The Invitation is Always There

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If you keep thinking, you miss the flower,”[1] says Buddhist monk and global peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” This is the meaning he derives from the story of the Buddha’s disciple, Mahakashyapa, a foundational story—an origin story—for Zen Buddhism. We shared Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the story earlier in the service. Unitarian Universalist minister and Soto Zen priest, James Ishmael Ford tells it this way:

A large gathering … came to hear a talk by the Buddha. Instead of speaking about enlightenment he simply held up a flower, twirling it slowly in his fingers. Of the whole assembly only one person understood—the Venerable Mahakashyapa. He smiled. Seeing the smile, the Buddha declared, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable Nirvana, exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.”[2] According to tradition, the founder of Zen Buddhism, the semi-mythical Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist who travelled to China in the sixth century, was the 28th successor to the Buddha through the lineage of Mahakashyapa.

In addition to being an origin story for Zen Buddhism, this story is also a koan, meaning it is itself an object of meditation. Like any koan, its meaning is not immediately, or perhaps ever, apparent to the rational, thinking mind. In response to any koan, one intuits their way to understanding more than thinks their way to understanding. “If you keep thinking, you miss the flower.” As I encounter Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this koan, I recognize that, though I think I understand what his words mean, I would be foolish to think I understand what they mean to someone like Thich Nhat Hanh who’d been meditating for over fifty years at the time he wrote them. Furthermore, though I think I understand what his words mean, and though I think I can talk about them in a sermon, the truth is I’m still thinking about them. I’m still thinking about words that advise me to stop thinking. I’m still thinking and writing about words that assure me the all-pervading truth “does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside of scriptures.”

As simple as Thich Nhat Hanh makes it sound, I have to assume I am still missing something. And what I am missing is not a thought—I have plenty of those. What I am missing is not a set of words—I have plenty of those. What I’m missing is an intuitive experience. The experience of being fully present. Do I know what that means? I like to think so … but, there I go again, thinking. Do any of us really know what being fully present means? Had I gone to hear the Buddha speak on that day, had I witnessed him twirling that flower in his fingers and saying nothing for minutes on end, would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking mind, which likely, and very understandably, would have been asking questions like, ‘What does this mean?’ ‘What is the significance of the flower?’ ‘Why twirl the flower in his fingers?’ ‘What kind of flower is it?’ ‘What is Mahakashyapa smiling about?’ Would I have had the wisdom and the skill to quiet my thinking, questioning, analytical, concept-forming mind and let myself fully experience the present moment, fully experience the flower in the Buddha’s fingers? Would I have smiled?

Maybe. I don’t want to rule it out entirely….

But doubtful.

Our ministry theme for November is attention. Although every religious tradition calls on its adherents to pay attention in some way, to pray, to contemplate, to study scripture, to go on pilgrimage, to worship, to “wake now my senses,” as one of our UU hymns says,[3] in my experience no tradition speaks more beautifully or extensively about paying attention than Buddhism. I remind us that our Unitarian Universalist living tradition draws from many sources, including “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.” That’s where I am grounding myself this morning. I’m wondering about paying attention for the purpose of being fully present, and I’m turning to Buddhism for guidance.

How often are we fully present—present to any particular moment, like this moment; present to a person, a loved-one, a child, a neighbor, a stranger; present to an activity, washing dishes, drinking tea, raking leaves; present to suffering, physical or emotional pain, abuse, discrimination; present to nature, the changing seasons, the night sky, the barren November fields. Paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s hard because of the many ways technology now intrudes into our lives, the rise of social media, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. And I’m not saying it’s hard because of the troubling, frightening re-emergence of hatreds in our era that so many of us thought were in decline, or because of the troubling, frightening acceleration of climate change in our era. Yes we live in an age of extraordinary distraction, but that’s not why paying attention for the purpose of being fully present is hard. It has always been hard. Many people came to hear the Buddha speak. Apparently only one of them was fully present. It isn’t a question of what’s going on in the world around us. There is something in our very human nature—in the structure of our bodies, our wiring, our brain chemistry, our neural pathways, our senses—something in the way all of it works together—that makes paying attention for the purpose of being fully present hard no matter what is happening in the wider world.

Buddhists speak of the monkey mind—the way the mind very naturally jumps from one thing to another. Monkey mind is not a condition that some people have and others don’t. As far as I can tell, it’s the normal condition of most human brains. The new issue of the UU World magazine, which arrived last week, features an article by the Rev. Erika Hewitt and religious educator Becky Brooks called “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy.” They write “Chaos is an apt term for what happens between our ears during the practice of meditation. That’s because it’s the mind’s natural state to be whirring, planning, and chattering.” They cite the Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, who “describes meditation mantras as ‘giving the tiger a certain amount of meat to keep it quiet,’ suggesting that without that distraction, the mind is like a roving, predatory beast.” They proclaim, “Hear us now, fellow monkey minds: the presence (the loud, active presence) of inner voices, noise, and whirl during meditation does not mean you’re doing it ‘wrong.’ It means you’re human.”[4]

I find this very affirming. I hope you do too. My mind often races around, jumps up and down. Does yours? I notice that even when I’m focused on some task like mowing the lawn, cleaning the gutters, raking leaves, chopping wood, shoveling snow, or when I’m exercising, despite my focus on the activity, my mind is always monkeying: What’s next on my schedule? What’s happening tonight? What do I have to do to prepare for this meeting, or that class, or next week’s sermon? What time is Max’s basketball game? Where is it? Who’s cooking dinner? Oh, wait—I’m not home for dinner. What are the boys going to eat? Who am I forgetting? X is going into the hospital. Y is coming home from the hospital. Has Mason written the final draft of his college essay? If I don’t do anything about it, the thoughts just keep coming. My body is going through the motions of the task; I have no problem performing the task; but my mind is somewhere else. I’m not fully present.

That’s what monkey mind looks like for me when I’m engaged in a task. What’s fascinating to me is how it works when I’m purposefully not doing anything, when I’m actually attempting to meditate, to quiet my mind, to not think of anything at all,[5] to not miss the flower. Then the monkey really takes off. It’s as if true quiet, true emptiness, true presence free of all thought is frightening to the part of me that thinks. The part of me that thinks really doesn’t want to be extinguished. It resists. Don’t stop thinking!

I figured out many years ago I am not on the path to enlightenment. That is, I don’t feel a compelling personal spiritual call to engage in a dedicated, regular meditation practice. Though, having said that, I want to be clear that I recognize the importance such practices hold for many Unitarian Universalists; and I celebrate the spiritual richness Buddhists and those with an affinity for Buddhism bring to our congregations. I may not be on the path to enlightenment, but  being present—as fully present as possible—is important to me, especially in relation to other people. If my mind is monkeying while I’m washing the dishes, that’s my loss, but no harm done. If my mind is monkeying when a family member, or one of you, or a colleague is talking to me, that’s a problem. And though I may never know what it means to be fully present in a state of deep meditation, nevertheless, I can strive for presence in my day-to-day life. Buddhism can inform that striving. And what I learn from Buddhism is that the invitation to be present is always with us in any given moment. It’s an invitation worth accepting.  We accept the invitation by learning first to notice when and how, and maybe why, the mind starts monkeying; and second, learning to gently pull the mind back to the task at hand, to the attempted quiet, to the relationship, the conversation, the present moment. Our capacity to be present to the world begins with being present to ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh invites this presence to self through breathing. In those moments when the mind is monkeying, interrupt it with conscious breathing. He says “our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing … our body is doing another … mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, ‘In’ and ‘Out,’ we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.” He offers this mantra: Breathing in, I calm my body. / Breathing out I smile. / Dwelling in the present moment, / I know this is a wonderful moment![6] Breathing will carry us toward presence, but the mind will monkey again. Remember, that’s the norm. Being present requires a continual interruption of the norm. Conscious breathing is one way to interrupt, to bring mind and body together, to come back to the moment.

It’s not a forceful interruption. It’s not bellicose. It’s not judgmental. It’s a gentle and compassionate interruption. The writer Anne Lamott offers a wonderful image. She says, “Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence.”[7] The invitation to be present is always there.

In their recent UU World article, Hewitt and Brooks say something similar: “When (not if!) we get distracted … the heart of meditation is to notice your distraction—your departure—and make the decision to try again. The practice isn’t the doing; it’s the return, the reentry.”[8] Our mind will monkey. The invitation to unite body and mind is always there. The invitation to quiet the mind is always there. The invitation to stop thinking and behold the flower is always there. The invitation to offer that heart-felt, genuine smile is always there. The invitation to move back toward presence is always there.

There’s nothing doctrinal or dogmatic about this. There’s nothing here about right or wrong. We won’t be punished for having stray thoughts. The mind will monkey. That’s normal. The invitation is always there to gently pull it back to presence. I find great comfort in this ongoing—dare I say eternal—invitation.

Why accept the invitation? Why does being present to ourselves matter? In short, it’s a gesture of kindness to ourselves, and as far as I’m concerned, each of us deserves kindness. But beyond that, I think it’s also true that as we develop the capacity for being kind to ourselves, we develop the capacity to return kindness into the world. I like the way Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg puts it in a recent blog post. She writes, “the practice of shepherding our attention back to the present—even an incalculable number of times—helps us find the power to be kind to ourselves…. [When] we react to our compulsions with compassion … we open up, and feel a subtle movement of our hearts. This movement of the heart is like the sea moving close to the ocean floor — it is so subtle, but affects everything above.”[9] It effects everything above. In short, kindness to self begets kindness to others.

Is that really true? Maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I suppose it will always be wishful thinking if we keep confining it to the realm of thought. But if we keep thinking we miss the flower. The point is to accept the invitation, to make that gesture of kindness to ourselves, to strive for presence. Will that enable us to bring more kindness into the world? The invitation is always there. And what is there to lose but a few wandering thoughts? May we accept the invitation.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Naht Hanh, “Flower Insights,” Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) p. 43.

[2] Ford, James Ishmael, This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996) pp. 27-28.

[3] Mikelson, Thomas, “Wake Now My Senses,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #298.

[4] Brooks, Becky and Hewitt, Erika, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” UU World (Winter, 2019). P. 18.

[5] Takashina, Rosen, Zetto Zemmi, in Conze, Edward, tr., Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 138.

[6] Thich Naht Hanh, “Conscious Breathing” and “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment” in Peace is Every Step (New York: Bantam Books, 1992) pp.8-10.

[7] Lamott, Anne, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) p. 99.

[8] Brooks and Hewitt, “Allowing Meditation to Be Messy,” p. 19.

[9] Salzberg, Sharon, “A New Vision of Kindness Starts with Paying Attention,” On Being, June 11th, 2016. See:

Call Me By My True Names

Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek

“Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.”[1] Words of the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. “Please call me by my true names.” I happened upon this poem a few weeks ago while I was contemplating bringing a sermon on compassion to you this morning. Through the course of this week the focus of my sermon has changed, but these words—call me by my true names—still speak to me. Weather events like the autumn snowstorm from which we are still recovering, events that cause damage, disrupt our lives, leave us without power—some of us for eight days and counting—have a way, a unique way, of calling us by our true names.

Some context: Thich Nhat Hanh wrote this poem after receiving a letter telling a tragic story about a young girl—a boat person, a refugee—who, having been raped by pirates, threw herself into the ocean and drowned. He writes, “When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate …. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.”[2] When Thich Nhat Hanh says “call me by my true names,” he is saying, essentially, not only am I me, I am also the young girl. And not only am I the young girl, I am also the pirate. He asks: “Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other?”[3] Can we look at a tragic situation half-way around the planet and recognize ourselves in the people in that situation? Can we recognize those people in ourselves?

We are interconnected—each of us, with each other, with the entire mass of humanity, past, present and future. Thich Nhat Hanh would add we are each interconnected with all there is, past, present and future. He uses the term “interbeing” to express this fundamental condition of interconnectedness.[4] We have many true names. This is not just something Buddhists teach, nor is it just abstract or flowery liberal religious language. It’s a truth claim. We are interconnected. I remind us of this truth claim this morning in part because I know it’s easy to forget; because we wake up to it from time to time, but then quickly fall back to sleep; because we learn it but then continually unlearn it through the course of our lives; because even though we know it in our heads—even though we can say the words, “We are interconnected with the whole of life”— we don’t always feel it in our hearts, we don’t always feel it in the marrow of our bones, we don’t always live it. I remind us of this truth this morning because our capacity to be compassionate people ultimately depends on our ability to remember it, to wake up to it, to relearn it, to feel it in our hearts and bones. “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.”

Compassion is our theological theme for November. As theological themes go, compassion is relatively easy to talk about. It isn’t one of those haunting words that remind some of us of a religious upbringing we’d rather forget. It isn’t one of those strange, other-worldly ideas we have to accept in order to belong. It isn’t wrapped up in layers of doctrine and dogma. It isn’t a belief. Compassion is a way of feeling towards ourselves, towards others, towards the world. Compassion is our ability to recognize, name and respond to suffering. It is our ability to suffer with others, to stay present to suffering—to accept it, to validate it, to affirm it as real, to not look away. If the ethical ideal and the sought-after behavior of so many world religions is some version of love your neighbor as you love yourself, compassion is the emotional ingredient that makes such love possible. I’m wondering this morning what ultimately makes compassion possible. I suspect it arises and takes hold in our hearts, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, when our true names are called and we recognize ourselves in those around us, and in those around the world.

Last Saturday, as we know, an uncommon October snow storm hit the northeastern United States, dumping heavy, wet snow on trees still covered with leaves, snapping branches and limbs and even bringing down some trees, many of which fell on power lines, leaving millions without power for days on end in the impacted sates. Some, my family included, continue without power. This storm comes just two months after Hurricane Irene caused similar long-term power outages, as well as flooding and property damage in much of the northeast. We know extreme weather events—hurricanes, floods, droughts, wild fires, tornados—even snowfall—seem to be occurring with greater frequency, greater severity and greater cost than in years past. I’ve preached recently about a growing collective anxiety regarding the apparent increase in extreme weather events. Is it simply an anomaly? Is it the result of global warming? Is it the new weather normal? Are we prepared for a future in which such events are common? It’s not my intent to address these questions this morning. I simply want to say there is nothing like an extreme weather event to call us by our true names, to show us the full range of who we are and, hopefully, to cause feelings of compassion to take root in our hearts.

Around 6:00 on Saturday evening, our power already gone, I stood on our front steps and listened to the sounds of limbs breaking under the weight of the snow all around our neighborhood. I’d never heard anything like it, except maybe at a firing range or on a live news report from a war zone. The larger the limb, the more the earth shook when it hit the ground. At that moment I felt awe in the presence of Nature’s power. There was something thrilling about it, something fascinating, magnetic, drawing me to it, something wild and emotionally familiar, like the feeling of falling from a great height in a dream. Awe in the presence of Nature’s power is one of my true names. The storm was calling me by that name.

But that call did not last. There are some large oaks on our land whose massive limbs, were they to snap, could cause damage to our home, could cause injury or death. Later that night, around 10:00, I woke up to the sound of our fire alarms telling us their batteries were running low. The wind was blowing. I looked out the back window. The old oaks’ limbs were hanging low and even their thick, eighty foot trunks were bending towards the house under the weight of the snow. Every time the wind blew, I braced for the worst. My mind raced with what ifs. I recognized, in me, fear. And because there was nothing I could do beyond watching and waiting, with that fear came a feeling of helplessness. I think of myself as a brave and resourceful person, so it wasn’t pleasant to admit to myself, let alone to anyone else, that I felt genuinely afraid. But this fearfulness is part of who I am. Fear and helplessness: the storm calling me by two more true names.

The next morning there were many adjustments to make. Water was not an issue, as we have city water. Hot water and cooking were not concerns, as we use natural gas for both. We even had a modicum of heat, because our gas furnace has one of those automatic-to-manual switches for use in power outages. It’s designed to keep pipes from freezing, but it generates some heat which made some rooms livable, including our bedrooms. We had to think about where to get food and what kinds of food made sense to get in the absence of refrigeration; how to get a prescription filled; where to get a few more batteries for flashlights and fire alarms; how to charge cell phones and computers; how and where to do laundry; and where to get gasoline. We thought about our neighbors: is everyone OK? Does anyone need anything, any help? We had to think about how to explain to the kids what was happening, how long the outage might last, how to wear multiple layers of clothing to stay warm and how to keep occupied without the typical recourse to television, DVDs, and video games. In the end we’ve had a relatively easy experience. My parents, who live in Hamden, did not lose power. We’ve spent a few of our nights there and met most of our outage-related needs there. I’ve been able to keep breathing, to stay calm, to stay relaxed, to accept the situation with as much gracefulness and dignity as I can muster. I even had a moment to build Max a fort out of some of our downed limbs. Gracefulness dignity, playfulness: more true names calling in the aftermath of the storm.

And still, all week long there have been moments of frustration and anger; moments when I’ve had enough; moments when I’ve felt tired of it all; moments of stir-craziness; moments when my conditioned expectation of heat and electric lights overcomes me and I want everything back to normal, not Sunday night at midnight, now. Frustration, anger, tiredness, longing for the normal comforts—not feelings I necessarily want to admit because I believe I should be able to handle this, because I know there are people in much worse situations not only in Connecticut but all around the world, but nevertheless, here are more true names calling out as the days drag on. By what names did this storm call you? By what names have these days called you?

My colleague, the Rev. Barbara Merritt, writes facetiously, I “hope each morning when I open my eyes that the day will go smoothly. (Smoothly being defined as nothing interfering with my pre-existing plans, no unpleasant delays, and especially no events that make me aware of my dependency or limitations.)”[5] Two more true names in the aftermath of devastating storms: dependency and limitations. This sounds cliché, but I don’t think it is. We’re so used to, so reliant upon, even addicted to the power of modern technology to keep our lives running smoothly, that we forget the truth about who we are, about how our ancestors lived just a few generations ago before the advent of electricity and the marshaling of fossil fuels. We forget our true names. We only remember the truth when technology fails. We are awestruck and courageous, but fearful and helpless; graceful and dignified, but frustrated, angry and tired; creative, innovative, resourceful, and playful, but dependent and limited. Sometimes it takes a storm and its aftermath to call us by our true names, to wake us up, to leave open the door of our hearts, the door of compassion.

Barbara Merritt continues, not facetiously, “Reality has a persistent way of showing up on your doorstep. You can waste a whole lot of time wishing reality were simpler, less demanding. But the ever-changing circumstances of this life keep presenting themselves to us. The question is, “How will we respond?”[6] I was so happy, when we found out we had power back at UUS:E, that we could announce to people who were still out of power (if we could get in touch with them) that they could come here and get warm, take showers, do laundry. I was so happy as the week dragged on, that people with phone service were willing to attempt to call through our directory to see who we could reach, to find out if anyone needed help. Hank Schwartz and Nancy Massey made calls, JoAnne Gillespie, David Garnes, Chris Joyner, Cory Clark and Jean Labutis made calls. Thank you so much. We couldn’t reach everyone and I know we didn’t get all the way through the directory, but it was so wonderful to learn that those of you who had power were willing and eager to open your homes to those without power, and not only to those in this spiritual community, but to those in the wider community who were in need. There were and are so many stories of people responding to suffering and need with open arms and open hearts, stories of the storm and its aftermath calling us by our true name of compassion. Yes, through it all there was frustration, fear, anger, anxiety, tension, even despair—these are also our true names—but there were so many stories of people recognizing themselves in those around them, recognizing their own potential for suffering in those around them, recognizing their own basic needs in those around them, recognizing their own ability to help even if only in some simple, small, human way.

I believe Thich Nhat Hanh is right. I accept this notion as true: We are ourselves, but we are also the girl. We are also the pirate. We are interconnected—each of us with the entire mass of humanity, past, present and future. We are interconnected—each of us with the whole of life, with all there is, past, present and future. This interconnection is our true name. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes it takes a storm to remind us. “Please call me by my true names, / so I can wake up, / and so the door of my heart can be left open, / the door of compassion.”[7] Please call me by my true name, so I can respond well to whatever unexpected challenge reality brings. Please call me by my true name, so I can love myself, love my neighbor, love the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) p. 124.

[2] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” p. 122.

[3] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” p. 122.

[4] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Interbeing,” Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) pp. 95-96.

[5] Merritt, Barbara, “Next,” Amethyst Beach (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2007) p. 27.

[6] Merritt, Barbara, “Next,” p. 28.

[7] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call Me by My True Names,” Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1991) p. 124.