A Pure Mind for the Holiday Season

December 2, 2007




© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine

University Congregational Church

December 2, 2007

Reading: “Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle” by Chan Master Hongren

“When there are clouds and fog everywhere, the world is dark, but that does not mean the sun has decomposed. Why is there no light? The light is never destroyed; it is just enshrouded by clouds and fog. The pure mind of all living beings is like this, merely covered up by the dark clouds of obsession with objects, arbitrary thoughts, psychological afflictions, and views and opinions.”[1]

“The Great Purpose of Christianity” by William Ellery Channing

“I began with asking, ‘What is the main design and glory of Christianity,’ and I repeat the answer, that its design is to give, not a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind. In this its glory chiefly consists. In other words, the influence which it is intended to exert on the human mind, cleansing it from evil, breathing into it the love of virtue, calling forth its noblest faculties and affections, enduing it with more power, restoring it to order, health, and liberty. Such was his great aim.”[2]

Now you might be thinking, “What?” Reading from a Chan Master and a Unitarian on the first Sunday in Advent might seem a little strange to you. But I think these two authors might actually put us in a frame of mind that could make Advent and the Christian season more authentic to our experience.

Let me begin with a news story that is a few years old. On the day after Thanksgiving Wal-Mart shoppers gathered early for the 6:00 A.M. Christmas sale. The hot item on every shopper’s mind was the $29.00 DVD player. In Orange City, Florida, the opening siren sounded and shoppers crushed through the door to grab up the DVDs and other bargains. Knocked to the floor was 41 year old Patricia Van Lester. Bargain hunters were undeterred by the obstacle of her body and unfazed by the fact that she had gone into seizure. When paramedics arrived she was unconscious. You will be pleased to know that after a day or so in the hospital she went home. And you will also be pleased to know that under her unconscious body the $29.00 DVD player was found.

Follow-up stories reported that Ms. Van Lester has frequently fallen victim to various mishaps in Wal-Mart stores. Indeed, she has filed numerous claims against them and other stores, collecting thousands of dollars in injury claims.

Now my first thought when I read such stories or watch film clips of similar madness is, “Have these people lost their minds?” Is this what the Thanksgiving weekend and the Christmas season have come to mean to most Americans? The answer to the first question is, “Probably not,” at least in the sense that we still have minds. The issue for us is more rightly focused on how we use our minds, or mindfulness, or mindful consumption.

The Chan Master, Hongren, suggests that the mind is like the sun. On a cloudy and stormy day all is gray and dark. That does not mean that the sun has been destroyed. It simply means the bright round orb of fire is glowing as strong as ever; but the clouds have gotten between the sun and us. Hongren states that the clouds of the mind are obsession with objects, arbitrary thoughts, psychological afflictions, views, and opinions. The pure mind is covered up with our obsession with material things, whether it is Calvin Kline jeans or the bodies that go in them. Our minds race from one idea or image to another and it is a wonder that we are not all diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. In Buddhist meditative practice this is called, “monkey mind.” Of course, we would prefer to call it multitasking. Our minds are blotted with psychological afflictions. I do not think Hongren meant something as severe as psychosis. He seems to have more common maladies in mind such as jealousy, anger, fear, or melancholy. He is not thinking about mental illness as mental distortion – that self-pitying or self-aggrandizing little slant that we give to everything we do and every person we meet. We all have an editor in our heads who has an opinion on everything. Often that little voice metes out moral judgment on every person or group we know of. We certainly know how everybody else should manage their business, their marriages, and their children. We are all constructing schemes and strategies that would help the church administrator do her job better; the mayor govern the city more effectively, and how to improve public education. And how many of these lectures and conversations babble through our brains long after we have left the subject of our concern or hung up the telephone. These are the mental clouds that blot out the light of our true mind.

Another metaphor is that of a mirror with layers of dust settled so thickly on the glass there can be no reflection. I lose the true reflection in the mirror because of the dust of materialism. For example, I can tell you right now that I would be a happier man if I could get a 40 horsepower utility tractor that would till the pasture, brush hog the fields, and pull heavy loads. I think about that a lot. I lose the true reflection in the mirror because of the smoke of capricious ideas that bounce through my mind on a continual basis. You know the usual roster – what’s for dinner, I had better pick up the dry cleaning, did junior do his chores, did sissy finish her homework, is it my turn to drive to dance practice, when is that project do, and why do I have to do this work – isn’t that why we hired so-and-so?

My mental conflicts are often found in the tension of managing personal time with professional time, congregational needs with family needs, and wondering how do you herd Congregational cats – all 600 of you!

The true mirror of my self is soiled with a thick coat of opinions and points of view. I have ideas on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the war on the poor, immigration, the decriminalization of drugs, the legalization and regulation of prostitution, the value of wild caught Atlantic salmon, and the difference between silver plated nibs and gold plated nibs on fountain pens.

The problem with so much dust and dirt on the mirror is that we cannot see our true self or the authentic self of others. We think that our possessions and obsessions, our thoughts and ideas, our feelings and opinions are who we really are. If you took every self-reference out of this sermon and every sermon I have ever written, or newspaper editorial, and church newsletter column you still would not know who I really am. Yet we persist in defining ourselves by our possessions and obsessions, thoughts and ideas, feelings and opinions. We attach to them ultimate values and timeless verities that are not warranted.

Our minds are not lost. They are often cocooned in dust and cloud. And when we let the dust and clouds define us we are typically enslaved to possessiveness and egotism. We are the bondsmen of things and ideas. We are shackled by what we own or wished we owned. We are handcuffed to egotism and how we wished other people thought of us. Such mindless desperation sends people to shopping malls at five in the morning to trample on their neighbors without regard to health or safety to buy an electric gizmo with a shelf life of eighteen months. When Christmas shopping becomes a mission from God there is something fundamentally distorted in our minds.

Now we might ask Chan Master Hongren, “What is the true mind? What is the pure mind?” In typical Buddhist fashion Hongren teaches us that true mind simply sees things as they are. The better we are able to see reality for what it is – without our opinions and feelings – the closer we will come to pure mind. Hongren is not saying that we will not have thoughts and feelings. The challenge is to hold those in abeyance so that we can see life for what life is. The discipline is to observe nature and all of nature’s relationships for what they are. Before we can jump to conclusions we had better see what is really going on before our eyes. In Buddhist thought this is called the “suchness” of things or the “thusness” of things. Our possessions, obsessions, thoughts, feelings, views, and opinions will condition what we see. They will filter what is being observed, distorting the observation like clouds or smoke. The enlightened mind has shed the filters and frees the mind of its conditions.

Have you ever driven down a highway and seen an object in the road. You are certain that it is a cat, or a snake, or a hawk, or even a dead body. But when you get close to the object you realize that it is nothing more than a piece of cardboard or a twisted piece of tire. Why does that happen? It happens because we rely on impressions and memories of previous sightings rather than careful observations. We often travel down the highway of life mislabeling and misidentifying people because we have really not seen them. We see only our memories or fears. I remember as a child looking out of my bedroom window on a moonlit night. Spanish moss hung down from the branches of trees in our yard. The moss moved and twisted in the Gulf breeze. After a while the moss took on the shapes of pirates and monsters and I was scared witless. My father would crawl into my bed and tell me to look again and see the moss.

Hongren invites us to recover the true vision of life. He invites us to dust off the mirror and blow away the clouds. He calls us to a discipline that restores the pure mind. Let me give you another very hard example. And I am going to use a word very nice in the pulpit, but is a word that I grew up with, as did many of you.

When I was a little boy I was very small. My grandfather had named me “Pee-wee.” And when I was about three years old we went to see an uncle of mine who was dying of cancer in the hospital. Someone had given me a new toy rifle that I took with me to Uncle Bob’s room. At some point in the conversation my uncle asked me, “Say, Pee-wee, what are you gonna do with that gun?”

My spunky answer was, “I’m going to shoot me a nigger, Uncle Bob.”

All of the adults laughed. I have only a very hazy memory of that story, but it was one that was often told of me growing up.

I apologize for the use of that word. The real tragedy of this story is more than the racism that shaped a little boy. The story is also tragic because it illustrates how the pure mind is lost, how a layer of dust was blown across the mirror of my mind. I was taught a prejudice that did not come from a pure mind. It was imposed on it. I was not allowed or taught to observe people of color, to see them for whom they really are, or witness their lives on their own terms.

Our obsessions, arbitrary thoughts, psychological afflictions, view, opinions, and prejudices become habituated. We relate to life with canned responses that are socially and culturally molded, as they we molded onto me, a child of the South. We are not taught to see but to play back automated responses that dehumanize other people. Hongren understood that with such clouds covering our true minds we fall out of relationship with other beings. We sit in smoke filled rooms and make judgments upon them. We then wonder how it is that we are so disconnected, isolated, lonely, and fearful.

The pure mind or the true mind is the practice of seeing things as they are. It is that simple. The pure mind sees the lion that is so noble and eats its young. The pure mind sees the real nature of relationships. The pure mind sees the interdependence of all living beings. With an open eye and a pure mind we see people for who they are. Only with such vision are we ready for an honest relationship with them. The pure mind meets the world on its own terms, creating the possibility for community.

What has any of this got to do with Advent and Christmas? May I suggest that this season of preparation for the birth of Jesus is a season for seeing the world with a pure mind? That means that we will push from our vision the glossy Christmas ads, the tinsel, the bright lights, and sentimental sounds of sleigh bells. We will not let the glitter or sprayed on window snow pile up like dust on our minds.

We will see the planet that staggers to survive the burden of pollution. We will see the human depravity that sells children into the sex slave industry. We will see the anger and hatred that drives extremists to violence. We will see the loneliness of gay and lesbian teenagers that drive so many of them to suicide. We will see our own constant struggle with the imperialism of materialism in our own lives.

We can also see, if our eyes are open and our minds are pure, the fact that grace must have hands, peace must have a voice, and goodwill must have legs. As I have grown older I have come to understand that if God’s love means anything it must become incarnate. If the gospel of Jesus Christ means anything to us in the 21st century it will be in the flesh of human communities. If the gospel is meant to free the human mind from evil, breathing into it a love of virtue, and enduing it with power, health, and liberty it must be a gospel that is practiced among us. The gospel fails if it is only an idea to be debated or a myth to be debunked. If the gospel is only a “philosophy of life” it becomes an object of criticism, becoming marginalized and minimalized. The gospel means little to us if it is only a romancing of ancient Middle Eastern birth stories. Women and men in whose hearts forgiveness and mercy are palpable will express the gospel’s power. Our children will learn virtue as they experience it in their homes and schools and churches. We will have healthy hearts and minds as they engage them.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote this truth with elegant simplicity:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through with to look at Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”

So keep your eyes open this season this season of Advent. Dust off your minds. By the way, if you shop at Wal-Mart over the next few weeks look for specials on swaddling clothes. We are going to need them so that we can fold God’s grace into our own hearts.


[1] Chan Master Hongren, “Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle,” Classics in Buddhism and Zen, translated by Thomas Cleary (Boston: Shambhala, 2001), Vol. 1, p. 399.

[2] William Ellery Channing, “The Great Purpose of Christianity,” The Works of William E. Channing, (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1886), p. 247.