or, Confessions of a Trinitarian Universalist

Rev. Erik Walker Wilkstrom
First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine

To take refuge in the Three Jewels is to turn to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha for protection. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are three precious gems. To take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in an awakened person who has the ability to show us the way in this life. To take refuge in the Dharma is to take refuge in the way of understanding, love, and compassion. To take refuge in the Sangha is to take refuge in a community that practices according to the path of understanding, love, and compassion, and lives in an awakened way.

The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha are present in every quarter of the universe as well as in every person and all other species. To go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha also means to have confidence in our own ability to be awakened, to develop and manifest understanding and love in ourselves, and to practice the way for ourselves and for the community.

from "The Ceremony to Transmit the Three Refuges" of The Buddhist Order of Inter-Being (Tiep Hien)

"If one desires to become a Buddhist, there is no initiation ceremony (or baptism) which one has to undergo," writes Walpola Rahula in his wonderful introductory book, What the Buddha Taught. "If one understands the Buddha's teaching, and if one is convinced his teaching is the right Path and if one tries to follow it, then one is a Buddhist. But," he continues, "according to the unbroken age-old tradition in Buddhist countries one is considered a Buddhist if one takes the Buddha, the [Dharma], and the Sangha -- generally called 'the Triple-Gem' --as one's refuges."

We are not Buddhists, of course, so you might be wondering why you're hearing so much Buddhism in a Unitarian Universalist church. As a movement, we affirm that all the religious of the world have insight and inspiration to share, and that we have much to learn from them. The UUA's Principles and Purposes states, "the living tradition we share draws from may sources [including] wisdom from the world's religions which inspire us in our ethical and spiritual life." This year our young people have been taking this statement to heart and have been studying world religions; building upon the work they did last year with our own Principles and Purposes; they have been exposing themselves to and exploring the many ways the religious impulse has been expressed, and in the process, have been learning how better to live in a multi-religious world such as ours. This is not a project for our children alone.

So I speak to the topic of the Triple-Gem, or the Three Treasures of Buddhism because of our quest to learn as best we can from the paths others have taken; there is wisdom here, I think, which we can apply to the way we live our lives, Buddhist or not. I chose this topic as well because Buddhism is a path which speaks deeply to me. The spiritual practice which has had the most profound impact on me over the years has been Zen meditation -- in the last 15 years or so I have done a lot of reading and a fair amount of sitting. (There is a saying that the state of your room reflects the state of your practice, and I can tell you that I go through periods of tremendous order, and times when the piles are so high you need a shovel to get in!) But while my practice may be somewhat sporadic and uneven, I return to it again and again; during my periods of dedication I know that I am deeply moved and fed by these ancient practices and this ancient tradition.

Buddham saranam gachchami, dhammam saranam gachchami, sangham saranam gachchami. This is the Pali for the phrase repeated in the public ceremony Walpola Rahula refered to for becoming a Buddhist -- "I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha." Buddhism, like Christianity (like any other religion, really) is not a monolithic entity -- there are at least as many sects and sub-sects in Buddhism as there are denominations and sub-denominations in Christianity. Still, the concept of taking refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha is central to most of them.

The Buddha is reported to have told his disciples that they should not believe his teachings merely because he taught them, but that they should try them for themselves and see if they work. In the Anguttara-Nikaya it is written, "do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: 'this is our teacher'. But . . . when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them." In the Vimamsaka-sutta he extends this even to his own teachings. This strikes me as a very Unitarian Universalist way of thinking.

Today I propose that we look at each of the Three Treasures in turn, examine what it means to a Buddhist to take refuge in them, and see what it might mean to us. This morning we will explore some ideas, but we should never forget that it is what we do with these ideas that really matters.

I take refuge in the Buddha.

Let us begin with the Buddha. There are a number of ways of understanding what is meant by "to the Buddha I go for refuge." Buddha is, of course, the name by which we know the legendary figure of Siddhartha Gautama, born about 560 B.C.E., in what is now Nepal, into a noble family of the Shakya clan. (Which is why he is referred to as Shakyamuni Buddha.) His experiences and his teaching are the foundation of Buddhism, just as the experiences and teaching of Jesus form the foundation of Christianity. In many Buddhist sects prayers are directed to Shakyamuni Buddha, just as Christian prayer is often directed to Jesus; in the Pure Land tradition it is thought that merely saying his name confers merit. And just as some Christians look to the historic figure of Jesus as an example of how to live in the world, many Buddhists turn to the historic Siddhartha. So one understanding is that it is to this historical and mythical figure that Buddhists turn for "refuge" -- to his example and to the power of his person.

But there is another way of understanding "taking refuge in the Buddha." Buddha is a title -- meaning "the Enlightened One" -- and while most of us hear it as referring to this particular Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), Buddhist scripture talks of many -- sometimes innumerable -- Buddhas who preceded him and who will follow him; the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, is merely the Buddha for this age and this world. The concept of Buddha is not limited to any one time or place, or to any one person. This deeper understanding points to a deeper truth -- that all existence is pervaded with what is called "Buddha-nature," that there is a Buddha within all of us and with all things.

At a weekend introduction to Zen I attended several years ago at the Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, someone asked about the significance of bowing to the statue of the Buddha in the meditation hall. We were told that the statue was not an idol, not an image of something outside, but was a reminder of the Buddha within -- "all things have Buddha-nature." In bowing to the Buddha we were bowing, in effect, to ourselves. Turning to the Buddha for refuge, then, is also turning to the Buddha who dwells within, turning to our own higher nature, to that better and wiser part of ourselves which so often goes unheard and unobserved. In our reading this morning we heard that, "to take refuge in the Buddha is to take refuge in an awakened person who has the ability to show us the way in this life." A Zen understanding would be that the awakened person is really none other than ourselves. I take refuge in the Buddha.

I take refuge in the Dharma.

Let's take a look at the Dharma. The Sanscrit word Dharma has a multitude of meanings. In its most concrete sense it means the teachings of the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni, and this is one sense of understanding the idea of going to the Dharma for refuge. The teachings of Siddhartha, like the teachings of Jesus, are a source of strength and inspiration; you can look to them for comfort and courage.

But again, there are deeper understandings. Dharma refers also to what we might call "Truth with a capitol T;" the truth towards which Siddhartha's teachings point but of which they are only a shadow; what Aldous Huxley called "The Perennial Philosophy," the Truth which lies within and beneath all of our various expressions of religious and philosophical wisdom. In China they speak of the Tao that cannot be spoken, the Eternal Tao which existed before the world began. Buddhists say that the Dharma pervades all existence, that all things in the "Ten Directions" and the "Three Worlds" are expressions of the Dharma. The New Testament Book of John tells us that "in the beginning was the Word" -- the Logos, the Word of God -- and that, "all things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] not one thing came into being." I think there are parallels in all of this: The Word of God, the Eternal Tao, the Dharma all, it seems to me, point to the idea of a Truth through which and in which all things exist, a Truth which passes all understanding but, we are told over and again, which can be experienced. To take refuge in the Dharma, then, can be understood as taking refuge in the depths, the very source of existence. I take refuge in the Dharma.

I take refuge in the Sangha.

The last of the Three Treasures is the Sangha, a Sanscrit word meaning literally "crowd or host," but usually translated as, "community." Originally it denoted only the disciples of Siddhartha, but the understanding gradually expanded to mean any Buddhist monk or nun. This expansion continued, and the concept of Sangha eventually grew to be understood to refer to the entire community of Buddhists, lay and ordained alike. Although I think it is important to remember, again, the diversity of Buddhist sects; not all of the expansion and evolution I've mentioned has take place in every branch of Buddhism, but in its broadest application Sangha stands for every Buddhist, past, present, and future. The fact that it is one of the Three Treasures is, in what might otherwise seem a solitary and individual tradition, a recognition of the importance of community -- we may hold the image of Siddhartha alone beneath the Bodhi tree and may imagine meditation as an individual's path, but the Sangha, the community, is seen as absolutely essential.

To turn to the Sangha for refuge, then, is to turn to a community of like-minded people for support and encouragement, to turn to others on a similar path for the strength and courage found only in community. In our reading we heard it this way, "to take refuge in the Sangha is to take refuge in a community that practices according to the path of understanding, love, and compassion and lives in an awakened way." I would make a slight alteration and say "a community that strives to practice according to the path of understanding, love, and compassion and strives to live in an awakened way," because that is more realistic, but to take refuge in the Sangha is to take refuge in community. I take refuge in the Sangha.

Confessions of a Trinitarian Universalist

So this is my confession: although I am a Unitarian I have a real weakness of trinities (always have!) and I am drawn to this trinity of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha -- the Three Treasures, the Triple Gem. Our reading reminds us that "[they] are present in every quarter of the universe as well as in every person and all other species," throughout the "interdependent web of existence," we might say. I think they are present within Unitarian Universalism as well.

To the Buddha we go for refuge -- We say that our living tradition draws upon the "words and deeds of prophetic women and men," historic figures from the past who provide examples of how to live in the world, women and men like: Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Albert Schweitzer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hildegaard of Bingem, Jesus, Siddhartha -- Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all. And Unitarian Universalist have always look within, to the higher, deeper, truer Self which dwells within us all; have always held that salvation rests in our own hands, that what is Holy and Divine is not outside of us, but within. We turn to the Buddha.

To the Dharma we go for refuge -- the Truth which cannot spoken but which can be intimately known, that "transcending mystery and wonder affirmed in all cultures" as our Principles and Purposes puts it. Yes, Dharma can mean the specific teachings of a specific religion, and many of us do turn to the teachings of a tradition for strength and wisdom, but Dharma also points to that Reality which underlies them all. We are engaged, we say, in "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." We turn to the Dharma.

To the Sangha we go for refuge -- the community of family and friends and strangers; the community of people who come together in mutual love for mutual support; this community; the wider community of our common humanity. "Here we have gathered," we sang earlier, and so we have -- gathered together, gathered in community. We turn to the Sangha.

There is a Zen parable which warns against confusing the finger which points at the moon for the moon itself; these words -- Buddha, Dharma, Sangha -- these metaphors, are merely fingers, ways of describing something beyond description. The end of our reading said, "to go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha also means to have confidence in our own ability to be awakened, to develop and manifest understanding and love in ourselves, and to practice the way for ourselves and for the community." Whatever way or ways you choose, may it always be so.


Rev. Erik Walker Wilkstrom
First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine

Reading: When Buddha was on Vulture Peak he turned a flower in his fingers and held it before his listeners. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakassapa smiled at this revelation, although he tried to control the lines of his face. Buddha said, "I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the form of no form, and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I have given to Mahakassapa." Wumen-kuan, case 6 (slightly adapted from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps)
I love the story we heard a moment ago. There is a picture of it in my office that I look at everyday. Here we have the great teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha, toward the end of his career surrounded by his students on Vulture Peak. In some tellings there are literally thousands gathered around him--sages and saints, wise women and men, even the gods and myriad Boddhisattvas are there to hear him expound the Dharma, to teach the deep and powerful Truths he has discovered on his path. In one version of the tale it is Brahma himself, the highest deity of the Hindu pantheon, who gives the Buddha a garland of flowers and asks him to teach his Truths. Truly a command performance if ever there was one, an opportunity not to be missed.

Shakyamuni, we are told, takes one of the flowers from the garland and begins to twirl it between his fingers, saying nothing. His attention, and the attention of the all who have gathered with him, fully focused on that flower. Total silence. Perhaps even the wind died down. And there's the Buddha, twirling a flower.

I don't know how long this went on, no one tells us, but I imagine it was long enough to make just about everyone feel thoroughly uncomfortable. No sermons, no pithy maxims, not even an enigmatic riddle--just silence and a flower. You can understand if the people gathered there started sneaking looks at one another to see if anyone else could figure out just what was going on. Was he ever going to say anything? Some of them probably started looking off distractedly into the distance, maybe a few even started talking to each other. And all the while the Buddha sat there twirling that flower.

Then all of a sudden, or maybe it happened gradually, a smile appeared on the face of a monk in the back of the crowd, a monk by the name of Kassapa who, as happens so often in this kind of story, is from this time on known by a new name, Mahakassapa. While everyone else was busy being confused, and agitated, and uncomfortable, he alone sat smiling serenely; he, alone, seemed to understand the Buddha's silence and this twirling of a flower.

And the Buddha noticed. From out of the silence he spoke, "I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the true form of no form, and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I have given to Mahakassapa." With this the Buddha declared that there finally was someone who fully understood his teaching, who saw the world as he saw the world, who was worthy to be his spiritual heir. Mahakassapa is remembered to this day as the first to receive the direct transmission of the Buddha-mind and, so, is honored as the first Patriarch of the Indian Zen lineage.

I love this story. I love it for several reasons. The heart of Zen Buddhism can be summed up in four statements usually attributed to Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch who brought Buddhism from India to China. He described the Spirit of Zen as, "a special transmission outside the teaching; no reliance on words and letters; direct pointing to the heart; realization of one's true self." Zen Buddhism is focused not on intellectual understanding, not on concepts, but on direct, personal experience, and this has always appealed to me.

Now it might seem odd that one whose business is so focused on words and thoughts would have this reaction, but I do. I agree that the essential Truths of Life cannot be confined in words; I agree that the Mystery that is Life cannot be fully grasped in words or letters; I agree that the way to these Truths is most powerfully through experience rather than the intellect, that the intellect, in fact, can get in the way. No reliance on words and letters; direct pointing to the heart; realization of one's true self. So I love this story because here in this tale of the Buddha, and a flower, and Mahakassapa's smile we see this Zen ideal brought vividly to life: the Buddha transmitted the heart of his teaching without uttering a word, and Mahakassapa demonstrated that he had received it with only a smile.

So what did Mahakassapa see in that flower, and what did the Buddha see in his smile? Those are good questions, and a tough ones to answer because if this teaching is inexpressible in words, what words shall I use? I am tempted to hold up this flower and leave it at that, but don't think I can get away with it.

"To see a world in a grain of sand," wrote the poet and mystic William Blake, "and Heaven in a wild flower, hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour." One of the central teachings of Buddhism is that all things are interconnected. Often called "the teaching of dependent co-origination" it is expressed in less technical terms as simply, "this is, because that is." This is, because that is.

Recently I wrote a newsletter column about the word "Gassho," the Japanese term for the hand position in a bow which expresses the idea that "you and I are one." Earlier in the year during a Story for All Ages I talked to the children about chocolate chip cookie meditation--that if you look deeply into a cookie you can see more than just the cookie. You can see the wheat and the sugar cane from which the cookie was baked. You can see the sun, the wind and the rain which helped them to grow. You can see the farmers and the bakers and the driver of the truck that brought it to the store. If you look deeply at a cookie--if you look deeply at anything that is--you can see everything that is.

Dependent co-origination. To see a world in a grain of sand. This is because that is.

I think that this is what Mahakassapa saw that day on Vulture Peak when the Buddha sat there silently twirling a flower. I think that he saw his smile in that flower, and I think the Buddha saw his flower in Mahakassapa's smile. No reliance on words and letters; direct pointing to the heart; realization of one's true self.

Others, of course, saw the lotus in the Buddha's hand, but what made Mahakassapa stand out is that he did not see a preconceived notion of flower, nor did he see the memory of flowers past; both the Buddha and this monk were able to see, truly see, this particular flower at this particular time. So often we look at something (or someone) and find ourselves looking through so many filters--filters of hopes and fears, memories and expectations--that we never truly see what it is we are looking at. Mahakassapa truly saw that flower, and in that flower he saw all that is.

Three things seem to grow from this awareness, this awareness that this is because that is: that we are interconnected, that we are one with Life. The first is heartfelt Joy. The story says that Mahakassapa tried to control the lines of his face but that he broke into a grin despite himself; and what can you do when you see--and I mean really see--that we are all intimately connected one to another and each to all . . . what can you do at such a time but smile? The second and third flowers to grow from this seed of awareness are closely linked--a sense of deep Gratitude and of profound Responsiblity. When I look around me with the eye of this insight I cannot help but see that I am part and parcel of all that is and owe my existence to it. I am because the sun is. I am because the earth is. I am because my parents are, and because their parents and their parents' parents were. I am because you are. Heartfelt Joy; deep Gratitude; profound Responsibility.

I have been speaking about Zen Buddhism, but is all this not also a part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage? Do we not, despite our love of talk, have a profound distrust of someone else's truths, preferring always those truths which we have explored and experienced on our own? Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors believed that even Holy Scripture had to be weighed against individual reason and individual experience; words were not Holy and Sacred in an of themselves but only inasmuch as their Truth was proved through the living of them. It is no wonder that Zen has appealed to so many in our movement--a special transmission outside the teaching; no reliance on words and letters; direct pointing to the heart; realization of one's true self.

And does not our tradition recognize the truth of "this is because that is," do we not "affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part"? Last week we said together, "We believe we are one with stars and trees and tigers and rivers and all the stuff of life," and together we declared that, "Good News!" And we hold that this Good News promotes an attitude toward life of heartfelt Joy, deep Gratitude and profound Responsibility.

These are our truths, too.

Today we will hold up a flower in our own way through the celebration of the Unitarian Universalist tradition of Flower Communion, developed by Dr. Norbert Capek in 1923. Capek, once the head of all the Baptist churches in Bohemia, found that his theology was growing too liberal for that religious body, so he left the Baptists and founded the Unitarian Church in Czechoslovakia. He and many with him felt that their spiritual needs could not be met by the ceremonies they had left behind and felt the need for new rituals, new forms, to speak to their new understandings, so Capek composed a number of hymns and developed a number of new rituals. His flower communion survived and is celebrated to this day in Unitarian Universalist churches around the world.

The basic ritual is now as it was then--each member of the congregation is asked to bring a flower to church, preferably a flower from their garden or one found growing on a hillside. The flowers represent life and hope; each one individual and distinct, yet together creating a beautiful display, more beautiful than any individual could be on its own. At the end of the service each person takes home a flower, but not the flower they had brought--thus each person gives, each person receives. This is a ceremony of hope, a ceremony of interconnectedness.

Today we have also taken time to honor and welcome those people who have recently joined our church, choosing to make the step of signing the book and committing themselves to membership in this community. Each of these people is individual and distinct, yet together adding to the beauty of this place, helping all of us to blossom and flourish. Again, a ceremony of our interconnectedness.

So it seems fitting that today we remember Mahakassapa's smile and the lesson of that flower so long ago. That flower is any one of these flowers; that flower is any one of us. We are all in this together. This is because that is. We are one.