“Your 12 Steps” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
This week we continue our exploration of the particular steps we take on our spiritual journeys. The value is in the journey, and the tools we use are creativity, curiosity, faith, and awareness. What’s your process, and how do you deepen or expand it? Join Rev. Melanie as she draws upon the wisdom of ancient and current sages to help us on this journey.
A revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
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With every breath I take today,
I vow to be awake;
And every step I take,
I vow to take with a grateful heart.
So I may see with eyes of love
Into the hearts of all I meet,
To ease their burden when I can
And touch them with a smile of peace.
A prayer from the Buddhist tradition, by an unknown author
Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate, small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away, alive or still to be born – May they all be perfectly happy!
Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere.
May nobody wish harm to any single creature out of anger or hatred!
Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child!
May our loving thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across – without limit; our love will know no obstacles – a boundless goodwill toward the whole world, unrestricted, free of hatred or enmity.
Whether we are standing or walking, sitting or lying down, as long as we are awake we should cultivate this love in our heart. This is the noblest way of living.
A prayer from the Sutta Nipata 1.18, a Buddhist scripture.
“Your 12 Steps” with Rev. Melanie Eyre
Welcome, and happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, grandmothers, stepmothers among us, and all who provide that mothering energy that lifts us up! This is one of those days when I do miss being in person, and I look forward to next mother’s day when we can share in this celebration in person. Have a wonderful mother’s day.
Your 12 Steps
My talk today, and our theme this month, is called Your 12 steps. I’m guessing the reference that comes to your mind is the 12 step program made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s an amazing program, and we will be talking about it in a couple of weeks. It’s done so much good around the world.
I used the image of steps because my goal this month is to explore the process of moving forward – specifically, the steps we take as we structure our spiritual path. Here at One World we know, and we know because of our own lived experience, that our unfolding and our deepening is a very intentional process. The key words are awareness, and choice.
In our world today, we have the great fortune to be able to learn about the processes, the steps, that so many sages throughout history have taken. Each faith tradition we celebrate here shows us how others have found ways to move beyond, to reach the heights that we can reach. We find out what others have done, to find what speaks to us.
And then, we use that wisdom as we reflect on what our own processes are – where they benefit us, where we might want to change them. That’s what we’re doing this month.
The Buddhist Tradition
So today, I’m looking at a tradition created for the sole purpose of easing human suffering and helping us create communities of equity and peace. I’m speaking of the Buddhist tradition, or, as it’s been called “a religion of infinite compassion.”
The word “Buddha” itself means “The Enlightened one” or “The Awakened One.” Huston Smith, author of the foundational treatise “The World’s Religions,” writes that Buddhism began with a man who woke up.
After his enlightenment, the story goes, he was approached by a student who asked him “are you God? He replied no. Are you an angel? He replied no. Are you a saint? Again he replied no. Then what are you? The Buddha answered “I am awake.” He tells us that while we may be asleep now, we can awaken, as well.
The basic facts of the Buddha’s biography are these.
He was born Siddhartha Gautama around 563 BCE in what is now Nepal near the Indian border. His father was a king, in that era really more like a feudal lord.
The story goes that when Siddhartha was born, his father summoned fortunetellers to learn the baby’s future. All agreed that this was an unusual child, but his future was ambiguous. If he remained with the world, he would unify India and become her greatest conqueror. If, on the other hand, he stepped away from the world, he would become not a world conqueror but a great sage and a world Redeemer. Faced with this option, his father determined to steer his son to become the great King. So no effort was spared to keep the prince attached to the world and to worldly pleasures. He had palaces, he had dancing girls, he had every comfort. His father gave strict orders that no ugliness should intrude upon him. He was to be shielded from contact with sickness, aging, and death. Even when he went riding, servants were sent to clear the roads of these sights.
One day, when Siddhartha was in his 20’s, his servants failed to see one old man on the path – bent, gray haired, unsteady. Siddhartha asked why the man looked that way and his companion told him – he is old. We all age. On subsequent outings Siddhartha saw a body consumed with disease, as well as a corpse by the side of the road. He learned of illness, and of death. On his fourth outing, he saw a monk begging, and learned that there were some who stepped away from the world to seek transformation.
He realized that all he had enjoyed . . . would end up in decay, pain, and death.
These experiences would not leave him. He realized that all he had enjoyed, all he pursued, would end up in decay, pain and death. It was this inescapable truth that made him despair of finding fulfillment on the physical plane. “Life is subject to age and death. Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?”
Once he had perceived the inevitability of death and pain, he determined to liberate himself from a world which bound him to this pain. It didn’t matter how much pleasure you had, how rich were your surroundings if the end was decline, and death. He looked for a way forward to a deeper truth where there is neither age nor death. So, one night in his 29th year he left his wife, his son and his home in search of awakening. He changed his rich clothing for that of a beggar, and walked away.
He lived through years of searching, including six years as an extreme ascetic, hoping that the path to enlightenment lay through denial of all things physical. At one point he ate six grains of rice a day, and was so emaciated he could feel his spine when he laid his hand on his stomach.
The Middle Way
Nothing worked. He ultimately adopted what he called “the Middle Way” between the extremes of asceticism on the one hand and indulgence on the other.
However, the practice of the middle way did not in and of itself lead to enlightenment. So, Siddhartha devoted the final phase of his journey to a combination of rigorous thought and mystic concentration, seeking to explore his conscious mind, his subconscious and down to the deeper layer of being itself, what Huston Smith has called “the beyond that is within.”
One evening in northeast India, south of the present city of Patna he sat down under a fig tree that has become known as the Bodhi tree, or the tree of enlightenment. He seated himself vowing not to arise until enlightenment was his.
He Became the Buddha
Gautama’s meditation deepened through the night until his vision broke free and he saw the true nature of the universe. He saw that all is linked together in a constantly shifting and eternal pattern – all is affected by the action of each. He saw his many lives, in an unbroken continuum. He awakened from the belief of a separate state into the knowing that he was true unlimited being, that we all are true unlimited being. The ultimate reality is that the appearance of our separation into individual ego-selves is simply illusion. With this awakening he moved beyond the illusory finality of sickness, suffering, and death. He became the Buddha, the awakened one.
He rose from the Bodhi tree and began his teachings, which went on for the next 45 years. His focus was liberation from human suffering here and now – he taught so that others could experience what he had just realized.
He sometimes frustrated his followers, because he had no interest in discussing theory or theology. What happens after we die, do we have a soul, does God exist? He remained silent on these issues. In refusing to discuss these theological niceties, he insisted that such discussions were not “useful” and indeed distracted his students from the greater need to implement the practices he taught.
To his disappointed followers he told this parable. If a man is shot with a poisoned arrow, and a doctor is rushed to his side to save his life, would he say stop! I will not have you remove this arrow until I know who shot it, and why. Who was his family, and where did he come from? What does he look like? Also, I need to know what this arrow is made of, how it was carved, what wood was used? Is it an ordinary arrow, or an iron or razor arrow? What type of bow shot it? And what was the type of bow string? If the man waited to learn all these things, he’d be dead. The point is to remove the arrow, and live.
The Four Noble Truths
The first lesson the Buddha gave took place shortly after he began his travels. In that talk, he set out the essence of his teachings, known as the Four Noble Truths. These are the key to the process he gave us.
The first noble truth is that life is dukkha, typically translated as suffering. However, we tend to think of this notion as pessimistic, as if there is nothing that can be done and suffering is an immutable truth. Far from it – the Buddha meant that life as most of us live it is out of joint, dislocated, and painful. It doesn’t have to be so, and indeed our true nature is that it not be so. We make ourselves suffer needlessly through ignorance and desire, and we can stop.
These facts of human life, sickness, fear of death, aging, as well as desire for wealth, reputation or earthly goods, preoccupy us, distract us from knowing our true and joyful nature as one with ultimate reality. This fact leads to the Second Noble Truth, which is that the cause of suffering is attachment, or selfish desire. We wish for wealth, possessions and position, and all that will be lost. We fear sickness, we fear death, which will happen. We seek those things that reinforce our ego-driven illusion of separation.
These fears, these desires that bind us are directed to our egos, our wish for self-fulfillment. They are all about us – what we want, what we don’t want, what we fear, for ourselves. Whatever feeds the illusion that we are separate gives us pain, because all we acquire can be lost and ultimately is. The only truth that remains, that is never lost, is that beyond ego, all remains. True joy comes from when we understand on the deepest level that the separation we see and experience is illusion.
The third noble truth tells us that our suffering is not inevitable. This is why Buddhism is such an optimistic tradition – full of hope and possibility.
The Buddha was so practical. He said this is the problem, this is the cause of the problem, it can be fixed, and this is how. We have a choice – we can live randomly and impulsively (what he called “wandering about”) or with purpose, concentration and focus. If you do the latter, if you stay with it with single pointed mind, you will awaken. It’s not easy, but the rewards are life, freedom, and peace.
The Fourth Noble truth tells us that the means to liberation is the eightfold path. As the Buddha said “Here is the path to the end of suffering. Tread it!” The key was, and is, practice and persistence.
The 8 Steps
So where do we start? I’m going to lay out the 8 steps, with the caveat that any listing I can give in 20 minutes is woefully inadequate. Look for yourself – there are so many resources available that share insights on this teaching.
Although this path is one of individual awakening, the first step is a teaching on community. We must choose wise companions. The Buddha taught that before we even step onto the path we must practice “right association.” He knew that as social beings we are so influenced by those we gather around us – they lift us up, or draw us down. We must select our community wisely – one reason why communities like One World, and others, are so necessary to support, encourage, and inspire us as we move forward.
1. Right view
The first step on the eightfold path is right view. Self awareness, clarity, and reason. We must use our own mind, our own discernment. The Buddha gave us a system suspect of authority, of those who told us what we must think. Be your own light, he said. Do not accept a teaching unless you discover its truth for yourself, through your own experience.
2. Right intent
Ask yourself what you want? Why are you doing what you are doing? The focus here is to make each choice one that moves us forward, and not back. Think about all those self-improvement resolutions – I’ll eat better, exercise more. But I can start tomorrow – if I do this one little thing right now I can always start later. Later never comes. Turn your intent into action today – it’s the only way to move forward.
3. Right speech
Tough one – attention to our language. Here, because our speech is such a habit and so often an unconscious one, the advice is not to say “I will never speak an unkind word” because that’s not going deep enough. Instead, resolve to be aware of your language, asking yourself why you feel the need to speak an unkind word. What is moving you to speak the way you do? When you become aware (again that word) of your motivations, you can begin to truly change the way you engage with language.
Move toward truth – no deception. Huston Smith writes that the Buddha didn’t condemn deception because it was immoral (more metaphysics) but because it diminishes us and further separates us. We deceive because we are fearful of something – to show our own weaknesses, to conceal something about ourselves. Each time we do this, he says, we are shoring up the structure around our ego selves, the opposite of what we want to do for greater awakening.
The same is true for gossip, or unkind speech. Again, why do we do it? He invites us to look at our motivations, and once understood, move beyond.
4. Right conduct
Another opportunity to look at our motivations first, and understand why we behave the way we do. Am I being generous, or fearful? How do I wish to show up to this moment, this relationship, this opportunity? Am I called to change?
5. Right livelihood
Our work is most of what we do. The Buddha cautioned that the work we select must affirm our convictions about how we should live. Today, many on this step focus on pursuing their livelihood with compassion, truth and kindness.
6. Right effort
So what’s the teaching here? This journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep your eye on the goal, and move toward it steadily and firmly. Huston Smith quotes the Tao Te Ching on this point – “he who takes the longest strides does not walk farthest.” Keep going, even if you fall off the path, get back on, and take the next step. Don’t give up.
7. Right mindfulness
The practice of right mindfulness is at the heart of the Buddhist practice. The opening verse of the Dhammapada, the best known of all Buddhist scripture, opens with “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.” You’re going to hear it in a minute – it’s our reading today.
Right mindfulness encourages us to see ourselves, and our lives, fully and clearly, here and now, and break the bonds of the ignorance and illusion that bind us.
What can we do to deepen our own mindfulness? We bring an attitude of awareness, clarity and curiosity to all aspects of our life. We can bring what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” to our lives – instead of assuming we know what’s in front of us, we look at it as though for the first time, and see it anew. Our consciousness, in most of us, sees so little as our minds just hum along. We can see more.
8. Right concentration
When the Buddha was a child, he was taken to a festival and left for a period of time alone under an apple tree. He sat and was silent, and found himself absorbed in contemplation. It was his first meditation experience, and he described it as a deliverance. Nothing, he taught, focuses the mind as sharply as such a practice.
The story goes that he was once asked “What do you get through meditation?”
The Buddha replied:
Nothing at all.
Then, Blessed one, what good is it?
Let me tell you what I lost through meditation: sickness, anger, depression, insecurity, the burden of old age, the fear of death.
That is the good of meditation, which leads to nirvana.
The Eight-Fold Path invites us to consider how we approach life.
The eight-fold path invites us to consider how we approach life – every aspect of it. Through awareness of our associations, our speech, our intent, our mind and our actions, it invites us to deepen our understanding of ourselves. Through that door, we enter an understanding of all that is.
Here’s our homework for Wednesday. Take a look at this list of the eight-fold path, and pick one. Consider and practice that step, between now and Wednesday. When we get together, let’s discuss how that showed up for us, and what lessons we can draw from the eightfold path. Think about, as well, what your own steps are and have been, and what you might want to add or change.
Thanks for watching.
About Rev. Melanie Eyre
Rev. Melanie Eyre is an ordained Interspiritual Minister and long-time student of the world’s many diverse faith traditions. She has served as One World’s Spiritual Director since 2015 and is the founder of the North Fulton Interfaith Alliance here in Georgia. Outside of One World, Rev. Melanie has a beautiful family and enjoys officiating traditional and non-traditional rituals and other special ceremonies that mark important life transitions – weddings, baby blessings, and celebrations of life.
For more about Rev. Melanie and her practice, visit her website: Memorable Services with Heart.
“One” written by Asha Lightbearer
“Nothing More” written by Tim Warren & Eric Donnely
This service aired on May 9, 2021