UU Sangha

Vol: V Number: 1
Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
Fall 2000

Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism:
Complementary Religions

by Robert Senghas

Rev. Senghas responds to the question:
Can a Unitarian Universalist minister also be committed to Buddhism? Is there a religious conflict?

I am committed to two "overlapping" religions: Unitarian Universalism and Zen Buddhism. As a Unitarian Universalist minister I have served congregations in Davis, California, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and Burlington, Vermont. From 1974-79 I served as Executive Vice President of the Unitarian Universalist Association at headquarters in Boston, and I am now serving as the Trustee on the UUA Board from the New Hampshire Vermont District. In 1982 I began to make periodic visits to the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, N.Y.; there I took lay Buddhist vows in 1985, and I am a senior student in the Mountains and Rivers Order headed by the Abbot of the Monastery, John Daido Loori, Roshi, who has both Soto and Rinzai Zen transmissions. Also I am currently a member of the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship.

In my religious practice I have found Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism to complement each other without interference. For those who may be new to Buddhism I must preface my explanation of that by noting that among its various schools and adherents Buddhism varies as much as (or perhaps even more than) Christian varieties of belief. There are forms of Buddhism completely compatible with science and reason, and there are forms which parallel Christian Fundamentalism, or which embody practices and traditions not far removed from shamanism and folk religions of the various cultures which produced them. I have found Zen practice to be particularly compatible with being a UU, but the basic principles of Buddhism are also compatible. Let me summarize how I have found that to be so.

First of all, in both Buddhism and UU'ism our own personal experience is our ultimate authority, and there is no creed. One becomes a Buddhist by taking vows which are ethical vows or moral precepts. In both UUism and Buddhism religions teachings are not dogma in a narrow sense; huge bodies of scripture are available, but it is up to each of us to decide what to make use of. Once one becomes a Buddhist by taking the vows, or one becomes a UU by joining a congregation, there is no way to enforce orthodoxy nor to "excommunicate" for heresy. A Buddhist is free to drop a teacher, or a teacher a student, but one remains a Buddhist if one wishes to do so; likewise, of course, a UU remains a UU as long as he or she is a member of a UU congregation.

Second, Buddhism basically avoids the issue of theism. It is often said that Buddhism is atheistic, or nontheistic; it would be more accurate to say that Buddhism regards the issue of theism as at heart an unreal issue, a problem created by the mind and not based upon our personal direct experience. In that way Buddhism avoids one of the great problems of Jewish and Christian theology: how God can be both omnipotent and all-merciful--in other words, the theodicy issue. For most Buddhist lineages (with the major exception of some large popular sects like Pure Land), the basis of our spiritual power comes entirely from within ourselves, not from outside ourselves.

Third, Zen Buddhism gives me spiritual practices (meditation, chanting, etc.) which are completely compatible with reason and science, whereas within our UU tradition the only spiritual practices are those from Judaism and Christianity, which I do not find theologically acceptable--e.g., prayer to an "Other."

Buddhism focuses me on this present moment, and in my heightened awareness of this present moment, I respond in an appropriate and compassionate way, which includes an appraisal of the likely effects in the present and the future of what I do and what I do not do. Buddhism is extremely "this-worldly."

Fourth, Buddhism has actually been part of our UU tradition, particularly the 19th century Transcendentalists. For a reference here, there is scholarly research establishing that in Carl T. Jackson's book, The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth Century Explorations (Greenwood Press, 1981).

Thus I find that Buddhism and Zen supplement what I do not get in from my regular UU practice: meditation; ritual; the development of awareness of what it means to be alive in this present moment through the necessary (for me and many others) long-term practice; the validation of what I have intuited since my teen-age years, that everything is impermanent, that there is no "self" or "soul" which survives my death. Indeed, it is the last point which I think has been the curse of Christianity: the seeking for salvation after death. I also find the Buddhist teaching of non-self or anatman a good antidote to the common UU search for "self-realization," which I believe is a disguised and secular form of the yearning and hope of the traditional Christian salvation-seeker. Buddhist practice teaches me to give up my attachments and attempts to hang on to something permanent, and so be freed to be fully alive and awake in this and every successive moment, as long as consciousness lasts.

I have been retired from the active UU ministry since 1989, but I must add a note here. While I was in the active ministry, it was important that I not try to impose my Buddhism on anyone in the congregation, nor imply that any non-Buddhist way must be an inferior way. In sermons, for example, I would often present alternative ways of thinking and of spiritual living besides the Buddhist way. My congregation knew I was a practicing Zen Buddhist, and indeed I think it is essential for a religious leader to have a spiritual practice which is not hidden, but I do believe I was able to convey also that each person must find his or her own way, whether that is Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, humanist, or whatever.

UU Buddhist Monkhood
in Chaing Mai

by Larry Nahlik

This is my journal of a week in the Buddhist monkhood in Chiang Mai, a city in the north of Thailand, in 1998. I am a Caucasian American, a former Peace Corps volunteer (Thailand 1977 – 79), and long a practicing Buddhist. My wife Yao is a native of Thailand. We have a comfortable life in Madison, Wisconsin, and are active in Prairie UU Society.

I wrote this journal to capture my thoughts as they occurred during the week. I have added additional thoughts and clarification; those are printed in italics.

I ordained as a monk because of a feeling that I was overdue. In Theravada Buddhism as it’s practiced in Thailand, nearly all males spend some time in the monkhood during their lives. I have considered myself a Buddhist for over 20 years. As I studied and meditated on the meaning of a Buddhist life, I came to understand the benefits of ordaining, to spend part of my life in meditation and study. The side issues are too numerous to explain in detail here, but they include a need to set an example for my daughter, who also has a foot in each culture, and to demonstrate my commitment to assume the responsibilities of an adult male in my wife’s family.

Before we get into the journal, you need to know something about the cast of characters. I have already mentioned my wife Yao. My friend Joe Cummings is a travel writer who lives in Chiang Mai. We served in the Peace Corps together.

Friday, 19 June 1998

We came here to Wat Umong yesterday, Thursday, to speak with the abbot. We agreed that I would come into the temple today to learn my lines before ordination on Sunday. I plan to ordain on Sunday and stay for seven days, which seems to be the minimum. Though nothing is etched in stone, you don’t want to ignore hints or push too hard to have things your own way.

"Austere" is an appropriate word to describe the bungalow where I now sit. I’ve stayed in similarly equipped beach bungalows. This place needed a sweeping when I came in, so that’s the first thing I did, coming up with a sizable pile of dust, lizard shit, roach parts, and some kind of insulating material. I’ll be sleeping on a cloth mat on the floor; it has a thin layer of padding. My writing desk is a big box of powdered laundry detergent.

Sweeping done, I moved on to a shower. The water doesn’t run just yet, but fortunately there was enough water in a "trash can" (often used as a water reservoir indoors) for a good splash bath. The bathroom includes a sink, a squatter toilet, and a large hairy spider.

Saturday, 20 June 1998

I was asleep early yesterday, and my watch has stopped working. I made several mistakes regarding the time during the night. I left the porch light on to serve as a night-light. That prevented me from seeing how dark the sky was. I awoke in the dark once and heard what I took to be tapping on wood blocks and assumed that it was the four a.m. alarm to wake up. I also heard, in the distance, what I took to be a monk chanting. Turns out what I heard was mostly frogs: small ones made the "wood block" sound and bullfrogs sounded like distant chanting. I realized my mistake as soon as I stepped out on the porch.

As daylight broke, I went to find out about breakfast. I found a group of others like me. We followed monks on their alms gathering and carried their overflow for them. The walk down to a business district and back took almost an hour. People along the street put food items in the monks’ bowls, or sometimes handed over a small bag of groceries.

After breakfast, I sought out the "Canadian" monk. He is an American, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who married a Canadian and lived in Montreal for 25 years. We had a good talk. He asked me why I’m here, and I answered that it has to do with living a more Buddhist life on the outside. He had an interesting prediction, that is, as interest in Buddhism grows in North America, there will emerge a distinctly North American Buddhism, no longer dependent on the leadership of foreign-trained monks, and which incorporates existing elements of Western culture, fairness and equality in particular. Of course, here I plugged the Unitarian Universalists.

I have been memorizing my recitations for ordination tomorrow. At rehearsal this evening, it became clear we are expected to know our lines.

I should mention the group of "young turks." They are youngish, maybe late 20s - early 30s, and recognized by others as teachers. I was invited to a discussion group, conducted by them, "Public Welcome." They talked about the need to seek individual answers to the problems that the world gives us.

I later learned that these young monks were visitors just passing through. They were carrying on the tradition of traveling forest monks (Phra Tudong in Thai).

Sunday, 21 June 1998

Today I was ordained a Buddhist monk. The ceremony went well. Seventeen of us were ordained in the same ceremony. It was not absolutely necessary to know all my lines; many of them were of the repeat-after-me variety.

I got my head shaved about 11:45 a.m., before Yao or anyone else saw me. During the ceremony, Yao’s mother who filled the role of my elder. That was important, as it was she who passed me my robe, laying them still in their wrappers over my out-stretched arms. Later on, she passed me my alms bowl.

The ceremony was quite long. There were a number of recitations and procedures. The actual investiture was conducted in groups of three, so, with 17 of us, there was lots of repetition. I have a new name: Sumedho.

The abbot intentionally named me after the well-known American monk who studied in Thailand and helped to found several centers of Buddhist study in Europe and New Zealand.

After the ceremony, nearly all of us came back to my bungalow. Yao and her family and friends had to leave early, but Joe and his friends stayed to talk. Also, visiting was Greg, the American monk. Greg and Nong, Yao’s brother, helped me learn how to wear my robe, which is far more complicated than it looks. We had a long talk about Buddhism and Thailand. Both Greg and Joe are extremely knowledgeable on both subjects. Everyone cleared out at dusk.

After a bath, I went to Greg’s bungalow to show him my books and again practice dressing. We talked again about the procedures ’round here, and which chants are important to memorize. He showed me the blessing monks give to alms givers.

Monday, 22 June 1998

A pretty rough day, all things considered. I woke at four a.m. when the bell sounded and got myself up, meditating in my usual PJs. My intent was to skip the 4:30 a.m. chanting, but a monk came to get me, knocking on the door. He said I’m supposed to be at chanting, and, no, I can’t wear my usual sleepwear. (Greg had told me yesterday to sleep however I want.) So, I showed up for chanting, half-way through.

Today was my first day actually carrying my own alms bowl. I walked with Greg down to the usual marketplace. Yao was there, and gave most generously, twice in fact.

Returning to the temple compound, we divided up the food. Someone pointed out to me the need to save what I want for lunch, so I did, with my lunch in my bowl and breakfast on my plate. After breakfast, we washed up, and I came back to my cabin to shave my face and bathe. After resting a while, I went off to the library to find English texts to study.

I left the library to get ready for 4:30 chanting. I was able to follow when I could find the right page. Sometimes I participated completely in familiar chants. Most of the time, I found it difficult to get all of the words out.

In the evening, Joe Cummings came. He’s going to take pictures of alms-gathering in the morning. Since that occurs so early, he’s spending the night here with me. As usual with Joe, it’s great conversation.

Tuesday, 23 June 1998

Joe Cummings took pictures of Greg and me walking for food this morning. After walking, we had several good conversations, some with Thai monks, some with Greg.

Before breakfast, at first the monks seemed suspicious of Joe, but when I told them he is a Buddhist and long-time serious student of oriental religions, they immediately relaxed and enjoyed. One of the young turks asked Joe what his most memorable teaching of the Buddha is. Joe immediately answered "Anniccang" (the concept of impermanence). I couldn’t come up with anything, so that monk asked, "What if you have a worn out robe and you throw it on the trash pile? Now what if you put it by the trash pile thinking, ‘Maybe somebody else can use it.’" I guessed wrong and said they are the same thing. But the point was intent, the idea of leaving it for someone else, regardless of the outcome.

As you can well imagine, this was a humbling experience, drawing a blank on the first question, then guessing wrong on the second. I admitted to myself and to the monks that I came to learn. It would have been foolish of me to try to pass myself off as some kind of scholar. I now view these conversations as intensive learning experiences, and an opportunity to overcome the ego.

At seven this evening a Thai monk spoke, followed by a question and answer session. Turns out he’s a frequent visitor to Milwaukee, where he communes with Catholic priests at Cardinal Stritch College. He’s starting a new forest temple in the South of Thailand, and invited recruits to join him. There is one unattached monk that ordained with us.

I asked my question about the death of a child.* He said the answer is in realizing that all things are impermanent, but he concedes the healing would take time.

Wednesday, 24 June 1998

A pretty rough day. Nothing major, just a bunch of little things went wrong.

The bad stuff happened only later in the day.

Forgot my prayer book for 4:30 chant.

Couldn’t get Yao’s wish to stay longer in Chiang Mai out of my mind.

The "junior enforcer" monk came up to me to remind me to shave by morning. I don’t know what his role is, but I should find out.

My meditations go nowhere, with lots of noise from sexual fantasies.

Went all over town with my right shoulder outside my robes, rather than inside as it should be when leaving temple grounds.

I’m falling into the routine here, which is OK, but I’ll be glad to put on shirt and pants come Sunday.

Thursday, 25 June 1998

I was ambivalent about whether to bother with a journal entry, because of the uneventful day, but then Charles came by. What a talker! He denies liking computers, but, at a minimum, likes talking about them. Hardware, software, websites, you name it, he does it. I don’t mean to say he’s bombastic; he just speaks what he knows simply.

His parents were Polish Jews, so the Holocaust is another thing he can talk about. Charles has been a monk in Thailand for almost twenty years, so he’s earned his stripes.

Another note: I saw the worst dog ever today: remnants of a rope on its neck, completely hairless due to mange/scabies, and a flap of skin open exposing its skull. A visiting American veterinarian seemed stunned and helpless.

mid-afternoon, Saturday, 27 June 1998

I made no entry on Friday, a pretty uneventful day, mostly because Charles again stayed quite late, talking computers.

I’m now easily showing up on time for things here, without a watch, just by gauging the position of the sun.

I’m really writing today to get a few thoughts on paper about a couple of visitors I had on Thursday. I mentioned in passing the visiting veterinarian. She’s a recent graduate from Michigan. She and another American woman, a potter from Maryland here at CMU in the Fine Arts Department, were sitting on the bench at the water’s edge in front of my bungalow. They seemed surprised to see me here in monk’s robes, and it took some time to get across to them that I’m not a pious scholar, just a simple seeker here for the short term, to get a better grip on things. People seem to think that one day you wake up and *BOING!* you’re a Buddhist scholar.

Sunday, 28 June 1998

Today I left the monkhood. It was quite simple. After breakfast, I went back to my bungalow and grabbed what I needed: the folded robe-over-the-shoulder and a change of clothes in a cloth shoulder bag. As soon as I said the words, the abbot pulled the shoulder sash off me and told me to change into my civvies off in a corner, but right there in the temple. I pulled up my trousers, dropped the sabong and - Voila! - layman again.

So, I went back to my bungalow and packed up, took a bath and shaved. I turned off the main water supply and took off for coffee at Greg’s.

Greg had a visitor when I got there, a Thai teacher of Mass Communications at Chiang Mai University. He was there celebrating his birthday by feeding a monk. He was one of these guys who are so amazed to meet Westerners who speak Thai, and who are monks besides!

Anyway, I said truly fond farewells to Greg. He really helped me through my week. Coincidentally, we ran into him at the Art Museum at CMU later in the day.

Yao and her friends, Huay and Lek, arrived at about 10:30. We took a few pictures and took off for an exotic lunch. The menu included lahb (Northern), som tum (a green papaya salad), sticky rice, soup, and fried bugs, namely crickets, wasps, and some kind of small caterpillar. Also, bee’s nest, the part with the pupae. The bugs were good, salty and crunchy.

Monday, 29 June 1998

What’s been gained this week?

Observing the moment: Like a grazing animal or a computer chip, things may happen, but they are processed, observed without attachment.

I need to be a better father. Losing my temper with Marie the day before leaving for Thailand was stupid and mean. She was only asking for a little help, which meant only a brief interruption for me. It was completely uncalled-for, a response lacking compassion.

I will be a better husband. Yao is great and innocent; she deserves better. I have been withholding too much, as if I can’t let down my guard with this person, my most intimate friend. I will open up and tell her more about what I’m thinking and feeling.

Thai people are more accepting than we are. They seem to take you at face value, where, in our culture, people are always sizing each other up. Our rude responses come from the suspicion that everyone has an angle, that everyone we meet wants something from us.

Don’t sweat work. Don’t let the personality conflicts bother you, and don’t take problems home. Let those with big egos live with them themselves. If you do, share them with Yao.

I don’t need much materially. It was refreshing not to worry about MY STUFF, even if it was just for a week.

Larry Nahlik survived a Roman Catholic upbringing in the St. Louis area. He has nearly 24 years of contact with Theravada Buddhism and Thai culture, language, and people. A former development consultant and Peace Corps Volunteer, Mr. Nahlik has continued to travel in Thailand almost yearly. He is currently employed as a computer system administrator with the University of Wisconsin, and lives with his wife Yaowapa and daughter Marie in the Madison area. He may be contacted by email at lawrence.nahlik@doit.wisc.edu

The Still Small Voice

by Edmund Robinson

This sermon is the confluence of three very separate and disparate tasks: In this intergenerational service, I wanted to say something to our young athletes about the values they take with them onto the fields of their various sports. I want to talk about one of the roots of my own spirituality, the Buddhist tradition. And Jeff had several musical pieces he wanted to use with the theme of the still small voice. Whether I have successfully woven these three strands together will be for you to judge when I have finished.

The phrase, "the still small voice," comes from a hymn inspired by a famous passage in the Hebrew Bible, a rattlin' good story which deals with the prophet Elijah. You see, Ahab, the king of Israel, had taken a wife named Jezebel who did not worship Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but instead worshiped Baal, the Canaanite god. Elijah arranged a kind of contest between Yahweh and Baal, where the priests of each side prepared a sacrifice, and Elijah called down the fires of heaven, and to everyone's amazement, the fires descended on the altar and consumed the sacrifice. The poor the priests of Baal had no such luck, their sacrifices remained untouched. So Elijah, not content to expose them as idolaters, promptly set on the priests of Baal and slaughtered them. This didn't set too well with Queen Jezebel, and she let it be known that if she caught him she would kill him.

So Elijah got up and went into the desert and traveled forty days and forty nights, until he came to Mount Horeb, where legend has it that God had given Moses the 10 Commandments. Elijah holed up in a cave on Mt. Horeb waiting for a word from God. A voice came to him that said he was to go to the mouth of the cave, for the Lord was about to pass by. And the Bible says

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. I Kings 19:11-12.

It was out of that silence that God spoke to him in what the hymnwriter, following tradition but not the text of the Bible, called "a still small voice," and told him what he had to do. Elijah goes back and under God's authority, changes the political course of history and chooses Elisha as his successor prophet. He must have done a good job because Elijah ends up getting carried up to heaven in a flaming chariot.

Now this is the kind of story we like in America, a story with winners and losers. The prophets of Baal lost, and they got their comeuppance. Elijah, who looked like the underdog going up against the queen and her priests, comes out a winner with the help of the Lord. His being carried up to heaven in a chariot might be seen as the ancient equivalent of a victory parade for the Super Bowl winners.

Winners and losers. These are key terms in American thought today. They come from the sports world and they are strongest there, but they aren't confined to sports. They're everywhere. We think of winning and losing at love, in finances, in what colleges we get admitted to, in what clothes we buy. In my other occupation, the legal profession, winning and losing is so deeply ingrained in the culture that lawyers tout their won-lost records in order to attract and keep clients.

Let's say I'm admiring your new outfit. Instead of just taking in your beauty and applauding your good taste, I might ask something like, where did you buy it? If you bought it at the "right" store, then you've won. Or I might ask how much you paid for it. If you got a great deal on it, you've won. So winning and losing seem to enter into a lot of our transactions.

One of the real downsides of this is kind of thinking is that the word "loser" has become about the most vicious label we can hang on a person in America today. What could be lower, more worthy of our contempt, than a loser? We should all shun such a person, pass her by on the other side of the street. We certainly wouldn't want to be caught dead talking to a loser, let alone out on a date with one. For if our friends saw us hanging out with a loser, they might start to think we were losers ourselves.

What I want to say to you today is that, as powerful as the winner/loser mentality is in America, it is not the only way to look at things, or even the best way. And one other way we can look at it was thought up by a guy who wasn't even an American, and who lived in India about 2,500 years ago. His name was Siddhartha Sakyamuni Gautama, but we know him by his title, the Buddha, or "the enlightened one."

Now the Buddha didn't talk about winning and losing, but he talked about the same thing in broader terms: pleasure and pain. He said that there are three kinds of things in our lives: those that we want, that give us pleasure, those that we try to avoid, that give us pain, and those that are neutral, that neither give pleasure or pain. Though this third category actually constitutes most of the things in the world, we don't pay much attention to it – it's boring. We spend most of our time and energy pursuing the pleasant things and trying to avoid the unpleasant things.

Now another tenet of the Buddha's teaching is that reality in fact is ever-changing. Nothing is permanent, and nothing ever stays the same. But we have a hard time accepting this. Let me come back to the words of the Buddhist Monk I read from earlier, Venerable Gunaratana:

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up to you. And in between those times, life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls around ourselves and are trapped in the prison of our own likes and dislikes. We suffer.

Suffering is at the root of Buddhist doctrine. The first of the Four Noble Truths is this: everything is suffering. Actually, that's a little misleading. What is actually written is that everything is dukkha. Buddhism's sacred texts are written in a language called Pali, which is a close cousin to Sanskrit. Dukkha is a Pali word whose most exact English equivalent might be "unsatisfactoriness." One of my teachers said that the root of the word suggested a bent wheel. Have you ever tried to ride a bicycle whose wheel was bent, out of true? You know that it never quite rides right. That is the mildest sense of dukkha.

Now the point of the First Noble Truth, that everything is dukkha is that it is true whether we are winning or losing. Anyone can see that when something bad happens to you, or many things bad happen to you, you might be tempted to say that everything is suffering. For example, I had a bad thing happen to me earlier this month when half of my face was paralyzed, and there has been a lot about my life that has been unsatisfactory ever since, like I can't really smile.

But it might not occur to you that even when things are going well, when you're winning at the game of life, there is still this subtle undercurrent of unsatisfactoriness, of suffering. Life is never all it's cracked up to be, we are never quite as happy when we've achieved a great victory as we thought we would be. I may have scored the wining goal, I might be carried out of the stadium on the shoulders of my teammates, yet in all the roar of the crowd, amid the tumult and the glee, under the earthquake, wind and fire, there is this still, small voice saying, "Not good enough yet, Got to have more, got to make it better, got to be better."

Here's how Venerable Gunaratana describes it – see if this rings true for you:

Go to a party. Listen to the laughter, that brittle-tongued voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath. Feel the tension, feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game. Watch the fans in the stands. Watch the irrational fit of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth from people that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm, or team spirit. Booing, cat-calls and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty. Drunkenness, fights in the stands. These are people desperately trying to release tension from within. These are not people at peace with themselves....

Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, some enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the 'if only' syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who would really love me, if only I could lose 20 pounds, if only I had a color TV, a Jacuzzi and curly hair and so on and on forever. Where does this junk come from, and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our own minds. It comes from a deep, subtle and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian knot which we have built up bit by bit and we can unravel just that same way, one piece at a time. We can tune up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece, and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.

Here you have the key to escaping this round of delusion and seeing things as they really are: mindfulness; awareness. It is a discipline that Buddhists practice the world over. It starts with learning to pay attention. When you meditate, you see immediately how hard it is to pay attention. You see that the mind, which seems like a well-oiled thought machine, progressing logically from this thought to the next, from major premise to minor premise to conclusion, is actually a boiling cauldron of "thoughtlets," miscellaneous words and images, feelings, fears and illusions with no rhyme or reason. We spend most of our conscious lives either replaying and fretting about the past or worrying about the future. We are almost never completely in the present. We are almost never paying full attention to the here and now.

Buddha would not tell you not to play soccer or softball. If Buddha were beside you on the ballfield, he'd probably be telling you something akin to what your coach is telling you: pay attention. Be here and now. Keep your eye on the ball.

Skill is an important concept in Buddhism, for it takes skill and discipline to be able to see things as they really are, to discard the illusions that we foster on ourselves. In Buddhist practice, the skill is exercised and developed in meditation and in debating and discussing points of doctrine.

But skill can be used in any context, so Buddha on the ballfield will be urging you to play with all the skill you can muster, but not to let your happiness get held hostage to whether your team wins or loses. The old adage, "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game," might be acceptable to our ballfield Buddha.

Buddhism, like Taoism, is based on a healthy respect for the fact that most things are beyond our control; most outcomes are not going to be determined by what efforts we make. You know that no matter how well you play, your teammate might make that crucial error in the bottom of the sixth that lets the other side go ahead with two runs.

The mainstream American ethic is that we go all-out and we try as hard as we can every time, and we don't let ourselves get away with slacking off. For Buddhism, this philosophy is not wrong, just unenlightened. For when we understand how things really are, we can appreciate the Buddha's second and third Noble Truths. Remember that the first Noble Truth is that everything is suffering. The second Noble Truth is that the cause of suffering is our own grasping, our own craving.

Think about that for a moment. The reason there is suffering in the world is not that the devil is abroad sowing evil everywhere. It is not that the fates are especially cruel. The cause of our suffering, of our unhappiness is entirely within ourselves. It is caused by our desire.

The American Declaration of Independence says that it is a "self-evident" truth that individuals are endowed with certain basic natural rights, and one of those rights is the "pursuit of happiness." But Mr. Jefferson, for all his learning, was not much of a Buddhist, for if he were he might have known that the pursuit of happiness is itself the cause of unhappiness.

And this Second Noble Truth leads to the Third: that the key to stopping suffering is to stop the craving, to stop the pursuit. To stop caring about winning. To stop chasing the bright elusive rainbow of happiness.

Now, I don't pretend that I understand this completely in my mind. Still less do I think I have grasped it in my heart. But I can see how it does make sense. If you have eliminated desire and craving in your life, your attitude is one of complete equanimity and acceptance of whatever comes. In today's jargon, you're cool with what's going down.

But it definitely goes against the American grain. Isn't happiness what it's all about? Listen to Venerable Gunaratana:

So what is this happiness? For most of us, the perfect happiness would mean getting everything we wanted, being in control of everything, playing Caesar, making the whole world dance a jig according to our every whim. Once again, it does not work that way. Take a look at the people in history who have actually held this type of power. They were not happy people. Most assuredly they were not at peace with themselves. Why? Because they were driven to control the world totally and absolutely and they could not. They wanted to control all men, and yet there remained men who refused to be controlled. They could not control the stars, They still got sick. They still had to die.

In other words, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, "you can't get everything you want. It is impossible. Gunaratana continues,

Luckily there is another option. You can learn to control your mind, to step outside of this endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them.

Let me repeat that last sentence: to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. That is an enlightened definition of freedom. Freedom is not winning, it is not gathering all the money and all the power and the right house and the right mate and going to the right schools. In fact the desire for those things, the rearranging of our lives so that we maximize the chances of getting those things, that is slavery. We are enslaved to our desires. We become free, from an enlightened perspective, when we realize that it is our desires which have enslaved us, and attempt to overcome them.

Let's go back to the still small voice. In the Elijah story, the still small voice talking after the earthquake wind and fire was God telling the prophet what to do. Let's contrast that with two other small voices. The small voice of the reading we did earlier, is the voice telling you you've got to have more, got to do better, got to pursue winning above all else. That voice gets so much reinforcement in our culture, that it might not be a small voice after all. It might really be the roar of the crowd.

What I want to urge is that if you put those voices aside, if you can be focused on the present and really pay attention to what's going on in your mind and in your life, you can hear another small voice that says that winning isn't everything, and that your desire for winning is the root of unhappiness. Let us try to listen to this small voice, to keep ourselves mindful and focused on the real things on the playing fields of life.

Edmund Robinson is minister of the First Universalist Society of Wakefield, Massachusetts. He may be contacted by email at edmuund@aol.com

The Practice of Ch’an Buddhism: Realizing Inherent Wisdom

by Robert M. Oliva

Ch’an is a form of Chinese Mahayana Buddhism that eventually became what we know in the West as Zen. Ch’an is a wonderful mix of Taoist, Confucianist and Buddhist thinking and method. If deviated from the older Indian Buddhism in embracing spontaneity and paradox in its method and of the ideal of the bodhisattva in its philosophy. The teaching of Ch’an usually proceeds first with correct understanding and then with correct method. One of the foremost contemporary advocates of Ch’an is Master Sheng-yen of Taiwan and Elmhurst, New York.


Many of us think of improving ourselves by way of acquiring new habits or personality characteristics. If we are in therapy we strive to develop coping skills and new behaviors. Even when we are studying Buddhism we may develop the desire to become enlightened or acquire wisdom. Our goal may even be to become a Buddha. We are always searching for new things that can be added to us to make us whole. But in truth, according to Ch’an Master Sheng-yen, "there is nothing to cultivate, nothing to acquire, for wisdom is inherent in every mind."

Ch’an has always been here. It exits in each and every mind and heart. A monk asked his Ch’an master: "What did Bodhidharma bring from the West (India)?" The Ch’an master replied, "Nothing. He just told people the Dharma of Ch’an is already here." None of us need to add anything to who we are. There is nothing outside of ourselves that needs to be added to make us whole. There is no teacher that possesses something that is not already ours. We are all buddhas. The task of the teacher is only to remind us of the truth: wisdom is inherent is each of us.

Ch’an relies on meditation as its principle method of training. But paradoxically, meditation is not needed to be enlightened. Let me quote Master Sheng-yen: "Wisdom, or enlightenment, refers to a state of mind where vexations have been extinguished. Vexations are all the delusory mind-states that proceed from attachment to the idea of self. All thought, judgment, discrimination, and seeking based on self-centeredness are considered vexations." Meditation is a method. Many of us spend many hours in sitting practice. From a Ch’an perpective this is fine. But it is not Ch’an.

Although all of us come to Buddhism from self-interest, once we engage in practice we need to put aside all considerations of progress and benefit. All we need to do is practice with great effort. If you have ideas of gain or of getting rid of something, meditation becomes another vexation. Meditation, if applied correctly, only sets the stage for the appearance of our true natures.

The Method

A Ch’an master guides students according to their experiences and abilities. Some may begin with counting the breaths, others with hua to (a question) and yet others with gong an (koan). For example, Master Sheng-yen’s grandmaster Xu Yun (Empty Cloud) "was holding a cup into which hot tea was being poured. Some of the tea spilled on his hand, and he dropped the cup. On hearing the cup shatter on the floor, Empty Cloud experienced enlightenment." This story is a gong an. When we meditate on such a story, we concentrate our energies on penetrating the meaning of the gong an. If the story is turned into a question such as: "Who was enlightened when the cup broke?" and use it as a method of practice we are using a hua to.

Regardless of the method, with effort the student goes from scattered mind to concentrated mind and then to unified mind. Then if one can shatter the unified mind, our inherent wisdom can be experienced. Unified mind has three stages. The first stage is the unity of body/mind. We can describe this as the falling away of bodily sensation. All that is left is the practice itself. You become the method. If you are counting your breaths, you become the counting of breaths.

The second stage of unified mind is "when the practice itself disappears." You are no longer counting breaths but only experiencing breathing and clarity of mind. There is a lack of self-consciousness. Every moment is like the last moment. There is no sense of being aware of the mind being clear.

The third stage comes from raising what is called the "doubt mass." At this stage all words have fallen away and there is only a growing mass of energy. "This energy is accompanied by a sense of wonder, of surrender to unknowing, but at the same time of intensely wanting to know. This…can become so great that one’s mental absorption is complete…discriminating mind falls away." When this happens the unified mind can be shattered by some word or event like in the case of Empty Cloud hearing the cup break. One may experience true enlightenment this way. On the other hand, one may have this energy dissipate and be left with a deep sense of peace and oneness. This is not enlightenment since there is still a sense of self experiencing oneness. This is a very subtle state and is many times confused with true enlightenment.

Editorial Insights

Dr. Douglas Phillips to Speak
in Cleveland GA 2001

We have a speaker for General Assembly in Cleveland this year! His name is Dr. Douglas Phillips and he is a senior student with Larry Rosenburg the founder of Cambridge Insight Mediation Society in Boston. With experience in Zen, Vipassana and Unitarian Universalism, he brings important insights for us.

We are trying to schedule two back to back workshops to allow us to have more time with Dr. Phillips and to do some instruction and practice together.

This should be an excellent event and I'll be asking Dr. Phillips for material I can publish in the next issue so we can get to know him and CIMC better. CIMC is on the cutting edge of the integration of meditation practice with daily living.

Bringing Dr. Phillips is a significant expense so I urge you to renew your membership so we can have enough money to fund the event.

We will also have a table in the exhibition hall so if you have recommendations for books and publications to make available on our table, please let our President, Dorrie Senghas, know (contact information in the next column).

Sorry this Issue is Sooo Late

Wondered what happened to your UU Sangha? My apologies for the lateness of this issue. The fall is an extremely busy time for me. The good news is I have a new printer who is able to both print and mail the issue including doing postal bar coding at a reasonable cost. My hope is the bar coding will speed delivery. Look for the "winter" issue a little sooner, probably in February.

As always, remember to renew your membership/subscription. I just don't have the time or energy to send reminders or bills on a regular basis.