My hope is that coming to church is going to be useful for each of us in the living of our daily lives. This story gives us all a helpful suggestion of how to get out of a difficult situation. And that situation is – if you ever break something that belongs to someone else, something really special, and you don’t know how to tell the person that you’ve broken their special object.
The Zen master Ikkyu was always a quick thinker. It helped him out of a pickle in his youth. Here is what happened a long time ago. As a young monk, Ikkyu accidentally dropped his master’s tea cup, breaking it into many pieces.
This was serious, because the tea cup was the master’s favourite; a rare treasure, beautifully crafted from precious material. Of all of the master’s possessions, it was probably the one thing he cherished the most – and now it was hopelessly smashed!
Ikkyu felt dreadful that he’d broken the teacup, but before he could come up with a plan a plan to run away, he heard footsteps approaching. He swept the broken pieces together and, blocking them from view with his body, turned to face the door just as his master entered.
When they were within speaking distance, Ikkyu asked: “Master, why must people die?”
The master replied: “It is perfectly natural. Everything in the world experiences both life and death.”
“So it is not something we should feel upset about?”
“Ah no, dear Ikkyu.There is no need to be upset. Everything is part of the great cycle of life” The Master loved to teach on this particular subject and soon got into his swing reminding Ikkyu of their tradition’s teachings on this subject of impermanence, that no thing can last for ever. It was a subject that Ikkyu’s teacher loved to teach about – and talk about – often at great length!
Eventually the crafty young monk Ikkyu moved aside to present the broken pieces. “Master… your cup has experienced its inevitable death…”
(story from taoism.net – repeated here with thanks.)
Something alerted me the other day to the fact that I started teaching religious education as a subject some 35 years ago. They say that time flies when you’re having fun don’t they, but that seems an eternity ago. And teaching teenagers a subject they often don’t want to be taught can make time seem to move …. very …. slowly …. indeed. But over the years I found that certain aspects of the subject could grab their attention. And one of those aspects – is this topic we’re exploring in today’s service – impermanence – the spiritual teaching ‘that nothing lasts’. I think this teaching is a compelling one, it’s also a really difficult one to understand fully. And when you meet a spiritual teacher who lives from this essential truth of impermanence you know you’re in the presence of someone special. Years ago up at Findhorn I was fortunate to meet a Tibetan Buddhist lama called Lama Yeshe.
There’s lots I remember about him. He’d spent 12 years on silent retreat before turning to a life of teaching. 12 years without speaking!! He’d spent years, as many Tibetan monks do as part of their training, meditating in front of the carefully stacked bones of their fellow monks who’d died before them. And he was filled with joy. ‘I wake each morning’ he said ‘and I say to myself – I’m a lucky lucky lama, lucky lama Yeshe!’ And the source of his joy was the sense of aliveness that can come when we know that all life must perish, all tea cups must break, we are all on our way out.
The chant we just sang, with its first line, ‘many things will change, we feel it and we know’ – the words were written by Matthew Smith minister in Framlingham and Bury St Edmunds, and it’s becoming a new favourite with me. But every time I sing it, I think of Matthew and want to say to him – ‘not many things Matthew – every thing will change – but we don’t always want to feel it or know it. We’d rather live as if everything was going to last forever, thank you very much’. But try singing that!
The Buddha’s teachings on impermanence are worth careful study. No thing, no material thing can last forever, yet it is human nature to crave permanence. We become attached, says the Buddha, and our attachment is the source of our suffering. We try to make things stay the same – in our relationships with one another, in our societies, in ourselves, yet change is built into the very structure of existence. But there is something in human nature that encourages us to pretend that life is permanent and fixed. We find it hard to allow ourselves and others to change and grow in relationships. George Bernard Shaw’s quote on this subject is a healthy reminder: ‘The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.’
Dear Lama Yeshe, who I mentioned earlier on writes in quite a challenging way about knee pain and as I know several of you are experts on this topic you may wish to disagree with him when he writes that,
‘Every aspect of your body and mind is impermanent: changing, changing, changing. Even when your knee hurts, it’s not as bad as you think — your ego exaggerates the pain. It solidifies the feeling, makes it feel unchangeable, like iron. This is a totally wrong conception, a completely unrealistic interpretation. If you can realize this, the pain will be digested by your wisdom and disappear. Why? Because the pain you feel in your knee does not arise by itself but in combination with ego activity. When one of these elements disappears, the combination also disappears.’
One to discuss further I think.
If impermanence is within the very nature of all that exists and if change is inevitable, then life is completely uncertain. But to face life’s uncertainty is a very big ask for most of us. It’s a scary prospect. Each time we greet one another, can we greet them as if we might never see them again? Each time we take breath, can we breathe as if it might be our last breath? When we get in a tizz about life’s vital issues – like being late, or something precious getting broken or having a painful knee or someone saying something hurtful, or a government behaving in a manner we find frankly reprehensible, – can we hold an awareness that all these human edifices will fall away into nothingness – in the blink of an eye – from the aspect of eternity – as Spinoza – 17th century Dutch philosopher famously explored.
‘A change is gonna come’, that is for sure, but quite what that change may be is less under our control than we might care to imagine. Susan Jeffers, wrote a really useful book called Embracing Uncertainty – and one of her suggestions was that for a day we try adding the word ‘maybe’ to every sentence and every thought. It’s a helpful reminder of how certain we prefer to feel about life.
It’s in our natures to live as though life is certain, so we have to help one another to live with uncertainty. Spending time with people who are newly bereaved is one of the most moving aspects of ministry. It’s a privilege to be allowed into the life of an individual, of a family at a time of such raw emotion. One of the most revealing aspects for me is that we do all cope with loss, and we do it in our own personal ways. We each of us have our particular life teachings and sources of comfort that help us through. And these understandings can provide comfort to others in their turn. We all have insights and understandings to offer one another.
Change is gonna come. But we don’t get to choose what form change will take. It may be sudden or slow. Some of us have experienced the shock of sudden changes, the phone call we’ll not forget, the life changing conversation, the painful news delivered kindly or harshly. We also know the changes life brings more slowly – our growing or dwindling abilities and strengths, the colour of hair or the suppleness of body. Our life task is to adjust to the changes we must live through.
Nothing lasts, not even this lengthy sermon. But if you look in the order of service you’ll see that ‘nothing lasts?’ has a question mark. That question mark points us towards some timeless values that we humans can pass on, one to another, values we live by. These are the qualities we share when we silently hold the hand of a friend who is newly bereaved, when we walk and talk with someone whose relationship has just come painfully to an end, or who has recently received a scary health diagnosis. These are the qualities we share when we hear someone’s hopes and dreams, their plans for next steps, their new awareness of possibilities. Isn’t this what it is to be human – to share our experiences, our glimpses of reality, to find timeless values by which to live our temporary and oh so precious lives. I’m glad to be sharing that living with all of you, amen.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 9th October 2016