By Rev. Jon Turner
The phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is an overused expression but I think it is very appropriate when it comes to The Beatles, my favorite band. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr each brought their own unique skills and talents to the group. In a sense, their differences is what made it possible for them to become a single musical force. They complemented one another; each one’s strength supported and mitigated another’s weakness.
They were all very talented artists and musicians and were able to mesh very well together but it is interesting how four musicians in the same band viewed their craft so differently. For example, if you asked John Lennon what was the point or purpose of his work I think he would have said that it was to express an emotional truth. He was well known for his ability to write lyrics though he was also very good at melody. Sometimes his lyrics may have shocked some of his fans but he was always honest.
For Paul McCartney, his focus was melody. He also wrote wonderful lyrics but melody is what he was best known for. I think his goal was to write melodies that would stick with you. After the Beatles broke up, John wrote a song that criticized one of Paul’s songs during his solo career. John sang that Paul had written Yesterday but he was now just Another Day. Yesterday is one of the greatest songs ever written while the song Another Day was not. I actually really like Another Day. In response, Paul sang, “What is wrong with silly love songs?” What is wrong with a catchy tune?
For George Harrison, I think his mission was to express a deep spirituality. I have always felt that his songs were actually religious. He grew up Catholic and later in life became a devout Hindu. Even the song Something initially seems to be about a woman but then it drifts towards something spiritual. It is that mysterious Something that moved him.
For Ringo Starr, I think music was an expression of sheer joy. Fred Armisen, from Saturday Night Live, has a comedy special on Netflix entitled Standup for Drummers. Much of the show is inside jokes for drummers, but then Fred does a skit mimicking some of the greatest rock and roll drummers. When he gets to Ringo Starr he comments on how happy he was being a musician and playing the drums. He was always smiling and bouncing his head to and fro.
I find this very interesting, that four band mates would have four strikingly different opinions about the craft they all shared together. Even though they conceived of their performances in different ways they were still able to communicate something very profound to their audience.
I have often heard the same sort of thing concerning Buddhism. It can also be confusing when four different ministers explain Buddhism in four different ways, using four different terms. I think this confusion does occur in the short run but I am afraid the alternative – consistency - would lead to monotony. We would end up with Dharma talks that lack creativity and personal depth. The immediacy would be missing.
In the long run, it is good to hear different perspectives from different ministers. One of these perspectives might be the one that sticks with you for life. It also encourages us to make Buddhism very personal. We have to study and listen consistently until it becomes our own.
For nearly twenty years, I have shared my experience of the teachings in many different ways, often times with references to The Beatles. I sometimes even quote John Lennon more often than Shinran Shonin but this is how I initially came to understand Buddhism. It was George Harrison who introduced me to Eastern thought.
Each one of us in the Sangha is encouraged to find in Buddhism what resonates with them in a very personal way. This uniqueness and variety of teachers is actually a sign of authenticity and vitality within the Sangha. When you can speak from experience then you know that Buddhism has transformed you in some way.
As Dan Harris says in his new book Meditation for the Fidgety Skeptic, “Buddhism is not something to believe in, but rather something to do.” This book is the sequel to his first book 10% Happier. He is now speaking in the first person from a personal perspective. He still uses science to prove the effectiveness of Buddhist practice but the real power of the book comes from his personal testimony. His appreciation of Buddhism is now unique, coming from his own personal perspective. The uniqueness of it is what proves its validity. It is now who he is and what he has become through following the Buddhist teachings.
We might say that the Dharma is the music and each one of us hears it in different way. Different refrains and instruments resonate with each of us in different ways. It is all one song and yet each one of us picks out the elements that touch our heart. So this is not really a difference of opinion but rather a different emphasis within each listener. Even the disciples of the Buddha internalized his teachings in different ways; just as we do today.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner