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Letters, Fall 2007
Readers respond to the Summer 2007 issue.
As a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship and convener of its special interest group for Buddhism, I was delighted to read the two fine articles by Rick Heller and James Ishmael Ford about Buddhism among UUs (“Unitarian Universalists on the Eightfold Path” and “What Is Unitarian Universalist Buddhism?,” Summer 2007).
While both articles emphasize the attractiveness of Buddhism to humanistic UUs, not all UU Buddhists are humanists. There are those of us who, while not theistic, hold that ineradicable egoism precludes awakening to the truth of impermanence (the Dharma), and that a power beyond the self is the true agent of our awakening.
“Higher-powered” enlightenment talk is not common among UU Buddhists who are, in the main, attracted to discipline and a doctrine of self-perfectibility. A Buddhism that acknowledges human limitation and emphasizes awakening as an activity of the Dharma itself has seemingly little currency. Yet there are Buddhists in the UUA, such as myself, for whom deep listening to the Dharma as taught by Shakyamuni Buddha and our teachers is our sole practice.
UUs, and UU Buddhists in particular, would be well served by widening the universe of discourse to include a fuller spectrum of Buddhist spirituality.
Kyobo Peter Chogol
Thanks for maintaining a clear distinction between Western-style Buddhism (including UU Buddhism) and the popular religion found in Buddhist-majority countries. Writing from Thailand, where I’m on my fourth extended stay in the past twenty years, I can say with some confidence that statements such as “It’s low on ritual,” “It’s low on bells and smells,” and “Buddhists never bow to anything” do not describe the religion practiced by most Theravada Buddhists. Rituals that employ bells, smells, fruits, and flowers; prayers and offerings to gods (from whom the Buddha is not entirely distinguished); and a great deal of bowing to both images and persons: These constitute the overwhelming bulk of Buddhist observance. Western Buddhist–inspired practice, while drawing some important ideas from the scriptural side of Buddhism, should be celebrated for what it is but never confused with what it is not.
Rev. Craig Moro
Community UU Church
I have been a practicing Buddhist for thirteen years, primarily in the Zen tradition, and an active UU for five. Both are vital and complementary aspects of my effort to become fully human. For UUs who might have an interest in exploring Buddhist practice, I would like to offer up my own experience.
In 1994 I was 41 years old with a good job, a nice house, a wonderful family, and a serious midlife slump. One day I came across Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken. It seemed very practical and understandable, so I thought I would give meditation a try. Doing so changed my life. After a few months I was, in a sense, “born again.”
The first thing I would stress is the importance of a daily meditation practice. Almost as important is to locate and join a local practice group, or sangha. I also highly recommend weekend or longer retreats.
Reading was also important to me. I am forever grateful to the many gifted western Buddhist authors who have translated the core insights and teaching of Buddhism into a western cultural language that I could understand. The ones that were most important in my case were Stephen Batchelor, Steve Hagen, Joko Beck, Albert Low, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Robert Aitken. Without their presentation of the Dharma, I’m not sure that I would have gotten past the cultural strangeness of the traditional Buddhist canon.
For the past five years I have been one of four facilitators of Buddhist studies and practice at the Branchville, Indiana, state prison for men, working with the Mindful Heart Buddhist Sangha in Evansville. At Branchville, I often tell the group I am a Unitarian Universalist, not a Buddhist, as the other facilitators are.
The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the practices of meditation and chanting do not conflict with my faith. But for me, Buddhism is not so much a religion as a way of life.
Discussions at Branchville often focus on reincarnation and karma, both subjects of great interest to convicted felons. When asked, I provide as best I can the Buddhist interpretation of such matters. I appreciate what John Schick told Rick Heller regarding karma: “We are the inheritor of our actions.”
It is important to state that Buddhism is a very diverse movement. Just as you cannot teach a version of “what Jesus believed” that would satisfy an eleventh-century Byzantine priest, a twenty-first-century Pen tecostal, a newly converted Nigerian Baptist, and the Pope, so you cannot teach about a single Buddhism—a religion that is even more varied and internally inconsistent.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
In 1957 I was in Japan with my husband, Huston Smith, practicing Zen. While there I met the Japanese translator of books written by my father, Henry Nelson Wieman, whose thought influenced seminarians studying to be UU ministers in the 1960s and ’70s. The translator told me with a smile, “You know, your father is really a Buddhist.” I could see the affinity, but my father couldn’t; for him Zen was a rejection of reason. He had not had the benefit of my husband’s Zen master, the holder of a degree in philosophy himself, who said to my husband: “You can’t apply reason to anything but your experience; so you need a new experience (through intense meditation practice) to solve your koan.” The Buddhist lineages that practice meditation are tuned to the whole of experience—not just our frontal lobes—as a way to personal transformation.
E. Kendra Smith
I took great interest in Donald E. Skinner’s article regarding UU support for the transgendered and recently discharged city manager of Largo, Florida (“News,” Summer).
However, I must take exception to the use of Susan Stanton’s masculine name. I must also take exception to the continuous reference to this individual in masculine pronouns. I am a transgendered person myself and can attest that it is considered proper to reference individuals in the gender of their presentation and not in terms of their birth gender.
Society has dictated that the choices that transgendered individuals have had to make are extremely difficult. The courage that Susan has demonstrated in her decisions deserves to be celebrated and treated with respect and dignity at all times.
Our original news story, published on uuworld.org March 16, used the name and pronoun that Stanton had asked journalists to use. The St. Petersburg Times, which chronicled Stanton’s transition, used “Steve” and “he” at Stanton’s request until she began living publicly as Susan in mid-May, just as the Summer UU World was going to press.
WHO’S ‘OF COLOR’?
While applauding UUA President William G. Sinkford’s call to promote ministry opportunities for “ministers of color and Latina/Latino/Hispanic ministers,” I am bothered by the terms “ministers of color” and “people of color” (“Our Calling,” Summer 2007). Who are the ministers of color and people of color? Where do Asians fit in? Are they not significant enough to be listed as a minority or are they a part of the people of color?
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