Annual Burning Bowl Service

Don Benson lead the annual Burning Bowl service, a ritual to bid farewell to the old year, and welcome the new –  reflecting on and releasing the areas of our lives that no longer serve our highest good. Don’s introduction to the ceremony follows:

It seems fitting to do our burning bowl ceremony in the dead of winter. This may be as important as that we do it at the beginning of the year. What would it be like to do it in July? There is something about needing the warmth, I suppose. By burning away “old baggage”, we create necessary warmth.

I’ve been reading the “Tao Te Ching” lately, the philosophy of Taoism attributed to Lao Tzu. This is the ancient philosopy that gave us “the yin and the yang”, the symbol adorning our wall of world religions. It’s sort of the harmony of opposites, reaching the beautiful acceptance of all that is.

Here are some verses in the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Jonathan Star.

“Tao is empty, yet it fills every vessel with endless supply. Tao is hidden, yet it shines in every corner of the universe.”   Verse 4

“Everyone recognizes beauty only because of ugliness. Everyone recognizes virtue only because of sin. Life and death are born together, difficult and easy, long and short, high and low- All these exist together. Sound and silence blend as one. Before and after arive as one”. Verse 2

How often do we feel the heat of the flame as we burn away hurts and burdens of the new year? Our pain and suffering bring us a type of comfort in this simple ritual.

We can consider the wisdom of the Tao when thinking about the tragedy of the fire in Paradise, California a few months ago. This philosophy is certainly not for the faint of heart. To be able to approach such devastating loss with equanimity tests the deepest parts of ourselves. Nevertheless, time and again, when enduring tragedy, we repeatedly hear the testimonies of people who do just that. It is not a rationalization to sidestep their suffering. Rather, a quiet strength ofen emanates from their words and phases. The suffering, the anguish, is just as apparent, but it seems to infuse them with a strength and resilience, not drain it away. How can people withstand such agony? It seems they tap this powerful wisdom in their most vulnerable moments. Not just Paradise, California, but the Temple shootings in Pittsburgh and the Sandy Hook school shootings, as well as a myriad of others.

This burning bowl ceremony is such a testament to the human spirit. In spite of all our imperfections, our insecurities, and the way these can bring pain to ourselves and others, our essential nature is fundamentally good. This is what we believe as Unitarians. This is not a naive goodness, but a complicated goodness. We are not without redemption and the burning bowl is a ceremony of redemption. It honors the nature of humanity.

We were talking about traditions last month. The burning bowl ceremony is not just a ritual, but has certainly become a tradition for us, as well as for other Unitarian churches and other types of groups as well. Those of you who have attended several of these over the years, think about what you’ve written down and then dropped in the bowl to burn. Have you ever done the same one more than once? Some of our struggles stick to us like glue and do not seem to want to let go of us. Even fire can’t always stop this from happening.

Perhaps, like the yin and the yang, we have a hard time letting go of something once and for all. Before you write on your paper today, ask yourself if there is hidden value to your burden. Do you want to burn it? Do you want to let it go and let it come back to you, knowing that in some way you may gain something from this suffering? And if you do want to let it go once and for all, can you give yourself permission in this moment to truly face life without it?

These questions help us be more mindful during this ritual. They can help us reflect deeply on what we are really burning up, the role such a burden has really played in our life. What are the pleasant experiences it might be connected to? The yin and the yang.

When I hear indviduals tell me how miserable their marriage was, and how much relief it would have been to have avoided such an experience, they often pause and say, “but I wouldn’t have my children, and I can’t imagine life without them”. It is an unresolvable dilemma. Instead of living “either-or”, the Tao seems to say we live “both-and”. If we can truly learn to embrace this wisdom in the deepest places of ourselves, not just a rational process, then we have found salvation.

The people in Paradise, California (aptly named) appear to have known the risks of living their lives in a high risk area for fire. Judgments abound toward individuals in phrases such as, “What was he or she thinking?” “He or she must have been asking for it.” “They got what they deserved.” Is this really the answer to our lives? Trying to live in a way that cheats tragedy of its due. This appears to only lead to foregoing a full life experience for the sake of the illusion of safety. And, indeed, safety is an illusion, because in some way, whatever that is, tragedy will have its due with all of us. Jack London’s protagonist in “To Build a Fire”, despite his foolhardy arrogance to conquor nature, reaches a state of peaceful acceptance in the end. He faces tragedy with dignity.   The yin and the yang.

This is not a call to abandon common sense. But it is a call to live life with a degree of risk. It is there anyway, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. (Because, when you think about it, the riskiest action in life is to be born. ) Your risk might be a new job opportunity or it might be hang-gliding. The beauty of this is that you decide what are the meaningful risks in your life.

So now it is time to have our burning bowl ceremony. Enter into this experience with a deep and mindful presence.