Are (some) Unitarians Buddhists without knowing it?

(A Talk Delivered to the Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship by Robert Farmer.)

This talk is occasioned by an experience I recently had at a Zen meditation retreat in the Southern Appalachians. About 30 people from over the Southeast were involved. At the first evening meal (before silence was declared) I ate with four individuals who turned out either to be Unitarians, or to be people who routinely sat zazen in Unitarian facilities. I have since that time noted other evidence of a close but informal relationship between Unitarianism and western Buddhism, especially the Zen tradition. I understand that some Unitarian ministers consider themselves Buddhists. I have become interested in this alliance and wish to examine its basis this morning. I wish to note at the outset that I am neither a Unitarian scholar nor a Buddhist scholar; my comments will no doubt reflect this condition.

In the best professorial tradition my talk will be divided into three parts:

  • The evolution of Unitarianism in North America. 
  • The characteristics of a cohort of Unitarians who are in my age bracket and who might be attracted to Buddhism. 
  • The characteristics of Buddhist philosophy and practice which have attracted part of this cohort.

Unitarian Evolution - A Personal Perspective

New England Unitarians (our predecessors) in the 18th and 19th centuries were Christians. Their only departure from other denominations was that they had trouble with the Trinity. Perhaps they were liberal in interpretation of doctrine, but their churches and services were comfortably conservative. In this century, as the denomination moved westward there were dramatic changes in the latitude of belief and practice. By the time I joined my first church in Ann Arbor, Michigan in l952, it was a far cry from the 19th century New England congregation. Such a large measure of Christian dogma and tradition had been dropped, that it was questionable whether the church was still really Christian. The church was highly intellectualized; Sunday morning services were lectures followed by discussion and coffee. The strong churches were in university communities or metropolitan areas. There was freedom of form in both services and architecture. A lot of critical attention was given to Christianity - from which many new members had recently escaped. I vividly remember the comments of my major professor in Ann Arbor who came from an old New England family of Unitarians. He said, "I went out there (to the Ann Arbor church) once, but the whole program was just too far out for me". He settled comfortably in the local Congregationalist church.

These characteristics continue to the present day in many churches, I believe. But we embarked in the late 1950's on a variety of social action crusades which dominated thinking and activity in a lot of churches. There was first the civil rights period. American Unitarians swarmed to Mississippi and Alabama; they marched and sang and sat in jails. I lived in Mississippi at the time and hosted a procession of Unitarians. It was a frightening time and place. Unitarians played an important role in the era, and some of our ministers earned the religious equivalent of the Combat Infantryman's Badge there. Perhaps it came close to being a spiritual activity.

All this melded right into the Vietnam war protest in which we were equally active, in the U.S. at least. Up here we harboured draft refugees. This led into or was done simultaneously with the anti-nuclear weapons movement. In the churches with which I was associated, mainly the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) church, these things soaked up a lot of energy, and they almost dictated the nature of the denomination. Activities went far beyond the historical roles of religion.

Since then we have gone on to the green religion of environmentalism, feminism, sexualism, and the rebirth of pantheism. But, in my opinion, nowhere in all of this good activity has there developed a spiritual focal point unique to Unitarianism. We are bits and pieces of others thinking and ritual combined with a penchant for self-righteously siding with underdogs. Having left Christianity we haven't generated anything of our own. This is fine for many folks and it was for me for several decades.

Christian Refugees as Unitarians

This brings me to part two, which deals with the cohort of people who pushed Unitarianism through the period I've described. We are a cohort of Christian refugees who escaped to Unitarianism in the 1940's and 1950's. My description covers only a segment of the group. I don't claim universality; but I know I'm not alone. I would like to describe us, because our characteristics have a direct connection to our attraction to Buddhism.

First, we adopted Unitarianism partly as a reaction to an upbringing in Christianity or Judaism. We did this because it offered things that these traditions were not, and not because it offered something which would have been attractive otherwise. Many of us weren't even interested in things spiritual. We commonly rejected Christianity at an early teen age, intuitively, and on the basis of its being, to use teenage jargon, "illogical, silly and dumb" from dogma to ritual. And we rejected it as only teenagers can reject, especially if they are just becoming articulately critical and enjoy shocking folks with ideas. (Some of us have continued this childish practice right through our adult lives, to largely negative ends.) We continue to reject religious dogma, and we can't and don't separate science from religion and other aspects of our lives.

We are basically scientists and materialists. I don't mean that we are professional scientists, but that we have tried to adopt scientific methods to evaluate our reality, everyday experience and everything else. As scientists, we are necessarily agnostics, not atheists. However, we adhere to that form of agnosticism originally defined by T.H. Huxley and described by Stephen Batchelor (see citation below) as follows: "Rather than a creed he saw it as a method realized through 'the rigorous application of a single principle". He expressed this principle positively as: "Follow your reason as far as it will take you,' and negatively as: 'Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.' " As Batchelor goes on to say, this agnosticism "is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know". But our intuition keeps suggesting that it's all physics and chemistry - a lot of which we don't understand yet. We, of course, see religious explanations of reality as increasingly outmoded, in light of the better job science is doing in defining reality. We have other characteristics (e.g.a strong interest in esthetics) which have some bearing on what I will say about this cohort of Unitarians and Buddhism, but I don't have time to elaborate here.

We were comfortable in the Unitarianism of the 1950's and 1960's, less comfortable in the 1980's and have been downright antsy in the 1990's, partly because we have aged and partly because of what the denomination has done and not done. We have no problem with the continued emphasis on social action (though it is mighty timid these days), perhaps even stayed because of it. But there is an increasing feeling that there just isn't anything unique at the core which can serve as a focal point for a religious community. And this brings us to:

Buddhism and the 1950's Unitarian

How in the world could this cohort of people who have been barely religious, barely civil with Christianity, seriously consider Buddhism, a religion the popular form of which is filled with supernatural stuff and guided by a complex, convoluted and sometimes ambiguous philosophy? Some of popular Buddhism makes Christianity look straightforward and simple by comparison.

The answer is that core elements of Buddhism (i.e. what the historical Buddha taught) are a far cry from popular religious Buddhism and very much in line with the way we think and operate. I will explain by reviewing some of the key teachings and concepts.

I rely strongly on the book by Walpola Rahula titled "What the Buddha Taught" (Grove Weidenfeld, N.Y. 1974). Since giving this talk I have read the excellent book by Stephen Batchelor titled "Buddhism Without Belief" (Riverhead Books, N.Y. 1997). I especially recommend it to one whose interest in Buddhism may be stimulated by what I have to say.

These are some of the elements of the historical Buddha's teachings which have attracted us:

There are no deities, no gods, no goddesses, no messiahs. There is no human soul. This is stated in the Buddhist concept of Anatta or No Soul. Buddhism is materialistic. There is no thinker behind the thought. This may appear to be at odds with the concept of reincarnation, which is very much a part of popular religious Buddhism and has been around in various religions for over 5000 years. It is safe to say that most people who call themselves Buddhists believe in reincarnation and some believe in what amounts to heaven. As Stephen Batchelor notes, the historical Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth; it was the predominant worldview of his time and still is in many parts of the world.

During the course of developing the religious baggage of the several Buddhist traditions (denominations) various devices have been incorporated into teachings which get around the problem of rebirthing "no soul". In modern Zen teachings there is minimal reference to rebirth, and many western Buddhist teachers comfortably get along without it. Western Buddhism (and Buddhism will be adapted to western thought and tradition - there ain't no far-eastern patent on it) seems to be making a clear distinction between religious Buddhism (with all its trappings accumulated over 2500 years) and a spirituality based solely upon the central ideas in the historical Buddha's teachings. Batchelor's book is a good example of the thinking which is driving this evolution. If you are a "Unitarian Buddhist" you will probably just ignore the popular concept of reincarnation - until there develops a good body of biological evidence to support it. More importantly, however, you will not be rejected by western Buddhist communities if you don't accept rebirth as a biological fact. The concept is a good metaphor, especially for ecologists who know that everything is recycled endlessly. This is compatible with the third principle:

In Buddhist philosophy there is a special recognition and acceptance of impermanence and change. "There is no permanent unchanging substance; nothing passes from one moment to the next. Life is a series that continues unbroken, but changes every moment".

Fourth, this change operates on the basis of cause and effect, which has a central place in Buddhist philosophy. Everything arises from a cause, and therefore things have no independent existence; they have "dependent origination". This lack of independent, inherent existence is considered "emptiness" or "empty of self" within this philosophical context. Further, this emphasis on cause and effect leads one to the acceptance of the concept of "karma", i.e. that actions have consequences, a popularly much misunderstood idea. The bottom line in Buddhism is that you are responsible for your actions and their consequences; there are no deities out there to rescue you. This concept of "emptiness" was expounded by the Buddha in what is popularly called The Heart Sutra, which is chanted daily in Zen monasteries.

Four Noble Truths

The historical Buddha left little foundation for dogma in his teachings; he emphasized that faith should be grounded in one's own experience. But on achieving his awakening experience he did realize and teach what are known as the four noble truths: There is dukkha, or suffering, anxiety. Suffering arises from desire in a cause-effect relationship. There can be cessation of dukkha, the extinction of desire known as nirvana, an absolute truth beyond duality (positive-negative) or relativity. There is a path leading to it, but nirvana is not the result of this path. It is beyond logic and reasoning. And this is where being a mystic comes in handy. The fourth noble truth is an eight-fold program which may lead to nirvana. It includes "right understanding", "right thought", "right action", etc. Most of the historical Buddha's teachings, over 45 years, deal with this path, which we don't have time to explore this morning. But embedded in this path is a central place for compassion with respect to all living beings.

You may by now note that many of these concepts and the mode of life they generate are already part of many Unitarians' lives. So I guess that is one reason why some Unitarians are in a sense Buddhists without knowing it. But the additional feature of Buddhism (which is not part of modern Unitarianism) is the central place that sitting meditation plays in several of its "traditions". It is in this practice that the mind moves beyond science, moves beyond thought as we commonly perceive and conceive it. Meditation is something Buddhists do , hence the term "practice". There are other aspects of practice, but "sitting zazen" is the main one for a large segment of Buddhists in North America. It is through meditation that desire (and therefore dukkha) is extinguished. It is an internal process, sometimes called "developing mindfulness", requiring nothing in the way of belief systems, dogma, faith or anything external to the mind.

For some the object of meditation is an "awakening" (enlightenment) or non-intellectual realization of the nature of reality, a "religious experience" in the sense of William James. Batchelor thoughtfully describes awakening as a life process going beyond but including meditation - rather than an event reached through meditation. For many (including myself) meditation is without purpose or goals, one of those things in life we just do, as Forrest Gump said, "for no particular reason".

Last, in meditation we become part of the sangha, the group of meditators and followers of the dharma (teachings and writings). In the sangha there is fellowship in an activity. And in the dharma and the sangha we do "take refuge". But most important we find in meditation with one of the Buddhist traditions a spiritual (I still cringe at the word), mystical, intuitive experience, without the baggage of beliefs that so burden a lot of religions. This experience is of, and with the mind, and nothing else - and yet it is not intellectual. And unlike the messianic religions, Buddhism makes no claims or promises. In the context where Jesus or Mohammed might have said "I am the light, through me you can reach heaven - or whatever", Buddha would probably have said "Hey, try it, you might like it".

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