Monday, September 24, 2018

Members of One Another

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, September 23, 2018.

The various traditions and lineages of Buddhism disagree with one another as much as the different branches of Christianity do (or, for that matter, people who understand Unitarian Universalism differently).  These various traditions and lineages do share many common teachings, of course.  One of these is that all Buddhists — from no matter what specific tradition — vow to “take refuge” in the what’re called the Three Jewels (or the Three Treasures).  I’ll get back to just what those are in a moment.  First, I want to look at what it means to “take refuge.”

The dictionary definition of “refuge” is:  “the state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or difficulty.”  You can trace its roots through Old French — where it meant, “a hiding place” - back to the Latin word refugiumre, meaning “back,” and fugere, meaning “to flee.”   In other words, the root understanding of “refuge” is that it is a place we can “flee back to,” a place to which we can return again and again and be assured of safety. 

In addition to doing my usual online research, this week I called out to my Buddhist friends Facebook friends.  Those who responded agreed that that’s pretty much their understanding of what “taking refuge” means in the Buddhist context.  I asked one of them if it’s about refuge from “the distractions and delusions that flesh is heir to.”  He replied, sagely, “Yup.”.  One of the articles I read put it like this:

The English word refuge refers to a place of shelter and protection from danger. What danger? We seek shelter from the passions that jerk us around, from feeling distressed and broken, from pain and suffering, from the fear of death. We seek shelter from the wheel of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

So a Buddhist “takes refuge” in the Three Jewels, the Three Treasures — the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.

Saying that I take refuge in the Buddha, a Buddhist I am saying that I turn to the Buddha for shelter.  I could mean the historical incarnation of the Buddha in young Prince Siddhartha roughly 26 centuries ago.  I could also mean the concept of “the Buddha,” the Buddha-nature that is in all things.  I could also be talking about a commitment to seeking out the Buddha within, for according to some traditions each and every one of us is, right now, a fully enlightened Buddha.  (Most of us just don’t know it, and few of our family and friends would confirm it to be so.)  To take refuge in the Buddha could mean any — or all — of these things.  What it boils down to though, is that a Buddhist recognizes “the Buddha” to be a source of shelter and safety from the bombardment we all too often find ourselves under.

Similarly, dharma can be understood in a number of different ways. It can mean anything from the specific, particular teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, to the deepest and most profound wisdom wherever it is found and however it is expressed.  Taking refuge in the dharma, then, is saying that when I am in danger of stepping off “the middle way,” I will seek safety in wise teachings.

The third of these refuges, the sangha, is the one I find most interesting, especially in the context of this community this morning.  “The sangha” is “the community,” and that can be as specific as the particular people with whom you practice, all Buddhists, or even all sentient — even all non-sentient — beings. That this is one of the Three Jewels surprised me.  Maybe it’s because the stories and images I knew best depicted the Buddha alone (on his own beneath the Bodhi tree, for instance).  I don’t know if any of you share this perception with me, but I had always thought of the Buddhist tradition(s) as a particularly solitary path.  That’s why I was more than a little surprised to learn that one of the Three Jewels that all Buddhists commit to taking their refuge in is the sangha, the community — that the community is on a par with the Buddha and the dharma in importance, and is understood to be equally efficacious as a place of shelter and support.

This is a community.  It’s a human community, of course, and we humans do not always live up to, in to, or out from our best selves.  Yet at our best, the members of this congregation — from long-time formal members to the most recent recurrent newcomers — at our best, the people who make up TJMC make up a community.  And one of the things that’s promised of the Beloved Community we strive to be is that we, too, can turn to this community as a place of refuge from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” which we find flying towards us with (at times) frightening frequency.  When we, as a community, are at our best, we provide a shelter for one another.

And yet …

And yet, if I want this congregation to become the true community I know it can be, I have to recognize that it can’t be all about me.  It just can’t be all about doing what I want to, when I want to, in the way that I want to.  It can’t even be about my getting my needs met all of the time because, to put it simply, you’re here too.  You’re here, and you have wants and needs, too.  And you’re wants and needs won’t always be the same as mine.  It’s possible that they’ll hardly ever be the same as mine.  It’s possible that your needs and my needs will conflict with each other at times, and when we bring that person into the equation, and that other person over there, then it becomes less and less likely that everything will be done the way I would do it, or that everything I want — or, again, need — will be done at all.

This is nothing new, of course.  This is no great revelation.  We all know that it’s not all about us; we all know that, to borrow a phrase, “[we] can’t always get what [we] want.”  We know this, we say this, yet it’s also true that the first time something doesn’t go my way, or the first time I feel that a real need of mine hasn’t been met (or wasn’t met in the way I thought it should have been), I forget all of that stuff about it not being about me because, gosh darn it, in this instance I think it should be.  After all, even though we all know that it’s not supposed to be all about any one of us, shouldn’t my wants and needs matter?

Now … let me just take a minute to say that I feel pretty certain there are some people who are thinking that I’ve been talking about them.  And I feel equally certain that there people who think they know what group or person I’m talking about, and I’d be disingenuous if I said that I didn’t have some specific examples in my mind as I worked on these reflections this week.  Yet it’s important to be clear that I was also thinking of examples in my own life, times when I’ve forgotten the “it’s not all about me” mantra.  (And believe me, there have been plenty of those.  Actually, a few current examples I hadn’t even been aware of came to light while I was writing.)  The deep truth is that if we’re honest with ourselves, none of us is immune to forgetting from time to time that while my wants and needs are most important to me, they are not necessarily most important to the community.

The Apostle Paul said in one of his letters to a fledgling Christian community that they should understand themselves to be “members of one another.”

[J]ust as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so […] we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

We belong to one another.  I belong to you, you belong to me, and we both belong to that other person over there.  There’s a hymn — #317 in our hymnal (we’ll be singing it at the end of the service).  It’s called “We Are Not Our Own.”  We are not our own.  The Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist teacher, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, created a term to express this deep interconnectedness – he says that we “inter-are.”  [Inter-are]  You and I “inter-are.” We belong to one another.  We are a part of one another.  Our very being depends on each other.  We cannot exist — at least, we cannot exist in deep, life changing, world changing community — without one another.  More than being “interconnected,” we “inter-are.”

And that means that when I come to this community one of the things I most fervently want, one of my own deep needs, is that you get the things you want and need.  One of my deepest desires is that you find your desires fulfilled.  Even if that means that I don’t get what I want and need.  This way, when things go your way and don’t go mine, I actually have gotten something that I wanted – I got your getting your needs met.

Of course, I most certainly hope that I will get my way … at least some of the time.  My wanting you to find what you want and need is only one of my own wants and needs.  And I’d be pretty foolish to stick around too long if things never went the way I want, if I never got my needs met.  Yet there is a corollary to my wanting you to get what you want and need even if, at times, that means that I don’t get my own needs met.  The corollary is that at the same time I’m thinking about you, you’re over there wanting the same thing for me even if you have to let go of some of your assumptions and expectations.  And that other person over there is hoping this for that other other person.  And so it goes.  Each of us deeply desiring the best for the other; each of us remembering that our own needs are only part of story.

Last week I talked about an aspect of the Beloved Community and said that it’s a vision of a community in which, “No one […] is considered […] less.  No one is considered, ‘Other.’  Each is recognized for the gifts they bring; each adapts to the other because we’re all kin.”

This morning I’ve offered another – a community in which we all know ourselves to be “members of one another,” who “belong to one another.”  The Beloved Community is one in which our needs are balanced with, integrated with, those of everyone else.  A community where we “inter-are,” where we recognize that our very being depends on the being of others.  A community which, for many, we already are.  A community I have no doubt we can ever get closer to.  A community in which we can indeed find refuge.

Pax tecum,


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