Welcome to the Bardo Sermon
Hello, dear friends…I apologize for vanishing from my blogging life all summer. I needed, apparently, a long pause after the joy and excitement of seeing The Radiant Heart of the Cosmos (Green Fire Press) actually in print! You can find it at your local book store, Amazon, or my website, Thewisdomteachings.org.
Here is the text and a video of a talk I gave Sunday morning, October 23, 2022, on this very challenging moment in our shared lives. I offer a Tibetan word, Bardo, as a helpful lens for understanding what is happening now and how to live skillfully and with more ease.
With all good wishes to each of you!
Transcript of the sermon:
Welcome to the Bardo
St John’s UCC Church, October 23, 2022
Greetings, dear friends!
I’ve been asking myself, is there anything I can offer our beloved community, that might help us navigate these challenging times?
At every level of our lives, island, state, national, and global, we are watching our political, economic, social, and cultural institutions, riddled with dysfunction and corruption, cease to function well. We seem to be living in a swamp of instability and insecurity. The old patterns and certainties simply do not hold any more.
Many of us find this is also reflected in our personal lives; we are suspended between a rapidly disappearing (or already gone) past and a not-yet-visible new situation, which we doubt we would choose. We feel stuck “in between,” seriously stuck, and we recognize we feel powerless to choose a new direction and move toward it. We are frightened of this illegible “Now”.
This phrase “stuck in the in between” helps me handle more skillfully all this apparent unraveling. I remind myself, many of us have longed for significant change in our world, but we hadn’t realized it could only emerge out of destruction. There had to be room for the new, after all, and it makes sense, once you start to think about it. As they say: “Be careful what you ask for.”
So, I pondered what I might be able to share with all of you, in this moment of anxiety and Covid and climate change and economic vulnerability, Ironically, what seemed at first like a simple talk led me into a theological thicket. I’ll try anyway.
The Tibetans have a powerful word for what I’ve been trying to describe: Bardo. At its simplest, everyday level, Bardo points to a situation of “inbetweenness.” You might have heard it in connection with The Tibetan Book of the Living and the Dead, or as the “space/time” between lives; one life is over, i.e. you are dead, and the new life hasn’t begun yet.. This requires a concept of reincarnation or living multiple lives in succession. That talk must wait for another moment..
I’ve found this idea immensely helpful, when I use it metaphorically and with a light hand to help me understand my current experience of loss, grief, and confusion, or when I’m feeling upended and discombobulated. What is going on in my life and my world? Why are my old assumptions about how to live my life crumbling right before my eyes? Why can’t I control anything? Perhaps you too recognize what I’m describing? A wiser version of Penny would give a bit of advice about how to manage this discomfort, and then say, “Good, Amen”, and sit down.
But alas, she seems driven to dig deeper. If you’d prefer now to zone out a bit or consider what you will make for dinner, go ahead. You could take the word Bardo and say, “Thanks, that’s plenty for me now. Having a word helps.“ Fine with me. I really mean that!
But: this is a Sunday morning UCC church service! And though I am here giving voice to St John’s commitment to being a “Spiritual Home for the Whole Community,” I feel a powerful obligation to try to relate this Tibetan Buddhist image and teaching with a Biblical understanding and response. Some of you may know this habit of mine: I like to bring these rich spiritual traditions into closer relationship with each other, to let them nourish and refresh each other in some unexpected way. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But this time I was led into a maze of profound questions about the very nature of the Sacred. It’s been very challenging, and I’ve been frustrated for a couple of weeks: Is this worth it, or should I just bag it? But it illustrates beautifully how one can start with a relatively simple question – how does each tradition advise its followers to manage in a time of profound distress and uncertainty? As you will see, it has taken me to a very different destination: Shall one pray for help? Pray for relief? And if so, to what or to whom? The question continues to reverberate relentlessly. Please bear with me.
Let’s begin with the morning’s question: is there a skillful way to be in the Bardo, in this very unsettled “inbetweenness”? Perhaps the Biblical tradition has something to suggest. “Wait on the Lord” came to mind – a very common phrase in the Psalms and the Prophets in the Hebrew Bible, and frequent advice in the Epistles of the New Testament about what to do, until Christ returns, in the Second Coming or the Day of Judgment. Wait. Wait. Wait in hope. Be steadfast and patient Pray to God unceasingly. Trust that salvation, the deep healing you crave for yourself and your world, will arrive. All is well, or will be very soon. This is bedrock Jewish and Christian dogma. It has brought courage, patience, and comfort to readers of the Bible literally for thousands of years.
Now, an experienced preacher would at this point turn to hope, a central Biblical virtue and practice, even commandment. But, I can’t. If I were to talk about my unease about “hope” we’d be here for hours!
I offer instead a strong and beautiful line from Psalm 27:14. “Wait on the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for the Lord.” The word “wait” is the common English translation of the Hebrew word Qavah, which, I have learned, means “to wait, look for, hope, or expect.” I am struck by its orientation to the future, to solution, to ask for and then wait for rescue. And so, the instruction is to pray unceasingly and call out to God, over and over, until God delivers what God has promised.
This is where the two great traditions go their separate ways. For the Buddhists are not theists, and do not claim there is a great and powerful Being, God, in charge of all such human affairs. Where the Psalmist urges folks to focus on the not-yet, the future, the Buddhists say, “No, no, Be here now! Be present to the only time that is real: the Present. There is no Being, no God, who can rescue the petitioner. The Himalayan Buddhists would counsel being fully present, to surrender to what is, to become acutely aware of the layers of illusion the mind is so quick to create and decorate. Breathe. Be present with what is. You may experience it as waiting, but hoping is trickier, and begging for rescue is futile..
Surrender is the Teaching. Stay in the present. Be here now is the fierce refrain. The Bardo is the perfect place to become acquainted with old fears, which have likely shaped your life. Welcome each fear with deep kindness and then, as best you can, release it. This brings healing, ease and wonderful new freedom. You are letting go of false assumptions and beliefs, and useless attempts to shape reality to your own wishes. Truly, none of that works!
How are we to learn such courage in the face of suffering and death? Ah, good question: for now we come full circle. Practice the great virtues, which every community and spiritual tradition, theist and non-theist, treasures and teaches: kindness, compassion to yourself and then others, generosity, again, forgiveness to yourself and then others, and a deep awareness of the fundamental mystery of our lives, of awe before the fact that there even is a universe, a world, a person such as you, pondering such questions. Welcome to the great Bardo! I’m so grateful we are all in this together!