Buddha's Enlightenment Day Speech 2014

Bang! (Hits table with the Zen stick.) This sound cuts off all thought of enlightenment and its attainment. The Heart Sutra says there is no attainment, with nothing to attain.


This sound reveals the truth of enlightenment, which Chinul said is nothing but your own mind.


This sound points the way to the function of enlightenment. Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when you hear the sounds of the world, then helping is not only possible, but also necessary.

But what is the function of enlightenment?


Thank you for coming to today’s Enlightenment Day Ceremony.

Terry Cronin PSN earlier described Buddha’s experience leading up to his enlightenment. After he attained, according to the traditional story, the Buddha stayed close to the bodhi tree for a seven-week period, continuing his meditation, deepening his experience, and stabilizing it. He entered various blissful states. One of the stories describes how he practiced inside a jeweled castle. He was also tempted, again. Don’t think that because someone gets enlightenment that they won’t be tempted.

In the sixth week, it began to rain very heavily and, according to the story, a giant king cobra came out from the rocks, raised up behind the Buddha, spread its hood, and sheltered the Buddha from the rain. When the rain stops, the snake transformed into a human being and it was to this human being that the Buddha gave his very first teaching.

It’s a very interesting teaching because in it the Buddha describes the factors that lead to happiness. He said, contentment is a great happiness; letting go of attachments is a great happiness; and having good will toward all sentient beings is a great happiness.

And then he said something very important: the greatest happiness is the disappearance of “I am.” This is a central part of our teaching tradition.

Over 1,000 years later, a monk named Hae Chung came to Zen Master Matsu and asked Great Master Ma, “What is the essential point of Buddhism?” Master Ma said, “Simply let go of your self and your life.”

Let go of your self and your life. When we do that, we become one with everything – no separation. You’ve surely heard this many times before. But often our thinking traps us, along with our attachments to anger, desire, and ignorance, and this creates separation.

Attachments create me and you, us and them, right and wrong, and black and white.

I could continue talking in this vein. Most of us know many wonderful stories from the history of Buddhism, things that happened 1,000 or 2,000 years ago. But today I want to talk about something that, frankly, makes me uncomfortable and may make you uncomfortable. I don’t pretend to see this clearly but it’s urgent that we have some kind of discussion about this:  racism in America, the creation of black and white.

Like many of you, I’ve experienced incredible pain over the last few weeks on learning of the violence perpetrated on unarmed black people by armed white police officers. It has at times felt unbearable and, when it feels unbearable, I have observed my mind begin to scramble in an effort to turn away from the pain.

I scramble in a couple of different ways. One way is to come close to putting up angry postings or what I believe might be “helpful” articles on Facebook. I have also felt the urge to go into the streets. Last night at Cambridge Zen Center, during evening practice, there were helicopters circling overhead. It turned out that over 1,000 students from Tufts and other universities in the area had shut down Massachusetts Avenue, the main street running through Cambridge and I wanted to go out and join them as a way of giving voice to my own anger and pain.

I’ve also found responding to the recent grand jury findings in Ferguson and Staten Island by getting wrapped up in details of law and procedure, and grand juries and prosecutors. It’s another way I’ve sought to avoid staying put with the pain.

Pain is an interesting experience, particularly when we feel it in the heart. It tells us that something is wrong and needs our attention.

When you touch a hot stove – Owwww! And then, almost immediately, something else appears: That was stupid! Why did you do that? Weren’t you paying attention? All this is suffering. It’s extra, something that we make and add on top of the pain.

So with these recent events, I’ve tried to stay with the pain itself and perceive it clearly. This is especially important when it comes to racism because we make it.

One of the things I’ve tried to do in recent days is understand just how deeply racism is embedded in our culture. There’s no way to quantify it but one author described racism as congenital – “in the bone” of our culture.

I saw a statistic recently that helped clarify the profound extent of this congenital racism. In the last 24 months, the entire police force of England and Wales fired – in aggregate – exactly 4 bullets. That’s two fewer bullets than were fired into Michael Brown in Ferguson. Yesterday, two bullets were fired by a white officer into an unarmed black man who was bringing dinner home to his family in Phoenix.

I believe it’s important that we see the truth of what we are actually doing as a culture. It’s also important that we see the truth of how we are and what we are doing as individuals.

I have found this very hard to see. I was on a subway platform about three weeks ago, before the recent grand jury findings, waiting for a train. When the train arrived it was packed full and there were a lot of us on the platform, bunched together and jockeying to get onto the train. I was following the person in front of me, doing my best to get onto the crowded car.

I wasn’t paying much attention to anything but my own desire when I heard a voice behind me say, “That’s alright. You go first. You’re white.”

I turned around and there was a young black man. He was smiling but he was serious. So I stepped aside and said, “I’m so sorry if I cut in front of you. Please you go ahead.” And he said, “No, you go first. You deserve it. You’re white.” Then I stepped even further aside and said, “No, please – you go ahead.”

Then the train doors closed, leaving us both on the platform.

So he went a few steps one way on the platform and I went a few steps the other way. Frankly, I regret my cowardice in not going over and talking with him. As I stood on the platform, I asked myself: Did I cut in front of this man? Was I acting out of privilege? Was I so wrapped up in my own desire that I lost sight of my behavior?

The truth is, I don’t know. I couldn’t see clearly my own behavior. Now, perhaps this man was just hassling me for no reason; perhaps he was passive-aggressive. I can’t know that either. But I do know that a bodhisattva appeared on the platform and tried to bring me into reality.

This is important, because I could not see what I had done. It was a valuable moment because I realized in that moment that delusion cannot see delusion; ignorance cannot see ignorance.

I don’t believe that any of us are maliciously racist. But we can be oblivious to our racism and the effects of our actions on others. And I know that I was oblivious in that moment, blinded by my desire to get on the train.

This incident also taught me another important lesson. The work of undoing something that is congenital, that is embedded in the bone, like racism, cannot be done alone. We need other people to do this work with us. That was the gift of this man to me.

So I want to ask each of you to sit down with your families and friends and initiate a discussion of racism. Ask yourselves what you are doing, not what you can do. What you can do will come later and will naturally arise from clarity about what you are doing.

Bring the discussion to your sangha and have a discussion about what the sangha actually does to reinforce racism. Look around this room. How many people of color are in this room? Not so many. Not so many.

Bring the discussion to people in your workplace and pay attention to how it is for you when you’re on the street, or in a grocery store, or a restaurant. Pay attention.

I also want to ask the Kwan Um School of Zen to undertake a program to look at how we’re participating in a racist culture. I’m not an expert in this area but I know that resources are available and that other Buddhist communities have done this work.

There are ways that we can work together to examine how our own minds function to exclude people and create separation in this world. This is incredibly important work because all of us have taken on the responsibility of helping this world and we cannot do that from a position of separation.

As Zen Master Soeng Hyang said last August, we practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen to become bodhisattvas. A bodhisattva embraces the entire world, without difference and distinction. So as a School, we can take on this work. It will take time, actually it will take a lifetime; but it’s very important so I hope we will all do it.

Thank you very much.