The question I'd like to consider this morning is: Just what motivates Unitarian Universalists to participate positively in social change and social service, and advocate for social justice? Traditionally our motivation has come from our Unitarian and Universalist Christian heritage. That is changing today. As we have sought to identify ourselves as a religion which embraces a wide theological diversity, we have gradually broadened our self definition, so today a faith in God and/or Jesus is no longer required for membership. While becoming non-creedal has been beneficial in developing a new kind religion with a great degree of individual freedom, it has some consequences. I think it has weakened our willingness to accept the authority of the Bible as a motivation for our social action. Since today the majority of UU's are non-Christian and many are Humanist, I believe we need to find a new way to inspire social action compatible with the Bible yet arising from a different non-theistic religious root more compatible with the Scientific Humanism common in our membership. That new root for our collective social action I'm going to argue for this morning is Buddhism.
This suggestion typically meets with some resistance. Because of the inward focus of the primary Buddhist practice of meditation and retreating from the world for inner exploration, some have sought to label Buddhism as a individualistic religion with little attention to social concerns and justice making. Some hear of the insights of the Buddha into impermanence and the unsatisfactory nature of existence and wonder why Buddhists would care to want to be active in social change if they believed the problems of the world can't be fixed. Some may have met a few self absorbed Americans experimenting with Buddhism and want to generalize that Buddhism leads people away from caring about the problems of the world.
This criticism comes particularly strongly from those who embrace an idealism inspired by the Biblical Prophets. That idealism might be summarized as follows: God has a vision for the way we should live and be faithful. Because of the evil tendencies in human nature to follow one's personal desires and neglect the law of God and the good of others, suffering enters the world. God wants us to fix the world through a freely chosen religious transformation of our highest commitment from self interest to God's Will. Religious people who decide to commit themselves to God's higher purpose must actively stand in opposition to the powers which collude with the indulgence of personal desire at the expense of the social whole.
This prophetically inspired idealism has power with those who look to the Bible for guidance in life. Every Jew is included in the covenant Moses struck with God on Mount Sinai and has a religious obligation to follow it. The good Christians faithful to their religion should become disciples of Jesus and engage in mission work spreading the faith. Both the Christian and Jew who embrace the Bible as authoritative today, must also embrace the prophets and labor to serve God's vision of how we should walk together. While Humanism excises God from the above formula, the social agenda of humanism is strongly anchored in the Biblical tradition and thinking--but with a twist.
Micah's prophetic imperative "to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (6:8) may inspire the true believer, but it may not be compelling for the average Unitarian Universalist. Many of us read the Bible as inspirational literature but not as a blueprint for constructing our lives and saving the world. Those UU's who embrace the teachings of the Prophets are likely to incorporate them as part of a personal philosophy rather than as a religious highest commitment. And those who embrace the prophets as personal philosophy may encounter problems.
The danger of embracing the prophets without a high degree of religious commitment which goes beyond the personal is activism without follow through. The typical life cycle of a social activist, especially among UU's and perhaps some in this room this morning, might sound like this: A budding social activist is born as she rises to social awareness in her teenage years and discovers that the world isn't fair. Not only isn't it fair but the world is rampant with injustice, social inequality and evil. Good people get squashed under the heel of unfeeling institutions. Bad people escape punishment and even prosper. And having to watch the whole mess on the evening news is painful.
The thought occurs in her mind that something needs to be done. Her youthful idealism moves her to respond to the evil she witnesses and get involved in advocating for social change. The Biblical prophetic ideals enshrined in today's social change movements suggest to the young social activist that this isn't how God (or the Goddess, or the Force, or evolution, or nature, etc.) wants the world to be and needs the help of good people like her to set things right. She is inspired by the ideals, takes up the yoke and plunges into the task of saving the world.
After lots of energy is expended, most often with varied success and lots of failure, the changes accomplished do not meet her ideals. She begins to see the humanity of the social change people around her and those she is helping. Few are as pure of effort, motivation and heart as she expected. Her sacrifice for the cause becomes more and more difficult as harsh realities tear down her ideals. As we are seeing in a few books published lately by liberal activists who have turned conservative and cynical, She becomes jaded and begins to lose faith in being able to make a difference.
Where our hypothetical social activist falls off her beam has to do with her center of motivation and expectation. Activists are often unaware of the role of their emotions motivating their ideals. Many, I hope all, who engage in social action are motivated by the pain they feel witnessing the evil in the world. They see an act of injustice or domination, feel for the victim and experience anger toward the aggressor. Watching someone else suffer hurts us too because we are social animals with sympathetic responses.
Part of the motivation for some to engage in social action is to change the world so we, at some time in the future, will not have to feel these unpleasant feelings. When one begins to intuit that human suffering can not be eliminated easily--perhaps not even at all--then one must face the reality that there is no escape from this kind of pain. And the way the human organism deals with chronic pain is to become desensitized and to defend against it. The mind says to itself, "If I can't stop this pain, at least I can insulate and protect myself from it. If I can't fix the world then I will just hide and hope to get through life escaping too much misery." If you've got a lot of money and are Caucasian, you have a chance at this kind of escape. If you are colored and poor, you cannot.
Social idealism as a personal philosophy fails for many because I believe it requires a deeper commitment to work successfully than is possible through personal choice. Sustainable transformative social change requires a religious commitment which transcends the self. And Buddhist philosophy and practice can help us get to that kind of commitment.
Unlike Moses' promised land or Jesus' prediction of the coming Kingdom of God, Buddhism holds out no hope of things getting better. But things aren't necessarily going to get any worse either. Buddhism clearly looks upon the world and human nature as it is and outlines what is possible. Fortunately Buddhism is quite optimistic about what is possible for all of us. We can all be released from the unsatisfactory nature and daily suffering of life by following the Eightfold Path outlined by the Buddha.
Unlike theistically centered religions, Buddhism does not start with a confession of faith or the entering into a relationship with a deity. When the Buddha encountered those who questioned the beliefs underpinning his teaching, he didn't argue the point. Rather, he would encourage them to find out for themselves through their own direct experience using the techniques he taught. The Buddha's core teaching contains no revealed truth that is inaccessible to the student willing to sit and devote themselves to the meditation practice and the discipline of directly witnessing the functioning of the human organism in relation to the world. Because no faith is required of the practitioner, save some degree of confidence in the practice itself and the Buddha who discovered the practice, Buddhism, is very appealing to the kind of self reliant individualist found in UU congregations. It bypasses the idealism of trying to conform human beliefs, behaviors and understanding to a revealed truth and leads us to know ourselves as we are rather than who we would like to pretend to be. And who we are is much, much greater than we can imagine.
One of my introductions to Buddhist social action came from attending a lecture by Steven Levine. He had set up one of the first centers for what he called "conscious dying." Like the Hospice movement today, his center was for people in the last stages of dying with only a few months to live. Inspired by Elizabeth Kubler Ross's work and his own deep experience of Buddhist meditation, he helped people as best he could to have what he called "a good death."
From one perspective this is pretty depressing work. During the middle `80's I knew several people who were volunteering in the San Francisco Bay Area to work with AIDS patients. At that time, people died pretty quickly of AIDS. I remember these volunteers struggling with their feelings of loss and what they called "compassion fatigue." So I expected to hear similar stories from Levine at the lecture.
What Levine offered us, though, was something quite different. There was no question that he too experienced his own suffering as he watched his patients dying just like the AIDS workers I knew. But he didn't resist the pain nor hold on to those who were dying. He used his Buddhist meditation practice to release these attachments and aversions so he could be present with each dying person. And in this presence, without expectations, they were able to love each other into death. Levine didn't talk too much about compassion fatigue or that he was sacrificing himself for this work. Rather he spoke of the way he was growing in his love--by letting go.
Another area I've seen Buddhism inspiring social action has been in the area of environmentalism. These Buddhist environmentalists reject shaping the world into an ideal form or to conform to exclusive human needs. Rather than making the world comfortable for us, Buddhist philosophy encourages us to learn about rather than dominate natural systems and how we can participate in them without harming them. There are not good animals and birds, and bad bugs and serpents but rather an interdependent web which works together in a kind of creative harmony. We cannot separate ourselves out of this web and stand apart as soul infused beings different from the rest of creation. Buddhism rejects the idea of the individual separate soul which survives the body. We are part of the continuum of evolution and are one with the rest of life on this planet. This is really good news! If we are not separate from the ecosystem, what joy! We are part of it all, profoundly part of it all, and deeply knit into the fabric of existence. We are not alone.
Buddhism energizes and sustains social action because it operates from a strong foundation in both the reality of the world and what is possible for human beings. The meditative process of directly witnessing the functioning of the body, the senses, the feelings, the emotions and the mind yields incredibly important insights about the nature of reality which have tremendous social implications.
Yes, there is great injustice, inequality, misery and suffering in this world. Yes, these troubles cannot be removed from existence. Yes, everything changes and nothing lasts forever. The seeds of future problems are programmed into our genes. The bad news is acknowledged right up front in Buddhism so people don't get caught up in false hopes and ideals. There is no future time when things will be wonderful forever.
The good news is that isn't the whole story. Life also contains moments of great wonder, joy, love and celebration. Not only do these moments exist but they can be cultivated by the way we live our lives both individually and collectively. And how each of us lives our lives individually has a great impact on other people's access to these experiences of peace and serenity. The experience of this cessation of suffering is profoundly energizing and tends to connect us with others rather than separate us. The experience cultivated in meditation is the very experience that becomes the source of the desire to help others.
This is just what happens to me when I go away for a meditation retreat. As my body and mind settle down and I make peace with various levels of physical, emotional and mental attachments and aversions, I find when my mind is quiet, my heart opens and fills with love. This isn't the kind of love most of us know as the desire for a spouse, a son or daughter or a favorite chair, pet or spot on the beach. It is a love which opens to everything and everyone and celebrates both what is and what isn't at the same time. It is a kind of open, peaceful equanimity ready to engage with life and holding nothing back. It is in this solid sense of interconnectedness that the movement to help another easily arises. And from this kind of purity of intent, great things can happen.
I believe social activism arising from one's personal experience of the nature of reality is potentially stronger and more powerful than striving to follow an ideal vision of the way the world ought to be. By honing one's direct experience of reality, one is much better able to make positive change than when one is ends directed. There isn't the temptation to commit evil for the greater good of the ideal. There is no need to force another to accept an alien religion or belief system to save their souls or change their politics. There is no desire to sacrifice the children of today for a more glorious tomorrow. There is no rejection of the world as sinful in need of redemption. Little in life is more satisfying than cultivating the ability to work positively and creatively with whatever reality we encounter each morning. The individual engaging in this kind of social action doesn't have their eye on a shining and unreachable goal but rather on the problem or opportunity presenting itself today
Buddhism teaches a means oriented way to do social action which is in constant relationship with the present. I believe this has an advantage over the ends oriented idealistic path to social action for UU's because it doesn't defer individual satisfaction into the future nor require a faith based commitment. Rather than attempting to banish pain from the world, the unsatisfactory nature of reality is directly confronted and transcended through an evolution of consciousness. The social activist grows and matures whether or not the world is saved, discovering themselves through social action which is mutually transforming. No special revelation is needed. No belief is required. Only the willingness and commitment to actively engage life as it is and be ready to learn and respond.
Which ends up being the same destination as the Jew or Christian social activist as well. They too must eventually let go of their ideals. But instead of accepting reality, they recognize it as surrendering to the will to God. This is an equally fine way to engage in social action--if you are a believer. But if you are like many agnostic or atheistic UU's, the better inspiration for social activism is found through the path taught by the Buddha.
Copyright (c) 1997 by the Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore. All rights reserved.