That’s What it Says

Can you remember some of the images in the poem, Kindness, that Martina read? Staring out a window forever, eating chicken and maize. An Indian in a white pancho dead on the side of the road. Gazing at bread. Naomi Shihab Nye is an artist at the very height of her powers, surely. And no matter how many times I hear that poem there are parts of it that still surprise me. There are parts of it that still move me, even though those parts have been repeated to me over and over.

It’s one of the most famous poems of the last few decades. And what makes a poem successful, really, just like a song or a story, is that people like to hear it again and again. In fact, it’s a poem that is probably worth repeating and repeating until it’s committed to memory, until the pathways are lain in just right to recall its splendor. It’s probably worth changing our brain to make room for a poem like that. For surely that is one purpose of repetition, to change ourselves somehow. But not everything we do over and over is as pleasurable as reading a masterwork or hearing one read as beautifully as Martina did.

Some of the things we repeat in our lives are painful. Some are even mind numbing. And some make us wonder what on earth we were ever thinking. See, some you may not know this, but I am in a relationship. It’s one I’ve been in for a long time, and yet it’s a relationship I question daily—one that has brought me a lot of good feelings and peace and one that has brought me pain, disappointment, and utter exhaustion at times. See I have a relationship with…running.

Yes, of course, there are times this relationship takes me to wonderful places. On my most recent trip to the mainland, this relationship took me through winding paths lined with towering timbers in Washington State, listening to my nephew, safe on his bike, tell me all about the different kinds of computer codes he’s learning. This relationship took me through the streets of my youth a few weeks ago, staying with a childhood friend, running took me past those fields where I played soccer, that graveyard where I dared friends into harmless danger, and the school where I spent all of my high school years. And this relationship took me through the hills around Portland, Oregon with the groom of an upcoming wedding I’ll be officiating. And I delighted in these changes, these new locations, because between you and me, running and I have been in a little bit of a rut. I know you’re not here to listen to my relationship issues, friends, but hear me out this once.

On Friday morning, I went for a run with a friend. We did the course we’re used to running together. It lacked the terrain of Oregon, the memories of Rochester, the adorableness of Washington, but what it did have was the familiar position of Diamond Head crater on my right and the Pacific Ocean on my left. A trip around the crater with a friend of many years: not too shabby, I know. But speaking of knowing, by this time, my friend and I know this course really, really well now. In fact in the year I’ve been here, I’ve repeated the course so many times that I’ve gotten to know the very contours of the run, those sneaky places that someone driving by would hardly notice are there. But your legs will tell you loud and clear.

See, when you know a place, when you repeat, over and over, the exercise of navigating that space, you learn even the slightest changes in the road. But as our feet pounded out the rhythm Friday morning, something felt different. As a matter of fact, were any of you up and about early Friday morning?

It. Was. Humid.

It was humid enough that at one point I said to my friend that I sincerely felt water resistance, not just wind resistance. And so this route, this course, the concrete and pavement I knew so well hadn’t changed one bit. The path I traveled was the same. But what wasn’t the same, was me. Whatever was happening with the weather, what I’d eaten or not eaten, whether I’d gotten the kind of sleep I needed, the course is the course. It was my body that was responding differently.

Repetition, reading the same text over and over, traveling the same course again and again does something to us. Rereading, rerunning, reveal: they reveal something new, something hidden, something changing. Not in the text—what it says is what it says. Not in the course—where it goes is where it goes. But rather in ourselves.

Poetry and exercise are not the only places where we experience repetition. Sometimes repetition is our aim. This is especially true with particular kinds of texts. In the faith traditions of much of the world, repetition is part of they ways those faiths are practiced. In many of the Judeo Christian forms of worship, prayers, the structure of worship or liturgy, even some of the songs that are sung, all rely on repetition. The text in those worship services and in the lives of the followers, are absorbed or reflected upon in deep and meaningful ways through repetition of those texts.

But a tradition where repetition is even more prominent than in the Judeo Christian traditions is in Buddhism. The lives of many Buddhists rely on a practice of repetition to embody the essential elements of their faith. The Three Jewels of Buddhism are how followers describe the three basic tenets of the faith. The first is the Buddha, the enlightened one or the enlightened nature that is present in the universe. The second is called the Dharma, which is the word for all the teachings delivered by the Buddha, often in the form generations of Buddhist practitioners inherit today as written texts. And the third is the Sangha, which is the community in which the Dharma is taught and practiced alongside others in the faith. These three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, form the bedrock foundation from which the practice of the Buddhist faith grows.

One of the things visitors from the mainland notice when they come to this island is the number of Buddhist temples all throughout the Honolulu area. I am unaware of any city on the mainland with this concentration of Buddhist temples. In this neighborhood alone, in a radius of a mile or two, there are probably half a dozen. I’ve even seen some hidden back in these hills when my relationship with running took me up and down the Pali and through the Nu’uanu streets. There’s even a large Buddhist school right down the road.

So it could make someone unfamiliar with the Buddhist faith and its expression in the world a little confused. They might ask, “Well, if they’re all Buddhist, can’t they all just go to the same temple?” And what this question reveals is a misunderstanding about Buddhism that is commonly and often repeated in the world. What many fail to grasp is that the sects, flavors, languages, interpretations, expressions of the Buddhist faith in the world, are as varied, different, manifold, and vibrant as the many ways that those in the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, and Islam) are expressed. A student of this subject could get a degree in Eastern Religious studies with a concentration in Buddhism and still not fully grasp the shades and variations of Buddhism on this island alone.

As varied as these expressions of Buddhism are, one of the things that so, so many forms of Buddhism, including those represented in our neighbors on the Pali Highway, depend upon, rely upon, build their very faiths upon…is repetition. That’s right.

See repetition is at the heart of Buddhist life. The sutras or the sacred texts that contain so much of the Dharma, were not always written texts. They were committed to memory through repetition and passed on orally from generation to generation, repeated and repeated and repeated, until they were finally written down. But before they could be written, in order for the messages and the texts to stay alive, the tool of repetition was used so that those committing the texts to memory would have an easier time of remembering them.

For a vivid example of the importance of repetition to this faith, we can behold one of our neighbors, Soka Gakkai International.

Soka Gakkai practices a type of Japanese Buddhism called Nichiren Buddhism, founded upon the writings of a Buddhist monk in Japan in the Thirteenth Century.[1]

One of the most remarkable parts of practicing with Soka Gakkai is the repetitive chanting of “nom myoho renge kyo.” I’m guessing one or two of us has spent some time with this chant? I have. I had a friend who was really into it. I attended a service where there was a lot of chanting of this phrase. You don’t have to spend long at one of these services to sense that this practice, this repetition, has the power to change you. It’s almost as if the repetition chips away at something in you, or it brings out something in you, and doing the chanting with a room filled with people, all repeating, all chanting together, is powerful. And here’s why that is.

Friends, at too many moments in our lives, we are seen as commodities, as commercial units. We are called consumers by economists, customers by businesses, subscribers by Netflix, users by Facebook, followers by Instagram, but almost never people, never humans, by interests concerned with collecting the money we have. We spend long enough in a day, taking part in our economy, and its easy to feel like the cog in the machine all of these commercial interests want us to be.

And so the idea of repetition, or chanting, something almost like a machine might feel like a lot of things. It might feel pointless. Why say the same thing over and over an over. I heard you the first time. It might feel a little inhuman. Who the heck goes around repeating the same thing over and over to themselves? A person with some issues, right? It might feel uncomfortable. Yeah, it should feel uncomfortable. That’s a good thing.

Because we are people, because we are human beings, we are not actually repeating anything. We can say the same words over and over, and every single time, those words are a little different. We have a little more air or a little less air. Our tongues strike our teeth or the roof of our mouth a little different. The volume we use is slightly greater or lesser. There is no way around it. Stitched into the repeating message, the chanted hope of a gathered people, like our neighbors up the Pali, like millennia of practitioners before us, is a deeper, hidden, powerful message: “you are human.”

The tool is repetition. The task, the work, that this tool is deployed to deliver is…“you are human.”

The more you try to work to repeat something perfectly a second, a third, a fourth, a fiftieth time, a thousandth time, the more and more you will realize, “you are human.”

And you are one of a kind. You are one…of a kind of living beings on this earth. And that kind of being is a human being. You are one of a kind, yes. You are one of our kind. And our kind has some traits. There are things our kind shares. There is something intangible about our kind, you see. You might call it a…kind-ness about us.

And in this moment we are going to learn something handed down to us about our kindness, something about the kind of beings we can be. Send from your mind now those messages about who you are. Send from your mind now those messages about who you are supposed to be. Send from your mind now those messages about who your neighbors are. And send from your mind now those messages about who your neighbors are supposed to be. Rest instead in this moment. Rest the part of your mind that supposes anything, anything at all. And listen to what our ancestors tell us about ourselves, about our kindness.

When the heart has grown in loving kindness
Your dreams become sweet
You fall asleep easily and waken contented

When the heart deepens in loving kindness
Your thoughts become pleasant
And your body heals more easily

When your heart fills with loving kindness
Angles and Devas will love and protect you
And animals will sense your love and not harm you
And people will welcome you everywhere
Your babies will be happy
And if you lose things they will be returned to you
And if you fall off a cliff a tree will always be there to catch you
And the world will become more peaceful around you
And you will bring the blessings of a loving heart to all you touch

The great scholar and teacher Jack Kornfield shares this text in a meditation and he describes it as something collected and repeated throughout centuries in temples throughout the world. In a live version of this meditation, after he reads the line “And if you lose things they will be returned to you,” the audience, breaks into laughter. And without upsetting his meditative rhythm in the slightest, he recognizes the laughter and simply adds, “That’s what it says.” And they are some fantastic promises.

But friends, I tell you true, every week I struggle with the temptations to come before you here, and to repeat whatever insanity has been bubbling from twitter feeds, from trials, or from television, and then to knock them down with our Unitarian Universalist values. I know it feels good to do that. It feels good to hear that. And there are times when we are called to do that, and we will. But I believe repeating those messages, re-tweeting those lies, re-living those experiences, without also remembering to repeat for ourselves those things that remind us who we are, the kind of people we are, that we are one of a much greater source of kindness, can be damaging over time. It will only wear us out, like running a course that never ends.

We always must take time to return again to who we are. Both Unitarians and Universalists were given their names by others after years of defiance. So much of why I love Unitarian Universalism is because of what we defy. But a life of spirit, a life of purpose, cannot only be about what we oppose, what we run from. A life of meaning also cannot only be about passing pines, cresting hills and trotting past our old ways of learning, running and running toward what we think we’ll find somewhere else. Sometimes renewal in our life requires returning again to the home of your soul, and finding and sitting with the kindness that is there.

Maybe we are eating food, maybe chicken and maize, and sensing in that sacred act something of the eternal. Maybe we are passing graveyards or a stranger struck dead along a roadside bathed in white, a soul we’ll never get to know, and sensing our finite selves. And maybe, just maybe, we are only gazing at bread, and knowing, we are not what we eat. We are what we repeat.

And may it ever be so.

[1] For amplification, see https://www.sgi.org/about-us/buddhist-lineage/nichiren.html

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