Third Sunday of Advent: Bodhi Sunday

Under the Bodhi tree

Under the Bodhi tree

The starting point in Buddhism is the observation that we are all feeble creatures. Compared to others, or earlier iterations of ourselves, we may feel weak and feeble. But against the backdrop of the cosmos, we are all in the same boat. Our health takes an unlucky turn, a misplaced glance, an unforeseen consequence, the wrong place at the wrong time, and the book is easily closed. As was said in the first reading ('Dukkha, they say' by Elizabeth Tarbox), it is all Dukkha. There is a great impermanence to all this - it’s all flowing by, it can’t be captured, or put in a bottle, and we all kind of live for that delusion, that happiness which is momentarily dangled in front of us, only for it to fall away. So, this is the problem that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, saw, as he said “I will not leave this place until I find a way to end all sorrow”. For there he sat under the Bodhi tree. He saw the problem, but determined we were approaching it in the wrong way. For we are naturally determined to, in some sense, capture the happiness and ensure its permeance. We attempt to do this in lots of different ways. In materialist terms, we make ourselves comfortable, and separate ourselves from the dross. In religious terms, we persuade ourselves that our personal self will somehow move beyond this present age. Or move beyond us, through our legacy, through our children, through our furthering of a cause, a nation, an ideal. But all is Dukkha – all is impermanence.

Instead of resisting this impermanence, instead of spending our entire lives wrestling against it, the Buddha invites us to go with it. Now, it’s all well saying that, but what does it mean? It is all about the art of suspending thought, the art of arriving at an interior silence. And it is an art, it’s not easy to do. During silences in the Meeting House, it is much easier to think about the week past or coming, or reflect on something that has been said, or read something - read the order of service, read the hymnbook. But I think it would be better for all of us, if, when we held purposeful silence in this space, we resisted the temptation to simply turn up the volume of our interior selves, and instead to maintain the noble silence, the silence inside our heads. And so how do we stop thinking? When I was at school we got obsessed for a time over a silly game called ‘The Game’. If you haven’t heard of this before, you won’t forgive me for telling you about it, because you will probably never be able to forget it. The game is simply this, the objective is to avoid thinking about ‘the Game’. If ‘the Game’ comes to mind, you have lost. And so, we would be eating dinner in the refectory, and one of the boys would announce ‘I lost the game’. This happened all the time, in class, during PE, while we were trying to get to sleep in the dormitories. ‘I lost the game’. You can’t win ‘the Game’ you can only offset your losses by telling others how to play. Then at least your score doesn’t look too bad. Another good strategy was to leave notes for fellow students, which simply read, you lost!

Buddhist Mandala

I think this game is quite a lot like the problem we face when we try to stop interior thought. We end up not stopping thought, just thinking about stopping thought. And so, we must practice ways, techniques, to stop thought. Because that is where spiritual health and wellbeing is located, and you’re probably aware that that’s not just my subjective opinion (though it is), there is hard science to back up the health benefits of stopping interior thought and silencing the mind. It’s good for us. So people do it by focusing on the breath, or focusing on an exterior sound to distract from our interior thought, or by reciting a mantra out loud, if you’re by yourself, or internally if you’re with others. What you recite doesn’t matter. Some people find it helpful for the mantra to be gibberish, or another language, so that their thoughts don’t get distracted by what the words mean, because that would be counter-productive. The interior mantra which I always use during silence is ‘Jesus be present, Jesus be present, Jesus be present’. That’s an embarrassingly Christian thing to admit. But as I said, you’re saying it over and over again until the words lose meaning, and it’s more like an internal melody. The meaning disappears and you start listening to the sound. So, in this way you become delivered from anxiety. But again, like the game, the desire to be delivered from anxiety going around and around in our heads can be just as ensnaring. We stop interior thought and we are released. Released from anxiety, necessity, and craving, for ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ is) cannot be fixed, or set right. All is Dukkha. We are Dukkha, we are impermanent. There is no fixed point out there in the world, up there in the sky, or even in the self. All is Dukkha.

We suffer. And we want to escape our suffering. To the Buddha, suffering is caused by the fact that we desire, we crave. If we can stop desiring, we can stop suffering. To reference last week’s address, we are stuck in the in-between, in-between what we have and what we desire. If only we can embrace the in-between. Enter into it. We will be released from our suffering. To find our quiet centre, to be released from the incessant noise within - that is what we mark today, as we sit quietly with the Buddha under the Bodhi tree.