Volume: V, Number: 4 Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship Fall 2002
The Jeweled Net:
Buddhist Reflections on the Interdependent Web
By Rev. James Ishmael Ford
We Unitarian Universalists find it useful to posit descriptions of our general perspectives from time to time. This is a practice of clarification. And it can be a significant exercise so long as we always include some form of a conscience clause, and so long as we remind ourselves we’re not setting up a creed or doctrinal test.
And so after literally years of wrangling, fighting, negotiating, hoping and praying, we were at the decisive moment. The statements that had been hammered out seemed to succeed in that mandate to describe, not to proscribe, to reveal what we largely held in common in this generation. So, at long last it was time to vote.
And wonder of wonders, on that humid and hot cusp between Spring and Summer, at that 1984 General Assembly in Columbus, quite unexpectedly, the holy spirit descended upon our crowd of rationalists, atheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, pagans and miscellaneous others.
The movement of the spirit was small—not a great rushing wind or fluttering of wings, just a motion from the floor. But what a motion. We already had a worthy document of high blown principles that most of us could agree represented our best ideals. Truthfully, later commentators have suggested just about any westerner could subscribe to them, and probably the majority of humanity as well. At the same time they did distill our hopes and aspirations as a specific religious community, clearly offering our liberal religious hope for the world.
But the magic, what made it something different and opened us to the movement of some holy spirit turned on the seventh of these principles. The seventh and last was like the rest, reflecting our collective perspectives on the most important things, specifically calling for “respect for Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” This by itself is a worthy statement. But, the winds of the spirit took us in another and, I suggest, a much deeper direction.
One of the ministers present, Paul L’Herrou, offered an amendment from the floor. He suggested we replace the proposed language of the seventh principle with new words: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” It was with those words the eternal breath of life, the spirit of guidance, the wisdom inherent in our human condition spoke out once again to the world of a new possibility, of a new hope, of a new Unitarianism and of a new Universalism.
Now, this perspective of a radical interdependence isn’t ours alone. This wisdom is in the air we breathe, and I believe, our heritage from the moment of our creation. So, the Catholic theologian Thomas Berry, can speak from this perspective, as can many others.
Berry tells us, “In this mysterious balance the universe and all its grandeur and all its loveliness becomes possible. Exactly here the presence of the sacred reveals itself. Here is the exuberance that could fling the stars across the heavens with such abandon and yet with such exquisite poise, each in relation to the untold billions of other shining fragments of primordial existence.”
Here we find a perspective about who we are, and what we might become. With these words embracing an image of an interdependent web of existence of which we all are a part, poetry—and something more than poetry—entered our liberal theological ruminations. We stopped merely being concerned with a description of what we tend to think, and called ourselves to something sacred.
This is so important. I find it hard to express my emotions, my feelings, my response to what this web suggests. To understand how we are related, to find our place on this planet, and within the great play of the cosmos itself, is to open a way of acting gracefully in the world. From this perspective Bernie Glassman, one of the truly interesting Zen teachers in the west today, can tell us: “I define enlightenment as the depth to which one sees the oneness of life, the interconnectedness of life.” Then joined with that statement is its corollary. Bernie tells us, “And the degree of your enlightenment can be measured by your actions.” I suggest this joined insight can be a summation of all our Unitarian Universalist intimations, our deepest dreams, as well as a way toward an authentic healing for both ourselves and this suffering world.
I want to share a couple of points. The first is that this insight can be our compass, our guide for a life of meaning and possibility. And second, this is so because it isn’t just a grand philosophical principle, but is in fact a pointing to a kind of consciousness accessible to us as human beings, a consciousness that is salvific, that heals and saves. It is a call to a sacred way of being.
Now if this is true, we need to clarify, explore, and to find that deeper knowing for ourselves in our individual hearts and minds. We need to be like that person taking a sip of water who knows for herself, for himself, whether it is warm or cool. And this can be hard. The way to making this my own knowing can seem just about impossible. Fortunately there are those who’ve walked this path before us who can point us in directions, who can help us as we make our own way, to make this not simply a good idea, but ours, yours and my lived reality.
For instance, we can explore this world of possibility through the lens of the Avatamsakasutra, the wisdom of the Flower Garland Scripture of Mahayana Buddhism, and the Hua-yen school that grew out of reflections on this ancient teaching. The Hua-yen perspective informs and underlies the whole range of Zen teachings, whose practices are all aimed at leading us to our own intimate experience of this world of radical interdependence—the same world, I suggest, that the image of the web calls us to.
Among the images found within the Hua-yen texts, there is one remarkably similar in spirit to our UU web. And, I think, reflecting on it can help us to clarify what for most of us is at this point a gut level intuition, something we know, but only through a glass darkly. Perhaps the “Jeweled Net” can help. As Francis Cook describes it:
“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god
Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been
hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner
that it stretches out infinitely in all directions.
“In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities,
the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel
in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is
infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in
number. There hang the jewels, glittering like
stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to
“If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels
for inspection and look closely at it, we will dis-
cover that in its polished surface there are re-
flected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in
number. Not only that, but each of the jewels re-
flected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the
other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting
“The Hua-yen school (that has arisen from the close consideration of the Flower Garland Scripture) is very fond of this image, mentioned many times in its literature, because it symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual inter-causality.”
Thomas Cleary, the translator of this essential text into English, explains to us how “The Hua-yen doctrine shows the entire cosmos as one single nexus of conditions in which everything simultaneously depends on, and is depended on by, everything else. Seen in this light, then, everything affects and is affected by, more or less immediately or remotely, everything else; just as this is true of every system of relationships, so is it true of the totality of existence.
“In seeking to understand individuals and groups, therefore, Hua-yen thought considers the manifold as an integral part of the unit and the unit as an integral part of the manifold; one individual is considered in terms of relationships to other individuals as well as to the whole nexus, while the whole nexus is considered in terms of its relation to each individual as well as to all individuals.”
Heady stuff, this. But if true, it is extremely important. This perspective tells us reality has two faces. On the one hand we are unique. You and I are born into the cosmos in ways that will never again be repeated. Within this uniqueness we share things in common, but we have eaten from that fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. As human beings we must make decisions based in our astonishing ability to parse things out, to differentiate, to weigh and judge.
But the Hua-yen perspective, and I suggest the intimate reality pointed out for us in that image of the web, is that reality has this other face as well. We are so deeply and profoundly bound up together, woven out of each other. And from this perspective, which is just as true as the other; it isn’t possible to say a human being or a star or a strand of the AIDS virus is better or more deserving than any other thing or being woven out of the same mysterious stuff that is the web of existence.
Many, perhaps most, of our human problems arise when we make our decisions based on one of these faces without reference to the other. So, within this perspective, decisions based in our isolation are made because they are good for us as human beings, or Americans or Canadians or members of a family, or, most atomically of all, for me. Choices here are made without any larger perspective, without acknowledgment of larger relationships. In the worst case scenario, I find only my appetite or whim motivates me. And with this evil follows my choices like the wake of a ship.
Or, I see how everything is connected while forgetting the other truth of the uniqueness of things and persons. And in the worst case of this, I can dismiss my humanity as a virus infecting the planet, not able to distinguish between killing six million Jews or six million chickens. Here is a trap for many of us committed to a life of engagement and a larger perspective: sometimes loving the world or the people, some ideal of the great unity, while despising actual flesh and blood.
In either case, I am acting from a partial perspective, a false sense of identity. And the ills of the world flow out of these partial perspectives in a seemingly bottomless well of poison: greed, hatred, and ignorance. But then there is a motion of the spirit. There is the possibility of another way of seeing, that isn’t just my genetic conditioning to eat and procreate, or my thinking of a grander world of unity.
I can know, and I can act from that knowing, that we are each of us precious in our creation, passing in and out of existence within that web of unity: both together. This is, I believe, the fundamental intimation that draws so many of us to that image of the web. And as this understanding has been developed in Buddhist thought, and particularly the Hua-yen perspective, we begin to see how dynamic and rich this is. And, I suggest this really can be our Unitarian Universalist perspective, as well.
Now, let me remind everyone here that one of the great insights of our free religious movement, is that escape clause. I remember as I was closing in on the end of formal koan study with my Zen teacher, John Tarrant. It was very early in the morning during a seven day intensive meditation retreat. He leaned in so close I could smell the English breakfast tea on his breath. And he said, “James, remember. Even enlightenment is just an idea.”
These words that I share intending to point a way of possibility and life, can themselves become a snare, entangling the unwary with simply another list of rules. Beware! In the past the winds of the spirit have blown through the lives of our ancestors. Pagan wisdom, particularly the insights of Athens, the story of Exodus and the divine unity, the perspectives of birth and death and the hope of rebirth told through the life of a person, the exuberant joy found within human reason birthing modernity: each a fresh breath of the spirit. Each, in turn, opening possibilities for us. And each, within the crushing embrace of literalism becoming dead letters, false paths. Beware thinking the web is the truth.
But, if we are careful, if we allow the possibility to flow, the spirit to light as it will; if we come to realize that what we’re actually being called to here is not a “knowing,” but rather an unknowing, a forgetting, a letting go: then something amazing may well birth once again among us. It might truly be the life of the spirit that informed our ancestors so many times, opening ways of possibility, of new visions for what is and what might become.
Here we find we are so intimately woven together and out of each other. Here we find we live more closely with each other and the world itself than is found in a lover’s kiss. You and I, together: and moving between us, among us, within us, is that spirit.
It is the spirit that descended at that1984 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, in the muggy heat of Ohio, and upon our crowd of rationalists, atheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, pagans and miscellaneous others. It is the spirit that sings to us of that new Unitarianism, of that new Universalism.
So, this is my Buddhist reflection on our UU image of the Interdependent Web. It is a beautiful image. But it is also so much more and less. It is in fact an invitation to a lived life. I hope each of us will take up the challenge.
I hope we will follow our intuition, our intimations of uniqueness and interrelatedness that have informed our romance with this image of the web, right down to the depths. Who knows where it will take us. To a meditation hall? To a soup kitchen? To a political action? To telling a story to a child? Perhaps to each in its time, and rhythm, to each as we, as you and I, open to know with that truly open mind, that mind which forgets selfishness and isolation, and experiences fully the strands of uniqueness and interrelatedness, strands that bind and create and liberate.
James Ishmael Ford is senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts. He also serves as guiding teacher for the Zen Community of Boston.
Welcome to UU Sangha’s
Fall 2002 issue! I hope that as the
seasons change and families gather for the holidays, that all our readers are
enjoying happiness and good health. This
issue we’ve got a lot of material for y’all: an essay by Rev. James Ford,
poetry from ancestor Henry David Thoreau and contemporary UU Roy Money, and a
quirky mini-photo spread of Buddhist baked goods. One feature I’d like to call your attention
to is UUBF President
Speaking of the website, by the time y’all receive this issue, I expect to have some new content up. I often update the practice groups page, but look for new UU sermons on Buddhist topics, links, information about UUBF leaders, and more. You can check it out at http://www.uua.org/uubf. If you have essays/sermons on UUism and Buddhism that you would like to contribute to the site (either by hosting on our site, or with a link to where the material is currently stored), please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
This issue we welcome a
new Publisher, Richard Swanson, who is also our Treasurer. Previously Rev.
I’m interested in feedback about the UU Sangha. What do y’all like about it, and what would you like to see changed? Do you have suggestions for themes for future issues? Remember, this journal depends on your submissions and input.
The next issue of UU Sangha will be published in January 2003. Submissions are open: if you have an essay, poem, story, artwork, or other appropriate material to share with us, please feel free to submit or query to email@example.com. The deadline for the Winter issue will be January 1st.
—Jeff Wilson, Editor
By Roy Money
Flags are proliferating again
in a proud nation doubled in grief
after a horrible crime against all
and people want to express their concern
to stand united across internal divisions
now unimportant in a period of crisis
for those who have suffered and died.
Yet for many there is another division
that shadows our standing together
it is the specter of supremacy
that places all outside underneath
we who have depended on so many for so much
and so many who were separate and alien to us
natives and slaves and immigrants and others.
Our borders have changed repeatedly
as we took what we wanted
and called it our destiny
but boundaries cannot contain us
we stride forth and straddle the world
gaining increasing fortune and influence
that is surely not due alone to our efforts.
We glory in our preeminence
and many mistake it for license
but the world is always one
and there are inevitable consequences
to whatever action is chosen
we cannot hide behind our borders
and ignorance will not secure our innocence.
It is good to be grateful and proud
for our noble ideals and deeds
and uphold them with honor
but also never forget that relation enmeshes us all
each as a node in a far reaching net
and nothing is fully separate from the rest
we simply could not be without the others.
Roy is a biostatistician who lives in New Haven, Ct. He is a member of the Unitarian Society of New Haven and practices vipassana
The UU Buddhism of
Ever since I got involved with the UU Buddhist Fellowship I’ve been trying to figure out what the potential of this organization is. Are we just an information and referral service? Do we lurk in Unitarian Universalism looking for spiritual seekers, introduce them to our favorite brand of Buddhist practice and lure them into that tradition? Do we provide cover for Buddhists who don’t like organized Buddhism but still want a sangha? Are we a place for Buddhists to get an expansive religious education for their children? Do we exist just to invite interesting speakers to a workshop at General Assembly? Do we provide cover for non-theistic folks in our movement that want to be religious without a lot of God talk? Do we exist as the seed of an Americanized version of Buddhism universalized and adapted to western culture?
I present all these questions because, as your new President, I feel a desire to work towards articulating what we are about and clarify and prioritize what goals this organization might work toward achieving. As a deeply committed and devoted practitioner of Vipassana meditation (Theravadan - Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA) and a minister serving a mid-sized congregation, I regularly struggle with how my intense commitment to practice and Unitarian Universalism fit together. I lead a meditation group that meets once a month. Two or three times a year, I have a meditation weekend (Friday night and Saturday) where I offer the basics of the technique I practice. I encourage people to go to retreats and attend other sitting groups if they want more than I know or can offer.
I worry about how much to use Buddhist ideas and concepts in my sermons. Most of the members of my congregation know very little about Buddhism. If I pull out quotes from Buddhist Suttas, they do not reinforce people’s beliefs or support their faith. The illustrations are interesting curiosities, like visiting a museum and reading about something unusual in a guidebook.
Much as many in our movement reject Judaism and Christianity, the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists carry in their subconscious Jewish and Christian metaphors and images either from their youth or from our culture. Almost no one in our congregation chanted the Lotus Sutra as a child or practiced meditation with their family growing up. At best they witnessed a Buddhist ritual like Tibetan sand painting or perhaps they had a tray of sand and some rocks to arrange as a Zen garden.
Where my Buddhism is most helpful to me in my ministry is as a personal support. Daily meditation practice keeps me sane as I deal with all the pressures and competing demands on my time. That hour at 5:00am each morning is my time just to be alive and present to “the verities and realities” of my existence. The teachings and guidance, the Four Noble Truths, the Three Gems, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Five Precepts, and the Eightfold Path, all organize my perception and action as I face each day. The dual lens of concentration and awareness tune my mind as I encounter the moment. Metta connects me to the members of my congregation.
I mention all this because I’d like to see Buddhism gradually become more integrated into Unitarian Universalism and the UU Buddhist Fellowship can be part of that process. I feel our organization has the potential to be more than it is and I would like to lead us toward that goal.
Right now, here is what the UU Buddhist Fellowship does. We put out this journal four times a year. I took it over from James Ford in the fall of 1997. I handed it over to Jeff Wilson in 2001 and am pleased to see the excellent ways he has developed UU Sangha. We maintain a website (http://www.uua.org/uubf). We support an electronic conversation on the discussion list firstname.lastname@example.org. Every year we present a speaker at UUA General Assembly. We also host a table during GA with books, old UU Sanghas, and other information.
The meditation groups that are listed on our website and at the back of this issue are all independent of the UU Buddhist Fellowship. The only requirement for their association with us is that the groups have some Buddhist connection and some Unitarian Universalist connection. Many of these groups are just small groups of people who have sitting practices and are just looking for others to sit with. Others have strong leadership and are developing their own cultures.
One of the things I’d like to see is more intentional networking of these meditation groups. We are all exploring the boundaries between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, looking for ways they are compatible and reinforce each other. Maybe we could have a conference to share ideas, stories, sit together, and share fellowship. This might be done around General Assembly.
I’m particularly interested in exploring what a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist retreat might look like. I organized a one-day retreat in 1998 when GA was in Rochester, New York. It attracted about 20 or so ministers to spend the day doing basic awareness practice in the Rochester Zen Center. Everyone who had a practice was encouraged to do his or her own practice. This was probably the only time an eclectic approach to a retreat has ever happened there! I think there is value for us to come together and share our different traditions with each other. This affirmation of diversity can strengthen our individual practices.
The last thing I’d like to accomplish, as President, is to institutionalize the UU Buddhist Fellowship. We currently do not have any bylaws. I’d like us to become more official in our connection with the UUA. I’d like us to become a 501(c)3 organization so people’s dues are tax deductible. If anyone out there can help us with these tasks I’d be tremendously grateful. I’d also like to develop a more democratic leadership than a loose connection of UU ministers and senior students.
Way back when I accepted the invitation to take over UU Sangha, I did so because I believe the nexus between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism is extremely strong. Meditation is the antidote to many toxic elements of our culture. Unitarian Universalism’s sense of community and our evolving vision of interdependence find many points of contact and support in Buddhism. The practical and non-theistic approach of Buddhism appeals to the Unitarian Universalist temperament. I expect over the next hundred years, as more people become familiar with Buddhism, we’ll see strong growth of this organization.
If anything you’ve read here excites your interest and willingness to act, please let me know (email@example.com or at my address on page two). As your President, I can agitate and organize but have little time to make some of these ideas happen. I need your help to realize our potential. I invite you to step forward and help actualize the potential of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship.
I am a Parcel of Vain
By Henry David Thoreau
I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
Were made so loose and wide,
For milder weather.
A bunch of violets without their roots,
And sorrel intermixed,
Encircled by a wisp of straw
Once coiled about their shoots,
By which I'm fixed.
A nosegay which Time clutched from out
Those fair Elysian fields,
With weeds and broken stems, in haste,
Doth make the rabble rout
The day he yields.
And here I bloom for a short hour unseen,
Drinking my juices up,
With no root in the land
To keep my branches green,
In a bare cup.
Some tender buds were left upon my stem
In mimicry of life,
But ah! the children will not know,
Till time has withered them,
With which they're rife.
But now I see I was not plucked for naught,
And after in life's vase
Of glass set while I might survive,
But by a kind hand brought
To a strange place.
That stock thus thinned will soon redeem its hours,
And by another year,
Such as God knows, with freer air,
More fruits and fairer flowers
While I droop here.
Buddhist Elements in
From the editor: This issue was supposed to include a look at the use of Buddhist images, liturgy, and practices in UU rituals: weddings, naming ceremonies, services, etc. But we didn’t receive any appropriate material. So, to fire up your imagination, here are a couple of Buddhist images put to use in UU contexts. Although we didn’t receive much word from y’all, I do believe there is an increasing amount of Buddhist material being used by UUs in a ritual context, both for individual rites of passage and in communal worship services. Just as an anecdotal illustration, when my wife and I were married last year in a UU ceremony, one of the readings was a metta meditation, there was a Buddhist wheel altar cloth, and we hung Tibetan prayer flags all over the backyard for the reception. The current UU hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, includes a Buddhist responsive reading, and a brief benediction culled from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:
Be ye lamps unto yourselves; be
your own confidence.
Hold to the truth within
yourselves as to the only lamp.
Mmm, mmm, Buddha is good eatin’! Two examples of Buddhist images put to creative uses: a stupa-shaped cake with traditional Buddhist designs from a Unitarian-Universalist wedding (left); two cookies in the shape of monks (complete with malas and robes) made for a UU birthday celebration (right).