Dharma Message

Posted September 8, 2012

Dharma Message Given at Ekoji Buddhist Temple, Sept 2, 2012

A friend of mine told me of a woman who had remained such good friends with her ex-husband that when he became extremely sick with cancer, she brought him into her home – her home, where she lived with her boyfriend. Her ex-husband had no-one else to turn to, so she graciously took on the responsibility of caring for him. He was her ex-husband, but he was still her friend. Her boyfriend, too, became friends with her ex-husband and helped with his care. The three of them lived in the same house for several years.

Earlier this year, the ex-husband was given only a few more weeks to live. The woman and her boyfriend had committed their lives to see this path through to the end. After that, they were planning to marry and move forward with their lives together. Without any warning, the woman, who was in her mid-50s, suffered a massive stroke and died. We can only imagine the shock and pain both her boyfriend and ex-husband must have felt.

Just when you think you have it all planned out, something happens to change everything. And we wonder why. Why?  Why would this most compassionate woman, who continued to love and care for her ex-husband during his time of need, while extending her love to her boyfriend and sharing with him her life, as full and complicated as it was… why would that life be cut short before she had the chance to fulfill the dream of a new marriage? We won’t ever really know. But as Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, our answer comes from the law of cause and effect. One action leads to another and to another. There are actions we’re not aware of, for example, the chemical reactions within our bodies from certain stimuli, or the effect of the sun on a particular plant, or the work of worms beneath the earth.

And then there are actions that we are aware of, our own actions and the effect they will have on our lives or those of others. This is our karma. Karma is action – it’s not fate or chance or the work of miracles. It is simply the actions we take every moment of every day. Some things we can control – our attitudes to those around us, to our lives, to ourselves. If our actions are positive and our intent is good, we are more likely to be fulfilled and experience happiness. But when we fall into despair and negativity, it becomes harder to navigate through the rough waters of our lives.

This has been a year of significant change for me. Some of you may know that I had a high-paying job in a Fortune 500 company. I was there for only about a year when I realized that I wanted more from my life than spinning endlessly on the corporate wheel. I had visited my father who lives in Scotland over the Thanksgiving break. He is a retired hospital administrator, with a second career as a photographer. He works independently and with the local newspaper. While I visited with him, I saw his joy for what he did every day. He clearly loved his job. I realized then that’s what I wanted – to wake each day loving my life. And so I walked away from Corporate America to pursue a life that would bring me real joy and satisfaction. While I was agonizing over my situation, I began to re-read this book, “Tariki—Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace” by Hiroyuki Itsuki. Here’s an excerpt:

      We have no control over our birth, and we cannot avoid aging. We all fall ill. And we must all face death, without exception. Human existence is defined by these four facts, and we cannot change them by our acts or force of will. Gautama realized that these were the common fate of all humanity, no matter how far civilization advanced, no matter how the times changed, and no matter what the people or culture.

   Accepting this reality, is it then possible for a human being, defined by these four inevitabilities, to live a life filled with vitality and hope?

      The young man who was later known as the Buddha set out on the spiritual quest to answer this question at the age of twenty-nine. He abandoned his family and his life of ease to do so.

       Starting from this radically negative way of thinking, he finally came to affirm human existence, and from that day forward he was known as the Buddha—the enlightened one.

      I believe that the reason the Buddha’s words make such a strong impression on us today is because he was able to arrive at a firmly established positive way of thinking from his original radically negative position.

      What has usually been regarded as ‘positive thinking’ up to now is really little more than mindless optimism, a vague feeling of hope; it is not something that can be a true source of strength in life. Genuine positive thinking is something else altogether.

      What is it? Consider the fate of a man who has seen endless suffering in his life, who has watched his family, his countrymen, his traditions, and all he holds sacred, tortured, abused, and destroyed. Yet, his aspect toward life is wholly compassionate, warm, even joyful. Is he a fool? Has he gone mad? Not at all. He is enlightened. He is not ruled by fear that his comfortable life will be overturned for he has already survived such upheaval, even though nothing will ever redeem his endless sorrow. This is the story of the Dalai Lama.

      After the Buddha left his father’s palace, he could think of nothing but illness, age, and death. He brought suffering upon himself because he could not live in sheltered ignorance of it, the knowledge alone was too unbearable. After eight years of starving himself of food and human companionship, he achieved his enlightenment. Enlightenment accompanied his embrace of the intransigent and central fact of human suffering. He returned tot he world to carry on his work and spread his teachings.

      The first thing we must do, right now, is to face reality, to look directly at the enormous threat to the human spirit. The question we must answer is not ‘What is humanity?’ but ‘What are we do do now, given what we know?’

      Once one accepts the inevitability of suffering, the omnipresence of death, what is there to fear in life? One must have the courage to lose things, or to give up things. Only then can we be truly free. Only then can we see life for what it really is.”

It is not easy to give things up. To walk away from security, from the familiarity of an office job. It’s not easy to lose a loved one, to be forced to say goodbye, especially when old age is still a distant shore. But sometimes we must. Sometimes it takes such inexplicable events to make us realize that what’s important is this moment, right now.  We can control whether we will be happy or sad in this moment. That’s not to say we shouldn’t plan for the future, that we shouldn’t remember the past, but we should strive to find the middle path, the balance between past and future, which is now. We can celebrate and enjoy this moment. It is as unique as each one of us in this room.

So I encourage you to accept that there will always be causes and effects that we cannot control and may never understand the consequence of a particular cause, but know that as each moment slips by, we can cherish it and make the most of who we are and who we’re with, right now.

Enjoy this moment, it will never come again.