There was a neighborhood I remember hearing about where there was this one Jewish family in this very predominantly non-Jewish neighborhood that lit their menorah candles in the window at night. One night, someone who was anti-Semitic through a rock into their window. It was very clear that it was because they had the menorah in the window.
What was interesting about this story is that the next several nights, all these non-Jewish households started having menorahs in their windows also until the entire neighborhood, even though they were not Jewish, had lit menorahs in all of their windows in solidarity with this Jewish family. I think that is a beautiful story.
And so, what is the story of Hanukkah, and how does it relate to what we are going to talk about tonight? Well, as the story goes, Assyrian Greeks had taken over Jerusalem and the temple and had basically made it unfit for Jewish ritual use. But when the Jewish people were finally able to take back the temple, they found that there was just enough olive oil to last for one day for the sacred menorah in the temple, and yet miraculously, it is said that this oil lasted for 8 days—longer than it was expected and also giving them enough time to make a new batch of olive oil for the sacred lights so that it could be ongoing.
I like this story because it reminds me that we have miraculous resources within us that we may not realize that we have. We may think that we only have enough wisdom or strength or energy for just a little bit, or we feel like we only have just enough, and yet, many times through our spiritual practice, we may find that we have so much more courage or wisdom or strength than we realized.
I remember as a child I would watch TV and one of my favorite shows was the Incredible Hulk. I just love seeing that guy turn into the green muscle guy. It was really cool. It's actually based on some true stories, not about people turning into green beings, but there are actual stories of people in crisis situations—maybe their loved one is suddenly in a car crash, and their loved one is pinned under the car, and the car is about to explode or something. There are some stories of people in that moment just with all their might and power—they don't know where it comes from, but they are able to lift the car enough to get the person out from under the car. There are actual stories about these things.
I think this also points to the same reality that we do have so much more resources within us than we realize, but I guess the real question is how do we tap into those resources, and how do we replenish those resources within us?
In Buddhism, this resource, it has many different ways of talking about it, but one way is to talk about it as merit. When we practice kindness, when we practice generosity, when we practice meditation, when we practice anything that is spiritually of value, it creates an energy that in Buddhism we call merit. I'm sure every tradition calls it something. Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition.
So, as we practice these things that replenish our spiritual resources, we keep replenishing them, and then it overflows, but many times we do not realize that there is this oasis within us, and we do not know how to tap into or replenish it, and so many times we are not able to really access this.
Now what is interesting in Buddhism is not because there is not a discriminatory separation of all beings, it is not cut and dry that you are a completely separate being from this being that is completely separate from this being. It is not like that. Yes, there is individuality, but there is also a oneness within the individuality, and so in Buddhism it is said that because enlightened beings no longer need to create merit for themselves anymore because they are already fully enlightened, everything they do just spills over to all beings.
This idea then means that as we practice, not only do we practice for ourselves, but we practice for others. And not only that, but others are practicing for us as well. So even if you feel like you have not really created enough merit for yourself, yet in certain moments have you not noticed that there is this extra grace that manifests in your life, and it does not even seem like anything that you have done. Yet it is there.
That is because you are not alone. We are all interconnected, and others can share their merit with you, and they do. All the enlightened ones of the universe are constantly sharing their merit with all beings, and we are also sharing our merit with others, even though we may not be conscious of it.
This idea of sharing merit is called many things in Buddhism. One word is seva. Seva means service, and one of the traditions in Buddhism that very much emphasizes this ideal of service is the bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva is a being like you and me who simply makes a true vow, a true and solid, firm vow in their heart to become enlightened and along the way to help all beings.
So the attitude of a bodhisattva is not to become liberated into bliss alone, but rather the bodhisattva's motivation is full enlightenment that embraces all beings.
So there is an aspect of our lives that is always about service, whether we are conscious of it or not. Now, I promised to talk about karma, and so I am going to talk about karma now, but I am going to get back to the idea of seva in just a few minutes.
The last few weeks, a lot of people have been coming to me asking me the same question of karma, which I thought was interesting, so I thought maybe I would address it just briefly tonight. Karma means action, and in general, we use it to mean not just action but also the consequences of action, the fruits of action. And in some translations, it is sometimes translated as reward and retribution.
So it may feel when we first hear the teaching of karma, oh, so everything that I am experiencing right in this moment is only because of things that I did in the past in this life and maybe even many other lives before this. And so sometimes, there is this feeling of helplessness. Well, I don't know what I did in past lives, but here it is. I can't change it because this is my retribution or my reward, and I just am experiencing the consequences of whatever actions I did in this life or past lives.
So the feeling can sometimes be very, very heavy, because you do not even remember what you did in past lives, and yet here you are having to experience the retribution of those actions. It does not seem very logical or fair, and many times it can feel very guilt ridden, oppressive, and hopeless.
Or, sometimes we also can turn it against others and just say, "Well, you are just experiencing the fruit of your karma." And this has happened actually throughout history in certain cultures where they do believe in this sort of idea. So if someone is born in a particular caste or financial situation or whatever, a physical condition, they deserve it. That is sort of the idea.
The problem with this kind of understanding of karma is that it is only part of the picture. I do firmly believe that in this physical universe anyway the law of karma is very alive and well, impartial, nondiscriminatory, and it just works, like a law of physics. There is nothing personal about it. It is just like this, because that is like that. There are always causes and consequences.
So, is that all there is? The good news is, no. It is not just all about heart. You see, I'm not going to really try to explain anything about reincarnation or anything like that. It is kind of like ants trying to understand what a human is thinking. It is kind of crazy to start to put it into too many words, but there are states of consciousness in the universe that are so far beyond the human state of consciousness, and we are trying to put all of that into words? It can be somewhat futile.
So the important thing is, what can we take from the teaching that is practical when applicable to helping us live a life of wisdom and compassion and spiritual energy, creating positive merit, mitzvah? That is what really matters—practical spirituality, not theoretical spirituality. Our lives are a manifestation of the law of karma, and we are living out the consequences of actions.
And, we are also living out the law of dharma. In other words, we are living out our mission to be here to learn certain lessons. So if you're going through a difficulty, it may be just the consequence of certain actions in your life, but it can also be that is just the perfect opportunity, the perfect kind of situation you need to learn certain lessons of truth in your life that you at want to learn.
You came into this life to learn, so maybe you were born into a particular situation, and part of it might be karmic, but you do not know for sure. It might just be that's what you needed to experience, to learn certain lessons unforgiveness or how to overcome anger or how to come through strong, even though there are obstacles—all kinds of lessons that we are all learning.
So, be of good cheer, not just about karma. It might just be what you need to learn, what you want to learn at some deep level. And, that is not the end of the story either. Going back to my teaching on seva, on service, on the bodhicitta ideal of the bodhisattva— bodhicitta meaning the enlightened attitude of the heart, of the mind, this attitude of the bodhisattva, which is fully enlightened for all beings.
We are also here simply to be of service. So do not think that if you're in a very tough, difficult situation in your life right now that it is only because it is a punishment karmically. Because it is probably not really that. It could be more about your dharma, this kind of lessons you need to learn, and these are just the perfect circumstances for you to learn them.
It is kind of like baking a cake. You mix all of the ingredients together, and then you have to put it in the oven. The oven is not always feel good to the batter, but that is the only way the batter is going to turn into a cake and can be actually useful and nourishing to others. So you have certain dharma lessons, but also you are here to be of service to others.
There are certain beings who are on the earth today where karma is the predominant law at work in their lives, so they're living out the law of reward and retribution primarily. Probably most of you in this room, it is more about your dharma, about the lessons you are learning. So, instead of whining, complaining, or feeling guilty, you do not need to do that. It is just accept what is the lesson here, and the sooner you learn it, then you can change lessons. You can have other lessons instead.
It is best just to learn the lesson. Find the truth, find the wisdom in each situation, even in your difficulties. And there are those beings also on the earth today where they have already finished with karma. They do not need that law working in their lives anymore, and they are also finished with their dharma lessons, and the only reason why they are here on the planet is only for you and for me—only for others.
They are the true bodhisattvas and Buddhas of the earth. They are only here in physical form just for you, just to be of service, and some of them may even be born into very horrific places, places of war, places of famine, places of violence, of all kinds of very, very hard circumstances, not because of reward or retribution, and not even because of their lesson that they needed to learn. They've already learned them all. It's just because they want to be a light in the darkness.
So, the truth is that all of us have all 3 of those realities at work in our lives. We are working on some karma. We are learning some dharma lessons, and we are here simply because we want to be a light in this world. At certain parts of your life, and certain stages of your life, you might notice it is more about your karma or it is more about your dharma or it is more about seva. But it is all okay, and you can't figure it all out, so do not try to figure it all out.
Just live it out. Live it out. Create the merit of positive energy, purify your karma, and keep practicing the truth of your dharma, and let your light shine. Share your mitzvah. Share your seva. Be the bodhisattva that you are in this world.
I was telling a friend today on texting that as the leaves fall from the trees, they become compost, which then becomes fertilizer, which then nourishes the new flowers of your garden in the circle of life. So, do not hate your compost. Just know that it is all part of one whole.
So, live a life where your merit increases and increases so that you always how about spiritual resource within you, even in an unexpected crisis, not just for yourself, but also for others. Because ultimately, we create all this wonderful merit so that when we are fully enlightened, we have an abundant, overflowing supply to offer everyone else.
In conclusion, I was at a very intensive Zen meditation retreat. It was a 7-day retreat, with two 30-minute meditations before breakfast, two 30-minute meditations before lunch, two 30-minute meditations after lunch, and maybe another one before dinner, and then two 30-minute meditations after dinner. It was a lot.
But I remember feeling excruciating pain in my knees because when you sit in that position that many times after a day or two, there is a lot of pain for some people. So I was just sitting with, and it was getting to be so intense at one point that I did not know how I could possibly stand it anymore. But I remembered a practice that I have done before that helps a lot.
There are 2 practices. One is to stop thinking about the future, like how many more minutes as this? How many more meditations are there today? How many days are left in this retreat? If you do that, it increases the pain. I guarantee you. But if you just come back to just this moment's pain, that is enough, because you do not want to add on more mental pain. It is just an in this moment experience, and don't even label pain—it's just this interesting, intense sensation in the knees. Just be with that.
What helps me even more was I said this to myself: "May my acceptance of this temporary pain bring long-lasting benefit to others, bring relief to others, bring help to others, bring blessing to others." And just others was not enough. I had to be specific, because the pain was so intense. So, to my mother, to my father, to my brothers, to their wives, to my niece, to my nephew, to the sangha, to everyone who comes to the Dallas Meditation Center.
And then I had to think about the individuals that came to mind--to Vanessa, to Bobbie, to Cornell. And then as I did that, I was able to just accept and relax and know that I am simply practicing to create more merit for others. Because as it was just for myself, I probably would not do it, but because I'm also practicing for others, then, okay, I can do this because I love you and I know that we are all loved by innumerable enlightened ones--Jewish Buddhas, Christian Buddhas, Hindu Buddhas, Buddhist Buddhas, Native American Buddhas, Sikh Buddhas, Unitarian Universalist Buddhas, etc.
So, let your light shine, just like those menorahs in all those windows in all those households in that wonderful neighborhood of love. Let your light shine into every single household in every nation. Shalom.