July 16, 2017 Psalm 40:1-3; Matthew 11:28-30;
500 years before Christ, Buddha was born Prince Siddhartha. He had been sheltered and pampered all of his life before he left the palace walls for the first time in his late twenties, where he witnessed the world as it really was.
As the story goes, he saw a sick man, an old man and a dead man. He was so overwhelmed that he left his wife and young child and the life he had known, and dedicated the rest of his life to easing the suffering of all who faced the pain inherent in being alive. After years of suffering himself, he reached what the Buddhists call enlightenment. “The world is full of pain and sorrow,” he said, “but I have found a serenity that you can find too.”
In Christianity Jesus emerges from his wilderness experience to minister to a suffering people living under the Roman occupation. He spent his ministry healing the sick, feeding the hungry and freeing those possessed by demons. We know he ultimately died a humiliating, painful death on the cross.
Both Jesus and Buddha realized that life is filled with suffering. No matter what your circumstances, most of us will end up aging, ill and dying. The problem is we have to figure out how to make that alright. Each of these traditions has their own answers and paths, but it is amazing how similar their paths really are.
I’ve chosen short passages from each of these traditions today starting with the Hebrew Scriptures:
Psalm 40: 1 - 3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bod,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
The thought manifests as the word;
The word manifests as the deed:
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love
Born out of concern for all beings.
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think, so we become.
There is a famous adage: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” There is a difference between the two, although we tend to interchange them. Pain originates in the body - in the flesh. You cannot avoid pain. At one time or another in your life you’re going to get sick, injured, or just grow old, with all the accompanying aches and pains.
Suffering happens in the mind. The mind decides what pain means and whether it’s deserved. It determines how we respond to pain. The mind makes judgements, measures loss, takes blame, assigns guilt. Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes.
How many of you have felt pain? How many have suffered? Have you ever found yourself pleading with God to take it away? - like Job, asking God “Why me? I’m a good person. I don’t deserve this!” Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that “Pain is one of the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy, and yet the majority of us do everything in our power to avoid it.”
What do you do when pain and suffering come knocking at your door? How can pain and suffering become a spiritual practice? The lives of both Siddhartha and Jesus shed light on that question, and it has to do with compassion.
Compassion is both a feeling and a way of being that flows out of that feeling - feeling the suffering of someone, including yourself, and being moved to do something. The Buddha spoke of compassion as the deep affection we have for every living thing because we’re all in it together. Everyone and thing is connected. The Buddha is often called “the compassionate one.”
For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God, and the central moral quality of a life centered in God. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate,” he instructs his followers in Luke. (6:36) Stories in the gospels speak of Jesus having compassion, and of his being moved with compassion. He acted on it, healing those he encountered of their pain and suffering and demons.
The Buddha and Jesus, like all of us, lived through hard times. The first thing to recognize is that you’re not alone. Jack Cornfield is one of the pre-eminent Buddhist teachers here in the west. He tells of speaking on compassion to a group of 3,000 people in the Bay area. A woman who had recently lost her partner to suicide stood to ask a question. She was filled with guilt, pain, anger, grief, loss, fear, and confusion. Pema Chodron, another teacher there, taught her to feel her breath, and hold all of this in her with compassion.
Cornfield felt her loneliness, so he asked how many in the room had known someone who had committed suicide. Over 200 people stood up. He asked them to look at this woman with the eyes of those who had gone through this and had learned from it. Then he asked her to look at all of them - and he said the room became a temple of shared heart compassion. They were all in it together. She and everyone in the room could feel the compassion of their shared identity.
We need one another, even with our small problems, confusion and self-doubts. Ignore a physical illness and it will turn on you and get worse. Ignore your difficulties and they will also turn on you - or others - and get worse. Both Jesus and Buddha faced their own demons before they began their formal ministries: Buddha sitting under the Body tree, and Jesus during his forty days in the desert. They faced them, worked through them. and were transformed.
Cornfield teaches if we turn towards our demons, and name them, they will strengthen us in surprising ways. Brown Taylor suggests that by engaging our pain, giving it our full attention, we will grow spiritually from the experience. AA members practice this all the time.
When going through difficult times of pain and suffering, those of us in the Christian tradition turn to God for help. The psalmist says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit and set my feet upon a rock … He put a new song in my mouth.”
Jesus invited us to come to him, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and he will give us rest.
Buddhist teachings invite us to go inward. Cornfield teaches that, “Even in the greatest difficulties you will know there’s a wise knowing inside of you. It could be called ‘the one who knows.’” As a Christian I call it spirit, or soul, that spark of God I believe is in each of us, available to us if only we open to it, tapping into it. Others call it a heart chakra. To me it’s all the same. It’s our connection to the divine. It’s where we access love and compassion, wisdom and peace.
What we must learn is how to hold ourselves and our pain and suffering with understanding and care, with great love and compassion.
Cornfield tells the most touching story of a woman who had been verbally abused as a child by her mother. The way she survived was that late at night she would slip into the kitchen and get a bit of bread and cheese and take it back to bed with her. She would pretend that her hands belonged to someone else - a comforting, reassuring being without a name - an angel perhaps. She would feed herself with one hand, and stroke her face with her other, telling herself “There, there you’re safe. Everything will be alright. I love you.”
For Cornfield, this “Story shows us, how even in the most difficult time, caring floods through us like an inner angel of mercy, like green shoots coming up through cracks in the sidewalk. Compassion is in our heart waiting to be born, to tend ourselves, to keep ourselves from harm in a thousand daily gestures of self-care and protection.”