ways through serving family, friend or stranger.
The Dalai Lama agreed with the Archbishop on that essential truth. Throughout life we experience pain, but real joy comes in making sense of it through compassion, service and letting go of self. The Dalai Lama dismissed the trials of his own life because, he said, he realized people around the world hurt too. Such knowledge that others are in pain is the means by which we move past it. We become united with all human pain. Our hearts open wide with compassion for others. We are driven to love, serve and give. No longer is life about me, my small pains and the pitiful plans I lay to prevent them. Life is about the well-being of all humanity. It’s about you, my love for you, and the ways you hurt that I might help alleviate. Life is about meeting the purpose for which I was born – to make the world better because I exist. And when I do that, as the Archbishop says, God smiles.
We should ponder that a moment. Whatever we believe God to be, she smiles at our goodness and compassion toward others. And we smile too. Joy is found in that simple but profound experience.
This universal truth about the sacrificial pathway to joy does not mean, both men agree, on total self-denial. We must, the Dalai Lama says, take care of ourselves without doing so selfishly. Compassion, he relates, will not fill his stomach. But when we do eat, we must do so without attachment and selfish desire. Christians believe much the same. We are incapable of serving others if our basic needs are not first met. That’s a small symbolic needle to thread but it’s a task we each must practice. When do I have enough? When should my attentions turn away from me and toward another? When I’m offended or hurt by another, how can that incident become not about my hurt feelings, but about empathy and compassion for the offender? As the Dalai Lama says on page 47 in the book, “Too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.”
To enable compassionate thinking and a reduced focus on the self, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop agree we must train our minds. Joy is a state of being that we learn to achieve. We can undertake mediation, reflection or prayer to turn our minds to thoughts of gratitude – for being loved, finding our life purpose, or for having opportunities to give and serve. We consciously humble ourselves so that in any of our thinking, we do not think of the self – such as: Why am I in pain? Why have my feelings been hurt by another? What pleasures can I find? How much money can I earn? Etc. etc.
Instead, through letting go of our egos, through thinking about others and ways that they hurt, we train our attitude to be outwardly focused. We don’t, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, ask what the world can give us. We ask instead what we can give the world. We simplify our lives and our needs as much as possible. We encounter a stranger on the street and we wish them a good day. We don’t judge and try to improve someone and their flaws. We don’t think we are better then they, or that they unfairly have more than us. We empathize with them, try to understand the why behind their flaws, and then we simply love them.
I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the Book of Joy was written by two men of color. Indeed, the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu have personally suffered extreme oppression because of their skin color. They have also responded with what Desmond Tutu calls righteous anger – the kind that does not focus on the self but is angered in behalf of others. Their call to us is that real joy is found not in a cocoon of indifference, or focus on the self, but in advancing compassion and service to others. This congregation and the UUA in general can live out that teaching in how we respond to inequality and discrimination against all people – especial those of color. That’s a way to build a lasting legacy and in the process create inner satisfaction in the knowledge we served the interests of others. To do that will require deep introspection on how you and I are not only part of the problem but can be part of the solution – through humility, listening and kindness.
Quite simply, joy comes from how we exist in quiet, humble simplicity, in generous gratitude, and in sacrificial serving. Only by pouring out ourselves into others do we ironically pour into ourselves – and thereby find the source of all truth, goodness and joyful well-being.