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What is Unitarian Universalist Buddhism?

The history of UU engagement with Buddhism and its growing significance.
By James Ishmael Ford
Summer 2007 5.15.07

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(Tracy Walker/www.i2iart.com)

Western religious liberals have been fascinated with Buddhism from as early as 1844. In that year, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published an anonymous rendition of a chapter from the Sadharmapundarika Sutra in the Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. This chapter, “The Preaching of Buddha,” was the first Buddhist text published in the English language. This seminal event was for years wrongly credited to Henry David Thoreau, which undoubtedly contributed to the mystique that Buddhism has held for many Unitarian Universalists. Since then, many UUs have been drawn to Buddhism, studying its sacred writings, practicing its spiritual disciplines, and even taking the Precepts to become Buddhists. There is now a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship, which counts more than one hundred groups meeting in UU congregations across the continent.

That first flush of interest among our Transcendentalist ancestors was at best confused. In the mid-nineteenth century most people, including scholars, could not distinguish Buddhism from Hinduism. Even those who succeeded in making the distinction frequently failed to fathom what Buddhism is really about. The radical nontheism of most Buddhist writings was bewildering to people who assumed God must be central to any religion. As a result, a number of conservative Unitarians sided with orthodox Christians in seeing Buddhism as a defective faith.

And those who were attracted to Buddhism did not generally understand what it taught. For instance, in The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages, written in 1855, the Unitarian writer Lydia Maria Child describes the Buddha as a “heavenly spirit,” a term most Buddhists would not choose. In her book, Child also describes “God,” “soul,” and “creation” as Buddhist concepts. In fact Buddhism denies or remains agnostic about these concepts. For many Transcendentalists and other sympathetic observers of this era, Buddhism was frequently a mirror in which they saw themselves reflected—generally a positive picture, but not one that led to a clear idea of what Buddhism was or how it might be useful in their own interior investigations, on their own spiritual paths.

We cannot be certain that even Ralph Waldo Emerson, who read as deeply as anyone in his generation, ever successfully distinguished Buddhism from Hinduism. He once described the Hindu classic the Bhagavad Gita as “a Buddhist text.” Of all the Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau was probably the most Buddhist, or Buddhist-like. While he read what texts were available, he more likely discovered on his own such Buddhist perspectives as the thing-in-itself.

Buddhism, while interesting to religious liberals, continued to be misunderstood throughout the nineteenth century. Even by the end of the century James Freeman Clarke, like Lydia Maria Child, searched for and “found” arguments for immortality of the soul and for God in the teachings of Buddha and Buddhism.

In spite of the misunderstandings, an increasingly authentic Buddhism gradually became an influential force among Unitarians, and later, Unitarian Universalists. After Peabody’s publication of the Sadharmapundarika Sutra chapter in 1844, the next and possibly more significant step in the liberal romance with Buddhism came almost a century later as humanism flowered within Western liberal religion. For many humanists, Buddhism appeared to be an intriguingly ancient faith that, like humanism, was not directly concerned with questions of God or gods, those grand cosmological speculations that many comparative religion theorists have posited as fundamental to any “authentic religion.” Certainly Buddhism’s existence challenged the conventions of early comparative religion and comforted many religious liberals and radicals.

The late Rev. George Marshall, a UU minister with insight into Buddhism, wrote in 1978, “After tasting the bitterness and futility of life, [Siddhartha Gautama] came to discover a religious principle through the anguished mind and social discontent of his sensitive personality. Never again could he return to the conforming society represented by the palace, but became a savior to those who would listen and since then has been known as the Buddha.”

Marshall was the first UU to write a book about the religion’s founder, Buddha: The Quest for Serenity. By the second half of the twentieth century, Unitarian Universalists began to approach Buddhism with both sympathy and increasingly accurate knowledge. Certainly, by the time the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America were consolidated in 1961, Buddhism had become a subject of serious interest for religious liberals. Although for most it was mainly an intellectual interest, a few humanists began to try Buddhist practices such as Zen meditation.

This humanist interest in Buddhism has continued to the present. “Even though Buddha believed life’s highest goal is to break the cycle of rebirth and end one’s existence (that may sound bewildering and pessimistic to a westerner), many of his teachings and proverbs hold rich meaning for us,” writes the Rev. Robert Romig, a Unitarian humanist, in his 1984 book, Reasonable Religion. “For example, Buddha said: ‘All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts and is made up of our thoughts.’”

In The Humanist Way, the Rev. Edward Ericson interprets a startling Buddhist proverb, “If you meet the Buddha on the highway, kill him.” Ericson writes: “[T]he harsh maxim drives home a great truth: No holy prophet, messiah, Christ, avatar, or even a great god in heaven can do your spiritual or ethical task for you. Free yourself. Be a lamp unto your own salvation!”

Buddhism offers Western humanists much more than confirmation of an authentic non-theistic or atheistic spiritual perspective and call for radical self-reliance. Humanism and Buddhism are approaches to the great religious questions of life and death. They share a deeply held belief in the value of the human condition. Further, many humanists have been intrigued by the Buddhist analysis of consciousness, which speaks to the possibility of joy and peace within the human condition. This is a very important insight. As a tradition, rational humanism is inclined to an existentialist approach. However, it can be morose to dwell on the tragic aspects of the human condition while ultimately extolling a heroic stoicism in the face of absurdity. Buddhism suggests something more.

The Buddhist-humanist dialogue has been a two-way street. Many Western Buddhists have been influenced by humanism’s social activism. Generally, most Westerners who are attracted to Buddhism have also been deeply moved by the perspectives of humanism, even if not always consciously.

The ongoing interest in Buddhism among Unitarian Universalists has not been exclusive to humanists. Pagan, Jewish, and Christian Unitarian Universalists have also been attracted to the practical mysticism of Buddhism. And a number have tried various Buddhist meditation disciplines; some make those practices central to their spiritual lives. The Rev. Eric Walker Wikstrom, the UU Christian writer and minister, for example, maintains a regular Zen meditation discipline. He is not alone.

Several Unitarian Universalists have become spiritual directors within Buddhist disciplines. The Rev. Doug Kraft is one of a number of longtime Buddhist meditation teachers within the Association. Tara Brach grew up UU and is one of the most prominent Vipassana meditation teachers in the country. The Rev. Joel Baehr is a senior student of the western Tibetan meditation teacher Surya Das and has been authorized by him to teach. The Rev. Robert Schaibly has been designated a Dharmacharya, an associate teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh. David Rynick, a longtime UU and former president of his congregation in Worcester, Massachusetts, has received Inga, or recognition as a teacher from Zen Master George Bowman. I’ve received permission to teach in two Zen lineages and my own first Dharma successor, Melissa Blacker, is a longtime and active UU.

There are many areas of common concern for Western Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists. For the most part, Western Buddhists and UUs are deeply committed to ecological concerns. In general, both are attracted to issues of economic justice. And both movements have been engaged in questions of justice for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities. While both movements have essentially a white and middle-class membership, each shares a deep concern with issues of racial justice. However tentatively, both attempt to engage these great questions. And each offers unique perspectives that help enrich the great work of living fully in the world.

Precisely how many UUs have a significant interest in Buddhism is elusive. Studies by John Dart and James Casebolt suggest somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 percent of Unitarian Universalists consider themselves Buddhists. And if one counts those who consider Buddhism an influence, the number swells to 25 percent. Certainly Buddhism is one of the two deeply important spiritual currents informing Unitarian Universalism today. Together with feminism (see “Looking Back,”), Buddhism challenges and may well reshape Western religious thought in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular.


A earlier version of this article appeared in This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists, ©1996 by James Ishmael Ford (Skinner House Books). Reprinted with permission.

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