Monday, April 25, 2011

Passover and Easter: A Buddhist Perspective

It began with a leg of lamb. Gail, who grew up raising lamb and loves the taste of it, saw a good bargain on a leg of lamb. She decided she had to have it to test a new recipe in her smoker.

It was too much for the two of us, so we needed to invite guests and what better time for a lamb dinner than Easter. So plans were made for dinner with some friends and family whose children have left home. Some of them were active Christians (Roman Catholic and Episcopalian), some were Unitarians, some inactive Christians, one was Jewish, and then there was me.

This mix of people and events brought a question to mind. Are there any commonalities between Passover, Easter and a Buddhist approach to life? Three themes came to mind: remembrance, faith and resurrection.

Passover and Easter are, among other things, rites of remembrance. Remembering the spirit of God passing over the children of Israel while bringing the slaughter of the first born to their Egyptian slave masters. Remembering the passage to freedom that resulted for the Israelites. Remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Remembering all of the meals and family times shared to mark these events. Remembering the funny custom of coloring eggs, hiding them along with candy eggs and chocolate bunnies and the joy of children discovering them. Remembering, at least in the northern hemisphere, the renewal of Spring after the darkness and cold of Winter.

In Buddhist practice the Pali word sati is usually translated as mindfulness, the quality of non-judgmental attention or awareness that is so central to the practice. Yet another definition of sati is to remember. In this case what is remembered is to pay attention. To pay attention to what is happening in one's life right now, in this moment. To pay attention without judgment and with acceptance or friendliness towards whatever comes or goes. Or if we're meditating, to remember to pay attention to our meditation object.

The message of Easter certainly seems to be about faith, having faith that if you believe in God, if you put your trust in God, that there is hope for an eternal life that is free of the travails and suffering of human life. Passover also seems to be about faith, about putting one's trust in God as one takes the leap into the unknown, whether individually or as a people.

Faith also plays a part in Buddhist practice. Faith is one of the five faculties of mind and heart that are essential if one is to awaken to the truth of life and to being at peace with life. But this faith isn't about belief. It is a quality that has to be balanced with wisdom, with understanding how things really are. Faith becomes balanced as one does the practice. Then one discovers for oneself whether it is true that holding on or wanting things to be other than the way they are is what leads to discontent and mental and emotional suffering in life. Then one discovers for oneself whether it is true that opening to life and letting go really do lead to peace, contentment and happiness. Interestingly, the Pali word  saddha that is usually translated as faith can also be translated as conviction or confidence, which is, perhaps, what develops as faith becomes balanced by the wisdom of one's own deep investigation.

The message of Easter most certainly has to do with resurrection, with the possibility of being reborn to a better life both in this human life and in an eternal life to come. Passover marks the resurrection of a whole people as they arose from bondage to a new life in a new Promised Land.

And the Buddha's teachings also contain a message of resurrection. But it is not about a resurrection at some time in the future. It is a resurrection that can happen now. Each moment of our lives is an opportunity to start anew.

In each moment when there is sensory contact, depending on our previous experiences (our karma) there is often a tendency to react to this sensory experience with grasping, pushing away or confusion. When we react in these ways we continue to be caught in the rut of thoughts, perceptions and behaviors that leads to discontent and suffering. But each time we remember, each time we meet this sensory experience with mindfulness, we break out of the rut of suffering. We let go of our struggle. We awaken to life. Our senses awaken and we become more intimate with life. Our hearts open, our minds become silent and spacious and we experience a moment of peacefulness and deep happiness.

When that moment passes, we may forget and begin to cling and suffer once again. But each time we remember and respond with an open heart and with mindfulness, our faith becomes further strengthened by our momentary resurrection, our awakening. And over time this can increasingly become our way of living this life. A life lived fully.