Nirvana is a Clearing in the Forest

(A Tale of What Happened to Me in Chicago.)

Erin Don GKids

Opening Words – Buddhist Heaven and Hell


Our opening words are about heaven and hell, nirvana and samsara.  A Zen story we’ve shared here before:

A samurai approached the monk Hakuin and demanded, “I want to know about heaven and hell. Do they really exist?”

Hakuin looked at the samurai and asked, “Who are you to ask such a question?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” said Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such things? You are merely a soldier, a brute.   Go away and don’t waste my time with your foolish questions!”

The samurai was enraged by the monk’s insult. He drew his sword to kill him.  But the monk said, “This is hell.”

The samurai took a step back. His face softened. He was humbled by the monk’s wisdom and compassion.  He put away his sword and bowed.

“And this is heaven,” said the monk.

 “What Happened to Me When”

I’m going to try something a little different this morning – different for me at least.

My first sermon here a couple of years ago was, What Happened to Me When I was Building Our Little House on the Prairie.  Working late at night at the construction site, watching the stars and planets and the Milky Way wheel slowly overhead, feeling the immensity of time and space and my own nothingness..  What happened?  I stopped going to church.

Next was What Happened to Me When I thought my daughter had drowned in a riptide at Rehobeth.  And I knew it was my fault.  And she thought I had drowned trying to save her, and it was her fault.  What happened?  Well, neither of us drowned.  But a few years later, we peeked through the windows here at UUFE, liked what we saw, and went back to church for the first time in 15 years.

What Happened to Me on Election Night.  Remember? I met my neighbors for the first time.

What Happened to Me at the Solstice.  I reconnected with my Christian roots.

What Happened to Me in India.  I learned about death, uncertainty, and letting go.

You probably see what’s happening here – a “sermon rut”.  So when Rev. Sue asked for a volunteer for this Sunday, and none of you raised a hand, I said, OK I will.  And she suggested, “Maybe you could talk about something other than yourself this time?”

So this time I will do something different.  I will preach about religion – Buddhist doctrine, in fact.  And Buddhist belief and practice.  But to put this in perspective, I first want to tell you…

What Happened to Me in Chicago

… two weeks ago when I traveled there with Rita.

We have two sons and their wives and four grandkids in Chicago.  Soon after we arrived, I was talking with one of our daughters-in-law, Erin, about our plans to get the families together over the weekend.  This can be very difficult.  And Erin and I are still getting to know each other better.  So it was with some reservation that Erin mentioned that she would be going to church on Sunday morning.

Maybe Erin was uncertain how I would respond.  Because one thing she does know about me is that I am the fifth-generation Mormon partriarch who led the family – her husband and four siblings and my dear wife – out of Mormon society and all religion for good.  So she was probably surprised when I responded by asking, “Can you take me to church with you on Sunday?”

Erin hesitated, maybe wondering about my motive.  So I added, “I have to give the sermon at our UU church in a few weeks, and I’m still working out some details.  Maybe this will give me some ideas.”

On Sunday morning, Erin was driving us toward downtown on the Dan Ryan Expressway. She asked, “Have you decided on a topic for that sermon?”

“Yes, I was thinking of, What Happens to Me Every Time I Hit the Send Button Too Soon.”

“UU sermons are about stuff like that?”

I thought I should say more. “UUs don’t hold onto much Truth with a capital T.   So when I do a sermon, I just tell stories. They don’t have to be true.  Just thoughtful.  But this time, our minister asked me to not talk about myself again.  So I changed the title to Nirvana is a Clearing in the Forest.”

“Oh, so it’s about Nirvana. Like, Buddhist heaven?”  Then she asked, “Are you a Buddhist?”

Actually, I am not a Buddhist

That is what I told Erin. And she must be thinking, “How can you preach on Buddhism if you’re not even a Buddhist?”

I told her, “I’ll do a short Buddhism 101 talk, like a book report — Cliff Notes.”

I will be quoting and paraphrasing the Buddhist lay teacher, Stephen Batchelor.  Batchelor was ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the 70s, he lived and studied in Korean Zen monasteries in the 80s, and he left the Buddhist priesthood in the 90s.  Since then, he has has been writing and teaching a secular, non-mystical, interpretation of Buddhism.  His book Buddhism Without Belief caught my attention right after I had abandoned all of my own Christian beliefs.  My sermon will quote extensively from his most recent book, After Buddhism, Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age.

Batchelor seeks to discover and write about the real Gotama – Gotama the man –  before he was transformed into the Buddha.  How do you find the real Gotama?  Well, that goes way beyond Buddhism 101.  But basically, you ignore anything that could have been said by any holy man in India in 600 BC.  Also, you wink at stories and passages in Buddhist scriptures that require a lot of explanation by a trained monk.  And pay close attention to stories and teachings that are unambiguous and easy to apply to our daily lives. Gotama’s authentic voice, according to Batchelor, is not only pragmatic but often skeptical.  That kind of voice speaks to me.

I wondered if Erin is thinking, “If the Buddha is stripped of his divinity and is just Gotama the man – just another teacher in ancient India – then what is so special about him?   How is he different from any other life coach or therapist you can hire over the Internet?”

Do you believe in a higher power?

Whatever Erin was thinking, what she asked was, “So, you don’t really believe in a higher power, do you?”

I said, “Funny you should ask. I am struggling with how to put this sermon together. Because I will be walking the thin line between “No, Not Any More” and “Maybe Yes”.

“No, Not Any More” is an affirmation that I don’t believe any more in gods or saviors, heaven, or mystical powers.

And “Maybe Yes” or “Maybe I Wish I Could” is an expression of longing for lost innocence.

This probably didn’t make much sense to Erin. It didn’t make much sense to me, either.  So I tried to explain with some Buddhist buzzwords in ancient Pali and Sanskrit.  And I tried to contrast the orthodox Buddhist definition to what Batchelor said that Gotama the man really taught.  Like:

Karma is not an irresistible force built up through previous lives.  It is just my life here and now, when it’s controlled by routine or reactivity.

Dukkha is usually translated as suffering.  And it comes with the claim that I can end my suffering, if I follow the Buddha’s path.  But Gotama really taught that the path to Nirvana is to totally embrace suffering, to understand it fully and deeply.  Not just my own suffering, but the universal suffering and death that make life ironic and tragic.

Emptiness is not a truth—let alone an ultimate truth— but a way to live with our eyes open, to see ordinary things as though for the first time.

Rebirth or reincarnation is a metaphor that Gotama used to teach about the repetitive life I live right now, every day, locked into cycles of reactive behavior.

The Deathless of which Gotama often spoke is not about an Afterlife.  It is the ending of greed, hatred, and confusion in this life. Gotama did not think of the deathless as immortality, but as the positive absence of reactivity.  Deathless is another word for abundant life — another name for Nirvana.

And Gotama did not really teach that there is no Self.  Instead, he taught that I will never find a royal, powerful self that controls its own destiny.  At anyway, Gotama was more interested in what people can do, not in what they are.

And what did Gotama the Man teach about Nirvana? He taught that …

Nirvana is a clearing in the forest

Nirvana is the sudden opening up of a space within my experience, where my habitual inclinations die down, and reactivity fades away. Then I can glimpse how I am free to act in a way that is not determined by my reactivity.  Instead, I can use practical reason to decide on another kind of future. But these moments in Nirvana and Emptiness will vanish almost as soon as they appear.

I concluded my Buddhism 101 lecture to Erin by quoting Batchelor:  “Gotama the man had no interest in describing what reality is. He did not care about metaphysics or the nature or meaning of reality. He wanted us to start paying attention to the parts of our experience that we habitually overlook or ignore.

“Gotama did not see himself as teaching anything new that was the result of his own peculiar insight or genius. He acknowledged that he had worked out something both universal and accessible: a fully human way of life grounded in an embrace of life the way it actually is, and a release from reactivity, and the peace and satisfaction that come from being aware that reactivity has ceased.”

And then I surprised myself by adding:  “And I believe in Him.”

I don’t believe in miracles and saviors any more.  So, why would I say that?  Gotama himself didn’t think much of miracles and saviors. The only “miracles” which he approved of were compassion and teaching.  What is truly miraculous, he felt, is that human beings can learn to think and act differently and thereby transform themselves.

And that is one miracle I still want to believe in.

Our God is Three in One

We drove awhile more without saying much.  Across the Chicago River and into an old industrial section of abandoned factories and warehouses. Then Erin said, “I need to prep you.”

“Prep me?”

She said, “Our pastor, Ken, and his wife come from a Pentecostal tradition.  There will be a lot of preaching and singing as the Spirit moves.”

I said, “No problem.  I actually grew up in a religious tradition like that.  The Mormons have 13 Articles of Faith.  Kind of their catechism.  Number 7 is ‘We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.’”

Erin smiled and continued, “When I first started going, we had to clean up every morning to set up for the church meeting, because the place was used as a nightclub during the week.” Right, I thought.  It seemed like every Pentecostal church I’d seen in the city was in a rundown strip mall.  Cheap rent, cheap sign above the door, and they disappear after six months.

We parked in a lot next to a row of concrete grain elevators.  But I could see signs that the neighborhood was evolving. One of the factories had been converted into a new complex of luxury residential lofts. I got out of Erin’s car and stepped into a stream of humanity – mostly Millennials – walking toward the crosswalk where a couple of other Millennials stopped the street traffic to let us all cross in safety.  We walked down a short sidewalk between two buildings, turned, and entered under a canvas awning. There were greeters on each side of the door, and we stepped into the lobby. Then I saw that I was totally wrong about the strip mall.

The church lobby decor was gorgeous urban chic – brick and limestone and timbers, ceramic and stainless steel. Full of people between the ages of 21 and 39. The sign along one wall told me I was at City Church Chicago. Nearby was the Connect Bar, staffed by beautiful people ready to help me sign up for a Life Group (like our Adult Enrichment small circles) or a Growth Track, or to find information, or to sign up for other “development options”.  Erin excused herself to go check in with a Life Group that she was interested in joining.  I checked out the Coffee Station and the Giving Station – an iPad on a sleek stainless steel stand where you could log in and make your weekly donation.

city church chicago

city church life groups

city church connect bar

Ushers urged us to move into the Pentecostal sanctuary. I followed Erin through double doors into an amazing small amphitheater with comfortable theater seats, four large screens – two on each side of the stage – and professional stage lighting. The rock concert was already under way.  Gorgeous men and women played guitar down below the belt, moving forward to the edge of the stage and back. Vocalists devoured their microphones and sang lyrics that were displayed on the big screens:

I believe in the Resurrection!

I believe in the Virgin Birth!

I believe in the Holy Spirit!

Our God is Three in One!

city church stage

Pastor Ken came on stage.  He talked and moved like a reserved and savvy talk show host.  And when he called for an outpouring of the financial spirit, they didn’t pass around a basket like we do here.  Everyone pulled out their iPhones and Androids and donated online.  For us first-time donors, the big screens showed where to download the app.

I am not making fun or belittling. Pastor Ken and his professional staff had tapped into something that we are trying to tap into here at UUFE as well. Young people had come from all over the city, and they were finding something they wanted and needed.  Like we wish they would come to us.

Now, I will pause here to confess that I cannot remember the topics – much less any memorable quotes –  from our UU sermons from the past several weeks.  And I don’t expect you to remember mine.  But don’t get me wrong.  UU sermons are wonderful, and instructional, and inspiring.  But I just can’t remember them.  By contrast, not only do I remember this 4-line Pentecostal catechism that I heard at the church rock concert, it has been playing contantly,  over and over in my head for the last two weeks:

I believe in the Resurrection! – I come here to come to terms with my own death. To learn from you how to die.  And how to live together until we die.

I believe in the Virgin Birth! – I come here to tap into a cosmic power bigger than me, bigger than all humanity.

I believe in the Holy Spirit! – I come here to connect with a being who is warm and human but also superhuman, more powerful than me.

Our God is Three in One! –  Yes, I keep singing this line, too. but it stumps me.  I can’t see why Millenials feel  excited or inspired by the doctrine of the Trinity. Maybe they are really thinking, Our God is Number One.  Or, Our God is Number One, Two, and Three. Like when the USA wins gold, silver, and bronze in an Olympic event. We all feel like winners – strong and powerful and capable.  And the whole world loves us.

But this I do know:  I remember exactly what pastor Ken preached about that day:  “Sometimes you feel fear or anger, or you feel incapable or mean or unkind – separated and alone.  You feel like Jesus has left you. But Jesus has not left you. He is right there where you left him. Right there where you left him.  Say it,” he called out. “Right there where you left him.”  And we said it, all together in one voice.

And I thought, there it is. That’s what I want to talk about at UUFE.  When I feel like I am in Buddhist hell, like the samurai in the monk story.  And I need a miracle and a savior to get me out.

What Happens to Me Every Time I Hit the Send Button Too Soon

So let me tell you that story.

I’m upstairs working in the home office, and Rita is down in the kitchen, and she hears expletives.  And she hears me call out the name of Jesus.  She runs upstairs to find out what is the  matter. House on fire?  Roof falling in?  No. I was sending out the weekly UUFE email, and I hit the send button too soon. I forgot to include the date for the garden workday.

Now you might be thinking, “Oh really? Don is like that?” Expletives?  And maybe you are not like that.  And you look around and you say, “That person over there is not like that. And that other person is not like that.” But there are other forms of Dukkha that are not quite so expletive.  Like what pastor Ken was talking about – when you feel fear or anger or incapable or unkind, and that makes you feel separate and alone.

“Do you pray?”  No. But I bow a lot.

Back to the Chicago story:

I, the Buddhist who is not 100% Buddhist, am riding in the car with Erin, the Pentecostal. We’re on our way back from downtown to the neighborhood where the Chicago Barkers live.  Erin is driving, and I’m thinking:

Pastor Ken’s path and Erin’s path from hell to heaven is quite different from the path that I am following from Dukkha to Nirvana. But the starting point is the same – our desire to ease our own suffering, and maybe the suffering of those around us.

Erin turns to me and asks, “Do you pray?” I bet she wishes I would just answer Yes or No.

I say, “I don’t pray anymore.  But I have a daily spiritual practice.  And I bow a lot. I even light incense.”  And I want to add, “Would you like to know more?”

I want to tell Erin that I don’t pray to the Buddha and ask for miracles.  But I want to believe in his promise – that one miracle, which is the ability to actually change.  Gotama promises me that being in this body and paying attention to what is happening around me, and to what I am feeling inside, will actually lead to a falling away of habitual patterns. And that I can spend a few moments every day in Nirvana.  And when I am in Nirvana, I have the freedom to respond to life in a way that is not conditioned by my longings and my fears.

If Erin isn’t interested right now, that’s okay.  Maybe she will be some day.  For now, if her Pentecostal practice helps her deal with reactivity, I want to know more about her path.

And If you have a spiritual practice that has truly changed you, and it helps you deal with reactivity, you should forget everything I’ve said this morning.  I hope you will find me during coffee hour and tell me more about your practice.

But if you do not have a practice, I might invite you to try out my God. He is not three in one. But he is a very good therapist.  He is insightful and compassionate.

So I bow each morning in gratitude to Gotama the man, the teacher, for his wisdom and his compassion, which moved him to share his insight with others.  And I bow to all of the teachers after Gotama, like Stephen Batchelor and others who help me understand Gotama’s teachings and invite me to test them myself.

And I bow to my heavenly Bodhisattva, who smiles and understands that the house is not really on fire.  And that, even though Nirvana is right here and now, the path to Nirvana goes on and on.



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