Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism: Friends on the Path
Stony Brook, February 17, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Linda Anderson
Casey Stengel, the great baseball player and Yankee manager said, “Good pitching will always stop good hitting, and vice versa.” For me, Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism are good pitching and good hitting. If pitted against each other, neither clearly comes out on top. When they are on the same team, they don’t stop each other at all. You win the World Series. You’ve heard this morning how Unitarianism and Buddhism have walked some parallel paths since the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists. What is it about Buddhism that fits so well for a good number of Unitarian Universalists? How is it that this almost three thousand year old religion from India informs this western religion which has been on these shores not even three hundred years?
First, a disclaimer. Buddhism has different traditions and schools. I cannot claim to speak for any Buddhism but the version I have learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk who has formed his own order here in the west. I began to practice Buddhism through meditation. I liked the peace and calm it brought me. I first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings when I was in seminary studying for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. It was a tumultuous time. My mother had recently died and I was in a process of coming out as lesbian, which meant I was leaving a marriage to a man I still consider my family.
UU’ism and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism start from a similar place. They both regard religion as a product of human activity rather than divine intervention. Both regard the essence of religion as experiential and pragmatic. Both are practical in nature, focusing on how to live in this world in ways that make it better for all of us. Religion, like any other art form, is a human creation whose greatest function lay in healing the splits within the human personality and in human society at large. I needed that. I needed my own splits attended to and accepted, my own experience of life to be valued. In both traditions authority for religious faith and philosophy resides in the individual. Unitarian Universalists claim the right and responsibility to fashion our own faith structures. The Buddha’s final teaching was for people to be a light unto themselves; to experience the teachings for themselves and not simply to believe them because someone told them to. “Somebody showed it to me, and I found it by myself.” (Lew Welch) Our UU principles assert that each and every person has inherent worth and dignity and that we are on a free, responsible search for meaning and truth, supporting and encouraging each other’s spiritual growth along the way. Because both think of religion in the same way and place trust in the individual and in the meaning the individual finds in his/her experience, many Unitarian Universalists are comfortable with Buddhism.
And here’s a difference. Thich Nhat Hanh, and Buddhism in general, understands community, or sangha, to be crucial to the practice of the religion. The Buddha, (the teacher), the dharma, (the teaching), and the sangha, (the community), comprise the three jewels of Buddhism. Unitarian Universalism does not rely so strongly on such cornerstones. Partly this is a difference in religious authority, partly it is cultural and historical. Buddhism arose in India in the sixth century before the common era and spread to China, Japan and southeast Asia. It came to the west at least as early as the 19th century and although Buddhism has a remarkable ability to adapt to the culture it finds itself in, nevertheless its roots are Asian and one can see that plainly if one spends time with it. Customs differ. Buddhists stand when a teacher enters and leaves the hall; they bow to that teacher; many Vietnamese prostrate themselves before Thich Nhat Hanh. The Buddhist community often takes precedence over the individual Buddhist. In UU’ism, western in origin and fully a product of our own culture, the individual UU often takes precedence over the community. When I was ordained into Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, I was asked to drink alcohol no longer. I love red wine and I love tequila, but I stopped because I trust Thay, which means teacher in Vietnamese and is what we call Thich Nhat Hanh. I didn’t even completely agree with the reasons, but I trusted his wisdom. It was my choice. I cannot imagine anyone in our Unitarian Universalist Association making such a request, much less anyone else paying attention to it. So, similar in seeing religion as a human endeavor and trusting the individual’s experience over a doctrine that must be adhered to. Different in the authority given to the teacher, the teaching, and the community.
Buddhism and UU’ism share a very important core principle, namely that all of life is interconnected. We call it the interdependent web of all existence. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it interbeing. Call it by whatever names you will, this interbeing, this unity at the foundation shows itself in the world as diversity but keeps us joined through inter-connection. This answers a very real need that I have, and many of us have, to be connected and at the same time to be free and uniquely ourselves. Unity in diversity. To have both roots and wings.
Listen to Mary Oliver’s poem The Turtle
breaks from the blue-black
skin of the water, dragging her shell
with its mossy scutes
across the shallows and through the rushes
and over the mudflats, to the uprise,
to the yellow sand,
to dig with her ungainly feet
a nest, and hunker there spewing
her white eggs down
into the darkness, and you think
of her patience, her fortitude,
her determination to complete
what she was born to do –
and then you realize a greater thing –
she doesn’t consider
what she was born to do.
She’s only filled
with an old blind wish.
It isn’t even hers but came to her
in the rain or the soft wind,
which is a gate through which her life keeps walking.
She can’t see
herself apart from the rest of the world
or the world from what she must do
Crawling up the high hill,
luminous under the sand that has packed against her skin.
she doesn’t dream
she is a part of the pond she lives in,
the tall trees are her children,
the birds that swim above her
are tied to her by an unbreakable string.
That unbreakable string tells us we belong here. In all of our uniqueness, we are part of the larger whole. When you visit Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Plum Village, France, you are greeted by signs that say “You have arrived. You are home.” We belong here, right now, in this very moment. The present moment in this present world is all we have. It’s our job to be here now, to be awake, to live mindfully so that we truly are present in the present.
Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism understand the nature of life in some similar ways. Interdependence and interconnection are fundamental, which means that there is nothing that is not in relationship with something else. “. . . We do not exist outside of our relationships. We become who we are only in relation . . .” (Catherine Keller) These relationships flow in dynamic and changing processes. Things are always moving and changing. Thay calls that impermanence. Cause and effect interplay and we have freedom of choice and action. Thay calls that karma. Our actions are the ground upon which we stand. Because there is freedom, all possibilities exist. A Japanese Buddhist, Issa, said “Where there are humans, you’ll find flies, and Buddhas.”
Think of a tennis game. You don’t play tennis by yourself. The players are in relationship through the balls they encounter coming to and fro over the net. Each is free to choose her or his shot, and the choice is also influenced by the shot he or she has received from the other. Cause brings on effect, effect brings on cause. Anything might happen in the game, and if you have ever watched Serena Williams play, you know what I mean. Reality, just like the tennis ball, doesn’t stand still. Reality is a being-becoming rather than a static being. I am here, now in this moment. But even as I say this, the moment is passing and I am becoming into the next moment. In order to be fully alive, I need to be mindful.
Both Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists assert that the essence of life is inter-connection and through that inter-dependence our ethics arise. If it is so that we are connected, then it must be so that we act in ways that recognize and respect those connections. Thus Unitarian Universalists prize justice, equity and compassion in human relations, cherishing the web of life, and peace and a democratic process. Buddha says that when we forget our connections, when we think that we are isolated, separate, alone, we suffer and we can behave in ways that make others suffer. Thus Thich Nhat Hanh stresses compassion and understanding, reverence for life, loving speech and careful listening, generosity, relational responsibility, and mindful consumption. Taking the ethical implications into their lives, Unitarian Universalist and Buddhists in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh have a long tradition of social justice work.
And here’s a difference. While both traditions seek to make life better in the here and now, they come at it from different vantage points. Unitarian Universalism, a product of the Enlightenment, acts as if, through reason, humanity can improve itself. Life is about making a better life, bringing our spiritual values into concrete form, and we believe we have within us the potential to do so. Buddhism began with the observation that life contains a lot of suffering. The suffering has a cause and there’s a way for us to live so that we lessen the amount of suffering. This philosophy is known as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path. Life is about lessening suffering and we do that through knowing the true nature of life and living in harmony with it. When we accept that life is impermanent and ever changing and when we know that we are inter-connected, and live accordingly, such a state of awakening is called enlightenment. The enlightened one is happy and peaceful, with deep understanding and compassion. We all have the capacity to lessen each other’s suffering. We all have the capacity for enlightenment. So, similar focus on inter-dependence and the necessity of living in ways that respect it. Similar understanding that life is a changing process and relationships are central. Similar faith in the human capacity to choose love and justice. Different in the viewpoint that leads them there.
Different in the importance each places on spiritual practice. Unitarian Universalism, in my opinion, lacks a depth of spiritual practice and I believe it holds us back in the world, as if the well from which we draw strength was capped. Buddhism has a deep spiritual practice of meditation. The art of being quiet, focusing to know one is in the here and now, aware of body, feelings, and mind. Aware of life’s changing nature and the unity within the diversity. No hiding, no denial, all is there. Meditation helps us to slow down and to be present in the moment so that we know we are here and knowing we are here, can glimpse the ultimate, however we understand it. From that, the capability for sustained ethical living arises. Happiness, joy and equanimity arise. Compassion and understanding arise. Annie Dillard wrote, “No, the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it.” Those times of knowing it, for me, are wonderful. I invite you to join our sangha on Saturday mornings at 9am in the green room for meditation and sharing.
Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism are friends along the path. They share important ways of understanding the nature of life and the human being’s place in it. They are not the same. But like good pitching and good hitting, when they are on the same team, they are dynamite together.