Lessons from Buddhism
Delivered at the First Unitarian
Church of Los Angeles
by Jennie Sykes Knight
When I studied Zen Buddhism briefly in college, one of our
text books was called Zen mind, Beginners mind. The
idea is that the goal is to cultivate the mind of a beginner,
or, as my karate teacher used to say, come with an empty
The world of Buddhism is vast, diverse and complex. I have
only just begun to study about Buddhism this past month. I
will be visiting different Buddhist temples throughout Southern
California during this fall. I have visited one temple so
far. I have much more to learn, but today I will share with
you the basic truths about Buddhism that I have gleaned from
When I visited the International Buddhist Meditation Center,
which is around the corner from this church on New Hampshire,
I had just begun my readings about Buddhism. I sat down to
talk with Rev. Kusala, a Buddhist monk at the center who some
of you may remember from the talks he has given here.
Rev. Kusalas first question for me was: Do Buddhists
believe in God?
My response was: Thats not the point. The point of Buddhism
is the end of suffering. As Rev. Kusala explained to me, a
person who is content with her or his life may have no use
for Buddhism. Buddhist practice is a labor-intensive process
that is like a medicine from a doctor. It is for relief from
The Buddha told his followers that he had seen and understood
an entire cosmology during his Awakening, but that was not
the most important thing for him to teach. He taught how a
person can attain Awakening and freedom from suffering. That
is the most important teaching. Once they reach Awakening,
they will learn the rest for themselves.
The Point of Buddhism is that we are responsible for achieving
Awakening and for freeing ourselves from suffering. Of course,
we can help each other through guidance and kindness, but
the ultimate responsibility lies with each person to free
her or himself.
When Siddhartha Gautama sat down under a tree at sunset
2500 years ago, he did so at a particular moment in his life
and in a cultural context. The story of the Buddhas
life was written in a mythic form, filling in the gaps from
the earlier scriptures. The legend describes Siddhartha Gautama
as a wealthy young man who had everything a person would need
to be happy in life. As he reached maturity, however, he began
to recognize that he was subject to aging and death.
During his life, great social and intellectual changes in
the plain of the Ganges River in India took place. Sensitive
people began to question traditional values and to be open
to radically new ideas. People called sramanas,
or strivers, began to separate from society and
to live as ascetics and beggars in order to search for truth
through meditation and reason.
Gautama became one of these people. After he began to question
the meaning of life in the face of suffering, he left his
family and all of his wealth at the age of 29 to strive for
the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrow less, undefiled,
unexcelled security from bondage, Nirvana.
With several teachers, Gautama reached the same level of awareness
as his teachers but recognized that their practice did not
lead to nirvana. He then tried to attain enlightenment by
himself, through mortification of his body. He held his breath
even when it caused violent headaches, and he fasted until
he was totally emaciated. He did this until the 6th year after
his renunciation. Realizing that total mortification was not
leading him to liberation, he tried to think of a better way.
He remembered a boyhood experience of absorption in the inner
sense of his body. He was too weak to try this, so he allowed
himself to be fed. This was the first step in his Middle Way
to Awakening. He realized that liberation could not be reached
through abstracted meditation or through total escape from
the body through mortification. He recognized that a
healthy body is necessary for the development of discernment
in order to understand the relationship between the body and
Gautama then sat under a tree at sunset, facing east. The
tree is called the Bodhi Tree, meaning
Tree of Awakening. He resolved not to get up again
until he had reached his goal.
The journey that he took that night led to his achievement
of nirvana, or Enlightenment. What he learned through this
journey was what he went on to teach to others so that they
might also find release from suffering.
The first step on the journey was that Mara, the personification
of death, delusion, and temptation, became alarmed that Gautama
was so close to achieving his goal. He first planted doubts
in Gautamas mind and then attacked him with his ten
armies: sensuality, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving,
sloth and torpor, fear, doubt, hypocrisy, self-exaltation,
and the desire for fame. The Bodhisattva (which means
being who is about to be awakened) recognized the attacks
for what they were and sent them away in defeat.
As the full moon rose, Gautama focused on his in-and-out breathing
and ascended the four stages of meditative absorption. The
fourth serves as a foundation for the six superknowledges:
psychic powers (e.g. walking on water, levitation,) psychic
hearing, knowledge of others minds, memory of ones
former lives, psychic vision, and the ending of the pollutants
of the mind. The pollutants of the mind (or asravas)
are: sensual desire, states of being, views, and ignorance.
It is these pollutants that lead to suffering through attachment.
Gautamas progress through the night went like this:
* from dusk till ten p.m.: he acquired the fourth superknowledge,
and knew his many thousands of previous lifetimes, seeing
them one by one.
* from ten p.m. till 2 a.m., he acquired the fifth superknowledge,
psychic vision. He saw the decease and rebirth of living beings
everywhere. He saw that good karma leads to a happy
rebirth, and evil karma to a miserable one.
* from 2 a.m. till dawn, he acquired the sixth superknowledge.
He reached the ending of the asravas, the pollutants of the
mind. He saw the pattern of how ignorance gives rise to personal
suffering and to the experience of rebirth as a whole.
Gautama became the Buddha or Awakened One on that
Awakened to the cycles of birth and death that are caused
by karma, he escaped from those cycles, He had 45 years of
life left, though, because of karma he had earned in other
lives. He did not create any more karma. Out of compassion
for other beings, he decided to teach others the path to Enlightenment
during his remaining 45 years.
So, what is Karma? I have heard about it but never understood
exactly what it meant. Karma is defined as an intentional
act, performed by body, speech, mind, which---in line with
the intention it embodies- will result in happiness or suffering
in this or a future rebirth. There is a bumper sticker that
is a favorite of mine that may help you to understand this.
It says, My karma ran over my dogma.
Karma works within a complex cosmological system. There are
six major destinies for rebirth. They are: hell, the level
of hungry ghosts (those who wander around on earth and are
never satisfied,) common animals, human beings, spirits, and
Brahmas (gods). To be reborn in hell, as a hungry ghost
or an animal, is the result of evil karma. To reborn as a
human being, a spirit, or a god, is the result of good karma.
So, Buddhists do believe in gods, but even the status of a
god is temporary.
Even the good karma that gets you into heaven runs out eventually.
The bad karma that causes a rebirth in hell is also burned
up in hell eventually. The human realm is the realm in which
karma is worked out, for good or for bad. The radical change
that the Buddha brought about was that of removing ethics
from ritual practice. Intention in the mind is the place where
ethics are worked out.
I spoke to Rev. Kusala about rebirth. I asked how there can
be rebirth if Buddhists do not believe in a traditional
understanding of soul. He explained that what is reborn is
called gandhabbha. A term used for the rebirth-linking
consciousness. The gandhabbha is made up of ones intentions,
speech and action, in other words karmic energy. It is a recognition
that we are made up of processes. We are not static selves.
It is the process that is reborn. It goes through the painful
process of birth and death again and again. It is not a static
self that is reincarnated, or reembodied.
When the Buddha achieved Enlightenment, he escaped from the
cycle of rebirth. What does this mean? Buddhism is often perceived
as nihilistic or depressing. The idea of nirvana and a lack
of soul or self is seen as negative.
Nirvana literally means: the extinguishing of a fire, in the
Pali language. It is not as nihilistic as it sounds
to us, however. In the physics of the Buddhas time,
a fire was understood to be in a state of agitation, dependency,
and entrapment, when it was burning. It was seen to grow calm,
independent and released when it went out. When a fire was
put out, it was freed.
The Buddha used ancient Vedic notions of fire, that
said that a fire did not go out of existence when extinguished,
but simply went into an indeterminate state.
This is the case with Nirvana. It defies all dualism of existent/
It can not be described by language, which is limited by conditions.
It involves complete freedom from all attachments and all
Buddha called the Path to Nirvana the Noble Eightfold Path.
It was his middle way. The eight parts of the Noble Eightfold
Path are: right view, right intention, right speech, right
action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,
and right concentration. Knowledge of the path factors comes
from the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha recognized in his
Enlightenment and preached in his first sermon. They are:
* First, the truth of suffering. Suffering is involved in
every aspect of conditioned existence.
* Second, the truth of the origination of suffering. Suffering
is caused by our craving and striving for sensuality, for
becoming and for holding on to what is.
* Third, the truth of the ending of suffering. Suffering ends
through dispassion, renunciation, and nondependence.
* Fourth, the truth of the path leading to the end of suffering,
So what do the Buddhas experience and teachings have
to say to those of us who are beginners? For myself, the basic
awareness that all thing are impermanent leads to an understanding
that I cause myself and others suffering when I try to clutch
at something and control it to stop it from changing. It seems
to be a pretty basic human trait to fear change, and yet,
the Buddha teaches that change is a fundamental truth of all
existence. If we can accept things as they come, appreciate
them in the moment, and then let them pass by, we will cause
a lot less suffering.
Buddhism teaches awareness and acceptance of change. Change
is a fundamental reality of our conditioned existence.
The concept of not-self also has a profound lessons for all
of us. Our Western understandings of self often keep us from
living in right relationship with each other and with our
environment. When we understand ourselves to be distinct,
static selves, we keep ourselves from the awareness of how
radically interconnected we are. We literally constitute each
other. Our intentions, and not just our actions, have an impact
upon everyone and everything around us. It is our responsibility
to change them through a difficult process of change.
There is a difference between being interconnected and taking
other into ones own ego. With strong ego, and a sense
of ourselves as separate, we tend to relate to other people
as if we are taking them into are own ego.
We perceive them through our own preconceptions and we are
not able to perceive them as they are. An awareness of interconnectedness
leads to unconditional love and compassion, rather than a
conditional love born out of the needs of a ravenous ego.
Buddhism teaches compassion, we are to love all sentient beings
as if they were our own children, unconditionally. When we
give, we need to give with right intention, not with a desire
for the promotion of self. We promote separation and we cause
suffering if we don not give out of an intention of compassion.
There are obviously many lessons in Buddhism for all of us.
The doctor has prescribed medicine to end our suffering, and
we can choose whether or not, or how, we will take it in.