Dharma Blossoms

The Rev. Lynn Ungar writes these words for Flower Communion:
What a gathering — the purple
tongues of iris licking out
at spikes of lupine, the orange
crepe skirts of poppies lifting
over buttercup and daisy.
Who can be grim
in the face of such abundance?
There is nothing to compare,
no need for beauty to compete.
The voluptuous rhododendron
and the plain grass
are equally filled with themselves,
equally declare the miracles
of color and form.
This is what community looks like —
this vibrant jostle, stem by stem
declaring the marvelous joining.
This is the face of communion,
the incarnation once more
gracefully resurrected from winter.
Hold these things together
in your sight—purple, crimson,
magenta, blue. You will
be feasting on this long after
the flowers are gone.
This year our Flower Communion, as it often does in this congregation, coincides with the Memorial Day Weekend. We are also, as we usually don’t do, observing Vesak – so, along with our flowers, I will talk today about the flowering of the dharma – dharma blossoms.

The Buddhist festival Vesak was last Thursday (Thu May 23, 2024) – on the day of the full moon. Buddhist festivals go back for centuries, but they have been local and highly variable from place to place. The first conference of the newly-formed World Fellowship of Buddhists was held in 1950, in Sri Lanka. With representatives from 27 countries, the conference decided that Buddha’s birthday would be celebrated on the full-moon day in May. We don’t know the actual birthday of Siddhartha Gotama, the person who would become known variously as Shakyamuni, Tathagata, Bhagavan, and Buddha. For that matter, we don’t know the actual birthday of Jesus either. The early Christian church celebrated Jesus' birthday in April for a while, then in June, before settling on a date that would allow for co-opting pagan yule celebrations.

The very word “Buddhism” was coined by Western scholars in the nineteenth century. The word "Buddha" is an ancient word, meaning "awake one" -- or perhaps, in contemporary parlance, "woke" -- but neither "Buddhism" nor "Buddhist" have an equivalent in Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, or Tibetan – the languages in which were written the literature that Westerners called “Buddhist.” That literature propounds dharma: the teachings, the way, the truth, the law, reality.

Once Westerners had made clear to these followers of the dharma that what they were was something called Buddhists, they digested that for a while and then started adapting and adopting some of the institutional denominational forms of the Westerners, including forming this World Fellowship of Buddhists in 1950.

I’m a Zen student and practitioner, and a founder and leader of Zen centers for over 20 years. In El Paso, I started and for four years led the Border Zen Center. In Gainesville, Florida, I started and for seven years led the Dancing Crane Zen Center. In White Plains, New York, I started and for ten years led the Boundless Way Zen Center of Westchester. When I moved here to Iowa not quite a year ago I did not establish a Zen center, so for the first time since 2002, I’m not leading a zen group. I expect I will again, eventually, lead a group, but for now, I’m enjoying having a couple years of sabbatical from that – practicing and studying on my own at home and sitting in as a visitor when I can with the Des Moines Zen Center, and occasionally dropping in on our own Awakening Hearts Sangha which meets via Zoom only on Monday evenings.

Zen is the Japanese word which comes from the Chinese word Chan, which comes from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation. Zen Buddhism is Buddhism in which the primary practice is to sit down and shut up. Don’t concentrate on anything in particular, and don’t try to stifle thinking – just notice what thoughts do come up, and let go of them. Instead of riding on a train of thought from station to station, as the mind tends to like to do, when you notice, “oh, I’m thinking about . . . whatever” . . . release the thought.

It’s never long before another one comes along. Where did it come from? Beyond the general fact that it came from your 100 billion neurons trying to take care of you, there’s no telling where it came from. Just notice that that thought has arisen, and release it rather than jumping on for the ride. Why would you do this?

In my years of leading Zen groups, I’ve greeted many newcomers, and guided them in getting started on the path. People show up at a Zen Center because they think something is wrong with them, their life is broken in some way, and they have somewhere heard something that leads them to suppose that this practice might fix them. What they begin to see, if they’ll sit down and shut up for 20 or 30 minutes once or twice a day, most days, is that they aren’t broke, never have been, and don’t need fixing. We have a hard time believing that, so, those of us who keep at it do so in order to keep re-learning, re-remembering that we are, in fact, whole and perfect exactly as we are.

Strangely, this does end up easing our suffering.

If you take a story about a creator of the universe who is also a law-giver and whomp it up into a religion – that is, add priests with distinctive robes esoteric knowledge that took years of study, which means designating scripture for them to study, and also add special buildings called temples where formalized rituals are enacted, well, you get something rather like Judaism. If you then add to that an eschatology – a story about end times and a second coming – and whomp it up into a religion with priests, scripture, temples, and rituals, you get something like Christianity. But if you take a therapy – a set of practices and treatments for helping people suffer less – and whomp it up into a religion -- adding priests, temples, and so forth – then that’s basically how Buddhism formed.

It’s possible to peel back the religious womping, for those who want it peeled back. Mindfulness based stress reduction, for instance, is the dharma – it’s the teachings and practices of what Westerners dubbed “Buddhism” – but without priests or temples, and with selected scripture re-written in modern language without attribution to its ancient sources -- and without calling itself “Buddhism” because that word, though invented scarcely 200 years ago, is understood to denote a religion.

Indeed, mindfulness and meditation and the insights of the dharma afford spiritual deepening available to anyone of any religion. Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, and atheists and quite a number of Unitarians have all found their religious experience and awareness expanded through sitting down and shutting up, cultivating mindfulness, and reading and talking about dharma teachings. You don’t have to change your religion in order to take up Zen practice and gain the insights of 1500 years of Zen masters. Some Zen practitioners adopt Zen as their religion, others don’t. Those who do find in Zen a complete religion of practice, teachings, experience, and community. Zen – and, indeed, the Buddhist tradition generally -- is available to people of any, or no, religion, as a practice of wisdom, compassion, living in the present moment, and realizing your true self.

So what teachings can I pick out to lift up for you today? The Awakening Heart Sangha has shared with us two helpful teachings from the Mahayana Sutra, "The Eight Realizations of Great Beings" (Taisho Number 779). (It's a short sutra -- 597 words in Thich Nhat Hanh's English translation. Read it HERE.) The members of Awakening Heart Sangha highlighted two of the eight realizations: that excessive desires cause suffering, and that the mind’s tendency to never feel fulfilled, to insatiably, constantly strive for more can make problems for us. To build on that excellent beginning, or to provide some further grounding for it, let’s look at the customary starting point of Buddha dharma, and that is what is called the four noble truths, as laid out in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dharma Sutra"). Tradition has it that this was the Buddha’s first talk after he had his great awakening.

The first of the four noble truths, as laid out in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is: Life involves dukkha. Dukkha is generally translated as suffering, or stress, or dissatisfaction. The original reference is to a wheel where the hub, to spot where the axel goes into the wheel, is off center. Imagine you’re riding in a cart where the axel isn’t centered on the wheel. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. So life involves dukkha means life is a bumpy ride.

What Buddha actually says in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is this, as Stephen Batchelor translates:
“This is dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha.”
But are those things actually suffering? Or can we learn to bear them with equanimity? To answer that question, we turn to another sutra – the Sallatha Sutta -- the two arrows sutra. It says:
“Monks, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings – a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a person with an arrow, and then they would strike that person immediately afterwards with a second arrow, so that the person would feel a feeling caused by two arrows. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling he feels two feelings – a bodily one and a mental one....

Monks, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a person with an arrow, but they would not strike that person immediately afterwards with a second arrow, so that the person would feel a feeling caused by one arrow only. So too, when the instructed noble disciple is contacted by a painful feeling he feels one feeling – a bodily one, not a mental one.”
The key teaching here is that our suffering arises not just from what happens to us – that’s the first arrow – but from our reactions and interpretations of those events. An untrained mind amplifies and proliferates the suffering – which amounts to getting struck by a second arrow. It’s our nonacceptance – “I don’t want this! I don’t want this! I don’t want this! This shouldn’t be happening!” -- that makes the suffering much worse, like being hit with a second arrow after the first.

The first arrow cannot be avoided. Life is going to pierce us from time to time. The practice however teaches us how to dodge that second arrow of our reactivity. Notice that dukkha is the first arrow. Recall what the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta said: “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha.” There is no avoiding any of that. We can learn to receive these arrows with equanimity rather than with reactivity and thereby avoid the second arrow.

Dukkha is the first arrow; it’s unavoidable. Reactivity is the second arrow; it’s avoidable.

There’s a passage from the Upajjhathana Sutta that is regularly recited at many Buddhist and Zen centers under the title: “The Five Remembrances”:
“I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closes companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.”
Those are the five remembrances. And the first three are: old age, sickness, and death are unavoidable. You’ll remember that those are things explicitly identified as dukkha. “Aging is dukkha; sickness is dukkha; death is dukkha.” Those are things that there is no escaping.

First noble truth: life involves dukkha. Second noble truth: the arising of craving. Quoting Stephen Batchelor’s translation, this is the second noble truth:
“This is the arising: it is craving, which is repetitive, wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulges in this and that – craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.”
This is often interpreted as saying craving causes the dukkha, but I don’t think that’s right. Craving is our reaction to the fact of dukkha. Birth, aging, sickness and death aren’t caused by craving. But birth, aging, sickness, and death cause us to react against them, to crave that dukkha go away. The text is not saying that craving causes dukkha; it's saying the dukkha causes craving.

The first noble truth tells us about the first arrow: that’s dukkha. The second noble truth tells us about the second arrow that follows after the first: our reactive craving. Remember: the first arrow is unavoidable; the second arrow is avoidable. Which takes us to the third noble truth: the ceasing.
“This is the ceasing: the traceless fading away and ceasing of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, trans. Stephen Batchelor)
We all have times when we’re calm, relaxed, all our needs are met, and we aren’t reactive. The training, the practice, is learning to be that way more of the time – to dwell more continuously in the ceasing.

So the fourth noble truth, then, is the eightfold path for training ourselves in equanimity, acceptance, the ceasing of reactivity, the avoiding of that second arrow. Stephen Batchelor’s translation reads:
“And this is the path: the path with eight branches – complete vision, complete thought, complete speech, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, complete concentration.”
What I’ve been saying is illustrated by a parable from the Buddhist tradition.

The Buddha is traveling around giving talks. One day after his talk, a farmer comes to visit him. The farmer says, “I attended your public talk. It was beautiful; I was moved. Please help me with my problems.”
And the farmer started listing his problems: some of his cows got diseases; the grain market wasn’t consistent; fertilizer prices kept going up; his spouse was sometimes contrary; his children wouldn’t do what he told them; the neighbor’s dog was harassing his chickens.
Finally, the Buddha interrupted him and said, “You have 83 problems.”
This gave the farmer pause, and he said, “I hadn’t counted them, but that sounds about right.”
The Buddha said, “I can’t help you with any of them.”
The farmer was incredulous and angry. "You’re this great, renowned spiritual teacher, and you can’t help me with any of my problems? What good are you?”
Buddha said, “You will always have 83 problems. Sometimes you can solve one of them, or it goes away by itself, but another one pops up to replace it. Always 83. However, perhaps I can help with the 84th problem.”
The farmer said, “What’s the 84th problem?”
The Buddha said, “You think you should have no problems.”

Life IS problems. Call them “challenges” if you like, but problems they are: one after another, and always about 83. Another name for these problems is: life. We’ll always have them – approximately 83 of them, according to the Buddha. But if we crack the 84th problem, then we accept that our problems belong -- they come from being the sort of animal we were made to be. If we meet the problems with open hearts, and love them -- if we are curious about the problems instead of resentful of their presence, interested in where they came from and where they are inviting us to go -- then the problems are not the obstacles we took them to be. They are not the obstacle -- they are the path.

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