May 16, 2018
as preached at the First Parish Church, Ashby, May 6, 2018
This morning I thought I would offer you a sermon reflecting on some religious texts and stories that I have found to be helpful in my own spiritual practice. I want to share with some lessons I have found in the Chinese religion of Taoism. Or at least, the lessons I have discovered in the interpretations of Taoism offered by European and Euro-American thinkers.
One of the things that I appreciate about our Unitarian Universalist tradition is that it has an openness that encourages us to explore scriptures and practices from outside of the European cultures. This openness though should also be exercised with a certain amount of humility and respect. Religious practices develop in particular contexts. When we take those practices and place them within a different context then we change them. We change them in ways that sometimes can make people from the cultures that they came from uncomfortable. To offer an example from our own congregational life, the Seder that this congregation hosts each year is quite different than the Seders held in the homes of Orthodox Jews. I have no doubt that many of the orthodox would be quite uncomfortable with the Seder. And yet, for members and friends of Ashby’s liberal Jewish community the Seder is a meaningful ritual that is a highlight of the year.
Religion is not something that is fixed. Even the most conservative of religious traditions changes over time. To give one example, the Roman Catholic church more-or-less permitted the marriage of priests until the eleventh century. And yet, one of the hallmarks of Unitarian Universalism is the belief that despite the transient nature of religious tradition there is a certain core religious experience that persists across time and culture. There’s a line from the Hindu Rig Veda that in my reading makes a similar point. It states, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.”
Liberal theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher have made a similar point when they have argued that religion stems from our experience of connection to something larger than ourselves. As he put it, we experience “everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite.” The experience of connection is a universal human phenomenon. Exactly how we interpret it is influenced by the particular cultures we find ourselves in.
As Unitarian Universalists we understand that there is wisdom to be gained from each particular expression of the universal experience of connection. I can learn from talking with you about your experience. I suspect that you can learn from talking with me about my experience. And I know that we can gain something by discussing the experiences that others have had in other places and in other times.
There’s a certain way in which I think that the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion might be summarized by Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Do you know it? A few verses from it read:
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
In the poem Stevens offers thirteen different descriptions of the blackbird. Each is different. Each offers a different understanding of the bird. However, despite the different descriptions there’s only one bird.
In the Unitarian Universalist view, religion is a bit like the blackbird. The world’s different traditions are all offering descriptions of something that is ultimately beyond description: our human place in the great disorder of things.
Now with that set of overly long caveats aside, I want to turn our attention to one of some of the Taoist stories that I have found helpful in my own attempt to lead a more faithful religious life and make my way on this confusing, muddy, planet we call Earth.
The first story is perhaps one you have heard before. In one version it reads, “I, Chuang Tzu, once dreamed I was a butterfly--a butterfly fluttering here and there, without worry or desire, unaware of being human. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, again ‘my own self.’ Now this is unclear to me: was I a man who dreaming he was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams he is a man? There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.
On first reading, it is a slippery story. The point is difficult to grasp. The Chuang Tzu does not know whether he is man or butterfly. He is, however, one or the other. He is either a man dreaming he is a butterfly or he is a butterfly dreaming he is a man. I suspect that the key to the story is found in the last two sentences: “There is a barrier between man and butterfly. Crossing it is called transmutation.” Chuang Tzu can either be a butterfly or a man. He cannot be both.
The story communicates one of the core ideas of Taoism, at least as it is understood by European and Euro-American scholars. Everything is understood to have its own nature, its own way of being in the world. Butterflies flutter here and there. They lack worry or desire but instead seek milkweed nectar or quest for sunflowers. People worry about whether or not they are butterflies. The Taoist point seems to be that it does not matter which you are as long as you try to uncover your own nature. But then, it is a slippery story. Your interpretation might be somewhat different than my own.
Much of Taoism a bit slippery like that. Unlike a lot of other religious traditions, it lacks a meta-narrative, an overarching story of existence. There is no central text with a creation story like those found in the Hebrew Bible or Hindu scriptures. And there’s no salvation narrative suggesting that we are somehow flawed beings that need to be saved. Such narratives are found in the Christian New Testament or in the life of Buddha. All of this might suggest a challenge to the motto I suggested earlier, “the truth is one, the wise call it by many names.” However, as the Euro-American scholar Thomas Cleary has argued, “Taoism is based... on the experience of... [the] universal Way, the essential reality which all derivative ways might be comprehended.”
This is quite similar to the liberal theological assertion that at the core of religion is the the experience of connection to something greater than ourselves. In Clearly’s interpretation of Taoism, we are part of the universal Way (the Tao), the nature of everything. And we each have our own individual ways, or natures, that stem from it. The purpose of Taoism is to uncover or discover our individual way and live in harmony with the greater way of which we are a part.
I read the contemporary classic the Tao of Pooh in high school. Have any of you read it? It is a charming book that attempts to communicate the core teachings of Taoism in a fashion that is accessible for those unfamiliar with the tradition. It uses the characters from the Winnie the Pooh children stories to share insights its author has gained from Taoism. It has been criticized by scholars as presenting a European reading of Taoism that strips it of its original cultural context. Nonetheless, I find its core insight appealing. It suggests that the authentic religious life is about being present with the self and present to the world around the self. Or, as the text says, "While Eeyore frets... and Piglet hesitates... and Rabbit calculates... and Owl pontificates... Pooh just is."
Another Euro-American interpreter of Taoism named Alan Watts tried to express the same insight with these words, “What we are seeking is, if we are not totally blind, already here.”
Taoism itself is an ancient tradition that originated in China more than two thousand years ago. It emerged as a body of written teachings around the fourth century BCE. I say as a body of written teachings because like most traditions it had a lot of sources. If it is about uncovering what is already here then that is something that people have been uncovering and discovering for as long as there have been people.
The first Taoist text is generally thought to be the Tao Te Ching, the book of changes. It was compiled by someone called Lao Tzu, whose name translates into old master. It is debatable as to whether he was a historical figure or a mythical one. Some claim he was a royal librarian in an early Chinese dynasty. He is said to have eventually grown tired of the intrigues of court life. He quit his position and left the kingdom to seek a life of contemplation. On the way out of the kingdom he stopped to spend the night at the last gate before the wilderness. The gatekeeper recognized him and asked him to leave some of his wisdom behind. And that wisdom was the Tao Te Ching.
The other great Taoist teacher was Chuang Tzu. He almost certainly was a real person. There are records of someone with the same name that appear in the second and third centuries BCE. Chuang Tzu’s text bears his name. It is a book of stories. Some, like the butterfly story, are cryptic or enigmatic. Others make their point a bit more clearly.
I have read the Chuang Tzu numerous times and found in its advice about being who we are to be useful. One story suggests that it is good to have a healthy skepticism of technology. The story is about an old gardener and a young engineer. One day the young engineer was walking back to the capital city. As he walked he came across an old gardener, drawing a bucket of water from a well. He watched the old man. The old man walked over to the well and drew up a bucket of water. Then he walked over to his garden, some distance away, and dumped the water on his vegetables. He repeated this process many times. Walking over to the well and returning with the heavy bucket filled with water until his garden was finally watered.
All of this seemed like a lot of effort to the engineer. He approached the gardener and told him, “Hey, if you had the right contraption you could water your garden much better and with a lot less effort. Would you not like that?”
“What is the contraption” replied the gardener.
“It is a wooden lever. It is heavy in the back and light in the front. It draws water from the well, as you do with your bucket, but in a steadily flowing stream. It is called a well sweep.”
The gardener is said to have looked at the young engineer with an expression of annoyance. And then he is said to have laugh and told the young man, “I have heard my teacher say that those who use tricky tools are tricky in their business affairs, and those who are tricky in their business affairs have trickery in their hearts, and those who have trickery in their hearts cannot remain pure and unspoilt, and those who are not pure and unspoilt have a restless spirit, and those who have a restless spirit, in them Tao cannot exist. Not that I am unfamiliar with such a contraption--I would be ashamed to use one.”
Supposedly, the engineer bowed his head in shame and left the gardener to his buckets, well, and garden. The point of the story seems clear enough to me. Technology can distract us from our inner nature, the experience of what it means to be human in this wild world. Now, if that was true in Chuang Tzu’s day, it is certainly true in ours. How easily do we get distracted by all of the technological devices that surround us. I will admit that my cell phone can provide constant distraction. It can take me away from my surroundings and my relationships. It is easy to get immersed in the little rectangular screen. And when I do I frequently find myself feeling disconnected from the world immediately around me. What about you? Do you ever find technology distracting?
One way I remind myself of my connection to something larger than myself is through my own practice of foraging. It is spring and good things to eat are starting to grow everywhere. They can be found in the woods and in the roadside ditches. Collecting mushrooms and wild greens reminds me of how our earliest human ancestors found their sustenance. It gets me a little closer to the early human experience of the world.
Foraging I have learned to see the world as filled with abundance and scarcity. Viewed this way, the world becomes a place where survival depends upon connection to and understanding of the landscape that surrounds us. And this is very different from the way I inhabit the world much of the time. Sometimes when I am not foraging it does not matter if I am distracted by the glow of a screen. When I am foraging it absolutely does. There is no way I could find dandelion greens or fiddlehead ferns or morel mushrooms if I spent my time in the woods gazing at my cell phone.
Foraging helps me to be present in the moment. It reminds me that being present can be its own reward. And that being present requires me to accept what there is rather than what I desire. And that when that when I do that I can discover things that I might not otherwise discover.
I am reminded of this almost every time I go out foraging. I remember one instance when a friend and I went traipsing through the woods looking for morel mushrooms. It was a frustrating experience. We went to our favorite morel patches and found none. We found elm trees but no morels. We found an abandoned apple orchard but no morels. We looked under ash trees. We looked under oak trees. No morels. This went on for several hours. Suddenly my friend yelled, “Ramps!” And there they were, a large patch of ramps, wild leeks. There was enough for dinner, and the next day’s dinner, and dinner for the day after that.
It was a good reminder that when we are present to the moment we might not find what we are looking but we will find something. And that something is often good in and of itself and worth celebrating. Have you ever had a similar experience? Where you were looking for one thing and then found something completely different? And that thing was glorious?
This, to me, is the message of Taoism, or at least the message of Taoism seen through its European interpreters. As the scholar Alan Watts tells us, “What we are seeking is... already here.” Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church put it another way, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.” Let us say that last phrase together, “Want what you have, do what you can, be who you are.”
We cannot be both a butterfly and a human. There is some essential nature to both the butterfly and the human that is unique. Let us accept that nature and, in doing so, open ourselves to the present moment in which we are immersed.
May it be so for each of us.
Jul 31, 2017
Yesterday I had friends over to make Czech fruit dumplings. When I make dumplings I usually proceed the dumpling course with a course of salads. In this instance, I made a raw beet salad, a grated carrot salad, and a dish of cinnabar chanterelles and sour cream with fried potatoes. I am fortunate that there’s a nice patch of cinnabars growing a few blocks from my house. I have been able to forage meals from it on three occasions over the last month. I adopted a recipe from the New York Times for the meal:
Cinnabar Chanterelles and Sour Cream with Fried Potatoes
1 lbs cinnabar chanterelles
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 lbs small potatoes
1 cup finely chopped onions
3 tablespoons sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
Clean the mushrooms. Take three medium bowls. Place the foraged mushrooms in one bowl and fill the second with water. Working one at a time, quickly place a mushroom in the water and shake it to knock loose any debris. Then put the mushroom on a cutting board and, using a small paring knife, cut or scrape away any remaining debris. Place the cleaned mushrooms in the third bowl.
Place the potatoes in a small saucepan of salted water. Bring to a boil and then cook until they are just about fork tender. Remove from heat, drain, and then cut into halves or quarters, depending on the size of the potatoes. Ideally the potato pieces should be bite-sized.
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in an iron skillet over medium heat. Add the potatoes and fry until golden brown, about 10 minutes. When the potatoes are ready, remove them from the heat and place in a small bowl.
Return the skillet to the stove, add the butter, and melt the butter over medium heat. After the butter has melted, add the onions and cook until they are translucent.
Add the mushrooms to the onions and continue cooking until all of the liquid has evaporated. Cinnabar chanterelles give off a lot of water so don’t be surprised if the mushroom and onion mix initially has a soupy consistency.
Once the liquid has evaporated, stir in the potatoes and cook for another minute or so. Then add the sour cream and cook for an additional two minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Note: If you want to make this recipe with yellow chanterelles (the kind you can sometimes buy in the grocery store) increase the butter to 2 tablespoons. They are a lot less watery and, consequently, do well with a bit more fat from the butter.
Jan 3, 2017
as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, May 16, 2010
There is at least a segment of you who are wondering what just happened. The order of service shows that before the sermon we were supposed to have a piece of music called 4'33". But instead of playing music Karin sat in front of the piano doing nothing. No notes were played. No melody emerged. Nothing happened. This nothing is the entirety of this piece by the American composer, philosopher and artist John Cage. Yet the very presence of nothing throughout the piece makes 4'33" one of the 20th century's seminal musical compositions. Its central premiss is that everything that occurs during the piece is part of the piece. Each cough, uncomfortable shift in a chair, reluctant sigh, bird sound, traffic noise or incredulous murmur is music. 4'33" can, therefore, be understood as expanding music's definition.
Cage arrived at this piece when he set out to experience absolute silence. In the early 1950s he was invited to make use of an anechoic chamber. The chamber used a variety of techniques to blot out all external sound. Inside of it there was no rattle from a passing truck, no whisper of the wind, no ring of a telephone... There was supposed to be nothing. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear pure silence. Instead he discovered two sounds, a high pitched whine and a low but steady beat. Upon leaving the chamber he asked the engineer in charge about the two sounds. The engineer explained to him that what he had heard was the sound of his nervous system, the high tones, and the sound of his heart, the low ones.
From this experience Cage learned that we are surrounded by sound at all times. "Sounds," Cage wrote, "occur whether intended or not." He realized that the traditional understanding of music was, in his words, "an ideal situation, not a real one." When conceiving of a piece of music a composer indicates through a score that a composition is comprised of certain notes to be produced on specific instruments. When the piece is performed listeners hear something different than what the composer intended for them to hear. They hear both the planned notes and the ambient noise of the environment. This realization led Cage to seek to incorporate his environment's, and his body's, unintended sounds into his music.
4'33" derives from Cage's realization about the constant presence of sound. The only sound in the piece is the unintended sound of the body and the environment. Normally the ambient noise of the environment is the background upon which music unfolds. Cage has reversed the situation. In 4'33" the ambient noise is the music itself.
Changing his listeners' understanding of what art and music are is one of the central tasks of Cage's work. Profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern religion Cage saw art as having "the function of awakening people to the life around them." One of his teachers, the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, put it slightly differently by telling him, that "the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." Cage came to understand that the divine is "all things that happen in creation."
Cage's art is useful to a religious community like ours because his works help us to see and hear everyday life as beautiful. His music can provide a focus point through which we reinterpret and reengage with our environment. The actual sounds that are contained within his work might be unusual or may fall outside of the realm of what we normally consider music. This is intentional. Cage wanted his music to challenge listeners to reconsider the nature of music itself. He wrote, "People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard 'noise' but... then [they will] hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life."
Heard with Cage's ears music becomes not a matter of composition or performance but the result of an attitude. The rattle of a washing machine is placed on an equal level with a fugue by Beethoven. One is not more beautiful than the other. Both are collections of sounds--the bow drawn across the tense strings of the violin, the water and clothes pushing against the metal sides of the machine, the piano's hammers hitting the wires and the bolts jangling as dirt is shaken loose from fabric. The beauty of the sounds is not an inherent value. It is a value assigned to them. If we choose we can assign all sounds the value of beautiful. Doing so allows us to take greater pleasure from them. It also opens up the world of experience. If, as Cage said, we "get over our likes and dislikes," then we can fully engage with anything that we encounter.
Cage drew inspiration from the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp used his work to confront conventional understandings of what art is. He is perhaps most famous for his readymades. These were a series of ordinary objects that Duchamp signed, gave titles to and placed in art galleries. They included a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel and a urinal labeled "Fountain." Duchamp hoped that seeing such familiar objects in the space of an art gallery would cause the viewer to ask questions like: Are these pieces art? What is art? Are we surrounded by art at all times?
Duchamp's work had the desired result on Cage. During an interview Cage shared this story about seeing some of the readymades: "his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from--not away, but among--the works of art...the light switch seemed to be as attention-deserving as the works of art."
When I first learned of Duchamp's work it had a similar effect on me. One afternoon a friend and I went to a local grocery store. While there we encountered a clear milk jug filled with neon insecticide. The object fascinated me. It seemed beautiful and grotesque and problematic all at once.
The bottle of bug killer had as much of a story to it as any other object. It was unique. It had been conceived by a human mind, built with human tools and placed in front of me by human hands. The florescent light that shone on it caused the jug to cast a pale green shadow.
When Cage had such experiences they reminded him to celebrate the uniqueness of each object he encountered. During an interview with the scholar Joan Retallack he reflected on seeing a soup can in the supermarket: "when you see a row of soup cans, you notice rather quickly and easily that light falls on them differently. Each can is separate from each other can. They're only connected as ideas in our heads. But in reality light falls on each one uniquely, so that it is at the center of the universe, or is the Buddha, you see. So, it's worthy of honor..."
In response to Cage's ruminations Retallack replied, "Presumably the Buddha should be as useful as a can." Sharp quips aside, Cage's point was that viewed from a certain perspective everyday objects can trigger moments of insight. Every object encountered is both unique and connected with all other objects in the universe. Considering these facts can turn the most mundane incident into a spiritual experience. Any sound we hear, any article we see or touch is an invitation into deeper connection with the world around us.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han created the word "interbeing" to describe this interrelation of all things. In one of his books he invites his readers to look at the piece of paper on which his words appear. Looking at it closely reveals that it is a connected to all things. "Your mind is in here and mine is also...You cannot point to one thing that is not here--time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper," he states.
Seeing the sheet of paper for what it is requires a certain perspective. Such a perspective is not always easy to obtain. Often we focus on the utility of an object or simply ignore it, consigning it to the sensory background. Cage's work is helpful because engaging with it can require a shifting of perspective: the paper is seen in a new manner; the washing machine heard for the first time; and the background sounds come to the foreground.
It is possible to cultivate this type of perspective through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice stills and sharpens the mind. It tunes the senses. It brings the background into the foreground. Spiritual practices vary by individual and community. Some choose meditation or prayer as their spiritual practice. Others prefer journal writing, painting or a regular exercise routine. All spiritual practices serve the same function, to center the self and to point to the possibility of insight.
For Cage composition was a spiritual practice. It brought him into tune with nature. Cage felt that "personality is a flimsy thing on which to build...art" and sought to transcend it through the use of chance operations in his later pieces. Chance operations are methods of generating art independent of an artist's conscious intentions. They range from simple things like rolling dice or throwing darts to more complicated methods involving the ancient Chinese divination tool the I-Ching or computer programs. Cage developed a complex methodology for composition using the I-Ching as a base. He would set a certain number of parameters for a piece--its length, the number of performers or the number of instruments--and then flip coins to derive a series of I-Ching hexagrams to determine the rest. This stripped intention from his work and led it, in his view, to more closely mirror the natural world. "What we do, we do without purpose. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operations," he wrote, reflecting on his composition technique.
Cage's understanding of the natural world reinforced his views about music and art. His primary engagement with the natural environment was through his passion for mushrooms. He foraged for fungi every opportunity he got.
Mushroom foraging is a lot like chance operation in composition. You commit to a particular technique--or in the case of mushrooms area--pay attention and see what the world brings you. Sudden shifts in consciousness may occur.
As a frequent forager myself I know how easy it is to slip from a forest bereft of mushrooms to a forest full of them. The chance turning of a leaf reveals a morel. Before there was nothing but early spring May Apples. Now the ground is littered with wrinkled grey caps.
Reflecting on this dynamic Cage once said, "ideas are to be found in the same way you find wild mushrooms in the forest, just by looking." The chance encounter of a mushroom is similar to the discovery of an unusual sound. He wrote, "a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it's fresh it's like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time."
Cage believed that we are surrounded by beauty, writing "Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look." Within this attitude to I hear echoes of the first source of our Unitarian Universalist Association: "Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder...which moves us to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life." Cage's work challenges us to directly experience the world that surrounds us. It is not be meditated through symbolic interpretation or given an explanation. It is just to be experienced. Such an openness leads to a constant state of wonder.
If this view has a limitation it is that, perhaps, ironically for a Buddhist, it does not offer an adequate approach to suffering. Throughout his writings and works Cage never seems to seriously wrestle with suffering. Instead he focuses on the possibility of beauty within the world. But I am not so sure we should ultimately find all things beautiful. Torture, pain, the degradation of the environment, war, liking or disliking these things is not a matter of aesthetics but a matter of ethics. While there might be moments of beauty found within them--the iridescent whirls of oil on water, the harsh stillness of a field before battle--it is probably best not to view them as beautiful. Doing so could lead to complacency or acceptance. In the face of the world's problems inaction is not a realistic option.
Art only pushes into daily life so far. It may be provocative to quote, as Cage did in his piece "Indeterminacy," the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna by offering the words--"When Sri Ramakrishna was asked why, if God is good, is there evil in the world, he replied, 'To thicken the plot.'"--but it does little to goad people in action. It is no doubt my own rooting in a religious tradition that's objective is, in the words of one Unitarian Universalist author, "to build the world we dream about" that finds limitations in Cage here. He does not point the path to that world. In some of his writings he envisions an anarchist utopian society where work has been abolished and people respect the planet. Yet he never offers thoughts on how to create such a society.
Such was not his purpose. Instead Cage's work offers us the invitation to see the world as a blessing. And that is surely the first step towards making it whole. Cage suggests that viewed properly each movement we make is part of a dance, each breath the catch of a song, each thing we see a thing of wondrous beauty. If we understand the world's beauty how could do anything but cherish it? As Cage himself would say, "Everyday is a beautiful day." Let us make it so.