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Looking ahead to the 1995 UU General Assembly in Spokane, Washington, we are planning to have a public presentation and a general meeting of the UUBF. The public talk will feature our own Bob Senghas speaking to the fundamental question of why Unitarian Universalists should be interested in Buddhism and Buddhist practices.
As I speak with UUs around the country, there really does seem to be a great interest in Buddhism among us. We who have formed the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship are trying to serve that interest through our publications, by organizing activities, and generally by making ourselves known to the larger UU community.
I hope everyone who reads this newsletter, and feels there is something valuable in an ongoing Unitarian Universalist/Buddhist dialogue, will share in the work. At this point I specifically solicit your essays on Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism for future issues of this newsletter. I find myself thinking of that old Buddhist benediction: May all beings be well! May all beings be happy! Peace! Peace! Peace!
In our last number we provided some background on the Board president Bob Senghas and the secretary/treasurer James Ford. In this issue we introduce two other Board members, Henry Wiemhoff and Dorothy Senghas.
Henry Wiemhoff has been an active Unitarian Universalist since joining the First Unitarian Church of Chicago in 1964, while attending the University of Chicago. More recently he has been a member and trustee of the Universalist Church of New York (on Manhattan's Central Park West), an active member of the continental UU Buddhist Fellowship, and a founder of the New York chapter of the UUBF.
Henry currently works at New York University, while pursuing a graduate degree in Religious Studies with a concentration in Buddhist Studies. His interests include UUs and Buddhism, the emergence of "American Buddhism," gender issues and Buddhism, "Engaged Buddhism," and Buddhism and nature.
Dorothy Senghas grew up in the Concord, MA, Unitarian Church (She and Bob were married there) and has been active in UU churches in San Francisco, Davis, CA, Wellesley, MA, and for the last almost fifteen years, in Burlington, VT. At the present time she is Vice-president of the Board and thus chair of the Church Council. In the denomination she is a member of two panels of the UU Funding program.
She began Zen practice in 1983 and in 1985 became a non-resident student of John Daido Loori, Sensei, at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt Tremper, NY, taking jukai vows the following year. She was a founding member of the Zen Affiliate of Burlington.
by Peter Neuwald
About two years ago I first developed a serious interest in Buddhism. Before that time I was interested... but interested in the way that many UUs are interested in any number of the world's religions--intellectually. At one time I had tried meditating but it was with the technique taught in Herbert Benson's The Relaxation Response. My resolution didn't really last very long; I gave it up in a matter of days. There was something missing.
Later I began to voraciously read books on Buddhism--the spiritual teachings lit a spark in me! But I still hadn't started meditating on a regular basis. Then two summers ago I attended a class on Zen meditation taught by James Ford at a South East Wisconsin UU Council Summer Institute here in Milwaukee. I've been sitting, as we call Zen meditation, daily ever since (well, with just a few exceptions).
After sitting alone for several months, I began to feel the need to sit with others. I also felt the need to find a teacher. I had wished that there was a UU Buddhist group close to home, but the nearest one I knew about (the one led by James at the Mequon UU church) was a good thirty to forty minutes from my home. When I told James about my desire for a local group, he suggested I try the Milwaukee Zen sitting group affiliated with the Original Root Zen Center, in Racine. It is led by Tony Somlai, abbot of the ORZC, and is a branch of the Kwan Um School of Zen founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn. I've now been practicing with them since January, and I've recently taken the five precepts of Buddhism.
So, what does all this have to do with starting a UU Buddhist Fellowship branch? Well, as I delved more deeply into Buddhism (still reading, but now with the support and challenge of regular practice), I noticed that many of my UU friends also had more than a passing interest in Buddhism. Coincident with my joining the ORZC sangha, I was having discussions with a number of UUs who wanted to start a UU Buddhist group somewhere in the South Eastern Wisconsin area. I decided to help get something started.
With the encouragement and guidance of my parish minister, Drew Kennedy, and with a tremendous amount of support from Jan Seymour-Ford and her husband James, I initiated a small meeting of people interested in starting a local UU Buddhist group. The following comes out of what happened at the first few meetings, and what I feel may be useful for others who may also wish to start a branch chapter of the UU Buddhist Fellowship.
First it is probably a good idea to meet informally with a small number of people you've previously identified as interested. Starting off with a large group it can be too easy to get bogged down and loose focus even before getting started.
It is very important to have a set agenda ready for the first meeting. It does no one any good to "just get together and see what happens." The result will likely be disappointment, and possibly lead to no further meetings. Having a clear agenda at the beginning is not to discourage input and ideas and the possibility of leadership coming out of the group. Things can, should, and will change as new members join and bring their ideas. But it is important is to start with something. Our organizing group decided that a book study group might be the ideal format for us. And, we are currently working our way through Jack Kornfield's A Path With Heart. We expect this will occupy us for much of our first year.
There are other questions that need to be decided by the organizing group. First: what are our expectations? This includes both the individual expectations of the members, as well as the expectations of the group. Our particular UUBF chapter is not tied to any particular Buddhist tradition; a number of us are affiliated with various Buddhist groups of different persuasions. Others among us have no other affiliations. It is important to discuss this openly and early.
A big question is whether to meditate or not at the meetings. What you decide about meditation practice at each gathering will have a huge impact on the direction your group takes. Finally, basic organizational housekeeping needs to be done. Who coordinates for room, keys, lock-up, etc.? This is important, and no one should be saddled with these duties forever. Also, some form of advertising is necessary. We wrote copy that was printed in the newsletters of the three largest local UU congregations. This attracted quite a few people to the first open meeting.
When we finally had our first open meeting, we decided on sitting together in a circle, no matter how large it had to be. Even though it was begun by a small organizing group, we wanted to quickly establish an egalitarian format. We each introduced ourselves, including some details on our experiences with Buddhism as well as our expectations and hopes.
For the first meeting we felt one person needed to be present who could speak a little about the history of Buddhism and its possible relationship to Unitarian Universalism. We established at that first meeting that the group would be clearly Unitarian Universalist, but that it be ecumenical in character, that it would have regular meeting times, and as soon as possible, a regular meeting place. (Which quickly came to be the most centrally located church for those who were attending, the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee.)
So, at our first gathering we presented a general talk by James about Buddhism. We had no sitting. About forty people attended--a very large turnout (I had expected maybe ten people). At the end of the presentation I asked for a show of hands by people who wanted to meditate at each gathering. Surprisingly (to me), the vast majority responded positively. Therefore, we decided to include regular meditation practice at our gatherings. After the initial couple of gatherings we settled down to between ten and fifteen people each time, with a solid core of about seven.
I suspect that if we had continued to offer presentations without any meditation we might draw more people. On the other hand, we might also lose some of the people who wish to delve more deeply into practice. Personally, I prefer to include meditation, even though it probably means fewer people. To me, one cannot really walk on the Buddhist path without a meditation practice. But, one way really isn't better than the other. Whichever way you choose, do so with eyes open.
As I mentioned before, I was already in a sangha, so I didn't feel a great need for the UU Buddhist group. I started asking myself, "Why do I want to help start a UU Buddhist group? Who is this for?" Remember, at that time I was new to the ORZC sangha and it all was very new, different and exciting. I saw the mind that wanted to share what "I" was learning and experiencing in "my" sangha with UUs. I saw the mind that wanted to tie together "my" Buddhist life with "my" UU life. I saw the mind that wanted to bring "my" Zen perspective to others. Many "I" and "my" minds appeared. Finally, I was able to put down those minds. Oh, I have plenty more appearing, but I let them float by one after the other.
If there are people who want to know more about Buddhism, that's reason enough. So, why sit with a UU Buddhist Fellowship? ...only sit.
(Peter Neuwald has been an active member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for the past six years. In addition to his leadership in the South East Wisconsin chapter of the UUBF he is active in the Milwaukee Zen Meditation group, which recently relocated to the First Unitarian Society.)
Out of that stillness, our whole life arises.
~~John Daido Loori, Sensei
by Marni Harmony
1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, and plants. I will not kill, not to let others kill, and will not condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life. I will involve myself in actions that protect and support life.
2. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals and plants. I vow to live simply and practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in real need. I will not steal or posses anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, and I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth. I will not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the world.
Aware of the suffering caused by attachment, I will seek not to be bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology. I will regard systems of thought as guiding means rather than absolute truth. I will try to be open to receive other's views and be always ready to learn.
Aware of the suffering caused by negative states of mind, I will maintain neither anger nor hatred. As soon as anger or hatred arise, I will practice meditation on compassion in order to deeply understand the persons who have caused anger or hatred. I will learn to look at other beings with the eyes of compassion. I will practice breathing consciously in order to achieve composure of body and mind and to develop concentration and deepened understanding.
3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I will respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability of people to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain or criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by my practice.
(Marni Politte Harmony serves as minister of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando, Florida. A long time student of Buddhism and spiritual practice, she took the five Buddhist precepts from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1989.)
by Robert Tokushu Senghas
"The World's Religions" by Huston Smith
HarperSanFrancisco, 1991, $10.00
For over thirty years one of the standard introductions to the study of comparative religions for undergraduates and others has been Huston Smith's The Religions of Man, first published in 1958. In 1991 a revised edition was published under the new title The World's Religions.
The original text has been degenderized in contents as well as title; there are additions and rewriting on Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, and Christianity. New material has been inserted on Sikhism. Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism, and many paragraphs have been reworked.
The intent of the original is maintained: "to carry intelligent laypeople into the heart of the world's great enduring faiths to the point where they might see, and even feel, why and how they guide and motivate the lives of those who live by them." When the first edition appeared, it was a novel and sorely needed approach to any study, introductory or advanced, of world religions. The success of that effort continued to keep the original edition useful for over thirty years. The revision was needed, however, not only to degenderize, but also to correct and to update the material.
Huston Smith specifically states that he does not intend a history of religions textbook, or a rounded and balanced view of the religions considered, nor does he make any comparative evaluation among them. He has no agenda, explicit or hidden, for any one religion. Rather, he is concerned with "the world's religions at their best" in order for us to better understand how others see the world. He "takes religion seriously," as he says, and hopes to build bridges of communication to us from those who hold differing views of the world and of reality.
This review will be limited to the substantial seventy-two page section on Buddhism in the new edition.
The chapter on Buddhism begins with a biography of Shakyamuni Buddha and a description of Buddhism's beginnings as a rebellion against a degenerated Hinduism. That is followed by a description of the teachings: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other basic teachings. Next is a discussion of the differences between Theravada and Mahayana, followed by twelve pages on Zen, five on Vajrayana, and a closing which tries to gather the strands together. The section on the Four Noble Truths is especially well written and helps show why Buddhism is becoming more popular in this country.
Although in most respects this book is an adequate introduction to Buddhism for someone who has never encountered them before, there are shortcomings about which any student should be forewarned. Nonetheless, the revised edition does improve on the original in several important respects. For example, words used to translate the Eightfold Path are improved: "right knowledge" becomes "right intent;" "right behavior" changes to "right conduct;" right absorption" is now more clearly termed "right concentration."
More important, Huston Smith has improved what was already a good discussion of the theism-atheism issue by softening his theistic vocabulary. Unfortunately, however, he continues to interpret terms such as nirvana as evidence of a basic relationship to aspects of traditional Judeo-Christian theism. It is in this very area (along with the doctrine of anatman) that Buddhism is most radical among all other religions and most misunderstood. Buddhism cannot be properly understood on the one hand by someone who views it simply as atheistic, nor on the other hand by someone (like Huston Smith) who tries to co-opt it into another expression of the Godhead. Buddhism's sunyata remains unique in world religions and does not fit Smith's Procrustean bed. Smith also makes errors in his attempt to distinguish Theravada from Mahayana. He oversimplifies when he says that the "key virtue" of Theravada is wisdom (prajna), while Mahayana's "key virtue" is compassion (karuna). Even worse, he says that in Theravada, "human beings are emancipated by self-effort, without supernatural aid," whereas in Mahayana "human aspirations are supported by divine powers and the grace they bestow." This is clearly wrong. Smith's error appears to be that what he identifies as Mahayana is often Pure Land teaching rather than mainstream Mahayana. D.T. Suzuki has pointed out that although Pure Land Buddhism tends to emphasize karuna, Zen tends to emphasize prajna. Again, Smith says, "The only kind of prayer the Theravadins countenanced was meditation and invocations to deepen faith and loving-kindness, whereas the Mahayanists added supplication, petition, and calling on the name of the Buddha for spiritual strength." This is not an accurate characterization of Mahayana, even though it would be applicable to Pure Land. Indeed, Zen emphasizes jiriki, one's own power to do what Shakyamuni did. Worse yet, Smith believes that Mahayana has brought Buddhism "full circle," and says "The religion that began as a revolt against rites, speculation, grace, and the supernatural, ends with all of them back in full force and its founder (who was an atheist as far as a personal God was concerned) transformed into such a God himself." Undoubtedly at the popular level, many Buddhists may have treated the Buddha as a god, but to do so is an aberration from the Buddhist teachings presented by Shakyamuni himself and all the teachers in the lineage. To characterize Mahayana as having deified the Buddha, to say that Mahayana has converted the Theravadin saint, sage, and teacher into a divine "world savior"--is to grossly misunderstand the essence of Mahayana and of Buddhism itself. A less fundamental criticism may be added in regard to the section on Zen: Smith spends an inordinate portion on the koan, with no words at all about shikantaza, leaving the reader with the impression that koan study is always the largest and omnipresent part of every person's Zen practice.
Despite these shortcomings, this revised work will be valuable as an opening look at Buddhism. Readers need to be warned, however, that Huston Smith proceeds from a not always obvious agenda: he believes in a kind of perennial religion, of which the world's religions are manifestations. This has led him to miss the truly unique character of Buddhism. He would have been wiser to have proceeded with a working assumption that the world's religions, both within and among themselves, have distilled and presented us with several great options for finding our religious way.
(Robert Tokushu Senghas, is minister-emeritus of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, a senior student of the American Zen master, John Daido Loori, Sensei, and president of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. This review first appeared in The Mountain Record, Winter, 1992, and is reprinted with permission.)
One of those facts I frequently like to cite is how Henry David Thoreau translated the first Buddhist scripture to be published in English. It was an excerpt from the Saddharmapundarika-sutra, translated from Eugene Burnouf's French text from the Sanskrit, and published in 1844, in the Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. Too bad the story is wrong.
Wendell Piez, writing in the Fall 1993 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, in an article titled, significantly, "Anonymous Was A Woman--Again," reveals the translator of "The Preaching of Buddha" was in fact Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Crediting E-Mail and the research of Elizabeth Witherell from the Textual Center for the Writings of Henry David Thoreau, Piez revealed the original misatribution to George Willis Cooke. Cooke himself corrected the attribution, but as is frequently the case, the correction had been all but lost to history while the mistake continues on. We UUs don't miss a thing by the change, in fact we may gain much. Ms Peabody was a died-in-the-wool Unitarian. A luminary of the Transcendentalist club, book store proprietor, publisher of the Dial, as well as a frequent contributor to that seminal journal; Elizabeth Palmer Peabody is someone both Unitarian Universalists and Buddhists can well claim as a genuine spiritual ancestor.
(James Ford is parish minister of the Unitarian Church North, in Mequon, Wisconsin, where he also guides the church's Zen meditation group.)