UU Sangha


Vol:III Number: 3
Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
Spring 1999

Or, the Confessions of a UU Buddhist

James Ishmael Ford

When I was a teenager, back in the misty 1960s, I quickly decided that the hippie movement and the psychedelic era were not going to save the world. Casting about for something with real substance I stumbled upon Zen. In fact in the San Francisco bay area of that decade, this wasn’t all that difficult. Now, at first for me it was just Zen, which means literally “to meditate.” I wanted and I found a serious spiritual discipline. And, I wanted and found a spiritual discipline that did not insult my already seriously critical intelligence.

Zen certainly filled the bill. While it has a major poetic side, and is filled with wonderfully disconcerting stories about the sound of single hands, and eating grapes while tigers plan on gobbling one up, and stepping away from the top of hundred foot poles; it also is grounded in an assertion that human beings can “figure it out,” and the means to doing that figuring out is just sitting down, shutting up, and noticing what’s going on around oneself and within oneself.

I really liked that. And, I threw myself into the discipline with all the energy of a late adolescent who had serious spiritual questions. Somewhere along the line I discovered that by becoming a Zen student, I had also come into an ancient religious tradition called Buddhism.

Here is James’s thumbnail on Buddhism: It was founded somewhere between the fifth and sixth centuries before the birth of Christ, in what is now northern India, and more or less in sight of the Himalayas, by a real historical person named Gautama Siddhartha. The stories about his life claim he was a prince born to luxury. After encountering the perennial questions of sickness, old age and death; and witnessing someone who had renounced the things of the world in favor of seeking true depth; he surrendered his throne and family and entered the ascetic way of ancient Hinduism.

After years of privation and discipline Siddhartha decided the ascetic way would not work. Instead he determined to follow a path of simple presence, and out of that came to his great realization on the morning of the full moon in what we call December. He looked up at the morning star, understood the nature of all things, and declared, “At this moment I see how I and all things are enlightened together.”

Shortly after that experience while looking for former companions in order to tell them his good news, he encountered a traveler who wondered at his glowing face. The traveler asked if he were a god? Siddhartha replied, no. Perhaps an angel? Again, no. Finally the traveler asked, then what are you? To which Siddhartha replied, “I am awake.” Buddha means awake.

When he found his old companions the Buddha preached what has come to be called the first turning of the wheel. Here he outlined the core teachings that he would expand upon and examine in great detail through the next forty years of his life. This outline is called “The Four Noble Truths.”

The first of these truths is an observation of pervasive human distress, anxiety, anguish. The term he used was “dukkha,” which is usually translated as suffering, but in fact it is a richer and more textured human experience than can be accurately summarized by the word suffering alone. This is the dis-ease, the angst of our human condition.

The second truth was his analysis of the way things are. First, he observed how all things exist in causal relationships. That is we are caused by many, many events and in turn our actions cause many other things to come into being. So, you and I are like eddies in a great river, created out of brush and sticks and stones being caught at the side of that river. At some point conditions will change and the stones and sticks will break up, and that part of the river which we call “I” will flow back into the mainstream.

At the same time we as human beings have a peculiar type of consciousness. It is aware of being, but also it can divide the cosmos. The primary division is “me” and “not me.” From that ability we discover we are the creative animal. We can make houses and starships, medicine and nuclear bombs. This is a mixed gift. Much of it is wonderful and good. But, it has many shadows. One of which is the inclination to make that which is passing permanent. We want that which we cherish to last. We, you and I, want to last. But, as things do not last, as everything made of parts, will come apart, like those sticks and stones in that eddy, then we suffer.

The Buddha called the source of this pervasive human suffering, this dukkha, tanha, or “thirst.” It is a thirst, however, that cannot be quenched through things, all of which will pass away. But, we usually miss that point. And, our clinging to one passing thing after another magnifies our suffering. And, at the very core, is our clinging to ourselves, our wishful thinking that we, at least, are permanent.

Now, the Buddha’s third truth is we really don’t have to suffer in this manner. There is pain that is natural. The play of the universe as that rushing river is just as it is. And it involves birthing, living, and dying. But, this suffering from clinging to what is passing as if it were permanent, this is optional.
Then the Buddha outlined a middle way between the extremes of indulgence and asceticism. He gave eight general rules about right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. Frankly, I can’t keep these in my head. What works for me is a three-fold division of these various right ways into meditation, morality and wisdom.

Meditation is the various ways in which we learn to shut up and notice. Morality might best be summarized through the lay precepts the Buddha gave to those who did not choose to become monastics. The five precepts are not killing, not lying, not stealing, not misusing sex and not becoming intoxicated. I see these also as the positive attributes of wisdom: cherishing life, speaking truthfully, respecting things and our bodies and remaining clear and present.

Each of these three perspectives, meditation, morality and wisdom create the others, birth the others in an organic cycle of compassion and insight. Indeed, it is worthwhile noting how the Dalai Lama, perhaps the best known of contemporary Buddhists saying that within Buddhism the “point” is to be happy. He also adds that the way is way of kindness. All pretty straight forward, and simple, and certainly from my early twenties on, these teachings have seemed to me to make a great deal of sense.

So, why am I a Unitarian Universalist? I am both a Zen priest and now an authorized spiritual director within one of the Zen lineages. Why am I also a UU? Well, there are a number of reasons for this. One is that Buddhism in the west hasn’t developed spiritual community. Instead our western Buddhist societies are more organized like schools or academies, where we train, but not where we live. This is important, and it is one reason I’ve become a UU.

But, there is more to this than my desire for a genuine community. Here we come to that phrase “Buddhism Without Beliefs.” It comes from Stephen Batchelor, and is in fact, the title of one of his books. Early in this book Stephen cites an ancient Buddhist scripture, the Kalama Sutta, in which we hear the Buddha himself declare:

Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought ‘the monk is our teacher.’ When you know in yourselves: ‘These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,’ then you should practice and abide in them…

I ask you, in what other religious tradition of this world, are we going to find the founder declare to us: test and taste for ourselves? Certainly, this is the Buddhism that attracts me. But, it is therefore a Buddhism that must also question Buddhism. What works? What does not work? And, what is the wholesome and blameless way for me and those whom I love?

We need to think about this. As Buddhism has translated to the West, it has taken on several forms. One is simple transplanting. Here monks, and to a much lesser degree, nuns, live by Southeast Asian or Chinese or Korean or Tibetan monastic cultural standards. Here Tibetan ordained western monks eat meat prepared in the Tibetan style, Korean ordained western monks eat kim chee, and Chinese ordained western monks eat with chopsticks. The Buddha, I might add, did none of these things.

And, then there are those who are equally serious but who follow the path through questioning. Now, I’ve sat in serious meditation for many, many years. I’ve passed hundreds of koans. I am authorized to teach in an ancient lineage. But, I am a westerner, born a westerner, and I will die a westerner. I truly with all my heart believe the core teachings of the Buddha, but I am also a rationalist and a humanist, and no matter how else I might wish it, my dreams are populated by Jesus and Mary and Moses.

It is from this perspective I’ve found myself a western Buddhist. And, it is in that option as a western Buddhist I find much of my way complemented within Unitarian Universalism. Certainly, it is within this difficulty of East encountering West within my body that I found Unitarian Universalists saying “You know, James, you sound like one of us.” And, it is true. This questioning spirit, this critical spirit, is one we share as Buddhists or as any other flavor of Unitarian Universalist. This is true for those of us who are Christian, or Jewish, or earth-centered, or whatever. We all have embraced a critical way in religion.

And, as such, I find myself questioning certain aspects of Buddhism, this ancient way, which I love and for which I am so grateful. One doctrine I question is rebirth. Now the Buddha said that all things exist in inter-causal relationship, and nothing is permanent. Therefore, there are no souls living in our bodies as if they were riding a bus. But, the Buddha also describes rebirth, the consequences of my actions resulting in the birth of someone who inherits those consequences. I’m not opposed to this on principle, but I don’t see the mechanism. Rather, it seems to me the consequences of my actions spread out over the world.

How we understand karma is another critical point, closely related to rebirth. I see karma as the term describing the mechanism of inter-relationship, of mutual co-creation. Everything we do has a consequence, or many. This is the way the universe works. Here again, however, the Buddha has additional meanings. Within Buddhism karma is traditionally understood to specifically be the mechanism for creating a birth, and intention is the core element of that mechanism. Bottom line: I don’t see it. I don’t believe my intentions will result in a specific rebirth.

Buddhism without beliefs. In his important book, Stephen outlines some of what comes out of an engaged intellectually honest and fierce western Buddhism. And, frankly, it looks a lot like Unitarian Universalism with meditation to me. Here he speaks of a culture of awakening:

A culture of awakening is forged from the tension between an indebtedness to the past and a responsibility to the future.... A contemporary example is whether the metaphysical doctrines of karma and rebirth are integral to the tradition or not. Whatever decision we reach on such issues is a risk. We are obliged to assume responsibility for choices whose potentially considerable consequences for others we cannot possibly foresee.

And there is more to this. Batchelor observes how “A culture of awakening cannot exist independently of the specific social, religious, artistic, and ethnic cultures in which it is embedded. It emerges out of creative interactions with these cultures without either rejecting or being absorbed by them. It will inevitably assume certain features of contemporary culture, perhaps inspiring and revitalizing some dimensions of it, while also maintaining a critical perspective.”

And this is my western Buddhism, my Unitarian Universalist Buddhism. It is a Buddhism that does not need beliefs, but rather demands direct observation and action. To meditate, to look closely at my heart and the environment within which I move and breath and have my being is critical. As a westerner, as a Unitarian Universalist, I find a natural optimism, but even that must be examined. This is the way.

This way reminds me of that saying of Jesus, where we find the birds of the air have their nests and the animals of the fields their burrows, but the child of humanity has no place to rest her head. We are embarked upon a way of radical freedom. But, the easy comforts, the questions with pat answers, they’re all gone.

Instead, in my Unitarian Universalist Buddhism, like others among us in their Unitarian Universalist Christianity, or their Unitarian Universalist Judaism, or their Unitarian Universalist Paganism, or their Unitarian Universalist Humanism, is one of constant examination and questioning and never never turning away from what is.

And so, here we are. A strange and motley crew sailing down that river of being. Where have we come from? Who knows? Where we’re going, who knows? But, the sailing itself becomes the truth. As we throw ourselves fully into this being and doing, something beautiful and precious is born.

We find a not knowing that is rare and sweet and fragrant. Here my Buddhism and someone else’s Christianity and another’s Humanism and another’s paganism and another’s Judaism, begin to dissolve. Here what is, is revealed. And, here without beliefs, we find freedom, and joy and beauty.

It turns out, this presence each of us to the other, and all of us to ourselves, is enough. The Buddha was right. And so was Henry David Thoreau. We are what we are. We find it in our attention and our actions. And, it is good, and it is beautiful, and without a doubt, it is enough.

The Reverend James Ishmael Ford is minister of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, in Chandler Arizona.

Unitarian Universalist
Buddhist Fellowship

Editorial Insights

Editor Moves

Please notice that my address has changed. As I have been called to serve the First UU Society of Albany, NY, UU Sangha will now be published out of Albany. I will remain editor (if I can keep up with it in a larger congregation) so please continue to send your dues to the new address.

Sandy Boucher
Our General Assembly Presenter

The UUBF, in conjunction with Beacon Press, has invited Sandy Boucher, author of Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism, Opening the Lotus: A Woman's Guide to Buddhism, and the recently published Discovering Kwan Yin to speak to us Friday, June 25th. Her title will be “Feminism and Buddhism: The Not-So-Odd Couple” The blurb in the GA program will read: “A 2,500-year-old male-supremacist religion meets a Western female-powered movement. Offenses are committed; both partners must deepen to accommodate. Beacon author Sandy Boucher has documented this relationship in her books and will speak about the marriage of feminism and Buddhism with humor and insight.


Right this very moment, look at the mailing label on the back of this issue at your mailing label. There at the top of the label is a time stamp. The first number is the year and the second number is the month. If today is more recent than that date, you need to renew your subscription. The mailing list is topping 300 names and I don’t know if some of you who I inherited in the mailing list are really still interested in receiving this fine journal. So I’m considering thinning the mailing list since we only need 200 to do bulk mail. Let me know either way.

Hope everyone enjoys this issue!

Faithfully yours, Sam

Retreat for Renewal
by Thea Nietfeld

I don't know how it is for you, but sometimes when I'm over-tired and/or over-hungry, my mind spins, and some judgment function doesn't work right: I get confused; I can't make decisions or I make poor decisions. I forget who I am. And sometimes, even if I'm not physically tired or hungry, I have that same feeling of needing nourishment in order to be at my best.

Since I'm a humanist, I haven't been sure what to call that need or how to address it. Going to a concert or play or art exhibit helps; sometimes poetry or an exquisitely written book or movie helps. Sometimes art isn't enough - it seems to be a snack when I need a meal…

What is it we need at those times of hunger and tiredness that isn't physical…and how do we get it?

Perhaps we could call the need "spiritual longing" and the sustenance - "Spiritual nourishment"; perhaps nourishment comes in retreat, with silence, simplicity, and solitude.

David Cooper writes:

A spiritual retreat is medicine for soul starvation. Through silence, solitary practice, and simple living, we begin to fill the empty reservoir. This lifts the veils, dissolves the masks, and creates space within for the feelings of forgiveness, compassion, and loving kindness that are so often blocked.

The retreat is not an end in itself; it is simply a method to help us slow down and stop. We are like globes attached to a center point by an elastic thread. When we slow down, we draw in to the center. If we are able to stop, we rest exactly at the midpoint.

(Silence, Simplicity & Solitude : A Complete Guide to Spiritual Retreat, SkyLight Paths Publishing, 1999, pp.15-16)

To retreat is to stop. After stopping, you begin again. In order to begin, or to begin again, you need first to have stopped.

It was that un-nameable tiredness and hunger/ a need for spiritual nourishment that moved me to plan for a retreat last year. This past June, I stopped. I left my daily routine and participated in a silent retreat with 900 other people. I stopped talking. I stopped moving quickly. I stopped whatever I was doing - including eating - whenever the mindfulness bell rang. We were gathered at a lovely camp - Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY.

I practiced stopping what Thich Nhat Hanh calls "negative habit energy": self-criticism, guilt and crystallized guilt which is shame…judgment of others, blaming, and resentment. With this practice, negative habit energy is stopped by noting gently when such thoughts come to mind and releasing each negative thought intentionally. Freed from self-inflicted suffering, it is possible to begin again.

"Returning to myself," I wrote in my retreat journal, "I remember I am happy." And "Touching the silence and the happiness in my core being wakes me up - A retreat miracle". It was an exercise and the beginning of practice of being in the Precious Present, as we heard in our story.

Those 5 days, even at the time, seemed like a bit of utopia: There was pervasive energy of positive intention. Slowing everything down made it easier to be positive.

Of course I found myself wondering how being a Unitarian Universalist fit in with being a Buddhist retreatant: When Unitarians connected with the East in the 19th and 20th centuries, they wanted fresh perspectives, especially connections with the natural world and more emphasis on intuition; they wanted fewer rules. Our religious forebears went to the East for a balance to Unitarianism's intellectualism.

Today, at least Thay's emphasis for North Americans is on learning compassion for one's self and others. It is open-handed Universalism. Thay's companion, Sister Chan Kong , is especially direct at preaching Universalism - we are all meant to be happy and to help one another be happy. Today, at least this Unitarian Universalist turns to Buddhism for its message of universalcompassion and happiness.

Thay used the term "protection" frequently. We practiced mindfulness for our protection. When you stay in the present moment, mindfully, there is no space for the attachment that causes suffering. One notes negative feelings or thoughts but does not cling to them; clinging to the past or reaching for the future causes suffering. We practiced keeping our attention in the precious present so we could be better at staying in the present moment after the retreat.

Mindfulness reminders will surround you when you return to the world, Thay said. The quiet of the library, the caution signs in school zones, the ring of the telephone, if you let it be a mindfulness bell…. Mindfulness is the holy energy in us/ the energy that will protect us as individuals and which will keep us from harming one another. Mindfulness protection enables the beautiful flower within us to bloom.

Thay spoke about interdependence in the traditional way: Waves are history on the ocean of the ultimate. Each of us is part of the wave. The wave asks where she comes from and where she goes. Touching the water within her gives the answer: she loses fear and ideas about coming and going. We are all part of the wave/all part of the ocean.

And so it follows that, as we walk though life, every peaceful step affects the cosmos. When you liberate yourself from sorrow and fear, you liberate the cosmos. Our feelings affect the cosmos. So we practice mindfulness for ourselves and for the whole universe. I left feeling refreshed; a bit more open to life/more vulnerable perhaps…and renewed.

In the couple of days between the meditation retreat and General Assembly I stayed at an old camp in the Catskill Mountains. Glancing at my hair gel one morning I was struck with an advertising gimmick for meditation : "Meditation: Holds, Conditions, Protects. Try meditation, it will hold you in stillness; condition you with resilience, and protect you with bright alertness." I had been sold on the value of meditation…

Next I drove to General Assembly in Rochester, NY. Our Association's president, John Buehrens spoke about how we nourish ourselves spiritually through our own discipline. "We need to be religious on our own. There is no "vicarious atonement": No one else is religious on our behalf. "

What we need, John said, is personal discipline: meditation or prayer, attention to loved ones…we need to choose carefully what we can usefully do. For himself, he has daily soul time, weekly worship, service to the community at least every month, and an annual personal financial inventory - to evaluate whether he has been generous enough. These disciplines are promises that he makes to himself; trying to keep these promises is trying to be a good person…trying to develop a quality character.

Buehrens urged Unitarian Universalists to recognize democracy as a spiritual discipline in which we hang in there with the process, speak truths with passion AND humility, don't expect perfect leaders or outcomes. Grow deep listening. Develop the character that is needed for democracy to survive. Being religious on our own or seeking salvation through character requires a disciplined religious life among other people: truth-telling, mutual forbearance, forgiveness. Being religious on our own involves internal and external spiritual discipline.

Being religious on our own means that we are different from the tendency of popular culture to victimize and to blame; the discipline both gives and requires the strength to be different/to be counter-cultural in character. We practice character development by personal responsibility.

There was an article in Esquire last fall by an author who surprised himself by beginning to pray. He describes a childhood in the 60's and 70's where he, his brother, and most of their friends, watched television on Sunday mornings. He and they didn't recognize spiritual longing and had no name for it.

Rick Moody found himself praying out of desperation. He was in the yard of the mental hospital in which he was confined, realizing that he had a family who loved him, the best education in America and was full of promise. But here he was, in a psychiatric hospital in Queens, where a nurse was trying to teach him how to make eye contact in conversation. He wept. And then he prayed: God, whoever you are, get me out of this. If you're there, work a miracle. For a change.

He got out of the hospital, started to work but didn't have much else for a life, and though he believed it was his responsibility alone to keep up the effort to make it - he found himself praying regularly - Give me a chance, please. He prayed, without belief, because prayer did him good. Life improved. There was an awareness that there's more to Life than himself.

As William James puts it in The Varieties of Religious Experience, "Prayer is a process wherein work is really done and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, either psychological or material, within the phenomenal world." As Moody says it, prayer works. He says that "all the things he thought about prayer as a child are still true: It takes place in silence, and silence is the response you get, and mostly while you are doing it, you feel like doing something else." Moody hopes that as the century turns, we can come to say out loud expressions of joy and humility and acceptance that are at the heart of prayer…it somehow helps.

I don't have personal experience with the language of prayer. It seems to work for many people. What I can imagine is what my friend who prays does: she holds in her sacred imagination an image of wholeness for those for whom she is praying. She prays by imagining what wholeness would look like for someone she cares for.

Meditation and prayer are both spiritual disciplines that are mini-retreats; methods of stopping/pausing in order to begin again.

During the Days of Awe, the Holy Days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there are ten days of penitence. These are the days the individual concentrates on mortality and the meaning of life… The intention during these days is to stop living routinely by taking stock of one's self, to repent to people and to God, and to come out of Yom Kippur re-born and at one with God.

Jewish and Buddhist traditions and communities support the individual in retreat: Thich Nhat Hanh said the most important thing we could do was to draw strength from the sangha - the gathered community of silent retreatants.

And yet, we need to be religious on our own… A poem by Galway Kinnell addresses the paradox of being religious for ourselves and also in community:

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to re-teach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower,
and retell it in words and in touch,
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.

("Saint Francis And The Sow,"
© 1980 by Galway Kinnell ; first published in Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Houghton Mifflin.)

To retreat is to consciously enter the precious present, to rest there/ to accept spiritual nourishment from the most renewable energy Source: Life itself. If you are able to retreat formally for a few days, I urge you to try it. If not, you can still promise yourself to pray or meditate regularly and try to keep that promise. The renewal - whether you call it atonement or increased mindfulness - the renewal is refreshing: it holds, conditions, protects. Ongoing spiritual nourishment is sustaining.

Thea Nietfeld is minister of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa.

Eight Years
by Linda Fitzgerald

Been eight years now, that I have just said no to that heavenly, demonic, blissful hell of alcohol. I miss it. I’d be lying to say I don't. I’d be lying to say that after so many years, it gets easier - that you don't even think about it anymore. No divorce is easy. Especially one of a mostly happy marriage, that went asunder purely due to extravagant and excessive indulgences. There were no ill feelings there. It was very much a partnership. Alcohol always sheltered me, protected me. But, it was way too much. Way too often. One of us had to go.

Sometimes two, or three, days go by, and I haven't thought about having a beer. But that's about my record. Mostly, its everyday.

I remember when I first got sober. It's the funniest thing - that final catalyst that got me sober. I wasn't one of those lucky drunks who end up in the hospital after a doozy of a binge, with alcohol poisoning in the blood stream, and hoards of well meaning social workers surrounding you - telling you You Got a Problem, as if you didn't already know it. I was an easy-going drunk - a functioning alcoholic - whose demise is slow, painful, and largely un-noticed, except by the very few who are around you enough to know. And if they are around you enough to know, its because they be drinking themselves to death too.

I wasn't court ordered, or told off by a Well Meaning Person - I just had The Ego. Just my ego, and enough Anger to last a couple of lifetimes. I didn't want to be a bloated, mushy brained Nobody. I was absolutely disgusted with my piss poor performance to date. I wanted...More.

I could feel the booze sucking up my life energy - taking my life away, unnoticed. I wasn't even aware of my life anymore. It was just beer to beer.

I made the Commitment to Quit. I thought to check out AA, just in case things got hairy. I went to a meeting, without even a full 24 under my belt. They saw me sitting there, looking mighty uncomfortable, and enticed me up to speak. Kinda shamefaced, I admitted that my “sobriety” was really more just a Thought, than a Reality, at the current moment.

Thunderous applause. A chip and claps on the shoulder. Welcome home, Linda F!

AA proved a wonderful starting point. But, there were problems. My first friend that I made in AA died within a month of my meeting him - of alcohol poisoning. I was devastated. When I ended up pregnant from a one night stand from one of the “up-standing citizens” of this establishment, I took myself, and my newly conceived baby away from there. Jesus Christ - I was worse off than ever - but still sober. I was still sober. And with this baby on the way - plenty of good reason to keep staying sober. But, maybe from now on, I oughtta just try it up on my own.

Besides, the God-Thing in AA bothered me. It just wasn't that easy for me. “God As You Understand Him” they'd said.

That sounded good - but I had no real understanding of God. I was pissed off at a God that seemed mostly vengeful and punishing. There were lots of contradictions to get over. Lots of unanswered questions. I didn't understand God anymore than I understood my propensity for the ethanol. But I did give it a truly legitimate try once. I closed my eyes, and honestly, yes, truly honestly, thought to take a look at God. What does God look like, at least?

What I “saw” was....Myself - sorta fetal-positioned, floating around in space, tightly concealed in a bubble - and that was all. "That's not what God looks like! That's ME, trying to FIND God. I already know that part, for God's sake" - was what I was thinking . And I also came to know then too, that its going to be a long, long, journey home.

I heard about the “Unitarian Universalist Church” that had the “God as You Understand Him\Her\It” concept going. I went. Yeah, I’d find lots and lots of alcoholics THERE, ones who like me, needed time to work the God-Thing out. What better place than a church?

Didn't find many alcoholics (or at least ones who were willing to admit it) that day. I found instead, lots of blue/grey hair, in neat, coffered styles, and crisply pressed suits. With warm, loving eyes, and guarded smiles.

But I felt something there. An Energy. Subtle, but profound, to those who cared, or were sensitive enough....to pay attention to it.

I joined the Church after a fashion. The Minister there was incredible - small, red haired - fire and brimstone kinda fella - by UU standards. I liked him. He wasn't someone you really wanted to go up and give a big ole hug to - but you had to respect the man. And like him, too. He gave me some advice once, that I've carried for a long, long time now. That day I joined the Church, we all sat in a circle around a table, and shared the “why” we had joined. Blah, blah, this, that, and then - my turn. I said the damned Truth. “I'm here to find God”.

Well, that one had to sink in for a minute or two. I saw a lady stroke her nose thoughtfully, with downcast eyes, and a couple of folks shifted in their seats. Of course I was applauded for my efforts, but, The Minister pulled me aside at the end of the meeting, and said, in subdued tones - “Being a Unitarian Universalist is a Great Adventure. But sometimes it's scary too. There will be times when you will need to have some Courage my dear. Remember that, okay? And good luck!”.

Luck? Courage? I thought he was a nut. In my thinking, this UU business was the world's most easy-going-ist religion...how could THAT be scary? Pah-leeze. But, he was right. He was sooooooo right.

Scary thing #1: Cut to my sister Shelly scanning UU propaganda and brochures. “Sounds good”, she said cautiously, “but, I don't see the word ‘Jesus’ here. Where's Jesus? Linda!!......Where’s Jeeee-sus?”

Scary thing #2: Pick the inside of a UU Church - any ole UU Church will do. See from the eyes of a gal without credentials, without much money, without social causes, without a husband, without a noble vocation, without a spare dime or a spare second to donate - just an average ole gal, trying to stay sober, and find God - as I Understand Him/Her/It - Taking, but in turn Not Having - Anything To Give. The demographics of this Church are imposing, at the very least. What the hell am I doing here? They don't even talk about God! It offends some folks, who don't believe in Him/Her/It. Do I? Do I believe? Will I find God....Here?

Scary thing #3: Elizabeth Dodson Grey. An astounding woman, who talked one morning at my Church, and with every word, it was a sledgehammer coming down on my head. With every word, she pounded my Beliefs, my Christianity, my Hope - with The Questions. It wasn't A Bad Thing, necessarily. But in her straight shooting exposure of these “questions” - questions mostly about all those suspicious inconsistencies found in ALL religions - stuff about women, and the way we all been treated for, well, since forever - and just how DID Jesus transform himself into a white male....They were Hard to Hear, my friends. You must understand one thing. Forget about the "Answers" for a minute. Some folks, they're not ready to hear the questions. I suppose that's the difference between us "Seekers", and us "Followers".

Well, that day, I truly became a Seeker. But it didn't feel good. I never felt so alone, so Far Away from God, as I did that morning. God, as I had previously Understood Him, had slipped away from me, and now, I was truly, without a clue.

That's the nature of the beast. UU’s - they're going to be asking those questions. They're going to be Addressing the Issues - and for a girl who is Looking for God and Trying to Stay Sober, that can be a devastating experience. Studying God intellectually was not necessarily the Answer to Understanding God. (Had it made it worse?) Why couldn't I just muster up some Faith, and take the Dive? How could she, this brilliant, brilliant woman, stand up there and say these things, and still claim to believe, as she did? How had she gotten through this painful maze?

Great Adventure #1: By this time, I had moved and was going to a new UU Church. I was studying “religious concepts” as opposed to “a religion”, knowing that perhaps I was better off just piece-mealing a spiritual path together for myself, and not worrying too much about the details. God, I AM coming home! But, its taking me so long....

I had read Charlotte Joko Beck’s book “Everyday Zen”, which left me hungry, hungry, hungry for more...

And while Zen had its appeal, it was foreign, and inaccessible. But, in the spirit of a great cliché’, good things CAN happen to those who are willing to wait. Kinda like fishing.

We landed one. A UU Minister who, by all accounts, had traveled “the spiritual path” himself, finally settling in as a “Zen Buddhist” by trade, and not only that, but he had lots and lots of good practical knowledge to boot! Plenty to share with everyone - who was willing to listen. YEEEE - HAAWWW!

I was there. Every buddha word. Every buddha concept. Gobbled up. Then, our buddha lessons were over, and I eagerly anticipated The Next Step.

Excuse me? Sitting? Did you say....sitting? Breathing? Sitting and breathing? All these years? And all I had to do was sit and breathe? Hmmmm.......nothing is THAT simple. What's the catch here?

Excuse me? Three days? You want me to sit three days? Seven days? No, I cant! Yes, I must! No, I cant. Yes, I have.

I knew it, there's always a catch, and here it be. But, I'm willing. God Knows, I'm willing. I gotta try. There's so much at stake here. I must, I must, FIND GOD....(Or, is it Mu, now?)

Didn't Tricycle magazine just call me a......Dharma Drunk? That ultra slick rag - putting that stuff right across the front “12 Steps and Dharma Drunks”, or some such thing. I physically recoiled from it...my lip lifting in an involuntary snarl, as the two words Dharma...Drunk...were put together, like, friends. No! They are separate. And sacred, both of them. But, sacred separately. Putting one with the other, corrupts its very essence.....

Bill W. - the Great American Buddha. God - grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change..... One Day at a Time..... follow the 12 steps to living!...... follow the eightfold path (to live)....dukkha.....4 Noble Truths.... Accept the Things I Cannot Change.... accept the things I cannot change..... accept the things.

Hmmm.....a new twist. Oh, I guess I can add a new title to carry around with me. Dharma Drunk. UU “average person” (coming out of the closet!) - whatever you want to call me. It's all there. The merging of my karmic travels, and my drunken denials - two pieces of a puzzle fitting together, perfectly. Who'd have thunk it?

Zen. It's Big, all right. But, Zen is not all of what I'm about. Zen is not my sole religion. It is a part of my spirituality, that same spirituality which comes directly from..... (ta da!)...me. I had it all this time, can you believe that, right inside myself, and didn't even know it.

Zen has proved to be an invaluable TOOL to help me get where it is I just seem to need to travel. Which is right where I am, right now.

Because I'm not even “looking” anymore.

I'm just traveling, and sometimes that's enough. I don't even think I WANT to, or possibly COULD make the “Great Arrival” anymore. Arriving face to face with “God”, like a showdown.

Finding God, is nothing more than finding Yourself, in my humblest of opinions.

Now, in Zen - there IS this promised land of Understanding, ultimately leading to Nirvana. A lotta work. Hands on WORK, folks. For those of us unable to get by on Just Faith, and Faith alone - and Intellectual Probing leaves us empty, and ultimately with no answers, (but lots of questions) - maybe just sitting down, and shutting up, is One Good Thing to Consider. You still need some intellectual understanding - and you still need some Faith - but maybe, in the stillness of the silence - (and it is Hard Work, do not be misled - it is WORK - to invoke the Stillness of Silence) - the Answers will just Present Themselves when you're ready to hear them. Good things DO happen to those, who will wait.

I've come a long way, baby. In review of my life, my mistakes, my passions....I know I've lived perfectly. Absolutely Perfectly. God Bless my alcoholism, my UU Church, my private salvation, in Zen Practice. God Bless those thousands, maybe millions, of mistakes.

I'm still floating around in space, in my bubble, “looking for God”, like a fish in the sea, looking for water, or a worm eatin dirt, wondering what “solid ground” might be. Only now, I'm so much closer to home.

I'm still looking for God, because you'd be amazed where I look, and find, God! It's a ceaseless wonder....God just keeps poppin' up, everywhere.

God as I Understand.......
The UU Church is my home, my temple, and Zen is my tool to get me there. And “there” is here. Nowhere else.

To each I owe a great big debt, and a great big thanks. - My name is Linda F. -

Amen and in gassho.

Linda Fitzgerald lives in Phoenix, AZ, and attends the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Chandler. She is a Network Security Analyst, and mother of Tyler, 6 yrs old.

Back to Contents