Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism: A Book Review

ImageOver the New Year, I attended my first ten-day silent retreat at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.  After attending seminary where the vast majority of students and professors are deists, and after serving a Christian church for half a year, plus surrounding myself with Judeo-Christian scripture, it was high time for some Buddha-time. 

A few months later, I attended my first UU Buddhist Fellowship Convocation, this past April.  There, I learned of a new collection of writings by UUs Buddhists, due out any day.  As soon as it was available, I purchased a copy from Skinner House and added to my reading list for the summer.  Now that it’s summer, I thought I would share several excerpts that spoke to me.

The first chapter gives an illuminating history of the relationship between Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism in the United States.  Here’s a nugget for your next Spiritual Trivial Pursuit game night: the first English (partial) translation of the Lotus Sutra was published in America by Unitarian Elizabeth Peabody in the Transcendentalist newspaper, The Dial, in 1844. 


In that same chapter, Jeff Wilson writes about what had become a decades-long relationship between Pure Land Buddhists in Japan and Unitarians in New England.  A powerful Japanese man, who had been influenced by Unitarianism

“petitioned the American Unitarian Association to send missionaries to his country.  In 1887, Rev. Arthur Knapp responded to his call.  Knapp’s Unitarian mission was not based on the same sort of Christian triumphalism that characterized other American projects in Japan.  As quoted in The Unitarian Movement in Japan, he told Fukuzawa,

The errand of Unitarianism to Japan is based upon the now familiar idea of “Sympathy of Religions.”  With the conviction that we are messengers of distinctive and valuable truths which have not here been emphasized, and that in return there is much in your faith and life which to our harm we have not emphasized – receive us not as theological propagandists, but as messengers of the new gospel of human brotherhood in the religious life of mankind.”

Though I would like to say that I am not surprised to hear that Unitarians (or Universalists) had such relatively progressive thinking when it came to “missionary” work, I am relieved and proud.  Many of our U or U heroes have their shadow sides, such as Margaret Sanger, determined advocate on behalf of access to family planning and birth control, who also made political bedfellows with supporters of the racist thought system called Eugenics.


In reflecting upon the four impossible (and voluntary) vows he makes every morning after meditating, Reverend Wayne Arnason writes this about the first of his vows:

“Beings are numberless.  I vow to save them,” says the first of the Great Vows.  Save them from what? How?  If they are numberless, infinite, how can I save them all?  Intellectually, the answer is that I am saving them from greed, anger, and ignorance – the roots of our suffering – and that to do so, I need to recognize that there is no barrier, no difference between me and the rest of the world that comprises every other being.  I can never save any of them if I cannot save myself first from greed, anger, and ignorance.  So I start with myself.  The first and greatest contribution, perhaps the only contribution I can make to saving all beings from their suffering is to realize and act on the causes of suffering in myself.

I find this insight and vow to be a good antidote to the admirable intensity I see in many fellow Unitarian Universalists who are committed to saving the world “out there” but who are ill equipped spiritually to do this without suffering personal burnout and disappointment as the endless tasks produce disappointing results.

I resonate with this observation on many levels.  Certainly, I have seen that burnout in individual people.  I have felt it in some social justice oriented worship services where any sense of Spirit is barely felt or articulated.  More to the point, it was this sense of running dry through secular political activism that led me to seek out a spiritual home among Unitarian Universalists over nearly twenty years ago.

Though not an alcoholic myself, my family has struggled with addictions of various stripes in various ways over many decades.  So Alex Holt’s very personal and refreshingly frank reflection definitely caught my attention.

As a UU immersed in alcoholism, I found no place in my faith to tame those elephants in my living room, because they were actually inside me.  Our faith seemed to have no doorway for inner work.  Buddhism supplied an answer but in the end, didn’t seem to give me any clear option for service to others.

In particular, these last two sentences describe nearly precisely my own creative tension between my two spiritual affiliations.  Unitarian Universalism did not offer me the kind of disciplined spiritual practice I not only craved, but needed.  Buddhism, with its meditation practice, as well as other rituals, seemed to do just that.  However, Buddhism – even Engaged Buddhism – did not seem to offer the sense of service so inherent in living a spiritual life on this earth – not only to engage in acts of social justice, but in developing and embodying an actively compassionate community from cradle to grave.  It is in the weaving together of the two spirit identities that I find a sense of home.

Particularly compelling were words of caution I take away from Kat Lui’s chapter, “UU Buddhism is Foreign to Me:”

Perhaps as a result of the explicit rejection of gods and superstitions, Buddhism in Unitarian Universalist contexts and in the U.S. in general, seems to focus almost exclusively on meditation and mindfulness.  When I think of Western Buddhism, I think of meditation retreats in pleasant, quiet places.  While I recognize meditation as an integral part of Buddhism – one spoke of the “dharma wheel” representing the eight-fold path – it is not the only part, and not even the key part of the Pure Land and Ch’an Buddhism that my Chinese family practices.  So the emphasis on meditation, almost to the exclusion of all else, makes Western Buddhism feel more foreign than familiar to me.

Her words of warning about cultural misappropriation are ones I will bring with me as I continue this path to become a UU minister, as well as this path in which I steep myself in ever more Buddhist understandings and approaches to the wide universe.

Also helpful to how I conceptualize my own Buddhist spiritual practices and theologies as they impact my ministerial formation and presence in congregations, Thandeka’s thoughts were insightful:

Our individual personal Buddhist practices, however, are neither designed nor intended to
replace our collective experiences in our Sunday morning services. … Our Buddhist practices, in short, do not alter our congregational lives.  They amend them.  This strategy, however, makes us witnesses to our own congregational demise.

Her point, as I understand it, is a challenge for each of us to find the egoless or enlightened morality we strive for not (only) in our individual meditation experiences, but in our collective comings together as congregations of people accountable to and for each other.

One of my favorite parts of reading this collection is reading the biographies of the authors.  There are many ministers, which piqued my personal and professional interests. There are some lay leaders — though to my mind, not enough.  There seems to be a good gender balance among the authors, though no trans voices that I noticed.  There are stories from people who are in heterosexual relationships and people who are in same sex relationships.  Most of the authors are white; several are people of color and my impression/speculation is that there was an explicit attempt to ensure such voices be represented fairly among the authorship.  There is a wider continuum of Buddhist flavors represented than I thought likely: Zen, Insight, Tibetan, and Pure Land all find a voice in this collection. 

Not only the collection of writings, but the collection of people in this book, have given me new views into my faith and into one of our thriving spiritual rivers feeding our wider UU ocean.


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