Enough Is Enough – Dialectic Two Step

Posted by in Dialectic Two-Step, Writings

Estimated reading time: 41 minute(s)

The following is the text of the sermon I delivered on August 14th at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading:

Enough is Enough! [tone: I am fed up with the injustice of it all]

Enough is Enough! [tone: Be content with what you have]

What a difference inflection and tone can make in the turn of a phrase.

The first expressed frustration. It implies injustice and action? It is a call to stick up for ourselves or help those who are victims; to intervene on behalf of those who are deprived a fair shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To quote the Rev. Dr. King, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

This is good advice, but like any simple advice, it can fall short.

The second is the timeless message to find happiness in what’s available. From the Buddha to the Quakers you will find this wisdom expressed in sacred texts all over the world. Happiness doesn’t come out of more, more, more. In gratitude you can find contentment.

This is also good advice, but like any simple advice, it can fall short.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Andy Furst. I’ve been a member of this Church for about 15 years. Most folks know me as the leader of the Buddhist Meditation Group that meets here Monday evenings at 7:15. I’ve also written 2 books on the topic. So if you haven’t figured it out yet, today’s sermon will be from that perspective.

The Big Bang

For those aren’t familiar with it, the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment ends with a bang. After six years as a wandering beggar and renunciate, Siddhartha Gautama – the soon to be Buddha – made his way to a place in India called Bodh Gaya. There, beneath an ancient fig tree, he resolved to finally conquer suffering. So he settled into a deep state of meditation.

At dusk, Mara, the chief of the Hindu demon pantheon, and Siddhartha’s lifelong nemesis, sensed his coming enlightenment. Mara set out, as he always did, to distract him from his goal.

He conjured a host of demon warriors to attack him with spears, arrows, and fire. But, through the force of concentration, these weapons were transformed to beams of radiant light. Boulders, even mountains were hurled upon him. But to Siddhartha, these delusions appeared as a gentle shower of fragrant flowers.

Enraged, Mara changed tactics. He paraded his beautiful daughters in front of Siddhartha and they went about seducing him. They promised him pleasures and riches. The Buddha combatted these delusions with even deeper concentration.

Just before the dawn, his armies surrounding him, Mara challenged Siddhartha, “I am a god, the seat of enlightenment belongs to me, not to some mere mortal” My warriors attest to this. You, have no witness.

At this point the Buddha reached down and touched the earth. In response, the earth spoke, “I bear you witness” and Mara and his army vanished. With the rising sun, the Buddha realized enlightenment.

Choices

Enough is Enough! [tone: I am fed up with the injustice of it all] 
Enough is Enough! [tone: Be content with what you have] 

I’m tinkering with this play on words to reflect on the notion of balance. I want to explore what balance means and what a real challenge it is.

With this device, I’ve created a false dichotomy. Hopefully it’s so transparent, that even a child can see through it. We’ll see.

So let’s set it up and knock it down.

On one side, there is the view that we are the masters of our domain. We hold the key to our own contentment. The is the view of personal responsibility. I’ll borrow Sylvia Boorstein’s 2008 title to encapsulate the idea – “Happiness is an inside job”.

On the other extreme, is the view that we’re victims. Our happiness is under siege by the powerful and the institutions they control. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements are good examples of this view.

So here’s the choice.

On one side, we decide our own fate, on the other, we are victims in an unjust world.

Which is it?

The answer – of course – is both.

Down the Middle

Buddhist philosophy rejects these false dichotomies. It’s called the teaching of the middle way; or the Madhyamika. It is such an important idea that it’s baked onto the mythology of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

As a Buddhist, I think it’s a good story. But you might be surprised to hear why. It doesn’t strengthen my faith in a larger than life Buddha. Instead, I see it as a masterful work of irony.

Let’s dig in.

In the readings we were introduced to the eastern problem of suffering.

The problem is not that we suffer,
It’s that we do not see it’s causes.

When we do not [see its causes],
there is a longing,

for some
thing.

This longing can take us to strange places. It creates a hole in our heart that we are driven to mend. We seek wholeness in pleasure, in objects, in relationships, and if we don’t find it, some will even turn to the supernatural.

This is the problem of suffering. The middle way is a tool to combat suffering and heal our broken hearts.

Riches to Rags

Siddhartha Gautama was born into the opulent life of a prince. Before his birth, a sage predicted that he would become either a great king or a great spiritual master.

Knowing he would choose the spiritual path if he encountered the problem of suffering, his father tried to shield him from it. The sick, the aged, and those near death were forbidden in court. No pleasure was denied him. When he tired of one thing, something else was put in its place.

But, as we all know, suffering always makes itself known.

For some reason Siddhartha, responded radically.

He dropped out. He dropped out in a very big way. He abandoned his family, including his newborn son, and his throne. He traded worldly pleasures for a begging bowl and a ragged robe. Suddenly and drastically, he cut ties with the world. A world that he now believed was the cause of his suffering.

There. Do you see it. It’s another false dichotomy. On one side is the lavish life of a prince. On the other, a complete rejection of it. Hedonism versus asceticism. Eat or don’t eat. The middle way tells us that this is a lousy set of choices. We can do better than that.

Crazy Talk

I really want this image of the Buddha as an ascetic to sink in.

It’s stark and disturbing. One day, he simply turned his back on the world and walked away. Not just moving from the palace to the woods, but in every aspect of life.
What would that look like today? Imagine a prophet, right here, right now. Imagine Isaiah, from the Hebrew scriptures, who wandered around naked, was sitting right next to you? Unshowered. Contemptuous of your life and everything meaningful to you. Did I say naked yet?

The Buddha wandered the forests of the Indian subcontinent adopting the rugged ascetic practices of the time. I don’t mean getting up early and praying a lot. Indian ascetics have set the bar for prophetic insanity. Even now in the 21st century.

In 1970 Indian Sadhu Amar Bharati raised his right hand in devotion to Siva. He then kept it aloft for 38 years. His arm became a useless, deformed, petrified stump hovering over his shoulder. That’s the bar.

The Buddha excelled at these ascetic practices. He was not right. Seriously not right. As UU’s, we are special brand of weird. But we’re not Isaiah weird and we’re not Buddha weird. Right?

Has that sunk in?

Down In History

Back to the story.

Siddhartha, was nearing the conclusion of the renunciate path. Abandon by his companion asceticss who wrote him off as crazy, emaciated and near death, he was discovered by a young woman who took pity on him. She fed him a bowl of rice and nursed him back to health. Hallelujah! Rejoice!

This young women, neither a spiritual master nor a great ruler, deftly applies the teaching of the middle way – a.k.a. common sense. She provides the basis for the great Zen aphorism “When you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep.” Hallelujah!

In many ways, I think the story could end right there. It’s a happy ending. The radical Siddhartha survives and later goes on to achieve enlightenment. Hallelujah!

But, at this point in the story, if there is a hero, it’s not the Buddha. The heroine is a nameless, wise, compassionate young woman who rescued a radical with a bowl of rice. Hallelujah!

She saved a fanatic who was about to die for his beliefs. This is the equivalent of talking a modern suicide bomber out of detonating their vest. Hallelujah!

The Buddha was a fanatic, not a wise and compassionate saint.

But the story doesn’t end here. It can’t. Nobody has learned a lesson and the moral still needs to be fleshed out.

Fanatics

2500 years after the Buddha, we live in a world that is still plagued by fanatics. In my lifetime I’ve witnessed hundreds of examples of religious and political fanaticism. From the Branch Davidians of Waco Texas to Jim Jones in Guyana. From Al Qaeda to Timothy McVeigh. Pol Pot to Charles Manson.

Typically, these fanatics only manage to influence small groups of people. But Germany and Cambodia serve as chilling examples of how tyrants can take control of nations with tragic effects.
Has no one heard William Ellery Channing’s admonition?

To let the spiritual,
unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common.
Have we learned nothing about fanaticism?

Enough is Enough! [tone: I am fed up with the injustice of it all] 
Enough is Enough! [tone: Be content with what you have] 

We can’t solve the bin Laden size problems of the world head on. As Hafiz reminds us:

Am I a sinner or a saint,
Which one shall it be?
Hafiz holds the secret of his own mystery…

Too Far Gone

And so the bin Ladens and Hitlers of the world often find themselves on the wrong end of a gun. Too far gone to be convinced of their madness, they die a violent death.
Like a disease, we can only inoculate against fanaticism one person at a time. On his deathbed, the Buddha pointed this out and offered this. “Be a lamp unto yourself”. The only mind you can save is yours.

Understanding any problem starts in the here and now. We have to experience the problems and work out the solutions in our own world. Lucky for us, there are no shortage of opportunities.

The world offers plenty of advice on how to raise our children; How to lose weight; Who to vote for. Usually the advice is polarizing and requires a dramatic shift.

As some of you know my family made some unconventional choices on raising our kids. Let’s use that as a place to start.

My generation has earned the nickname helicopter parents. We have very different standards for our children than our parents did for us. My daycare was my backyard and a set of rules. Until I was a teenager, the system worked well. I generally kept my nose clean.

But the 1970’s had plenty to offer a curious teenager. While on average I managed to make good decisions, I did well enough in school, and avoided any serious trouble, I got my nose dirty.
In my twenties, as I followed my passion for music in a punk rock band, the decision making got dicier. I did less well in school and just narrowly averted some serious consequences.

My kids have had a much different experience. They live in a world that is filled with activities and structure that on one hand has offered them some rich life experience, but on the other it’s robbed them of opportunities to find and get into trouble. Opportunities that I took and learned from.

Has my generation somehow damaged our children? Were we damaged by our parents?

Pause.

Can you see the false dichotomy here? Is it clear? Is it simple?

Are we damaged or are we not? What an awful question. This bogus choice distorts our view and shackles us to a terrible set of options. In this example it happens on at least three levels.

First – If we assume that the choices are that we are either damaged or undamaged, we’re completely overlooking the beautiful complicated messiness of life in the in between.

Second – By drawing our focus towards blame and victimhood, we remove our autonomy to adapt to the world. Do you see how being drawn into victimhood is unhelpful? Sure, we may be victims, but not always. And we can learn and respond to our vulnerability.

Third when we adopt this static view of either or– we are ignoring the root cause of all suffering here – change.

Thinking back to the reading on suffering:

What changes? Everything changes.

When we see this, love finds an everlasting fuel.

When we do not, there is a longing,

One moment we may be a victim, another we may take advantage of someone else, other times neither.

We need to be a little more sophisticated and look past the either or view. If we have any power in the world, it is in our choices. We must use the power we have wisely.

That’s Better

Here’s how I see it. Yes, my family was dysfunctional. Most likely, yours was too. We all carry scars from childhood. So what do we do? We find communities of people in which we feel supported, we find treatment and justice if necessary, and we make a conscious choice to seek happiness.

This, damaged/not damaged approach morally barren. It’s an eye opening example of how these false choices can be so fundamentally misleading.

So let’s follow Siddhartha’s story to its conclusion.

After he recovered, he had to have seen himself as a failure. He’d followed the life of a renunciate faithfully to its conclusion. That’s hard work. What did he get in return? He lost his family, his riches, and his throne. And, it didn’t work.

Miraculously the story arc leads us to the fig tree in Bodh Gaya. With the rising sun, Siddhartha saw the light. He achieved enlightenment and was reborn as the Buddha.

Happy ending, lesson learned, sure. But, what I find so compelling about this story is where and how the message was delivered. It doesn’t happen under the Bodhi tree. It happens, with no shortage of irony, in Siddhartha’s failure.

Bad Boys

Enough is Enough! [tone: I am fed up with the injustice of it all] 
Enough is Enough! [tone: Be content with what you have] 

The Buddha could easily be the antagonist in this story. The spoiled prince turned fanatic.

The parallels to Osama bin Laden should not be lost on us.

So there is one last question I want us to ponder.

Why do we idolize the Siddharthas of the world? We praise the Isaiahs and the Buddhas. But if they sidled up to us at coffee hour, we’d be drumming up excuses to leave.
In his book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a reason.

“It is said that God has created man in his own image. But it may be that humankind has created God in the image of humankind.”

Remember, the real hero of the story? That little girl who rescued Siddhartha with a bowl of rice? This young woman who we might call the matriarch of the Buddhist tradition is glossed over and left nameless to history.

We connect with the character of the Buddha. Why?

Just look at our world and look at our own nature. 2500 years of this and similar stories, and we are still prone to extremism. We identify as Christians or atheists, liberals or conservatives, capitalists or socialists, and so on. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ran for president (in the same country) and they both fared well?

In our weaker moments we fall prey to our particular isms. Even though we know better. If we take it to the subtlest level, our approach to happiness is usually biased in one direction or the other.

Reflecting back on the two meditations, did you prefer the inward or the outward approach to bliss? I have my preferences. Of course we know that a wholesome spiritual practice requires the marrying of both. But, and this is the point, we gravitate towards the poles.

This is why the enlightenment story does, and must, identify Siddhartha as the hero. The spoiled prince turned fanatic finds redemption. He transcends the radical approach and finds the middle way.

This, like all hero stories, is our story. As the protagonist we must find our own path, our own answers, and our own enlightenment. It is a never ending series of choices and it’s not always easy. As Glen Thomas Rideout reminds us:

Because your story is forever changing,
you must sing forever.

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Dialectic Two-Step  is an ongoing series of my thoughts on questions that come my way.

Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two. - Octavio

Dialectic Two Step, Modern Koans, Verse Us, Say What?, and Minute Meditations all copyright Andrew Furst

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Andrew Furst

Author of two books, Poet, Meditation Teacher, Buddhist blogger, backup guitarist for his teenage boys, lucky husband and technologist
Andrew Furst
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