There is more to the Circle of Life than the circumference. Not only do we turn the wheel at great turning points, we are continuously dying and being born. The kindness we send forth in the present moment makes a difference. This sermon was written for the UU’s of Fallston, May 17, 2015.
couple of weeks ago, I took the kids to meet my brother and sister-in-law and
their daughter at a petting farm in Ellicott City. (Clark’s Elioak Farm
) It’s a working farm, and also a place where kids can get pony rides and feed
the goats. They also have brightly painted statues and playground features
based on fairy tales. The fairy tale items were refurbished and moved from the
old Enchanted Forest theme park that closed in the early 1990s, just a short
distance down the road from the farm.
parents took me to the Enchanted Forest when I was a kid. I have a picture of
me, around age three, sitting inside the mouth of the whale statue. My visual
memory of these artifacts is so strong, from a place in my mind formed before
words, that I get a little emotional seeing my kids climb on Cinderella’s coach,
peek into the Three Bear’s house, and zoom down the slide inside the old
a model tugboat named Little Toot, sitting right next to a pond to make it look
like it’s really floating. It’s a fraction of the size of a real tugboat, but
big enough for passengers to climb aboard. Kids can go inside and turn the
wheel. Grownups can sit outside, going on a journey that moves through time if
brother and sister-in-law and I were out on Little Toot’s promenade deck,
admiring the view of the water. Tiny little dots wiggled through the pond
below. “Tadpoles,” my brother observed. I pointed them out to my kids. They had
seen exhibits about frogs, but I don’t think they had seen actual tadpoles
swimming in “the wild.” We talked about how tadpoles turn into frogs.
cool,” said my daughter, but that was it. She was ready to move on to piloting
the tugboat. I was caught up in having an iconic experience of the circle of
life. I was contemplating the nature of birth and death as seen through the
amphibious life cycle, thinking about our connections with the local watershed,
and experiencing this connection to the past by way of the scenery.
kids were fully present in the moment, just as they should be. All of those
sweeping thoughts about connections between generations and species and life
itself are true, yet there is also truth in this very moment, this time in this
place with these physical realities. Some things echo with familiarity in each
swing around the circle. Some things are different. Right here and right now is
a universe of its own.
you are familiar with the Joni Mitchell song: And the seasons they go round and round, and the painted ponies go up
and down/ We’re captive on the carousel of time. We can’t return we can only
look behind from where we came/ And go round and round and round in the circle
term, “The Circle of Life,” evokes lineages of birth and death, one generation
leading to another in due time. Except that the circle doesn’t always turn in
an orderly fashion. People leave each other or pass away sooner than expected. Families
are built through serendipity as well as planning, not always in the
traditional ways. Some of us send children forth into the world, and some of us
don’t. We also send forth ideas, mistakes, acts of kindness, and other legacies
of our hearts and hands. Existence is not a neat, theoretical, geometric form. Life
is actually pretty messy.
only that, but there’s the multiplicity of births and deaths we experience in
between the big ones. Hope emerges and recedes. Developmental stages overlap in
a daisy chain of abilities that come and go. Careers rise and crash and perhaps
transform into something new. Every phase of life requires new skills. Many of
these changes happen gradually, yet they are happening all the time. We are
continuously dying and being born.
Buddha taught that the construct we call the “self,” the individual being, is a
convenient fiction. It’s like assigning a capital letter “I” to a set of
variables, recognizing that the separation of those variables from all of the
other parts of the equation is arbitrary. The so-called self is a snapshot of
interwoven physical and mental energies, all influencing each other as they
move through the universe at different speeds, but in the same direction for now.
These forces are grouped into five major strands, called aggregates, although
each aggregate has individual threads within it.
am not a Buddhist, let alone a Buddhist scholar. I’m drawing here from What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
and Buddhist Philosophy: A Historical Analysis
by David J. Kalupahana, as well as from two graduate classes on Buddhism. For
further reading, there are several articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of
Philosophy, including “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mind-indian-buddhism/
translated, the Five Aggregates are matter, sensation, mind, perceptions, and
mental formations. That last one, mental formations, includes volitional
activities, willful acts of body, speech, and mind. Willful acts carry karma.
The aggregates are bundles of forces. The physical bits of flesh and associated
mind-objects that we’ve decided to set aside and call your body represents one
bundle, the aggregate of matter. Matter is associated for the moment with
fleeting sensations, inferences, mental faculties, and willful acts. Each one
of these aggregates is on a trajectory, mutually influencing the others as well
as influencing and being influenced by conditions outside of what we would
perceive as the self.
of it this way: You buy a used car. On day one, it rains. You buy new
windshield wipers. Speaking of rain, you decide to upgrade the tires. Soon
after that, your radiator cracks and you replace it. The next week, you come
back to your car in the parking garage and see that it needs a new rear bumper.
As long as your car is in the body shop, you decide to get a custom paint job
in your favorite color. One by one, each piece is replaced. We keep referring
to it as the same car, but each part is constantly changing in different ways
from the other parts, even as the parts are working together and temporarily
traveling in the same direction.
to Buddhism, if you look back on some time in the past and think you have
changed, you are right, except that there’s no “you,” there’s just the constant
process of change. Buddhism allows for the convention of speaking about “I” and
“you,” because our world and our languages are set up for that, yet cautions
against loyalty to the illusion of self. There is no need to defend yourself
against the inevitability of change. We are change.
Buddha referenced a teaching from Araka, a sage who came before him, saying:
“It is just like a mountain river, flowing far and swift, taking everything
along with it; there is no moment, no instant, no second when it stops flowing,
but it goes on flowing and continuing. So … is human life, like a mountain
river.” (Rahula, p. 26)
reflect on that for a moment. Water droplets come in and out with new streams,
rain, evaporation, and being consumed by living beings. The river is not just
the water. The river is also the earth rising up in banks on either side; it is
the soil underneath and mixed with the water’s flow. Animals swimming, diving,
damming, and fishing also comprise the river. What we call the river is a set
of parentheses around a bundle of energies that come from different places and
change from moment to moment. The river is change. We are change.
felt that when I lived for a summer by a river. I took a four-month job as a
house manager at an outdoor summer theater in southern Virginia. With all of my
worldly possessions crammed into my car, I made my way down highway 81. I found
the office, a storefront in a historic section of a college town. The theater
management had sub-let housing in various places for the summer artists and staff.
The administrator chatted with me for awhile before she handed me a map and
keys, saying, “You’re at Beans River Bottom.”
apartment I shared with the props manager was around the back, down a steep set
of stairs next to the house, in a basement unit with its own entrance facing
the river. Grass grew along a long, gentle slope to the water’s edge. Cattle
grazed on the opposite bank. “There are cows in my yard,” I thought. It was a
distinct difference from midtown Baltimore.
was plenty of work that summer. There was also solitude when I wasn’t working.
I was away from the people and places I had known my entire life, which opened
up a lot of time. My little Pagan heart was very pleased to be in the middle of
so much “nature,” practically on retreat. I bought a new Tarot deck and worked with
it almost every day, spreading them out on a blanket next to the river.
people use Tarot cards for divination. I was more interested in them as
explained by the author Rachel Pollack, as a symbolic system for analyzing and
understanding ourselves and our lives. Each card has a meaning. If the card is
upside-down with respect to the other cards, the reader might interpret it to
mean the completion of task represented by that card, or perhaps the opposite
of that card’s usual meaning.
Buddhism warns against trusting too much in the illusion of the self and
identifies willpower with the cause and effect of karma, mystics who study
Tarot tend to see willpower as a good thing and the spiritual journey to be an
intentional development of the self. One thing those two philosophies have in
common is the acknowledgement that everything affects everything else. All
influences are interdependent. Your choices will have effects that reverberate
back. Both systems acknowledge change, creative and destructive. Both emphasize
ethical responsibility, given the knowledge of change and interdependence.
that summer, cards would show up and give me something to think about. If it
were the five of cups, I reflected on acceptance of grief and loss. Seeing the
Chariot prompted me to give myself credit for accomplishing something, and
maybe to look out for getting over-confident. I thought a lot about the Hermit
and the Hanged One, both of which have something to do with turning inward.
the shows at the theater rehearsed, opened, and closed. Patrons filled and
emptied the stands. The river kept rolling by, taking and leaving bits of sand
and water. Days ran together, yet not exactly the same. As the saying (by Heraclitus) goes, you can’t step in the
same river twice.
The Hanged One
afternoon, I was at the apartment for a lunch break before heading back for an
evening performance. We had a couple of weeks left in the season. I sat by the
river with my cards spread out on the blanket and turned over the Hanged One,
reversed. The Hanged One depicts a person hanging upside down with their legs
crossed in a kind of yoga position. The upside-down card meant that the little
cartoon yogi was standing right side up, ready to return to the everyday world
after a period of spiritual retreat. It was time to think about going home.
then, I looked up and saw a woman walking down the steps from the street level
and across the back yard. I had never seen her before. She introduced herself
and said she was from the apartment’s managing company. She asked if I had
heard that there were storms upriver. I had. She suggested that I consider
packing my car and spending the night on higher ground. I thanked her for the
she had gone, I looked up at the blue sky through the branches of the trees and
listened to the birds coming in to roost. It seemed like a nice day. I
remembered that the name of this neighborhood was Beans River Bottom. The
bottom of the river did not seem like the place to be. I jumped up and packed
up as much stuff in my car as I could before I rushed off to work. A gentle
drizzle started to fall as I put the last few items in the back seat.
the time I got to the theater, torrents of rain were cascading over every
surface. One of our performance spaces was under a circus tent, so the show
went on. I did feel bad for the actors, trying to compete with the sound of the
storm as they delivered sensitive, character-driven lines. The Education
Director invited several of us to camp out in her living room that night.
next day, I drove by the apartment. What had been the back yard was underneath
a wide, choppy, swollen river. The water level was up to the top of my front
door. I spoke a bit about this in my Easter sermon five years ago. Losing my
home, even my temporary home that I was about to move out of and didn’t have
homeowner responsibility for, was a lot to process.
began to understand a popular Pagan chant (written by Shekhinah Mountainwater)
in a new way: We are the flow, we are the
ebb, we are the weavers, we are the web. We are part of this earth. We are
mutually influenced. We can resist our interdependence and try to push back
against the storm, or we can observe the current and move with it in a
responsible and responsive fashion.
I came back to Maryland after that summer, I was not the same person I had been
when I left. For awhile, I felt disoriented. I could barely remember the names
of college classmates. I would dream of floating and crashing.
started to feel more grounded when I got my cat back from the friends who had
cared for him over the summer. He was not interested in the past or the future,
only in the food and scritches of his immediate experience. A deep breath. A
purr. The perception of a firm cushion underneath me. This very moment is a
might forgive me for wondering at that time: if it’s possible that there is no
self, and no such thing as permanence, no immortality, and no guarantee of
order or reward in the circle of life, what is the point? If all we have is
this very moment, why should we do anything other than sit in stillness in the
company of two-legged and four-legged fellow travelers?
what I think the sages would say, which I might work with or resist at any
given time: everything affects everything else. We can’t avoid changing and
being changed in any given moment. Our decisions for non-action impact the
interdependent web to the same degree as our decisions to act. (Meditating is
an action.) Whether we’re on the path attempting to escape the wheel of death
and rebirth, or we’re mystics following a magical road, or following Jesus, or
just doing the best we can based on common sense, the love that we send out
into the world bears fruit. We might not perceive the good results of sending
forth love. Maybe we just have to expand the horizons of our vision to see it
happen. We are not separate from the world. Kindness makes the existence we
inhabit more hospitable.
we do that is the hard part. Every moment, every context, every phase of life
carries different opportunities to increase love in the world. Some of us
provide comfort and healing, personally or professionally. Some of us teach
children to carry the message of compassion further into the future. Some of us
are sanding down outdated self-concepts, healing our souls so that our original
blessing can bring more sparkle to the world. Some of us are gurus of
marshalling fruit salad and casseroles into the kitchens of neighbors in
crisis. Some of us are speaking truth to power, making the spirit of love
visible through justice. Deeds of compassion reverberate across time and space.
We send them out, not knowing what the outcome will be, but with attention to
love in the present moment.
chant by Sara Dan Jones in Singing the
Journey goes: When I breathe in, I
breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love. When I breathe in, I
breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love. Breathe in. Breathe
The Fool (Conclusion)
a joke about a new farmer, someone who had never kept sheep before, and was
trying to figure out how much fence to buy for a sheep pen. Fence is expensive,
so the farmer sent out a request for proposals to the smartest people they knew
to help them figure out how to buy as little fence as possible. The farmer’s
friends who responded were an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician. I’ll
spare you the solutions offered by the engineer and the physicist. The
mathematician bought just enough fence to wrap around herself in a circle. She
then pointed to the side of the fence where she was standing and said, “I
define this as outside the fence.”
you accept the mathematician’s definition, the sheep were all inside the fence.
In a theoretical universe, inside and outside are just concepts. But
theoretical sheep don’t wander, and real ones do. The mistake was in thinking
that the circumference of the fence was all that matters. The middle of the
circle is not empty space. The center is where paths cross and cross again. It
is where we are fed, where we find companionship, and where we grow.
circumference of the circle of life is the part we usually think about: our
birth and death as conventionally understood, our receiving and passing along
the heritage of mind and heart. That is important. That circumference provides
a context and a focus for our place in this vast, interdependent universe. Yet
it’s not the whole story.
the boundaries of that circle, we can zoom in and see matter and energy
constantly in motion. We see life and love weaving together in a dizzying dance
of connections that flit in and out of our view. Change is a constant. We might
notice that more at some points than others. Life is continuously beginning and
ending and beginning. We are change.
that change and interdependence are built into this universe from the level of
electrons jumping to new molecules to the level of galaxies being born, where
do we put our feet? Where do we begin? This present moment is what we have. The
love we send out, in myriad forms, reverberates across the web. We don’t
control outcomes, but we can increase compassion in the world. Begin here and
now with the circle of your breath. Breathe in peace. Breathe out love.
So be it. Blessed be. Amen.