“Disciples of the Buddha
are fully awake,
dwelling both day and night
in contemplation of Reality.”
VIMS joined the United Valley Interfaith Project (UVIP) this year as, I think, the first nontheistic area religious group to become an active, board-attending member. This is not a problem; the group warmly welcomed us, and we are honored to become a part of their skilled and compassionate teamwork in the realm of social action. Venerable Ajahn Jayanto reminded us recently that the roots of the word “religion” reveal an important depth in its meaning: namely, that it refers to a process of relinking (from the Latin) or reconnecting with the core values and ideals which we abide by. These, while constantly subject to reexamination, serve as our spiritual home––our place of safety and wise understanding. VIMS, being nontheistic, expresses these values in terms other than “God.” We don’t, in that sense, share a theology with the other UVIP members.
When I recently heard two Jesuits define theology as their attempt to understand their faith and the values they hold dear, I realized that this is what the Dhamma is for us. This word Dhamma (or Dharma in Sanskrit) literally means “the way things are,” i.e., the direct experience of reality. It refers to a body of teachings and explorations into understanding our inherent resilience as human beings in the face of uncertainty; its offerings are methods for stabilizing the sometimes shaky confidence we have in our values and in the direct experiences of our lives. We wouldn’t call this theology though, because in our Buddhist Insight tradition we do this through the study of reality, not through the study of a god. The Buddha was not a god. The word Buddha was an epithet or nickname. It means “awake” and was an adjective given to a man named Siddhartha Gautama 2,500 years ago, when he fully woke up to the nature of the subjective experience of reality and its role in the creation of human suffering as it interacts with objective reality. Upon having this direct realization, Gautama became free of the pulls of greed, hatred, and delusion, which disrupt our lives and the lives of those we share the world with. With his decision to teach what he learned, the Dhamma began.
That our rootedness is in Dhamma and not in theology was highlighted this summer when we received the UVIP’s yearly invitation to each member group to nominate a “Micah Hero.” This term is used to indicate a person from the member community who has contributed wisely and compassionately to the lives of others. The designated people will be celebrated at a gathering of all the UVIP faith communities. The Micah Hero has been described as someone who fits this Old Testament verse: “And what does the lord ask of you? Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” –– Micah 6:8.
This description of a person of faith and action doesn’t fit into the context of VIMS as it stands; not because it is right or wrong, but because the use of God as a symbol related to faith and morality isn’t part of our Buddhist Insight tradition’s way of understanding the world. However, “wise action, love, mercy, and humility” are definitely part of our way; and because they are, UVIP’s description is easy to express in words more fitting for our Buddhist Insight tradition. Here is our version, which has been greatly informed by the above quoted verse from the Dhammapada, and which required only a very simple shift.
“What does your life ask of you? Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with reality.”
When I was nominated as our Micah Hero for 2015, I was not expecting it and was fully surprised and initially quite resistant, perhaps due to some subjective delusion, one among the many, which often keep me from seeing reality clearly. This is another story for another time, but I can say simply that talking with friends and advisors and contemplating the nontheistic version of the Micah verse helped me to feel the love and deep appreciation that comes to me from our VIMS community. The love and faith which led to my nomination as a Micah hero have sustained and nourished me for a long time. The VIMS community helps me everyday to walk “humbly with reality” as it deepens and broadens into my life. It is really VIMS who is receiving this award, and I am very, very happy to be accepting it for myself and for all of us. Each of our lives is an act of courage and an act of compassion, increasingly as we, like Siddhartha Gautama, continue to wake up.