Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Dharma

“In any gathering of people, with every so-called movement or public endeavor, some will find purpose, some will find meaning, some will find help, and some will get hurt.”

                Days of Awe; Days of Reconciliation

I am trying to learn from my varied cohorts and sojourning comrades within the multi-faith environment of today’s world.  This week I am listening especially to my Jewish friends while in the midst of reading about the beginnings of Buddhism in America. Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains that during the Jewish High Holy days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the custom is to approach people whom we interact with to ask forgiveness for any hurt we have caused.

Rosh Hashanah, on the Jewish calendar is a holy day known as the anniversary of creation, the birthday of the world. It signifies a time of new beginnings.  I decided that this year I would take some time on this day to try to dwell with that immense cosmic concept, that this day is the anniversary of the day it all began.  In eons past, this was the day that the earth was hung in space, the day when the Big Bang set the universe in motion, the day when the divine creator gave form to the formlessness that was within the dark recesses of the deep and watery abyss – or whatever image your mind chooses to focus upon as the beginning of existence.

Here is how Rabbi Rami puts it:

Rosh haShanah, the first of the Days of Awe, is the anniversary of creation, and our time to honor God, the Source of Creation. (This year Rosh haShanah begins at sundown on September 28th) For me God is the Source and Substance of all reality, and Rosh haShanah is the time when I remember that all life is a unique yet temporary manifestation of God the way each ray of sunlight is a unique and temporary manifestation of the sun. I use Rosh haShanah as a time to realign my life with creation so that my living is in service to all life.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (At-One-ment, October 7th at sundown) is the culmination of all this effort. We have made peace with our neighbor, peace with nature, and now it is time to make peace with God.  (From “Jewish Fall Holy Days” at Beyond Religion with Rabbi Rami) 
Practicing Compassion

In my reading of Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center, by Michael Downing, I learned that the first precept of Buddhism, like the first precept of medicine, is “do no harm.” In Downing's narrative, the Japanese Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, once observed that any time we try to do anything, we end up hurting someone. He said the best way to do no harm is to just sit – that is, sit in meditation.  I can understand the appeal, for I have felt the frustration of trying to do some good deed only to bring about some mishap or offense. If my actions cause hurt in any way, maybe I’ll just retreat and sit things out. Maybe meditation will provide me with the personal integration and grounding I need – if not, at least it will keep me out of the way.
I can only go so far with that line, however, before it seems like a narcissistic retreat from reality, except that I know that compassion is central to Buddhism. I also know that Buddhist practice, like any faith practice, is a process of moving outward as well as moving inward. There is an ebb and flow from meditative practice to doing good in the world in order to ease suffering. Suzuki himself did not simply withdraw in meditation, he continued in his acts of compassion according to Buddha’s teaching. 

All of this shows me that there is really no way I can get around it: I am indeed my brother’s keeper, as Torah indicates in that early story from the Garden of Eden. I should strive to do no harm and I should try to do some good in the world. I must also realize that it is inevitable that with human interactions, people get hurt. In any gathering of people, with every so-called movement or public endeavor, some will find purpose, some will find meaning, some will find help, and some will get hurt.

A Page From the Prayer Book

In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, there is the public confession in the Penitential Order:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

The salient points in that confession for me are: (1) "by what we have done, and by what we have left undone,"  (2) "we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves," and (3) “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” The truth is that there will always be things we realize in hindsight that should have been done, and there will always be mistakes we make in the process of our doing – which is why I like the concept of my Jewish cohorts in their Days of Awe, which begin today.  A special time of reflection is set aside so that we can make amends with our friends, family, and colleagues. Likewise, I appreciate my Buddhists friends’ practice of inward meditation and outward acts of compassion.

When the Earth Shuddered  

Though the Buddhists do not celebrate the birthday of the world, they do honor the beginning of enlightenment. I am reminded of the cosmic implications of Siddhartha’s transformation as told by Sophy Burnham in The Ecstatic Journey: The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience:

"At that sacred moment [of his enlightenment],” writes Sogyal Rinpoche in  The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, “the earth itself shuddered as if drunk with bliss.” At that moment no one was angry, ill, sad, or proud, or performed any malicious acts. Everything stopped, resting in utter quiet. In the mind of Buddah.”  (page 124)

We need that balance, that cycle of inward reflection and outward involvement in the world. On this day we can celebrate both the Torah and the Dharma.  We can begin anew, as on the first day of creation, to repair the world for the greater good. We can also call to mind that hope when the earth shuddered, and all rested in the mind of the Buddha.


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