Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons

Siddhartha was born a prince in the region of Nepal sometime in the 6th century Before the Common Era.  When he was born, the story is told that astrologers told his parents that Siddhartha was destined to either become a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father wanted his son to become a great king so he insulated Siddhartha from all awareness of suffering in the world.  As long as he would live within the palace walls, he would never see someone sick, nor someone old or dying. He would only see the abundance of the world.  Siddhartha we are told married a princess and had a son.  They were happy. Life was good.

But Siddhartha had never been outside of the palace and he insisted to see the world.  His father ordered the city to be cleared from anyone old or infirmed so Siddhartha would only see happiness and joy.  However, Siddhartha did see someone who was feeble and old and he was very moved by this.  He went out into the city a few more times and saw someone sick and someone dead.  And he saw someone who was considered a sage, a seeker of the truth.

Siddhartha realized that this was the fate of all people to grow old, sick, and die.  He needed to find a way to handle this realization.  Siddhartha renounced his family and privilege as a prince and left the palace forever.  He wandered the countryside joining the various groups of seekers to understand.  Eventually, he settled under a Bodhi Tree and meditated for a long time.  And during his long meditation he had hallucinations of demons tempting him but he stayed true to his quest. And then one day, he had a realization.  It is said that he attained enlightenment and was thereafter called the Buddha.  He spent the rest of his life teaching others what he had learned.

But what was his realization?  And how is this realization still relevant today.

The Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths.

1)    There is Dukkha—a word that is really untranslatable into English.  Dukkha has been translated as suffering but this word alone does not capture the fullness of this word. It also includes the notion of impermanence, emptiness, imperfection.[i]  A recent conversation I had with friend of mine who is a Buddhist Abbott suggested that a better word to use to translate the word Dukkha instead of using the word suffering is to use the word Stress.[ii] We all experience it.  And in our country of privilege, it is perhaps a more prevalent an experience than suffering. So the first Noble Truth states there is stress.

Stating there is stress does not negate that there is suffering, or  happiness or joy, only that there is stress.  There are three aspects of stress; there is ordinary stress, stress caused by change, and conditioned states.  Not getting what one wants, the death or separation from a loved one, these are examples of ordinary stress.  The being downsized at work, the beginning of a marriage, these are examples of stress caused by change.  We are saddened when a love affair ends.  The conditioned state of stress refers to the notion of a being, of an individual self, this conditioned state is made up of the flow of energy that differentiates you from me.  The Buddha refers to five aggregates that make up the self.  There is Matter, Sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These are the things that define this being from any other being.  They include the physical characteristics, the ability to sense and form ideas about the information those senses deliver, the ability to act in word and deed, and the awareness.  All of these work together to make up the self which as a conditioned state results in stress.  All three aspects of stress is the result of attachment. How does one cling to this moment, to this moment, now to this moment?  One cannot, no matter how enjoyable that moment may have been, it is now gone.

2)    The second Noble Truth states there is an origin to Stress. Stress comes from desire, or thirst for something.  That something can be tangible like wanting a nice house to live in to something more intangible like will my retirement fund be solvent or cover my living expenses when I retire. It is easy to see how the desire for power can be a source of stress but even the desire for peace can also be a source of stress.  Not having peace or rather the lack thereof is stressful.
The continuance of the thirst or drive or volition “denote the same thing: they denote the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.[iii]”  All of this desire is stressful.

The notion of karma arises in this second noble truth. Because this thirst, drive, volition is the cause and its actions have an effect.  It may either be good or bad in its effect, but it continues in the direction set forth and additional stress is the ultimate result.

3) The Third Noble Truth is There can be a cessation to Stress.  The answer is rather simple.  This reminds me of a childhood joke.  A person goes to the doctor and says, “Doctor my arm hurts when I do this.”  The doctor said, “Stop doing that.”  The cessation to stress is to stop craving and desiring. Part of this stopping is to no longer be attached to what is craved or desired.  If we must have something to be so in order to be happy, then we will never be happy.  If we are in a state of want, we are not happy.  If we should receive what it is we want, we are fearful we will lose it, and therefore we are not happy.  So letting go of attachment to the desired state be it tangible or intangible is the key to ending stress.

4) We do this through the fourth noble truth which is the middle way in between the two extremes of pleasure seeking and avoiding stress.  It is also known as the Eightfold path.

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

This Eightfold path is combined into three categories of ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom.  This path is not like an AA step where one focuses on Right Thought this week and then next week focuses on Right Speech.  These are meant to be worked on simultaneously.

Ethical conduct is based on love and compassion. It includes Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood of the Eightfold path.  Right speech is abstinence from lying, slander, gossip, maliciousness, and hate speech.  Speech is to be truthful and kind, purposeful and meaningful.  My mother would say to me when I was a child, if you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.  This is practicing right speech.

Right action is promoting moral and peaceful living.  We are to abstain from destroying life, stealing, dishonesty actions, and sexual misconduct. We are to help others to lead a peaceful life.

Right Livelihood means to work in a profession that will not lead to harm of others.  There are many professions today that while the professions themselves might not lead to harming others, the way they are being embodied are leading to harm.  Today we have extended the concept of harming the lives of others to contain the entire ecosystem in which we live and breathe.

James Ford, Unitarian Universalist Minister and Zen teacher puts it another way.  He states[i] we are to

  1. “Foster Life
  2. Speak truthfully
  3. Respect boundaries
  4. Respect your body and others’ bodies
  5. Remain clear and open”

The next category in the Eightfold Path is Mental Discipline.  This encompasses right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.  Right effort is to focus on thoughts that foster life, respect self and others.  Right mindfulness or right awareness is also known as being attentive in the moment. Attentiveness is not only to the activities of mind; but also to the sensations of the body, the sensations of the heart or emotions, and to ideas and thoughts.  It is to be aware of what is without pushing away or pulling towards oneself.  One of the exercises that Buddhists use to strengthen this ability of right awareness is sitting meditation.  This is the meditation practice that allows one to become attentive to ones breathing.  How the air flows in and out of the lungs.  Thoughts that arise are to be noticed and then let go.

In order to strengthen one’s ability to be aware this meditation needs to be done daily.  This is where the work is in Buddhism.  It is one thing to have a philosophical understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and it is another to allow it to transform one’s life.  The person doing sitting meditation applies right effort and right mindfulness into the process of sitting.  They notice their thoughts, their emotions, let them go and as they do they raise their awareness towards equanimity.  “To be rightly aware on the absolute level is to be aware of the true nature of reality…no-self, impermanence and the nature of stress.[i]”  This is training the mind towards becoming open to the enlightenment the Buddha experienced.

The final two aspects of the Eightfold path fit into the category of Wisdom.  These are right understanding and right thought. Right thought includes detachment, love and non-violence towards all beings.  Right understanding refers to seeing the true nature of everything.

So here we are, 2600 years after the Buddha lived on this earth. He has attained nirvana. Another word that is hard to translate. Nirvana is the moment when the burning wood is no more and the fire that was held to it is then set free.  Nirvana is the mind set free.

The teachings of Siddhartha are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago. This is especially true when we use the notion of stress as being a more accurate  translation to Dukkha. We are always hearing the warnings of stress on the physical body.  Obesity and heart disease have been connected to the forces of stress in our lives.  There is stress in our workplace, in our households, in our families.  We live in a world where the possibility of a new war is one day away.  Terrorism is no longer just something that happens over there. It is happening in our schools, in our communities.  Stress is mounting. Many people are at the breaking point.

What are we to do?

Thich Nhat Hahn describes the self as being a garden filled with weeds and flowers.  The weeds are anger, jealousy, fear, discrimination.  The flowers are love, compassion, and understanding. If you water the weeds you strengthen the negative seeds.  If you water the flowers, you will strengthen the positive seeds.  Which kind of garden will you grow?

Another way of looking at this is that we are all addicts to our emotions.  And like addicts when the craving of an emotion wells up we frantically look to find something to quench it before we get the shakes.  We do not know how to handle them when they rise up.  Some of us run away from what we are feeling.  Others seek to subdue them with drugs and alcohol.  And still others push other emotions up front as an act of bravado to hide the true feelings felt inside. The truth is emotions are not permanent.  They will rise and fall away.   We already know this.  Perhaps there is a way to release the negative emotions sooner through meditation.

Meditation has been used as an anger management tool for decades.  Not only does it help relieve stress, it also can help a person who is angry to take a pause and regain their sense of control so they do not lash out in a harmful manner. Be attentive. Take some time out of your day to go and do some focused breathing.  Use the song we sang as a chant to guide your breathing—”when I breathe in, I breath in peace—when I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” Or simply just count your breaths, 1 on the inhale, 2 on the exhale, 3 on the inhale. Etc.  And if you lose count, and you will, simply begin again, 1 on the inhale.  And if your mind wanders, and it will, notice that it did and begin counting your breaths again.

Those who meditate everyday have noted they are more attentive throughout their day.  Not only do they have lower blood pressure they are more able to cope with the stressors of the day.  Aim for ten minutes a day and then in time stretch that towards 30 minutes over time.

Siddhartha found a way to help the world be together. The fact this has lasted for over two millennia is testament that it is a viable way.  Unlike some of the faddish methods that one finds in the self-help section of the bookstore, this middle way has worked in and out of season.

Blessed Be.


This sermon was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on November 3 2013 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond

[i] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT

[i] James Ishmael Ford, If you are Lucky, You’re Heart will Break, Wisdom Boston, 2012

[i] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

[ii] Phone conversation on November 2, 2013 with Wisdom Sakya, Buddhist Abbott of Middle Way Meditation Centers in Danbury, CT

[iii] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York, 1959

Published in: on November 5, 2013 at 5:18 pm  Comments Off on Siddhartha: A Man for All Seasons  
Tags: , , , ,

Being Home

I  am on vacation visiting friends and relatives in the northeast.  I have found myself longing for some of things that I cannot get in Alabama or in Mississippi.   When I was in the town of my birth in New York State, I found myself longing for a pizza from Len & Jo’s.   My memories of childhood of my parents bringing home a pizza late at night, waking me up to have some, which I must admit sometimes I ate in my sleep and then yelled at my parents for not waking me up as promised, led me to wanting to eat some of the pizza flavor I had in my youth.  Wanting an honest to goodness bagel that is made the official way of boiling the dough first before baking is another taste of home that I am finding myself yearning to find. 

Is it these things, these comfort foods of our childhood that make home, home?  Or is it something else, the memories of family and friends sharing these food items together?   I suppose it is a blend of both and my own quest to be at home where ever I am located. 

Being home is the feeling of being able to be truly oneself with no defense barriers up to shield the tender parts of our hearts.  These foods remind me of those times, those moments of familiarity, when one can relax fully into the moment and drink it all in…  all the sensations of this present moment which also includes past memories and thoughts as sights and smells trigger those thoughts to come up to the surface. 

The  Buddha teaches us to be mindful of this moment, this one moment.  So when the thoughts of yesteryear float into our awareness to acknowledge them and to let them go.  Not wanting to relive the past moment in a manner that hinders the fullness of the now but not wanting to deny its existence either.  Simply let it be.  

Being home as an active verb is a bit like  that.  It is an awareness of this moment and all of the sensations that fill it.  It is the skill to have a comfort-ability where ever we find ourselves.  The ability to being comfortable  in the here and now even if the here and now finds us thousands of miles away from the day to day surroundings we are use to experiencing. 

And here I am on vacation far from the place I currently call home.  Yet, in a place where I called home for 30 years.   There is a sense of difference about the region and yet there still stands the bagel shop just down the road which reminds me of being home.  I think I will go have that  bagel with a shmear now.   May all the places you travel give you a sense of being home.  Blessings.

Published in: on August 25, 2009 at 8:45 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,

Magical Thinking

In preparing for the upcoming sermon, I have found my thoughts swinging towards notions of magical thinking.  Is Magical Thinking something that we can avoid or is it something that is hardwired into our species? 

I have come to believe that it is something that is hardwired into our species.   In our development, magical thinking may have served as a means to survival.  The ancient Druids who burned yule logs to summon the return of the sun god during the winter solstice is an example of magical thinking as a tool for survival.  Having hope that warmer days are coming soon is a strong tool towards survival.  The notion that they had some part of  the sun’s returning gave them a sense of control over their lives.  Having a sense of control seems to be important to our basic ability to thrive as a species.  So while we can reduce magical thinkings prevalence in our lives, we are not going to be able to eliminate it entirely. 

I found two definitions online that I thought were good definitions with one being better than the other.   

The first definition was one posited by Tim Boucher with his nod to Psychologist James Alcock, Magical thinking is “the interpreting of two closely occurring events as though one caused the other.”    It is as Mr. Boucher points out the same definition we use for Cause and Effect.  The difference seems to be that the latter is provable through scientific method, the former is not. 

The second definition that I found was also located in a blog by a BuddhistThe conviction of the individual that his or her thoughts, words, and actions, may in some manner cause or prevent outcomes in a way that defies the normal laws of cause and effect. 

He was stating that in the 1980’s he was with the Nichiren Shoshu and was taught to chant of Nam-myo-renge-kyo.   He was taught that chanting this phrase would not only bring him to enlightenment but it would also change his Karma in this lifetime so that he could receive material things.  He came to see in time that there were other benefits to this chanting and that they were the ultimate goal of the chanting not the receiving of material gains. 

Many religions of all configurations have some form of magical thinking embedded into their make up.   And some folk have explanations as to why their faith construct is not magical thinking but everyone else’s is.  Todd Strandberg has a whole page devoted to what is and isn’t magical thinking and then states The Bible is the final authority and if it is in the Bible then it is trustworthy and true.  Moses raising the staff to part the Red Sea, not magical thinking nor coincidental hurricane force winds blowing across a shallow part of the sea to create momentary dry land.  Jesus commanding the demons to come out of a person.  Not magical thinking.  These he says are matters of faith. 

Matters of faith are not magical thinking?  If it is magical thinking for the voodoo priestess to cast out demons, why wouldn’t the same action by the pentecostal minister not be magical thinking?  Add that to the mysteries of faith, I suppose.

I am presenting a sermon on Sunday based on the book by Jinny Ditzler entitled, “Your Best Year Yet!”  In it she discusses changing our dominant paradigm of thought about ourselves. 

I write in the sermon regarding changing ones paradigm and magical thinking, “So the person who crosses their fingers to protect them from an unwanted outcome is practicing magical thinking.  A person who repeats a chant over and over again because that would result in their receiving a Porsche is practicing magical thinking.

A person who states they are undeserving of money because that is their lot in life is also practicing magical thinking. Their thought that having money will never be their lot in life defies the normal laws of cause and effect. What is not magical thinking is someone who states “Money is abundant and flows spontaneously in my life” and then begins to look for opportunities, those next logical steps that would allow money to flow towards them. I am not talking about her re-arranging the furniture according to energy flow patterns or burning sage that will supposedly attract money. Those actions are magical thinking actions. I am talking about actions that he or she takes as those next logical steps that do not defy the normal laws of cause and effect. Maybe she begins sending out resumes. Maybe she takes some courses to improve her marketable skills. Maybe she remembers that she has a talent that she could turn into a profitable business and begins taking steps towards that endeavor. Each of these steps could result in money being more abundant.

A person who truly believes that he is not worth earning more money will not be a person who will be looking for new opportunities to earn more money. He will have shut those windows and doors of opportunities to himself long before they could even appear on his radar.

Ms. Ditzler is challenging us to shift how we perceive our world and our opportunities. Shifting the dominant paradigm in what we believe to be true about ourselves is an important key to being able to reach for accomplishments that until now were outside our reach. The fact is what we believe about ourselves is only a perception that has been rehearsed over and over again by those around us and eventually by ourselves so many times that we feel there is no other truth about who we are.

The famous story of Pygmalion written by George Bernard Shaw based on the Greek Myth of the same name tells the tale of an English Gentlemen who seeks to transform a poor woman of the streets into a sophisticated lady of means. You might recognize the story as My Fair Lady, the musical and movie with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. It is the story of shifting the paradigm of personal belief.

When we meet Eliza Doolittle, she is destined to remain the class and education level she was born into. She has accepted her lot and believes she not deserve any better fare. Professor Higgins takes on a bet that he can pass her off as a learned lady of stature and class. The transformation does not happen until, Eliza herself begins to see herself as this lady.

Was it magical thinking? No. It was changing the story one tells themselves and then taking actions inspired by the new story, the new paradigm. Had Eliza been born into a family of means, this story would already have been told to her since childhood; that paradigm would already have been in place. Her actions chosen by herself and her family would have matched that paradigm.”

Affirmations, another popular tool used by many, would be magical thinking if all the person ever did was repeat the affirmation and thougth by merely stating the affirmation that his life was going to change direction or receive what he wanted.  If the person actually believed the words being said and began making decisions and actions that were in conjunction with those affirmations, then it no longer is magical thinking.  The affirmations are then only a tool towards shifting the paradigm of belief the person was originally living and acting from. 

Here is Audrey Hepburn in her own voice not the dubbed version singing “Wouldn’t it be Loverly.”  Some dreaming and perhaps some magical thinking too…  Blessings,

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,


   I have been reading No Time To Lose:  A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva by Pema Chodron.  This is her commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. 

I was struck by the following quote in her book: ” Rejoicing in the good fortune of others is a practice that can help us when we feel emotionally shut down and unable to connect with others.  Rejoicing generates good will.  The next time you go out in the world, you might try this practice:directing your attention to people–in their cars, on the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones–just wish for them all to be happy and well.” 

Many of you know that in my spiritual journey I spent many years as a Charismatic Christian.  Rejoicing was something that we did a lot.  Usually it was aimed or directed towards God but sometimes it was because of the good fortune another in our community experienced and still we aimed it towards God.  It was one of the pieces of worship that I missed when I began attending Unitarian Universalist congregations.   Where was the rejoicing.  Where was the exuberance of thanksgiving when things went well. 

So when I read this quote, I thought here is how we can rejoice.  Stating our gratitude in others good fortune.  Thinking good fortune for the people we meet.  If our minds are thinking of others good fortune it is difficult for us to be thinking of anything else.  We can train our minds to express a rejoicing that taps into what Pema Chodron states is our “soft spot: a capacity for love and tenderness.” 

I can reclaim a rejoicing heart.  Blessings, Serenityhome

Published in: on August 26, 2008 at 12:15 am  Comments Off on Rejoicing  
Tags: , , , ,