Sunday, May 26, 2013

How to act Like an Enlightened Being

This is Part 2 of a talk given at Unitarian Universalist Society: East on May 26.
Buddhist teacher Noah Levine says that everyone has buddhanature – but few chose to do the work to awaken.  And it is work. We have those glimpses of our enlightened nature all the time, but we don’t live from there.

Much of Buddhist practice – from the simplicity of zazen, or Zen Buddhist meditation, to the elaborate bells and drums and thangka paintings used by Tibetan Buddhists – is designed to help us get in touch with our awakened nature for longer stretches of time and to develop familiarity with that feeling – to “bake it into the bones,” as one of my teachers says – so that it becomes our default setting and we go there more easily during our ordinary lives.

I want to focus on the Paramitas, or the Six Perfections. “Paramita” literally means to cross over. These are the actions of awakened beings – they’re also the actions of unawakened beings. The difference is in the intention. I see them as ways to put our Unitarian-Universalist principles into action.

The first is generosity. Nothing new there. Each week we share our gifts during the offering in terms of treasure, and we share our time by being here and our talents in our interactions. Generosity as practiced on the road to enlightenment is a practice of selflessness; we give without reservation or judgment, without wondering whether it’s enough or whether the person sitting next to you saw how much you put in – or whether you put anything in.

“Transcendent generosity is simply a willingness to be open and do whatever is
necessary in the moment, without any philosophical or religious rationale,” writes Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in his book “Rebel Buddha.” In monetary terms, you give what you can afford and what is appropriate. But you also give reassurance, praise where due, a smile. It’s a generosity of spirit, more than anything.

I see this as connected to our principles of recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of all beings, and in promoting justice, equity, and compassion. When we are willing to be with someone simply because we are both human beings, when we give what is needed without regard to how it makes us look or what the reaction will be, when we give because we see that all beings – ourselves and others – share the same nature, we are putting those principles into practice.

The second paramita is discipline. The practice of discipline as a transcendent action is to “maintain a sense of mindfulness and awareness of your actions and the affect of those actions on others,” Ponlop Rinpoche says. He speaks specifically of discipline in
terms of anger – of recognizing when anger is arising in you and stopping before you splatter your anger onto others. In the Vajrayana Buddhist teachings, anger is related to wisdom, so that if you can recognize anger arising, you can see what the wisdom is – an injustice, an insult – and see the wise response that moves the situation toward connection rather than separation.

This connects to the right of conscience and the democratic process. We’ve all seen anger play out in the democratic process in recent years in ways that many of us have found disturbing. Yet that anger is revealing – it’s a fireworks display of internal fears and doubts. If we can be mindful of what we say and how we say it, we can have civilized discourse that allows difference.

The third is patience. Patience, in this light, is not forbearance or endurance. It’s connected with discipline and with the practice of responding rather than reacting. When you react, it’s habitual – you’ve acted that way before. When you respond, you’re in touch with what’s in front of you and acting from that.

Instead of reacting impulsively, Ponlop Rinpoche says, you become curious about the situation. If someone is upset at you, you connect with their emotion – pain, frustration, disappointment -- rather than feeling attacked. “It’s a voice of concern for the pain that is touching you and others equally and the thought of how to relieve it,” he says. 

Again, this practice extends to yourself. When you’re frustrated with your progress, you rely on the practice of patience to stay with the feelings and let the emotion settle so that you can get a clear view of what’s happening. Is something really not working – or are you angry or hurt because you’re not getting instant results? Patience helps you return to balance, brings you back from getting lost in a thicket of emotions or
intellectual thought. In that way, it’s connected to the free and responsible search for truth and to acceptance and encouragement in spiritual growth. Patience says, keep searching. The path is made by walking.

Next is diligence. We may think of diligence as connected with keeping our noses to the grindstone, but Buddhism connects it with delight. It does not mean that we spend all of our time in esoteric practices but that we make all of life our practice. “Diligence is energy, the power that keeps makes everything happen. It’s like the wind, a driving force that keeps us moving along the path. Where does this energy come from? It comes from the enjoyment and satisfaction we experience as we get further into the path.”

This is connected with all the principles as it is with all of life. Do we see the inherent worth and dignity of every being we meet? Do we encourage others to search for truth even if we think we know the answer? Do we support democracy even when we lose?

The fifth paramita is meditation. In Buddhism this is related to specific practices. For
non-Buddhists, though, it means making time for whatever feeds you spiritually, whatever makes you feel whole. If that’s being in nature, make time to do that. If it’s music, carve out time for that. Same for reading, dance, being with others, art, Suduko … only you know what takes you out of your mundane mind and social roles. Do it. In Buddhism, busyness is seen as a form of laziness – you use activity to avoid being with yourself. Setting aside time for what rejuvenates you is as important as attending a committee meeting.

Finally, the last paramita is wisdom or knowledge. This connects with respect for the interdependent web of all existence because that’s the wisdom at work here. Everything is interconnected. That’s what we’ve learned from diligently and consistently working with generosity and patience and mindfulness, from seeing that all of our actions have consequences for ourselves and others. It is a gnosis, a knowing that is beyond words.

Jack Kornfield says that we exist in an interconnected web of “wholeness amidst a sea of Buddhas, visible whenever we open the eyes of love and wisdom.”

He writes:

Years ago, Ram Dass went to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, to ask, “How can I best be enlightened?” His guru answered, “Love people.” When he asked about the most direct path to awakening, his guru answered, “Feed people. Love people and feed people. Serve the divine in every form.” …

Service is the expression of the awakened heart. But whom are we serving? It is ourselves. When someone asked Ghandi how he could so continually sacrifice himself for India, he replied, “I do this for myself alone.” When we serve others, we serve ourselves. The Upanishads call this “God feeding God.”
It’s the same if you say buddhas feeding buddhas. Or humans feeding humans. Our enlightenment happens when we see that all beings are enlightened, in their nature if not their actions, and we meet their enlightened nature with our own.

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