Rev. Josh Pawelek and Nancy Thompson
Nancy Thompson is a graduate of the Buddhist teacher training program at The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist center in New York City, and is a student of Lama Tsultrim Allione. She joined UUS:E in 1995 with her family and began studying Buddhism in 2006. She leads the UUS:E Buddhist Group and teaches meditation at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester.
I was born into a Roman Catholic family in May 1957. When I was less than month old, I was taken to Holy Name of Jesus Church and cleansed of my sins by a priest who poured water over my forehead as my aunt held me. A rational person might wonder what I could have done in my first four weeks of life to require spiritual cleansing. Most likely, nothing. Catholics believe that we all enter the world tainted by original sin, the sin created when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the apple.
Move forward 50 years. I’m sitting in a small office in a former gun factory turned meditation center in New Haven, facing a Tibetan Buddhist teacher in orange robes. He asks why I have decided to take refuge, the formal vow that makes me an official Buddhist.
If he were a western teacher, fluent in English and irony, I might talk about my Roman Catholic baptism. Instead I keep it simple. I talk about how I am drawn to the idea of basic goodness – also known as buddhanature, inherent richness, essential nature (it’s like Eskimos and snow; Buddhists have many words for it) – how it has transformed my life to see myself as essentially good, working to remove the overlay of social conditioning and perceptions and expectations that cover up that goodness, rather than essentially bad. As a Catholic, I said every week, as part of Mass, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and my soul will be healed.” As a Buddhist, I don’t need to be fixed; I’m not broken, and I have all the tools I need for a tune-up inside of me.
I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist family. There was never a hint of the unworthiness or inherent sinfulness Nancy refers to in her religious upbringing. However, living in a town that, at the time, was fifty percent Catholic, I remember feeling somewhat jealous of my Catholic friends. Many aspects of their lives seemed lovingly held by their church and community. We were held too, but there just weren’t that many UU kids at school. I can’t remember how much we talked across our elementary school lines of faith about sin and hell, but I remember knowing at an early age that our church was theologically different. Our Universalist forbears had long ago given up the concept of hell—an all-loving God would never sentence people to eternal punishment. And our Unitarian forbears had championed the idea that human beings could work toward perfection. “Salvation by character,” they called it. We were worthy beyond measure.
My Pennsylvania Dutch, somewhat evangelical grandmother used to talk to me and my brothers about hell, about fearing God. But her admonitions were never enough to talk us out of our sense of being whole, good, worthy.
Forty years later, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, while I still embrace those core messages of our spiritual forebears, and while I don’t experiencing lingering feelings of religious or spiritual guilt so many Americans are raised to feel, I do wonder sometimes if I’m missing something. I may be moving in the opposite direction Nancy has moved on her journey to Buddhism. I wonder if there is a condition we might call brokenness. It’s not an inherent condition, not something we’re born with. But as a minister, as one to whom people come to speak of their pain, their mistakes, their illnesses, their suffering, the ways they’ve been hurt and the ways they’ve hurt others, it strikes me that we can break, that there are times when we need fixing. Sometimes that wonderful, comforting message that we are perfect just as we are, that we don’t need to be fixed, isn’t enough. It doesn’t ring true to the person who feels broken, and it doesn’t help them in the midst of their suffering. Something else is needed.
Buddhism starts, literally, with brokenness. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth – dukkha – is often translated as “suffering,” but the word actually refers to a wheel and an axle that don’t fit together quite right, like the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel. Life contains big dramatic events that qualify as suffering – the Buddha mentioned old age, sickness, and death – but more often it is like a shopping cart with a wonky wheel that doesn’t move as smoothly as we want.
The thing is, we – the awareness that recognizes the problem – aren’t broken. The cart, for that matter, is functional: It holds things and moves, just not smoothly.
The breakdown is in our relationship to the wobbly wheels on the shopping cart of life. We encounter difficulties and we get angry or frustrated or confused or sad that things aren’t going the way we think they should. We are not able to make the world behave the way we want. And so we suffer.
There’s a disconnect between our thinking mind and our innate, unbroken, unbreakable, perfect nature. Buddhists call that buddhanature. You can call it God, spirit, the light in each and every one of us, that which is worthy of respect and dignity.
We are perfect just as we are. But we forget that because we’re told over and over that we’re not – we eat too much, sin too often, drive the wrong car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes. The challenge of a spiritual path is to find our way home to that sense of our own basic goodness.
Somehow, Google knows our February ministry theme is brokenness. Last week I opened my email and found a message from Google featuring a quote from a self-helpish, inspirational website called HpLyrikz.com. The quote said, “I still get very high and very low in life. Daily. But I’ve finally accepted the fact that sensitive is just how I was made, that I don’t have to hide it, and I don’t have to fix it. I’m not broken.” Google must’ve noticed I’d been searching for resources on “brokenneness,” and thought this quote might appeal. I also noticed the quote had been shared millions of times. I traced it back to a 2013 TED talk by Glennon Doyle Melton called “Lessons from the Mental Hospital.” Glennon Doyle Melton is a writer, blogger and organizer. She’s a person in recovery. She grounds her work in her stories of living with addiction, eating disorders, mental illness.
As much as I want to affirm this idea that “I’m not broken,” as much as it resonates with my religious upbringing, I find myself bristling. It’s not that she’s wrong. She’s not. It’s that she makes this statement in the middle of telling her story, and then a million other people repost the statement, but they don’t mention the story. Now the statement is out on the web but without any context. The part in the story where she was addicted to drugs, had eating disorders, wound up in a psychiatric unit—the part in the story where she had to work really, really hard to heal—emotionally, physically, psychologically—the part in the story where those feelings of being broken still live in her even though she has them in check now—is lost. When I read about Melton’s life story, I wonder if it might not be more accurate to say that there was a time in her life when she was broken, when she was lost, when she was a “wretch,” as the hymn says. I wonder if it is useful to speak of human brokenness—to wrestle with the possibility not that we are somehow born broken, but that we can break. I wonder if it is useful—and I suspect it is—to wrestle with this idea before we make the leap to “I’m not broken.”
Having said that, Nancy’s discussion of buddhanature resonates deeply with me. It appeals to the lessons of my liberal religious upbringing. It makes sense to me that, if there is an original human condition, it is akin to buddhanature—it is the essential perfection that, in the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, endows us—and, indeed, all life—with inherent worth and dignity. When we say, “We are perfect just as we are,” it’s true. But we forget it, often easily. We forget it perhaps because we were never taught this truth as children; or because we’ve made mistakes and we haven’t forgiven ourselves; or because, as Nancy suggested, others tell us negative stories about ourselves: “we eat too much, sin too often, drive the car, use the wrong words, wear the wrong clothes;” or we tell ourselves these stories. And some people forget it because they’ve experienced some trauma, some abuse, some oppression, some war, some mental or psychological breakdown so profound that they feel broken. And for such people, the message “you’re perfect just the way you are,” isn’t entirely accurate. It doesn’t meet them where they are. It contradicts their experience. They may have a long struggle ahead of them before they can genuinely feel perfect just the way they are. But what has always been—and will always be—an article of faith for me, not just as a pastor, but as a husband, father, brother, friend, colleague, neighbor, and stranger, is that the experience of brokenness is temporary. That is, some form of healing—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning to wholeness—spiritual or otherwise—is always possible. Returning home to that sense of our own basic goodness is always possible.
I don’t think people have to be broken before they can feel whole. I don’t think you have to be lost to be found, to be blind before you can see. Brokenness isn’t just struggle or dissatisfaction – it’s a bone-deep questioning of your worth in the world, your ability to function. I can’t judge the authenticity of someone else’s experience of that; it doesn’t leave visible marks.
I want to share a story with you about what happens when you see people’s perfection rather than their brokenness. It comes from a friend of mine, Lisa, who is a Buddhist, a dedicated meditator, and a middle school science teacher. She shared this story on Facebook, and I’m going to just read what she wrote:
“I have this 12 year old student with SEVERE OCD. He’s a brilliant science student, kind, respectful, soft, funny. Most days he can’t even sit in the classroom seat. He can’t touch papers that other people have touched. He can’t handle any of the objects I bring to class to share. He annoys some of the teachers with this behavior.
“Today he dropped his pencil case on the floor and all his “clean,” well-organized world possessions got destroyed (in his mind). He started panicking and pacing and basically losing his cool. I responded by not feeding his story. I told him it was OK. I told him HE was OK. I told him to look me in the eyes. I showed him my confidence in his ability to handle this. I gave him clear direct instructions, he trusted me enough to follow them. I showed him how to breathe. I showed him how to manage his anxious biochemistry. By the end we laughed.
“I love this kid’s struggle. I love his process. I’m forever grateful that my job puts me in a place and time where I can be of service to grow a good human.”
She had prefaced the story with this statement: “Those of you that feel like weirdos or weak or high maintenance or just plain broken, you’re not. OK? You’re just not. It’s your brain and it’s telling you some shifty stuff.”
Lisa’s story shows what happens when you know, REALLY know, deep in your bones, that you are inherently perfect. You realize that everyone else is too, no matter how broken they may seem to themselves or to the world that hasn’t yet learned to see perfection. And you want to help them see that for themselves. That’s the work of a bodhisattva, a person who vows to lead all beings to enlightenment before going there.
The poet Galway Kinnell writes: “Sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness, / to put a hand on its brow / of the flower / and retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.”
Sometimes we need to know that we are seen as perfect in order to see that in ourselves. When I took the refuge vow, the formal ceremony of committing to Buddhism, I was given the Tibetan name Khunzang Lamo, which translates to Always Good Divine Lady. That’s a touchstone for me when I don’t feel that way.
The poet, Galway Kinnel, continues: “As Saint Francis / put his hand on the creased forehead / of the sow, and told her in words and in touch / blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow / began remembering all down her thick length,/ from the earthen snout all the way / through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,/ from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine / down through the great broken heart / to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering / from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:the long, perfect loveliness of sow.”
If a person describes their condition to me as one of brokenness, I won’t counter with “You’re perfect just the way you are.” To the best of my ability I will be with them in their experience of brokenness. So often, our healing begins when those around us acknowledge that what we are experiencing is real. But even as I validate stories of brokenness, I will also remember the simple theological lessons of my Unitarian Universalist upbringing—all are saved, all are loved, all are capable of perfection. I will remember the teachings of the Buddha about our buddhanature. I will remember the teachings of Jesus, who said “the kingdom of god is within you” (Luke 17:21). I will remember the pronouncements of scientists and cosmologist who remind us of our common origin in the hearts of stars. As I remember, I will offer blessings of earth in words and touch.
I urge you to do likewise. For as we remember, we are more likely to see the “long, perfect loveliness” in the person experiencing brokenness—and the more likely they will see it too. And as we bless, we help the one experiencing brokenness tell a new story about themselves—a story that enables healing, fosters wholeness, and inspires goodness.
Amen and blessed be.