This post is the sermon I gave on October 23 at Bull Run Unitarian Universalists in Manassas, Virginia. For a blog post, it's long, but as sermons go, it's pretty short, and about a third of it is the Buddha story. Consider this post my amends for my recent lack of posting.
About 2500 years ago, a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama was born into the house of a noble and prosperous king named Suddhodana and his wife, Queen Maya. At his birth, the gods gave signs of his greatness and an astrologer predicted he would either become a powerful monarch like his father, or would renounce his royal birthright and become a great spiritual leader. The astrologer told Suddhodana his son would take the latter path if saw four signs of the suffering of life. Of course Suddhodana wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, so he gave Siddhartha everything – a wife and servants, a walled palace with gardens, fountains, music, and entertainments, and every luxury imaginable – all to keep the suffering of the outside world away from the young prince. For many years, Siddhartha remained an ignorant prisoner of his own family, unaware of the realities of human pain, suffering, and death.
But eventually Siddhartha became curious about the world outside the gates, and one day was able to convince a loyal servant to take him about in the nearby town. When roaming down one street, he saw a man who was coughing and shaking. Siddhartha asked the man what was wrong with him, and he replied “I am sick with disease.” On another street, he saw a decrepit old woman. “Mother,” Siddhartha said, “what is wrong with you?” She replied that she was suffering from old age. Walking from the town into the countryside, he finally came upon a corpse lying in the road, whose despairing family was being attended by a monk. Siddhartha asked the monk what was wrong, and he replied “this man is dead, and his family suffers because he is lost to them. It is the way of all living things to suffer and die.” Returning to his palace, Siddhartha pondered what he had seen. He realized that he too could become sick and old, and one day suffer and die. He also was intrigued by the monk. Could there be another way – a way to understand suffering and attain enlightenment? The young prince awakened to the impermanence of the luxuries of his palace, and for the first time suffered pain over his own mortality.
Soon after seeing these four signs, Siddhartha renounced his home, wealth, and royal station in life. Shaving his head and donning a monk’s yellow robes, he sought enlightenment with first one and then another hermit who lived in caves. He was unsatisfied with their instruction, and decided to try using Yoga to gain insight into his Self. He found the insights he gained to be fleeting, and was still not satisfied. He next embarked on an ascetic path, attempting to banish desire by giving up every bodily pleasure, and even some necessities. He abused his body and abstained almost entirely from food and drink, until he was little more than a skeleton and was so weak he could barely stand.
Starved almost to death, he had still not achieved enlightenment, and he realized that going to such extremes of self-torture was no more useful than living a life of careless luxury. His cravings and desires were still present – actually even more so – and his focus had turned totally inward to his own aches, pains, and suffering.
Nearly despairing of finding enlightenment, he remembered a day from his childhood, when he had observed a ceremonial plowing while sitting under a rose-apple tree. He remembered feeling sorrow for the young grass and insects torn up by the plow, and how even as a young child he was able to feel compassion and let the beauty of the day enter his heart. For a brief moment, long ago, seated in mediation under the rose-apple tree, he had left behind his own ego and found serenity.
Recalling this experience, Siddhartha saw the wisdom he had gained even when very young. In that moment, he realizes that serenity can be found in the midst of suffering by nourishing body and soul together – and that the tools to do this are within him, and thus chooses a middle path between the two extremes of hedonistic excess and austere deprivation.
Easing his broken and emaciated body into a seat at the base of the sacred bodhi tree, Siddhartha eats a little food and then waits with openness and serenity and without expectation. Sitting, just sitting, through the rest of the night, he eventually achieves Nirvana – a state of being present in the world. At last he has awakened to the reality of this world, and is able to find serenity and compassion amid all the suffering. He has become the enlightened one – the Buddha.
But his journey is not over. Having achieved enlightenment, he returns to the “normal” world a changed person. He spends the rest of his life sharing his learning and wisdom with all who will listen. He experiences much suffering of his own and of others, but through it all, maintains peace and serenity. Like any hero, the Buddha shows the possibility of a better world, here and now, in the one we must inhabit.
In his well-known book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell tells the story of the archetypal hero whose cyclic journey of departure, initiation, and return is related in myth and story both ancient and modern. Obviously the story I just told from the Buddhist tradition is an example of a hero’s journey, as is the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This formula is still used in more modern stories – think about the journeys of Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Even Pinocchio is a hero in this context!
There are many variations, but the basic hero’s journey goes like this: an ordinary, average person, living an ordinary, mundane life, is presented with a challenge, problem, or adventure. He (or she, of course) reluctantly accepts the challenge, possibly aided or encouraged by an elder or guide, and crosses a threshold into a special world much different than that which was left behind. After encountering enemies and monsters, facing trials and tests – perhaps with help from allies – the hero reaches the “inner cave” or hiding place of the object of the quest – symbolic of some deep inner part of the psyche. At this point the hero must face the supreme challenge – perhaps symbolic or literal death – and triumph to win the prize. Once the prize is seized, however, the challenge is not necessarily over – the hero must return to the “normal” world. Perhaps the hero’s most difficult challenge yet must be endured on the road home, or she might be reluctant to leave this special world. The end result, of course, is the hero’s triumphal return to the life left behind, transformed by the experience and bringing some wisdom or boon back to his community and the world.
Campbell also tells us that the hero’s journey – which he calls the monomyth – is a constant theme throughout human history. He explains this monomyth as an expression of Jungian archetypes – “constantly repeating characters that appear in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures.” “Dream is the personalized myth; myth, the depersonalized dream.”
So here we have a framework – the hero’s journey of myth and dream – that reflects the inner workings and desires of the human heart and mind. It is archetype reflected in dream, and dream revealed in myth. In UU terms, the hero’s journey is the story of humanity’s quest for truth and meaning.
This search is evident in our heritage, in the stories of heretical Unitarians and Universalists who dared to question the status quo, and depart from what was for them the mainstream of their denominational thought. Let’s take a quick look at two of our forebears – William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker – and an event in our history – and see if we can trace a hero’s journey of our movement in their stories.
William Ellery Channing was a self-proclaimed religious liberal who departed from the religious status quo when he presenting a famous sermon entitled “Unitarian Christianity.” In this sermon, given in Baltimore in 1819, he not only accepted the ostensibly disparaging title “Unitarian” used by his Orthodox colleagues, he went on to describe some of the doctrines which might be deduced by examining the Bible through the lens of reason. This bold step marked a clear departure of Unitarianism from the Orthodox Calvinist thinking of the day.
Theodore Parker, famed for his sermon “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” became so outspoken in advancing his heretical idea – that Christianity would still be possible without Jesus Christ – that even other Unitarian clergy in the Boston area refused to exchange pulpits with him. In the 1843 “heresy trial” before the Boston Association of Ministers, he refused to resign from that organization, and they refused to throw him out. At this impasse, he became hugely popular as a preacher, although shunned by his fellow clergy. In this, I see his initiation – trial and suffering – in furtherance of what he saw as the truth.
With the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in 1961, the journey boldly begun by William Ellery Channing and continued with strife and challenge by Theodore Parker reaches a culmination of sorts – a Return to the “normal” world. The hero, of course, is Unitarian Universalism, emerging in our world with a great boon to offer – a creedless faith of love and justice, based on the oneness of the divine and the universal salvation available to all who seek it. But is that really the end of this Hero’s Journey?
Recall the words of Joseph Campbell: “… a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure; you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: Do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”
I submit it is time for Unitarian Universalism to depart on another round of the Hero’s Journey. Frankly, I’ve had some real doubts about this faith of ours over the past year – to the point where I even wrote an essay entitled “The Seinfeld Religion?” In case you’re not familiar with Seinfeld, it was called a “show about nothing.” Sometimes I believe Unitarian Universalism is like that – a Religion about Nothing. How can we call ourselves a religious faith when our de facto creed – the Seven Principles – is in essence a statement of secular liberalism? Many of the theological ideas and values that were radical and outrageous in Theodore Parker’s day are now mainstream, so are we now on the fringe or irrelevant? We’re not Christian, we’re not pagan, we’re not Buddhist – so what are we? Can we be all things to all people? Should we try to be?
We are on the cusp of our next hero’s journey – that is, if we haven’t already departed. Perhaps we’re already in the Initiation phase. There is a movement afoot, led by Rev. William Sinkford, the President of the UU Association, to reclaim a “language of reverence.” Remember the reception that William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker got when they challenged the orthodoxies of their day? They were – in essence – burned at the stake. How do you think the current Unitarian Universalist orthodoxy of individualistic humanism will receive a movement toward more religious language in our denomination?
It seems to me that this movement to re-emphasize the spiritual side of Unitarian Universalism – traditionally viewed as our Universalist heritage – is on the right track – although ironically the Unitarian or more humanistic side is what attracts many people - indeed what attracted me – to the movement in the first place. I think, however, that we should look for guidance on our next hero’s journey beyond this attempt to revive the language of Christianity. Rather we should also resurrect our heritage of the practice of covenant.
Rev. Rebecca Parker, the President of Starr King School for the Ministry (our UU seminary in Berkeley, CA), says “covenant means to come together by making a promise.” I also like the definition “a sacred promise of meaningful relationship.” However it’s defined, the essence of covenant is this: as a community, as a faith, we place our trust in one another, and we value our relationships with each other and our shared experience over our inevitable differences of opinion or belief.
Covenant is a practice, not merely a verbal agreement, and in the words of Rebecca Parker, “we inherit covenant before we create covenant.” We are all here together in relationship, if for no other reason than we’ve shown up this morning. Let’s take THAT – our presence here together with each other – and make it the centerpiece of our faith – rather than a somewhat selfish individual search for truth and meaning. Let’s notice that we are together here today, accept it, and intentionally make the most of our community, our connections, and our relationships. Let’s depart on a hero’s journey together, face the challenges and failures along the way – together – then return again and again with shared truth and wisdom and power – together in community bound by the practice of covenant.