Service: “What Wondrous Love” April 15, 2018 with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
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“Life,” said the Buddha famously, “is messed up. Inherently. From the get-go. Deal with it.” I’m paraphrasing, as usual, but that’s the essence of his insight; everybody is running around the world trying to figure out what we did wrong that is causing us so much pain, and the Awakened One observes that the pain was already there; we were born into it. We didn’t start the fire, so to speak, and the most useful question is not, What did we do wrong? but rather, What do we do now?
We have all been there, I suppose, no matter how privileged our lives. Everyone in this room has confronted some form of loneliness or loss or shattered dreams; we have all walked with friends or loved ones who were ill, or dying, or grieving; each of us has felt the guilt and outrage and helplessness of seeing others – people we don’t even know – mistreated or oppressed. The only way to live a life without pain is to be artificially sheltered from reality, as the prince Siddhartha was by his royal father, until he grew up, and became determined to see the real world. Having come face to face with poverty, sickness and death, Siddhartha decided to get to the bottom of what this meant, and what was to be done about it, so he sat down under a tree to figure it out. Through that act of profound contemplation, he became awakened to the truth about life; that suffering is built into the nature of all impermanent things, including us. And following that realization, there arose in him a sense of infinite compassion, a tenderness that was more than just pity, for all beings in their pain, so that it was not enough for him alone to escape the ache of existence. Rather, it became his task to offer others the same insight that he had gained, so that they, too, might awaken into truth and freedom.
Suffering is one of the challenges that is sometimes posed in arguments with Humanists; how can we bear – or expect other, normal, people to bear – the sad and painful things that happen in everyone’s lives without the consoling belief that god is watching over us, has a plan, will reward us for our patience and acceptance, and can rescue us if things get really bad? This morning I want to suggest that one of the functions of spiritual maturity, toward which I hope we are helping each other to grow in this community, is the ability to confront pain without denial, and to be in the presence of suffering without panic. In the absence of this ability, our feelings of compassion are powerless, and in the end self-indulgent.
At the same time, it is worth remembering that the reality of suffering poses a challenge equally to believers in a god of intention, goodness and power. For if such a god really does love human beings, and had the ability to create whatever world he or she chose, why should there be pain in the first place? I actually think it is easier to accept the notion that the capacity for pain is an artifact of organic evolution, part of our genetic heritage, because without it, creatures would not be alerted to dangerous situations, or motivated to avoid injury and protect others. There is a rare neurological condition that makes an individual unable to experience physical pain, and such people are at great risk, because they don’t know when they are hurting themselves – scratching their eyes, for instance – or doing something injurious, like leaning against a hot stove. It is no gift to be absolutely pain-free, as beings in this world. Yet thousands of years of theological pondering have yet to produce a satisfactory explanation of why a god who could have done otherwise should have created a world in which such suffering would be necessary.
The traditional Humanist response to this dilemma has been to repudiate the question of Why, and ask instead, What can we do to alleviate the pain of the world? How can we solve it, prevent it, medicate it, stop it? This is an instinctive reaction, to our own pain or anyone else’s. Take your hand off the hot stove, remove the splinter, stop walking on the sprained ankle. Yet it is not, as we shall see, a sufficient answer, for depending on the situation, it may be either useless or even counterproductive. When someone you care about is grieving, for instance, or when a whole community of people is living in oppression – in these situations, removing the feeling of pain is really not helpful; it actually prevents the processes that need to happen in order for life to thrive. In fact, this impulse to alleviate the source of suffering so that the pain will cease is one side of the response that I am calling panic. It seems compassionate, but when it is examined closely, often it turns out to be self-serving; I want to fix things, quickly, so that the pain will go away, and neither I nor anyone else will be called upon to deal with it anymore. Yet these quick fixes may not solve anything in the long run, and may dismiss the integrity of an experience, such as grieving for instance, that deserves to be honored.
The other side of panic is the impulse to flee from suffering; to avoid people who are ill or hurting in some way; to distance yourself from the discomfort of your own or someone else’s painful truth. This is why in many traditions it is a religious obligation to visit and care for the sick – because there is a common human tendency to avoid being around those in pain, especially when there may not be anything we can do to fix the problem. Modern western culture is filled with distractions and addictions that serve to deaden our awareness of the suffering around us and within us. Watch TV, or go shopping, or have a few rounds of Jack Daniels, or play some high stakes on-line poker, or a couple of double fudge brownies – all of these trigger our brains to ignore the messages that we are in the presence of pain.
So if the response of panic – the impulse to flee from pain, or to fix it instantly – is a sign of spiritual immaturity, which I would argue that it is, what ARE we supposed to do when we are brought face to face with the suffering of the world? This is where I think that the practice of Tonglen, as it has evolved within the community of the Buddha’s followers, can be helpful. In essence, it teaches that when we are confronted by pain, what we need to do is to breathe – not run away, not make everything all better, but stay present, stay aware, and breathe. If that seems too simple, then you probably haven’t yet totally grasped what is at stake here. For in the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, breathing becomes much more than just a procedure for oxygenating the blood in our veins. In addition, it works as a tool of the imagination, to cultivate the moral quality of our inner lives. This system is handy, because breathing is something we are always doing, as long as we are alive, and so it is always available as an instrument to use in this work.
The description of Tonglen practice that we heard a few moments ago comes from the website of the Naljor Prison Dharma Service, which is to say that these instructions were prepared for hardened, skeptical convicts, who live every day in a setting of both intended and unintended pain. They have little access to prayer beads, or communion wine, or meditation manuals, or stained glass windows or incense or soothing music, but they do have still their breath, and that becomes a tool for practice, when they choose to grow the quality of compassion in their lives. And if that process can work for them, in the constraints of such an environment of multiple layers of anger, violence, and suffering, how easy should it be for those of us who have so many comforts available on every hand? Yet paradoxically, it may be the folks who are best acquainted with sorrow and despair to whom the practice of Tonglen might come most readily, for they have the greatest need of it. Clearly, they cannot flee from their own suffering, or others’, nor do they have many options for fixing anything. You can let that reality ruin your humanity, or you can use it as an opportunity for growth, in prison or anywhere else.
I want to explore four examples of how the practice of Tonglen might work; the technical details are not important, or you can learn more from various references or on line; the concept is what matters. It is always about visualizing suffering as a toxic substance that you can take into yourself, transforming it through your intention into positive energy for peace and well-being, which you then breathe out into the world. As with any form of prayer or meditation, I do not believe that this practice changes the substance of the world. What it changes is the mind and heart of the one who does the practice, enabling him or her to tolerate being in the presence of another person’s pain without needing to fix it instantly or to flee. That capacity for presence is a powerful force of comfort and healing, and that does lead to real change in the world.
So begin with the easiest form of Tonglen, which is to practice with someone who is dear to you. In some sense, this is a way of describing what I used to do when I fed my mother in a nursing home during the final year of her life, bite by bite, but Tonglen in its purest form does not involve any action, but consists purely of being present and breathing. Many cultural and religious traditions summon us to attend to those who are bereaved, sitting with them in Shiva, or the traditional wake. In the Jewish custom in particular, one is instructed to sit down near the mourner, but not to speak unless the bereaved themselves do so. Grief is one of the best examples of pain that no one can fix; as with a physical injury, the body and mind and heart must have time to heal, and in that healing, they will sometimes hurt. So you hold your grieving friend in your thoughts, breathe in, summoning to mind their sadness, letting your heart feel what they might be feeling, and breathe out your love and care for them, your wish for their healing and well being and renewed hope for the future. It will feel strange at first, but if you do this two or three times, maybe for just five minutes each, it will be far easier to spend time with that person when you next see them. You will be less anxious about finding the ‘right’ thing to say, and your presence will be more of a comfort to them.
A somewhat more difficult practice is to do Tonglen for someone you have reason to dislike or distrust. This might be a public figure, like Harvey Weinstein or Steve Bannon or Fred Phelps; it might be someone you have a personal conflict with, like the thief who mugged you, or the boss who is making your work miserable, or the bully who is tormenting your child. The task here becomes to imagine all the sources of pain that might be present in that person’s life, and then breathe in those toxic forces and the suffering they cause, after which you breathe out the intention of peace, wholeness, and goodness for that person. This practice is a moral discipline as well as an emotional one; it asks you to make real not only the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but also the concept of compassion for all beings, in the recognition that the experience of suffering is universal. Again, such a practice is not effective as a way to manipulate that other person’s future behavior, but it will expand your capacity to be a force for healing in the world, which is the part that you legitimately have control over.
Sometimes, of course, the pain that we are most tempted to flee from is our own. It can be very enlightening and even comforting to do Tonglen for ourselves. This means taking our own pain, loss, grief, and suffering as an object of reflection; seeing yourself as if from the perspective of a different person, and sending intentions for peace and well-being to yourself. Often, in our achievement-driven culture, we give less compassion to ourselves than we do to anyone else, even though we need it just like anyone else does. Learning to be gentle and respectful with one’s own pain, to understand and embrace the suffering that comes in our lives and not try to evade or silence it, is an essential part of the journey toward wholeness that each of us must make. Indeed, the connection between ego attachment and suffering may be easier to discern when we are looking at our own experience; when you make the shift between the self-pity of seeing yourself as a victim, to holding yourself in compassion as a being that participates in the all the aspects of life including pain, you move in the direction of wisdom and spiritual maturity.
One of the important aspects of Tonglen is that it does not endorse retreat into victimhood. Rather, it assumes that all beings have the capacity for wholeness and abundant life, and this becomes most significant when applied to situations of injustice and oppression. It is possible to do Tonglen for groups, as well as for individuals; say, for all the refugees in the world, or for the people of Puerto Rico, or for US forces in Afghanistan, or for those experiencing homelessness. In fact, one of the things I notice about this practice is that the more I do it, the more people and groups occur to me for whom I am moved to do it. While Tonglen is not a substitute for the tangible work of justice making, or for practical help to those in need, it creates a mindset that respects the dignity and power of those we would help. So often, privileged groups descend upon communities toward whom they feel pity, perhaps with a dose of guilt added in, and in their anxiety to make the pain, and their own discomfort about that pain, go away quickly, they do exactly the wrong things. This commonly leaves the oppressed communities feeling yet again used and discounted. A more productive, and spiritually mature approach, would be to try to stand in solidarity with marginalized communities, and bear witness to the truth of suffering as they experience it, regardless of one’s own discomfort, until both groups have an opportunity to discern together how best to use power to create change.
The practice of Tonglen is finally only a tool to help human beings overcome the instinct to panic in the face of pain, and either flee from it, or grasp at a premature fix. If we are ever to be genuine sources of wholeness, to find peace of mind and heart in our own lives, or to offer healing and justice to others, we have to learn to stand steady in the presence of suffering, for that is the place where true compassion begins. In order to walk with the friend who has lost a loved one, or is in the midst of serious illness, or coping with a broken relationship, we have to not be intimidated by the awareness that they are hurting. In order to be peacemakers, we need to honor the suffering particularly of those we have learned to discount and hold in contempt, and be steadfast in compassion even when compassion is not returned to us. In order to grow into our own greatest wisdom and wholeness, we must treat our own suffering with respect and tenderness, offering to ourselves as much transforming mercy as we do to others. And in order to bring healing and justice to the oppressed of the world, it is essential that we can endure to hear one another’s stories, and bear witness to the truth of injuries that have been done, before we seek to smooth over the wounds with solutions.
In each of these situations, we are invited to let our individual pain be something that we share in common as human beings in an imperfect world, rather than something that separates us from one another, into victims and oppressors. In the same way, our shared potential for wholeness and well-being unites us, as does the ability to live with intentional compassion, and to work to expand that circle of caring more and more widely to all the beings with whom we partake in the gift of life. The eastern religious traditions have long described this perspective of mutuality as seeing the divine in one another; that what is most life-affirming within one person reaches out to that which affirms life in others, and this is what finally makes the pain we cannot avoid worth enduring. You don’t have to call it god, though some people have done; it’s surely not an old man in the sky, but rather, the presence that we bring to one another; the willingness not to run away from our suffering, but to find the source of power and goodness within the human heart, mind, and spirit – and share it, here, today, together. And that is a wondrous thing, indeed; let’s stand and sing.