Sunday, December 10, 2017: Extreme Practices

Prelude: Avanti – Corvus Corax

Welcome: To learn more about being human – Erika A. Hewitt

Welcome to this morning, this day, and this opportunity to be together in community — which is a time of joy, comfort, and sometimes challenges. This Unitarian Universalist congregation is a place where we come to learn more about being human. We’re not here because we’ve figured out life’s questions, or because we think we’ve got it right, or even because we think we know what the questions are.

We come here to learn more about being in relationship together: how to listen, how to forgive, how to be vulnerable, and how to create trust and compassion in one another.

Let us move into worship, willing to be authentic with each other, honest within ourselves, and open to connection in all its forms.

Come, let us worship together.

Chalice lighting: Blessed is the fire that burns deep in the soul – Eric A Heller-Wagner

Blessed is the fire that burns deep in the soul. It is the flame of the human spirit touched into being by the mystery of life. It is the fire of reason; the fire of compassion; the fire of community; the fire of justice; the fire of faith. It is the fire of love burning deep in the human heart; the divine glow in every life.

Song: Gathered Here (3 times)
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing Gathered Here, three times.

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Video: from: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Story: Getting Rid of the Rabbits – Lin Jensen
From: Deep Down Things: The Earth in Celebration and Dismay

Offering and Response
Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
– Anonymous

We will now collect this morning’s offerings.

Offertory: Inimicitias ponam

Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: from: Nature – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Lesson: Extreme Practices
Robert Helfer

Over centuries, people have created many practices intended to help them develop and maintain connections to the spiritual, to God, or the gods, however that might be defined; to purge themselves of their faults, and to purify their souls.

Some of these practices are, perhaps, too easy – anyone can do them without a lot of commitment. To some degree they amount to the spiritual equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m not criticizing anyone here. My own attempts at regular practice over the years fit that description quite well.

Many other practices are more difficult. They require a certain regularity, discipline, maybe special training, and especially mindfulness.

And some practices just seem unnecessarily extreme.

A couple of years ago I came across a rather odd announcement. Researchers in the Netherlands had discovered that a human-sized statue of the Buddha, said to be nearly 1,000 year old, contained the mummified body of a person. The body was sitting in the lotus position, exactly the same pose as the statue, as if the statue had been formed around the body.

Researchers concluded that the body was that of a Chinese monk named Liuquan, who had lived around the year 1100, and who apparently had actually mummified himself. I’ll repeat this, just in case I spoke too quickly and you missed it: he mummified himself.

Now to me this sounds extraordinary and highly unlikely. But self-mummification, while not common, was not unheard of in Japan and China, even though the whole notion seems a bit far-fetched.

I looked around for more information and found a number of articles about this practice available on the Internet. I’m just going to quote a section of one of them here, in which April Holloway describes the procedure from the point the monk decided to follow it.

For the first 1,000 days, the monks ceased all food except nuts, seeds, fruits and berries and they engaged in extensive physical activity to strip themselves of all body fat. For the next one thousand days, their diet was restricted to just bark and roots. Near the end of this period, they would drink poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which caused vomiting and a rapid loss of body fluids. It also acted as a preservative and killed off maggots and bacteria that would cause the body to decay after death.

In the final stage, after more than six years of torturous preparation, the monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would go into a state of meditation. He was seated in the lotus position, a position he would not move from until he died. A small air tube provided oxygen to the tomb. Each day, the monk rang a bell to let the outside world know he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed for the final thousand day period of the ritual.

At the end of this period, the tomb would be opened to see if the monk was successful in mummifying himself. If the body was found in a preserved state, the monk was raised to the status of Buddha, his body was removed from the tomb and he was placed in a temple where he was worshiped and revered. If the body had decomposed, the monk was resealed in his tomb and respected for his endurance, but not worshiped.

(From “The mummified monk inside a Buddha statue” by April Holloway in Ancient Origins

Yeah, that’s a pretty extreme practice.

Well, apparently Liuquan did successfully mummify himself, and his body was probably displayed in a temple for some period of time before being encased in the statue.

This all sounds incredibly grizzly. In fact, the practice was banned in Japan in the 19th century. But there’s evidence that it has existed in much of Buddhist Asia.

More recently, the mummy of an unknown Mongolian lama was discovered after it had been stolen from its resting place and was to be sold on the black market. This mummy is thought to be around 200 years old.

But some have contended that the mummy is in fact not dead, but in the spiritual state known as tukdam. According to Dr. Barry Kerzin, personal physician to the Dalai Lama, “If the meditator can continue to stay in this meditative state, he can become a Buddha.” So, he’s not dead, he’s meditating and approaching the final stage of becoming Buddha. Or, at least, he wasn’t dead until his body was disturbed.

But why would anyone put him or herself through this? I can understand meditation as a spiritual practice, but this goes far beyond that. What did these monks expect to result from this torture? Was this just an extreme form of the mortification of the flesh that exists in other places, or was there something more?

Well, one article I read said that these monks are attempting to stay alive forever.

But there are perhaps two ways to think about this.

Perhaps the monk really is trying to live forever, literally. Although I can’t imagine that this would be much of a life.

Or perhaps the monk wishes to be worshiped as a god.

Do these notions seem oddly individualistic or egoistic? Maybe a little bit heretical for a Buddhist? I’ll leave that question for a Buddhist.

I’ve also read that the monk could be trying to prevent himself from reaching Nirvana until all beings reach it.

I find this last notion rather interesting. It’s still egoistic, based on the monk’s assumption that he actually is about to attain Nirvana. But it also has a kind of sweetness in the monk’s desire to delay his final release from the mortal world until all mortals are released as well.

Now I think I’d like to change gears a little bit and let all that settle in.

We were all amused, I think, by the procession of monks from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s interesting that their chant, “Pie Iesu Domine, Dona eis requiem”, consists of the last two lines of the Medieval Latin poem, Dies irae (Day of Wrath), which is used in the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. And the procession is clearly intended to mimic, and also to mock, the spiritual practices of the medieval Flagellants.

In fact, such processions of Flagellants were common throughout Europe beginning in Italy in the 13th Century. The movement had all but died out before the end of that century, but in the 14th Century the Black Death and a number of natural disasters gave the movement new life, and major processions, some said to involve thousands of participants, passed through most of Europe – perhaps something like the procession some of us might have seen depicted in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Or, indeed, in Monty Python’s monks. The Flagellants had particular success in northern Europe, where they became considerably more organized, becoming at last a sect and ultimately were charged with heretical beliefs.

But in the late 1340s they were confronting the Black Death, combating it through their own suffering, by taking onto themselves the guilt of the world which had caused the plague and other disasters.

In 1349 a group of Dutch Flagellants reached England, where the locals apparently showed surprisingly little interest in joining.

Here’s how Sir Robert of Avesbury described such a procession in England:

“In that same year of 1349, about Michaelmas (September 29) over six hundred men came to London from Flanders, mostly of Zeeland and Holland origin. Sometimes at St Paul’s and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances wearing cloths from the thighs to the ankles, but otherwise stripped bare. Each wore a cap marked with a red cross in front and behind.

Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched naked in a file one behind the other and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies.

Four of them would chant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross. The singing would go on and, the one who was in the rear of those thus prostrate acting first, each of them in turn would step over the others and give one stroke with his scourge to the man lying under him.

This went on from the first to the last until each of them had observed the ritual to the full tale of those on the ground. Then each put on his customary garments and always wearing their caps and carrying their whips in their hands they retired to their lodgings. It is said that every night they performed the same penance.”


Such processions still occur in some Roman Catholic communities, although the Catholic Encyclopedia assures us that since these modern processions are under ecclesiastical authority, they “must by no means he connected with the heretical epidemic of the later Middle Ages.” ( These modern processions take place mostly around Good Friday, like this procession in the Philippines.

Video: Good Friday, Pampanga, Philippines

Monty Python’s monks got off easy, I think.

Despite what the Catholic Encyclopedia says, I’m struck by how similar these processions are to Sir Robert’s 1349 description. But the Medieval Flagellants’ processions persisted for 33 1/2 days, a day for each year of Christ’s life, while the modern processions occur only on Good Friday or at some other point during Holy Week. And there’s also a difference in intent. The Medieval Flagellants were essentially penitents, trying to atone for their sins and for the sins of all people, on the model of Christ’s sacrifice. The modern flagellants are in mourning for Christ, and therefore taking onto themselves the abuse that was heaped upon him.

Now we all know that mortification of the flesh, in a great variety of ways, is not uncommon among many religious groups. Martin Luther, when he was a monk, is said to have been obsessed with his sins. He worked to purify himself through fasting to emaciation and beating himself with a whip. The mathematician, theologian, mystic Blaise Pascal was said to wear a hair shirt under his common clothing – the coarse shirt causing constant irritation of his skin as penance for his sins.

But why? Why do we do these things to ourselves?

Well, maybe it’s a spiritual practice, a disciplined test of our ability to endure pain as an act of penance. Or maybe it’s more basic than that. Maybe, despite the pain, it just makes us feel better, and feel better about ourselves.

Recent research by Dr. Brock Bastian shows that pain actually reduces one’s feeling of guilt. If you feel guilty about something, self-inflicted pain can help. As Bastian commented: “We’re actually showing that pain does something good for us.”

So, it looks like all those odd, painful practices that show up in so much of human society have a reason. We feel better not despite the pain, but because of the pain. (

Well, I don’t know if anyone has replicated Bastian’s study, so for the moment this is probably just a single point and therefore not really proof of anything. But, still, it is suggestive. You know, a lot has been written about the value of suffering. Maybe it’s not all just cultural?

But I don’t know whether this has any relationship to those Buddhist mummies?

Music: What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong

Joys and Sorrows
(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)

By custom in our community, each person may chose to tie a ribbon to our “Tree of Life” to represent that person’s joy or sorrow, whether it was spoken or left unspoken. An additional ribbon is also tied to the Tree each Sunday to represent all unspoken joys and sorrows.

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing Go Now in Peace, three times.

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: Go forth in simplicity – Samuel A Trumbore

Go forth in simplicity.
Find and walk the path
that leads to compassion and wisdom,
that leads to happiness, peace and ease.
Welcome the stranger and
open your heart to a world in need of healing.
Be courageous before the forces of hate.
Hold and embody a vision of the common good that
serves the needs of all people.

The chalice is now extinguished.
Go now in peace.

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