Living The Good Life

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SF-00933
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Sunday Lecture

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I vow to taste the truth of the Tathāgata's words. Good morning. Well, what I want to talk about today is the good life. What that might possibly be, and how we will ever know if we've got it, or if we are it. I've been recently studying a bit about the Western psychotherapeutic tradition, and particularly a book that I rather enjoy by Jeremy Safran called Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. And this book is a collection of essays by analysts

[01:01]

who are also long-time practitioners, and in some cases teachers, of Buddhism. Some of the chapter titles are things like Being Somebody and Being Nobody, a re-examination of the understanding of self in psychoanalysis and Buddhism, the dissolving of dissolving itself, moments of truth and truths of moment, and Two Extraordinary Paths to an Ordinary Mind. So for many years I have committed myself to a therapeutic relationship for which I am deeply grateful. So I was inspired to see how these two wisdom traditions

[02:03]

are finding in one another mutually supportive intelligence. And in both cases this intelligence is arising, in the simplest sense, out of our human suffering and the pressing need for methods and medicine for healing. The Buddha in his own time was called the Great Physician, and my own therapist has the title Doctor of Medicine. So first off I want to suggest that the good life is a life of good health, mental, physical, social, ethical, spiritual good health. And of course, for all of us, the good health of our planet. I don't know if any of you have had a chance to read

[03:04]

the recent and stunning issue of National Geographic called Global Warning. But something's going on here that we need to pay attention to, all of us. Our very lives are depending on that. So for me, Buddhism is not about Buddhism, and it's not about being a Buddhist either, even though it's a lot of fun being a Buddhist, you know. Maybe you can tell by our hair and our clothes that we're having a good time. Most importantly, though, is the privilege we have of living together in community with like-minded and good-hearted people. But Buddhism is not about Buddhism. It's about human beings and the possibility of awakening into a life of ethics, of joy, and of sharing together a good life.

[04:12]

I heard a story that the Dalai Lama was giving some teachings to a group of clerics from various traditions, and one of them said how much he'd enjoyed the teachings, but he thought it would be challenging to share Buddhism with his conservative congregation back home. And the Dalai Lama said, Well, that's okay, just tell them that it's Christian teaching. Buddhism is not about Buddhism. It's about human life, and it's about all of us. So I thought it was important to contrast this morning with what I'm going to be talking about as the good life with the dominant cultural presentation that, as all of you are aware, can be seen on any bus, in any magazine or newspaper,

[05:17]

and most spectacularly on broadcast television, for those of you who have one of those in your home. Recently I spent a couple of weeks in a combination of vacationing and convalescing. Maybe you'll be able to hear a little bit of my voice because this is still kind of absent. But I stayed in the home of a family member who lives in Mill Valley in a rather large, at least certainly to my point of view, condominium. And in the living room there is an enormous television, kind of the size of our altar in here, same position in the room. So this was both a great entertainment for me, you know, the Summer Olympics are on right now, but it was also, I don't want to exaggerate,

[06:23]

it was somewhat disturbing to see what is being sent to us from the creators of programs and their sponsors. Through the fine art of channel surfing, I actually got a glimpse of a number of programs such as The Boardroom, Fear Factor, and Dead Zone. But on the other side, I did manage to see a Monk Marathon, Boy Meets World, and SpongeBob SquarePants. So it wasn't a total loss by any means. But for me, what was most fascinating was what happened in between the shows. You know, these great piston engines of our global economic empire,

[07:29]

advertising, truly amazing. It's been a while, and I was dazzled by the irresistible presentation of products that the good life depends on. You know, one thing that wasn't stated in any of these ads was the fact that you have to buy these things. Mostly they just kind of drop out of the sky, or they appear suddenly, like by magic, in your toilet bowl or your washing machine. There's a kind of glow, suddenly. And it was very clear that each of these is essential to our enhancement of our own self and our own well-being. We will not only be better dressed, better fed, better looking, but we will drive faster, arrive sooner, and die looking younger than anyone we know.

[08:33]

This is guaranteed. Now, I think all of us know that this is a lot of hooey. But I think what's really difficult is to see the absence of an alternative vision of a good life depicted in the mass cultural media. A good life that isn't exclusive to those with great wealth or great bodies or great looks, great social skills. And I'm wondering, for all of us, where is the solid ground of true beauty, of virtue, integrity, of meaningfulness? Where are we going to look in our secular age for a wise and compassionate regard for the human being

[09:38]

or for all that lives? This used to be the job of God, but I think that he or she may have resigned in dismay. So who is it that's doing this job for us now? I personally want to vote for the great wisdom traditions of the world. And it doesn't matter what denomination or sexual orientation or racial heritage. Wisdom and compassion can be found in the tiniest gestures, any day, anywhere, in any one of us. When I was in my twenties, I took my great-aunt Edith out to lunch at Green's Restaurant. She was maybe in her nineties at the time,

[10:40]

a very elegant, tall lady of the old era. And as we were waiting for our table, a mother with a young child suddenly jumped as her youngster went dashing into the restaurant, headed right for the redwood sculptures, which look an awful lot like a playground. And the mother grabbed the child by the arm and yanked him back to her. And then he looked up at her and started to cry. And then she got angry at him for crying. And my aunt said to me in a quiet voice, Oh my dear, she must learn patience with her little one. Well, this is the primary teaching of the Buddha, the teaching of patience. What do we do when we're afraid, or when we're sad, or when we're terrifyingly alone?

[11:43]

We practice patience. My aunt knew this, and she's not a Buddhist, but as she's aged, she's become more and more like a Buddha, more gentle and kind and funny and wise. So I want to propose that a commitment to the cultivation of kindness and wisdom is the true gateway to the good life. And in Buddhism, we call this commitment our practice. It's an everyday affair in which we look again and again at our own behavior, our own thoughts, and our own intentions for the future. To study the Buddha way is to study this very self, the one that we believe ourselves to be. And in order to study ourselves, we are called on to ask for some help.

[12:45]

ASKING FOR HELP Well, this is a fine old tradition that started with the early monks who wandered from town to town with begging bowls, asking for support for their practice. You know, begging for help is an honorable and necessary step for our growth and maturation. According to both the Buddhist and the psychotherapeutic traditions, we are from birth as blind, stubborn donkeys, and it's nobody's fault. We're just born that way. We're born with the capacity to perceive ourselves as separate and isolated from one another. We're born with a capacity for selfishness. Now hopefully, starting with our parents and continuing with our post-parental education, we have gotten some help in overcoming this notion

[14:07]

that we are the one, whether for good or for ill. Without that help, we are like narcissists, our neo-Western god, eternally enamored by our own image in the water. Last spring, I saw an exhibit of American Indian culture at a state park on the coast up near Guadalajara. And there was a lovely set of baskets and some tools, and there was also a quotation from a Pomo Indian warrior. And he said, A man is nothing, only a part of his family group. Within the group, everything needed to live is done by everyone. Protection, education, food gathering.

[15:10]

A man is nothing. I think this message is not so clear in our post-modern culture. Many of the people that were living in the condominiums where I was staying this summer live alone. They live in large rooms with large televisions. So I think we need to ask for help in order to reconnect to one another, despite the brilliance and temptation of this electronic mediation. One of my friends was telling me about Netflix. He knows I like movies, and he said, You don't have to go out of the house, you can just order them and they come in the mail. I thought that was kind of neat, but then I remembered that I really like going to VideoDroid, you know, and seeing those young people all covered with tattoos who are really sweet and know a lot about movies.

[16:15]

So what would happen to them? Where would they go? My life would be that much poorer. So I am personally grateful for those who responded to my asking for help when I was a young adult. As far as I could see, the world was an endless ocean of materialism and personal gain. And it wasn't that I didn't want to play, you know, I really did, but I was afraid. And I also had alternate values, as did many of my generation. I had some communal values. So from where I stood at that time, it looked as though I would never be fast enough, smart enough, you know, or good enough to enter the arena of social change. But that was the wrong answer to the right questions.

[17:19]

The questions were, the questions are, Who am I? Where do I belong? And what am I here to do? The Buddha said, and Mr. Yong said, You are a wonder. And you are here to live a good and healthy life for the benefit of yourself and all the living beings that surround and support you. The arena is everywhere. So this is precisely what we need help for. You know, to study and find our true life through the false traps of our beliefs in what we are, we must learn how to stop and look at what is actually happening. In every given moment,

[18:22]

what's happening? No, really. And to be quite honest with you, I experience that most of you are too easily sidetracked by thoughts and feelings, by fantasies, by sensations of pleasure or of pain, and you are pulled away time and again from noticing the actual experience that you're having in any given moment. I know this from my own personal experience. Once we stop to look, we begin to see just how full our minds are with planning and daydreaming, with obsessing and worrying, to say nothing of the show tunes. Only now and then,

[19:24]

when a branch cracks in the dark woods, do we wake up, eyes and ears, mind open and ready. What is it? But then all too soon we close down again, back to our dreams and fantasies of the good life. For everybody, you know, whether by George or by John. Stopping to look is the greatest gift the Buddhist tradition has to offer for the healing of this world. Over and over again, the analysts in Mr. Saffron's book give credit to their meditation practice for helping them as a primary resource to opening their lives and giving them insight that allowed for transformation. We call this practice just sitting,

[20:28]

and it really is nothing more than that. We get up rather early in the morning while it's still nice and quiet, while the birds are still asleep, and we sit together here in this room in the limitlessness of our being, limitless warmth, limitless moisture, limitless gravity and comfort, limitless stress or pain. In this simple way and in these quiet moments we find out who we really are, and from within that very one, a bird begins to sing. Most monks sitting in silence understand one another pretty well. Most monks sitting in silence hear the bird when it sings.

[21:35]

The differences appear when we are called on to speak about our experience, to explain what we are and how the world of our delusion comes into being. For example, to give a Sunday lecture in a Buddhist temple. You know, sometimes I just want to share knowledge that I've learned that has made me happy. I want to tell you all about it. The books, the articles, the inspirations. But other times I just want to encourage you to take up your own life, you know, to break out and away from whatever it is that's holding you back. Not in order to escape, but in order to see, to see what's happening. The only methods that I know for breaking free of ideas of myself

[22:38]

have been the two that I've mentioned so far. Sitting still together as I was instructed and going alone to see the teacher as I was told. These are what I'm calling begging for help. There's a very startling line in the Diamond Sutra that I was struck by one morning during service. It says that, by this humiliation you shall be liberated. By this humiliation you shall be liberated. You know, and I think I must add that only if you're lucky enough to see how humiliation is the great signpost on the path to liberation, to the good life. Humiliation comes from the word humus,

[23:38]

which means earth or ground. The Buddha on the eve of his own enlightenment touched the ground with his hand, begging for support in the face of tremendous seductive fantasies and demonic visions of alternatives to the simple reality of sitting in a quiet spot under a tree. But I'm bored, we cry. Well, that's a good thing. You know, boredom is the next step before enlightenment. Whether we know it or not, the good life is always right at hand. It's already here. It's always been here. But as with the conjurer's tricks, we are always looking slightly somewhere else. Recently, my daughter, who is perhaps the greatest fan of the material world,

[24:42]

of anyone in the Western Hemisphere, was tolerating another one of my mini-lectures on alternate values. And it was taking place while we were brushing our teeth the other morning. And I was saying to her, you know, Well, honey, what would you say if someone asked you, you know, who is Buddha? What would you answer? You know, I was being kind of casual. And she said, you know, I've told her all her life that she's Buddha, everyone's Buddha. She's heard this. So she said, at first to my great delight, she said, Mom, I believe that Buddha is whatever I believe. You know, I smiled and then she said, And Mom, I believe that I am not Buddha. And neither are you. She's really cute.

[25:45]

So this leads me to the linchpin of the spiritual endeavor itself. And that is our attachment to views and feelings about things. These are the great hooks of self-identity and self-concern. And there is no time that I am more aware of my attachment to my views than when my arms are locked with those of my delightful offspring. You know, like those Greco-Roman wrestlers, neither one of us is going to hit the ground without a fight. At such times, the words of my beloved aunt come back to haunt me. Oh, my dear, you must learn patience with your little one. There's a wonderful story in the Buddhist tradition of how the Buddha tamed a wild thing that might apply for all of us trying to raise our children in this post-modern age.

[26:49]

As you listen to the story, you might also see how it applies to the small children who live inside of you when they're afraid or when they're angry or frustrated. This is a story of meeting and of getting help from a good friend, a good parent, or a good teacher. Now, at that time, the Blessed One went to the hermitage of Kashapa of Uruvela, a famous shaman of the fire cult. And he said, Kashapa, if you have no objection, I should like to spend one night in your fire chamber. I have no objection, great monk, but there is a savage royal Naga serpent there. She has supernormal powers. She's venomous, fearfully poisonous, and capable of killing you. The Blessed One asked a second time and a third time

[27:50]

and received the same reply. And then he said, Perhaps she will not destroy me, Kashapa, so grant me the fire chamber. Then stay there as long as you like, great monk. So the Blessed One went into the fire chamber. He spread out a rush mat and sat down, folding his legs crosswise, setting his body erect and establishing mindfulness in front of him. When the Naga saw the Blessed One come in, she was angry and she produced smoke. Then the Blessed One thought, Suppose I counter her smoke by smoke without injuring her outer skin or inner skin or flesh or sinews or bones or marrow. He did so and he produced smoke. Then the Naga, no longer restraining her fury, produced flames.

[28:52]

The Blessed One entered upon the fire element and produced flames too. The fire chamber seemed to burn and blaze and glow with their flames. The matted-hair ascetics gathered around and they said, The great monk who is so beautiful is being destroyed by the Naga. When the night was over and the Blessed One had countered the Naga's smoke by smoke and fire by fire without injuring her, he put her now tiny form into the palm of his hand and showed her to Uruvela Kashapa. This is your royal Naga serpent, Kashapa. Her fire has been countered by fire. For me, the characters in this story represent the major elements of our human life. The fire cult, our attachments to our views, our theories and our beliefs. The leader of the cult, Kashapa,

[29:56]

our false self with its limited mind and commanding control of our life. The Naga, our blind ignorance, resistant to change and to intimacy. And the Buddha, our awakened self, our big mind, observing misery and entering willingly to offer medicine and to orchestrate a cure. In this case, the cure for suffering takes place through the mirror of the Buddha's wisdom. Smoke to smoke, fire to fire, warm hand to warm hand, transference, counter-transference and release. It takes a lot of courage for us to enter into the fire chamber of another's wisdom, to be shaken, rattled and rolled as we see how the views of ourself and of our world begin to fall off like the great icebergs

[30:59]

calving in the arctic spring. What's left when you're a therapist and your Zen master is done with you is mostly a lot of space. Room to grow, room to think, room to feel, room to paint, room to laugh, and most of all, room to love, the great love for all beings. So to close, I would like to share a couple of short poems that I wrote about going to see my teacher. The first one is called, The Ancient Mirror. What do you see when you look at me? Completely the same and perfect? Completely different and scratched? Completely round eyes gazing hopefully into round eyes gazing completely. And this one's called, The Buddhist Sutras.

[32:00]

While headed down the trail to meet with the master, flowers and trees appeared as letters in the sutras. How lovely, she said, how lovely just to be. Suddenly a cold breeze scattered the petals and shook the branches. How indeed, she said, bowing deeply to the wind. Please take good care of yourselves and of each other. Thank you very much. May our intention...

[32:36]

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