Reverend's Message - February 2017
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
Rev. Dean Koyama
"Home-leavers, I do not indulge in sloth nor have I abandoned spiritual training. I am truly a Buddha who has attained Enlightenment worthy of the world's offering . . .. Home-leavers, there are two extreme paths that the home leaver must avoid. The first is a life of foolish pleasures, addicted to base desires. And the second is a life of foolish ascetic practices that mortify the self in vain. Home-leavers, the Buddha was enlightened to the Middle path which is free of these two extreme paths, opens the eyes of the mind, deepens wisdom and guides all beings to quiescence, sagacious wisdom, Enlightenment, and Nirvana."
There is a general sense of un-ease in our country as I am sitting down to write this article. But by the time you are reading this article, the 45th President of the United States will have already been inaugurated into office. It appears that this past election has been swirled with controversy centering upon moral ethics and personal integrity. The unease centers upon whether one is part of the “in-crowd” or favored party or not. In other words, once again we are approaching the brink of being a nation divided.
Perhaps Buddhism may offer a healing of some kind so that the gap between the extremes does not widen and deepen.
According to the legend of the historical Buddha, Prince Siddhartha was born into a world of luxury and extravagance. Being surrounded by beautiful young people, having every desire pleased, sheltered from the sufferings outside the palace walls, the prince led a life that many of us would envy. In fact the name, "Siddhartha" means "Every wish fulfilled." But even with all of this, the Prince did not feel whole; something was missing. He abandoned all that he had in quest for a spiritual enlightenment. He cast aside all of his luxurious surroundings and became a forest ascetic denying himself of food, sleep, and shelter. During this time his practice was so intense that he would only eat three grains of rice per day. He soon became just a skeleton of bones on the brink of death. After six years of intense practice and discipline he was no closer to his goal of enlightenment than he was before. This extreme too, he abandoned. He accepted food, he regained his physical strength and devoted himself to one final period of meditation and on the 8th day of the 12th month attained Enlightenment at the age of 35 years.
An interesting thing happened after his attainment. Unlike Jesus or the prophet Mohammed, who according to their traditions are said to have had direct communication with the divine and immediately began to preach, Sakyamuni did not. Instead he savored the Joy of his Enlightenment for a period of 5 to 7 weeks. During this time, the Buddha thought carefully. What should he do now? The depth of his experience was so profound that he thought no one would be able to understand it. However, moved by a profound sense of compassion, he resolved to teach. This hesitation to teach others is a very crucial element in the history of Buddhism. Not only did Sakyamuni think long and hard about who to teach, he also struggled with how and what to teach.
What was the content of Sakyamuni Buddha's first teaching? The Buddha in his very first sermon introduced the Middle Path. This is the fundamental standpoint of Buddhism. And this is what I think Buddhism can contribute to our society today.
I would like to play a game with you. I will say a word and I would like for you to say the very first thing that pops into your mind. 1. “Hot"... 2. “Rich”... 3. “Wrong”... 4. “Early”... 5. “Loser”...
Most likely your responses were, “Cold,” “Poor,” “Right," “Late,” and “Winner.” These words are opposites of each other. And indeed, we live in a world that has become increasingly polarized. Everyday in the newspaper we see debates of: Pro choice/Pro life. Straights/Gays. Environment/Jobs. We are living in a very exclusivist world where everything has to be one way or the other. Front-back, hot-cold, dirty-clean, Republicans-Democrats, Buddhist-non-Buddhists. It is where these opposites meet, that we have conflicts.
The Buddha, himself, dealt with the world of opposites in his own life. His Early life was one of luxury and wealth. During his spiritual search, his life was of poverty and suffering. He realized that the proper way is to avoid extremes, to travel a path between opposites and that path is called the Middle Path. And this is the teaching that he imparted to his disciples.
But the Middle path does not mean non-commitment, being wishy-washy, or doing things half-way. Nor does it deny the existence of both opposites. In fact it affirms both. This relationship of opposites is later described in terms of "bonno soku bodai" -- "passions themselves are enlightenment." How is it possible to resolve these opposite worlds?
While living in the Pacific Northwest, I had the opportunity to visit the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. There was an exhibit dealing with the human body that I thought was extremely interesting. There was one simple exhibit with three similar cups in one row on top of a small desk. The directions said to place the left hand around the cup on the left and the right hand around the cup on the right. The cup on the left felt like ice and the cup on the right was very hot. After a minute or so I had to place both hands around the cup in the middle at the same time. The cup in the middle felt very hot to my left hand that was touching the cold cup. It also felt very cold to my right hand that originally was touching the very hot cup. What was going on? The very same lukewarm cup in the middle felt very different to the two hands on the opposite sides. Which hand was correct? Which hand was wrong?
This exhibit demonstrated the variety of perspectives with which we are all conditioned. Life is not so cut and dry. It is not just black or white. They are both, with every shade of the colors in-between. One opposite does not negate the other. Only by knowing the cold do we feel hot. Only by knowing the hot do we know cold. In the same light, only by knowing our passions, ignorance, greed, and anger do we know enlightenment. This is the great awakening to the wisdom and compassion that embraces all life.
The historical Buddha hesitated to preach fearing his teaching would not be understood. Yet moved by compassion, he resolved to deliver a message that would enable all beings to attain Enlightenment. Recognizing Life's opposites, the Buddha taught of the Middle Path. What does the Middle Path mean to us? It doesn't mean to do things half-heartedly. It doesn't mean that we should purposely choose a compromise of two extremes just because it is in the middle. To walk on the Middle Path, we must venture to the outer extremes...whether it is the intense monastic practices or the complete doubt of Truth itself. It means that we must hear and acknowledge those on the extremes and at the same time we must awaken to our extremes, which are the limitations of our self, our ego, and our passions, which will then enable us to hear the call of the Buddha's compassion. Then we will realize that True compassion encompasses both extremes as well as what is in the middle, and thus the narrow path distinguishing the halfway point becomes infinitely wide, infinitely long, and infinitely smooth.
Rev. Dean Koyama