Sources of Wisdom: Buddhism

Wisdom Sources: Buddhism

Rev. Anthony David

Oct. 3, 2010

The classic Buddhist tale, “The Nervous Little Rabbit,” is one of five hundred or so “Jataka Tales,” traditionally ascribed to the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, as his way of describing his experience in former incarnations: mistakes made, lessons learned. It’s a tale, a fable—but, like all the other Jataka Tales, it’s considered important enough to be included in Buddhism’s earliest surviving body of scripture (2500 years old) called the Pali Canon. We look at it today as our way of entering into the heart of Buddhism, and we do this as Unitarian Universalists, grateful that our religious tradition enables us to see Buddhism as part of our human spiritual heritage and as one powerful source of truth and meaning. Given time limitations, all that I would like to say I cannot; there’s so much history, so many ideas, so many fascinating things to know, such as:

  • How the three main branches of Buddhism are different: Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan
  • How Buddhism is a missionary religion with Good News—and how it grew and changed with every different culture it encountered
  • How most Buddhists worldwide do not meditate, even as, in America, meditation seems synonymous with the religion

So many fascinating things! So I encourage you to read the Buddhism chapter in Huston Smith’s book, The World’s Religions, if you haven’t already, as a way of exploring the trees. Here, this morning, we’re focusing on the forest.

So we begin, and it’s with the figure of the nervous rabbit in the Jataka tale. “Suppose,” she says to herself, “the Earth were to fall in, what would happen to me?” This is a really nervous rabbit, and one day, running along underneath a coconut palm tree, she hears a big THUMP and is so jarred by the noise, so frightened, that she immediately concludes the worst, and commences to spread the bad news far and wide: “The Earth IS falling in!”

Ever been so jarred by the noise of a big THUMP that you conclude the worst? Ever been that nervous little rabbit?

Already we are ready to hear two of Buddhism’s major teachings. One is that we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. The little rabbit’s reality is predetermined by her nervousness, predetermined by her ruminations about the world falling in. Reality as self-fulfilling prophesy.

Then there is the teaching that the wise lion in the story conveys so well, when he counsels rabbit: “Next time you hear a noise that frightens you, don’t run away. Stop and look closely and see if you can find out just what happened. Never guess when you can find out for yourself what is true.” The Buddha himself put it this way: “Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher. Be lamps unto yourselves.”

Combine the two teachings, and we have the rationale behind one of the spiritual practices of Buddhism which has become particularly important to many American followers of the religion today: Vipassana meditation. “Vipassana” means “insight”—insight into the nature of the self and the nature of reality. In Vipassana, what we are doing is bringing full awareness to the present moment. A thought comes, and then a feeling, and then a sensation, and then another thought—and we allow this natural flow of energy to happen without stopping it. We merely register what each moment brings impartially, without getting into a conversation with it or arguing with it or judging it as good or bad. No matter what appears, with your bare attention you give it space just to be, and then you let it go. Buddhism says, practice this enough—build up your meditation muscles to a certain point—and, like Siddhartha Gautama did 2500 years ago, and many others since, you will eventually learn how to see into the true nature of life, and this seeing will utterly transform you. The spacious freedom of Nirvana will be yours. We become what—and how—we think.

But it’s DIY: Do It Yourself. The historical Buddha emphasized this repeatedly. No one can do it for you. The nervous little rabbit resists at first. “No, no, no, I wouldn’t go near that tree for anything in the world. I’m too afraid!” she says—and the lion takes her on his back, but only to give her strength and courage enough to learn how to see for herself that it was just a coconut falling and not the whole Earth….

Let’s ride the lion’s back right now, as we take a moment to try for ourselves some Vipassana meditation. How many of you have practiced Vipassana before? Whatever our experience, let’s do it together, see what we learn, where it takes us next.

Start by finding a position that allows you to feel relaxed yet alert.

Feet flat on the ground.

Hands in your lap, one on top of the other, with the palms facing upward, and open.

Eyes soft, and closed.

Take a big relaxing breath.

Back straight, but not tense.


A few words before we begin. Remember that in Vipassana meditation, we are learning to look closely at our experience to see how it happens and what is really going on. Imagine that your mind is becoming like a mirror. When a sensation comes, or a feeling, or a thought, allow the mirror of your mind to register it for the moment it’s there, and then, when it goes, let it go. Stay open for the next thing that comes. Don’t be a sticky mirror that grabs ahold of what appears. Don’t comment on it or judge it or engage with it, because then, one thing after another will cover up your mirror until it’s choked with stuff, incapable of reflecting anything else. If a disturbing thought or feeling comes, remember, the lion from today’s story is somewhere within you. Feel its courage and calm. Go onto its back. Ride it to a place of insight and spaciousness and freedom. Register the disturbing thought or feeling, and then let it go. Don’t get wrapped up in it. Don’t be a sticky mirror. And if, at some point, you realize that your attention has wandered and you’ve lost the thread of your meditation, just gently bring it back. Be the mirror. Just see how life flows through you.

We will now enter meditation together for three minutes.


And that is three minutes. Take a deep, cleansing breath; open your eyes and gently return your awareness to our worship together.

Well, what was that like? Imagine doing that for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 3 hours!

And, what are we learning?

One of the teachings of Vipassana meditation, even for absolute beginners, has to do with how the undisciplined mind is exactly like the nervous little rabbit of our story. Thoughts and feelings and sensations making THUMP noises, startling to the degree that we’re trying to be quiet and calm, and we can sense directly our instinct to run away, or to grab hold, rather than simply to be like the lion and just look. The mind in its undisciplined state is revealed.

But as our Vipassana meditation deepens and becomes more disciplined, we begin to see how our existence is characterized by three basic things. First, transitoriness—how there’s nothing permanent that lies underneath the surface changes of things; beneath wave after wave of life is an ocean that is itself in a constant state of flux and flow.

Besides this, we see a second characteristic of existence: that our very selves are just like waves upon the ocean—that even though the self that one is can feel absolutely hard and defined, it is in fact an ever-changing combination of separate parts which Buddhists call “the five skandhas”: matter, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness. The whole that is our selves is never greater than the sum of the parts.

Buddhism says, Don’t take my word for it—see for yourself! And Vipassana meditators do. Vipassana brings them into these two insights, as well as a third: how we suffer because we are desperately grasping for what we only think gives peace. Peace, we think, is in stopping the flux and flow of existence; peace is demanding that it be a certain way and not another. But all that this desperation amounts to is a huge investment of energy into stopping the flow of our world, with little energy left over for actually being alive and enjoying the gifts of life. Take the ego, for example. Classic stopping strategy. Religion writer Stephen Prothero describes it through a story. “A few years ago, he says, an academic journal devoted an entire issue to one of my books. I was flattered, but when the issue arrived I had no desire to read it. I emailed a friend about my disinterest, which surprised me. “Of course!” she responded. “The only thing your ego does is say ‘you’re great’ and ‘you stink,’ over and over again, in internally self-referential and self-perpetuating loops…. Any form of criticism is a version of ‘you stink,’ and any form of praise us another version of the same message, since ‘you’re great’ implies that you would stink if you weren’t great in that way.’” That’s the story Stephen Prothero tells. The ego is a strategy for desperately clinging to a sense of safety and peace in life, but it is not just Buddhism telling us that the first will be last and the last first, or that human beings are dead when they are stiff and straight, alive only when soft and supple.

It’s the nervous little rabbit, who starts out thinking she has a world to lose; and because of that, she is perpetually anxious, perpetually asking, “What will happen to me?”; but only when she sees, with the help of the lion, what the world is really like, that’s when she finds true security and serenity. There is a better way to living that being trapped in the internally self-referential and self-perpetuating loops of the ego.

This is the ultimate teaching of Vipassana meditation, when we are deeply disciplined as well as ready. We learn a way of being that does not stop the flow of life. We learn how we can experience our emotions without getting stuck in them; we learn how to love without smothering, care without despairing, serve the cause of justice without demonizing those whose actions we deem hurtful. That’s what Buddhist non-attachment really means. It’s world’s apart from the unfortunate misunderstanding of non-attachment as coldness and lack of feeling. Not at all. Nonattachment enables fullness. Through Vipassana, the mind gradually becomes less sticky and more open, more compassionate, more free; and even as we penetrate the illusion of the little nervous rabbit self that can have peace only if there are no loud noises to startle it—we become more vital, we’re experience more joy, we get a sense of humor, we enter, finally, into the state of bliss known as Nirvana.

Even more, we realize that Nirvana is nothing special. Nirvana is supposed to be this exalted, rare state, but you know what the Buddha said at his moment of Enlightenment? “Wonderful, wonderful: all beings and all things are already enlightened.” How strange. How odd for him to say this, as one who also said that suffering is a main characteristic of existence. Yet the point is that in life is a natural grace, a natural bliss, a natural abundance. If this flow is unblocked, we are spontaneously carried into boundlessness. Noisy things are still going to happen. Nothing will ever stop that. Even if you become like the Buddha, whose death was caused by eating a piece of spoiled meat. Sickness, aging, separation from what one loves, being tied to what one hates, fear of death, death itself: circumstances grab at us like a riptide, an undertow, but if we can learn to swim with the tide, rather than against it, we will not just survive but find the peace we’ve been looking for. Nirvana is not so much achieving something we don’t have as it is experiencing what’s always already ours though hidden. We’ve got to get out of our own way.

This is the heart of Buddhism. Nervous little rabbits exist, but so do lions. Be lamps unto yourselves. There is inherent worth and dignity in every person, and in all of life. Suffering is real, but it is not the last word. Every moment carries within it a Buddha seed, and instantly it can grow if we know how to water it with our attention. Everyday sacred. This is the richness that we Unitarian Universalists get to draw from, in our search for truth and meaning, and in our finding.