UU Sangha

Vol:II Number: 4 Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship Summer 1998

Editorial Insights

Humanism, Buddhism & History

This issue is mostly devoted to the excellent presentation by the Rev. Wayne Arnason at the UUA General Assembly in Rochester, New York. The second informative article from the Rev. Richelle C. Russell reviews the history of how Buddhism came to the West. Unfortunately, that's all I had room for in this issue besides some announcements of upcoming events and the practice page.

Financial Report

I'm very grateful for the support of the UUBF membership which has kept us out of the red and allowed me to publish four issues without requesting membership renewal. Now that I've published a full year's worth of issues, I hope everyone who has not done so will cheerfully send me your membership dues for the coming year. I hope to build up some reserve to allow us to invite a major Buddhist speaker to come and speak with us at General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

Beginning balance 11-97 318.58
Dues & Donations 770.00
admin costs -56.20
postage -237.82
printing -530.00
bank charges -11.75
Ending Balance 6-98 252.81

UUBF Web Site Has Moved

The UUBF web site has relocated to the UUA's server because we were experiencing reliability problems with the old site. Also the UUA will not be charging us for space. If you'd be interested in helping to maintain the site and have some web page skills – lease let me know!

New Board Members

The Board welcomes three new members: the Rev. Wayne Arnason, minister in Charlottesville, Virginia & UUA Board member, the Rev. Norma Cordell, minister in Marin, California, and Joel Baehr , minister in Winchester, Massachusetts & UUA Board member. We now have three UUA Board members (including Bob) on our Board!

Hope everyone enjoys this issue!

Faithfully yours, Sam


An Address by the Rev. Wayne Arnason to the Annual Meeting of the UU Buddhist Fellowship
UUA General Assembly, Rochester , New York
Friday, June 26, 1998
It's often a good idea to begin a public address with a joke! Alas, neither Buddhism nor Humanism are well known for their senses of humor. In fact, I don't know any humanist jokes whatsoever, and I know only one Buddhist joke. You probably know it too:

"What did Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?

"Make Me One With Everything."

Pondering that joke I wondered what might happen after the punch line if the hot dog vendor was a humanist. The joke turns into a dialogue that might go like this:

" What did the Buddhist say to the Humanist Hot Dog Vendor?

"Make Me One With Everything."

The Humanist Hot Dog Vendor picked up his tongs and said: "Which 'one' do you want? The red-hot, the foot-long, or the Polish?"        

The Buddhist closed his eyes and appeared to sink into deep meditation. After what seemed like an eternity, he said: "Is there a difference?"

"Of course there's a difference, dummy " said the vendor. "About fifty cents difference for the foot-long, and a buck for the Polish! Not to mention they taste different. But I guess that doesn't matter to you if you really want everything on it. That's all you'll be able to taste anyway."

"It's much like life, isn't it?" says the Buddhist. "So many sensations, one on top of the other, that you can hardly taste what's underneath them all."

"Hey, you're a pretty philosophical kind of guy," said the vendor. " What's your name? Are you new in town? You look kind of familiar..."

"My name's Sid",said the Buddhist, "and I've actually lived here all my life. In fact, I used to live in that building right there. "

He pointed to a huge condo complex skyscraper across the street. "What's your name?"

"I'm Kurt, and I'm only working this corner for the day. Hey, I know where I saw you before -- bumming quarters outside the train station! Have you got the money to pay for this hot dog?

"Just enough," the young man said.

"So how come you're so down on your luck, Sid?" the vendor asked. "If you used to live in that building you must have had some bucks at one time or another."

And so Sid the Buddhist told Kurt the Humanist hot dog vendor the story of his life. He had been born into great wealth. In fact, Sid had lived most of his young life in that very skyscraper condo complex across the street, complete with wide terraces, a roof garden, and a helicopter pad. Even Sid's school was in the building!

Growing up in this lavish, but sheltered life, Sid married within his class. His parents were very devout Roman Catholics and so they had a first class Catholic wedding, and Sid settled down into learning the family business.

Then one night, something happened that changed Sid's life forever! His wife had one of those food cravings that you sometimes get in pregnancy on a night when all the staff was out. Sid ventured out into the city streets on his own in search of Haagen-Das. He hailed a cab, but no sooner had he told the cabbie where he needed to go than the cab got into a bad fender-bender accident. Sid was shaken up and taken to the emergency room.

There in the emergency room, Sid saw things he had never dreamed of. Up until that moment, everyone in his life had been healthy, attractive, and vital, even his grandparents and the older servants. During three hours of waiting in the emergency room, Sid saw people who were very old, very sick, near death, and dead. Sid had never seen a dead person before, let alone a dead person his own age. The realization that, he, too would die - probably not like this - but with the same result, hit him like a blow to the stomach.

In the days that followed, Sid was not sure who he could talk to about what he saw in the hospital emergency room, but he knew he had to talk to someone. The old age, illness, and death that was a part of being human had never been a part of his life. His own child was born, and that brought him some joy, but his life inside the family compound began to feel hollow and meaningless.

Sid had a yearning to understand the world that he had never felt before. He turned to the teachings of his church. He prayed to God. He talked to the family priest but could not find solace in his advice that Jesus could quiet his fears and save his immortal soul from death and suffering.

So Sid got on the Internet, and began to learn about other religions, without his parents or wife knowing what he was doing. He learned as much as he could, but all of them seemed to require beliefs that he did not have, or participation in rituals that he could not understand. Finally, Sid became so distraught that he did the unthinkable -- he ran away! Overwhelmed by this yearning to understand the reasons for suffering and death, he knew he would never find out by living the life that his family had structured for him.

At first, Sid hid out with homeless. When he wasn't begging for food, Sid would spend his days in the libraries reading scriptures, or with various groups of spiritual seekers that had meetings open to the public. He tried fasting for days at a time, and he tried the drugs that were easy to get on the street. He joined the Hare Krishnas then bounced from that into fundamentalist Protestant sect. Years went by, and there was hardly a religious community in town that had not encountered Sid the Hardy, as he was called. But in all his searching, Sid never found what he was looking for -- an understanding of what meaning could be found in a life that contained aging, illness, and death, and what could be done about it.

Finally, Sid became so exasperated and exhausted by his search that he made his way to a big park, to a quiet place underneath a big tree and set up camp. He said to himself, "I'm not leaving here until I find what I'm seeking." And so he sat -- and as he sat, he stopped focussing on the world out there, and how bad it was, and began focussing on the world inside himself, a world he had never really looked at. He saw how so much about what horrified him in the world was his own fear, and his lack of confidence that this transitory world that had aging, illness, and death within it was still a good world, worthy of his love. Finally, one Sunday morning, he saw that he didn't need to understand suffering, but merely to accept it as a fact of this transitory life, and vow to relieve it however he could. He saw that there was nothing to save and nothing to be saved from, and that no God or gods was needed to complete or create a better world, that all we need to do that was within us. And he saw that there was no soul inside him that needed to be saved, and no eternal punishment or reward for anything he did -- that what was important was right here and now, not the pains of the past, or the possible losses of the future, but this moment.

When Sid finally broke camp, and left that big tree, he wandered around for a while in the Park wondering whether he would ever tell anybody what he had come to understand. Feeling the need for something to eat, he wandered over to the nearest hot dog vendor, and ordered one with everything. Kurt had listened to this tale with rapt attention, but he could see that telling it had tired Sid out. Sid was also looking longingly at the hot dogs. Kurt noticed how famished he was and said:

"That's quite a story! You know what -- forget the hot dog. I'm almost done my shift here and I was on my way over to my church -- the Unitarian Universalist church across the park -- where there's a potluck supper and a discussion group tonight. Why don't you come with me and we'll get you some real food."

So Kurt and Sid went off to the potluck. Now it was Sid's turn to listen, as Kurt began to tell him some things about his life:

"I was born into a working class Lutheran family that tried lots of churches," he began.

"Our stories begin differently, Sid, but they may turn out to have more in common than you think."

Kurt did have a very different path than Sid. By the time he got to junior high school, his family had left the Lutherans and settled in with a conservative Southern Baptist congregation. Kurt was a smart kid and asked both his mother and his minister more and more questions about religion that they didn't seem to be able to answer. It became apparent that the questions made them uncomfortable so he stopped asking. In college, Kurt ignored religion all together. What really got him excited was the physics and astronomy courses. There was so much that seemed mysterious and incomprehensible in this world we live in that you could actually investigate and understand using reason, intuition, and the scientific method. The experience of wonder that came to you when you looked into a vast starry night was an experience he also found working with a theory in astrophysics. The world seemed to open up to Kurt in college. The year he graduated was the year that the Russians put the first man into orbit. Excited by the space race, Kurt focussed his graduate and doctoral work on the problems of lunar travel. Even before he had defended his thesis, NASA offered him a job working for the Apollo program.

Although he was among the first people to see the famous picture of Earth rising above the surface of the moon, Kurt found himself drifting farther and farther away from the faith of his youth.

Unlike some of NASA astronauts and scientists, Kurt didn't find God in his work. What he found instead was an unshakable faith in humanity. Sure, the space program was as filled with betrayals, egotism, and downright evil as any other human activity. But the idealism and the vision that Kurt had found motivating so many of the people he worked with made an even deeper impression on him.

He saw no particular justice in the order of the world. There was no divine reason why one group of astronauts had died in the fire on the launching pad, and another group had made it safely home against all odds when everything imaginable went wrong. It all seemed to be a combination of luck and skill, and sometimes a trivial error in judgment or design would bring tragedy into the lives of the even the luckiest and the most skilled. The most important religious issue for him was how you dealt with that kind of tragedy, how you survived it and made meaning from it.

By the 90's, when NASA funding had been considerably restructured, Kurt had put enough money aside and invested it wisely to be able to make some decisions about what he really wanted to do next. During his NASA years, he was attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Houston. There he had found a religious community that seemed to have many people who thought the same way he did, and a service that didn't insult his intelligence. He began to see himself as a religious person again, not as someone who was defined only by negating the churches and doctrines he had once been part of. Kurt began to build a positive understanding of himself as a humanist, within Unitarian Universalism. Through the church, Kurt had found out about other organizations outside the scientific community that he knew so well, organizations that seemed to be making a difference in the world. When the time was right, Kurt was able to take an early retirement and go to work in the field of non-profit low income housing development. Today, however, he had taken the day off. Today happened to be "Dogs for Dreams" Day, a program whereby the owner and employees of a chain of local hot dog stands was donating the proceeds of one day's sale to the favorite charity of the organization that could get the most volunteers out selling his hot dogs. Kurt's church had signed up the most people and that's how he came to be selling Sid his hot dog.

When Kurt was finished, Sid told he was happy for him, happy especially that he had found a religious community where he felt comfortable. "As for me," said Sid, "I have no idea what I am religiously, or what I'm doing in this church right now, or what is coming next!"

Kurt smiled at him, and said:        "Well, if I understand you correctly, son, you're here because you've come home! Sounds to me like you're a Humanist too, young man! Pure and simple!"

Sid laughed. " Nooo! I couldn't possibly be a Humanist! I read about Humanism at the library and even went to some of their discussion groups! The ideas were great, but everything kept being framed so negatively. No God, no supernatural, no ritual, no authority! I had trouble connecting with them. For people who place such great emphasis on caring for humanity, they didn't seem to be that interested in their inner lives, or in building community together. They just wanted to talk! If I'm anything, I think I must be a Buddhist!

At that remark, Kurt's face fell. "Sid, you can't seriously believe you're a Buddhist! Those people sit on their butts all day and bow to statues! They don't do a damn thing to make the world a better place! Haven't you been to the movies this year! They have feudal authority structures, and make kids into kings, at least in Tibet! And in Japan, they believe in some kind of Pure Land Heaven that you go to after you die. Even the American Buddhists seem to be suspicious of the workings of the mind. Why, reason is the best arrow we human beings have in our quiver! I don't know what happened to you under that tree, Sid, but now that you're free at last of all those supernatural crutches that hold you up in this life, don't throw it all away by backsliding into Buddhism! "

Does this sound like a familiar impasse? I'm sure by now most of you have recognized that Sid's life story is a version of the story of Siddhartha, the Buddha's journey to enlightenment, set not in India 2500 years ago, but in any American city today. Kurt's story is a variation on many that I have encountered in Unitarian Universalist congregations all over the continent. But does this last part of the conversation we've heard between Sid and Kurt surprise you? Why does Kurt tell Sid he's a Humanist? And why can't Sid buy that? With the stereotypes that each of them have of what Buddhists and Humanists are, is there really anywhere that this conversation can go?

Growing up as I have in the predominantly humanist faith of Unitarian Universalism, in which naturalistic theism, non-theism, or atheism were the dominant theological attitudes, I have always wondered why we didn't see ourselves as having more in common with Buddhism, the world's largest non-theistic religion. With some form of theism so much taken for granted in American culture, with 90 per cent of the people being willing to say they believe in God, why hasn't that small and diverse minority of people who do not find God to be a helpful reality or concept in their lives been more interested in talking to each other? Is there a bridge that can be built here between these two great traditions of human understanding that now also gather under the sheltering umbrella of Unitarian Universalism? Because of my own growing involvement in Buddhist practice, this has become a question that is particularly important to me. It also seems to me to be a crucial time for us to jump start the Buddhist/Humanist dialogue.

For the past several years, we have heard UU humanists express concern about feeling marginalized in their congregations or UUMA chapters by religious approaches that seem to them to be anti-rational, ritualistic, and mythological -- all things that they thought they were getting away from when they became Unitarian Universalists. During that same period of time, we have seen the resurgence of the UU Buddhist Fellowship, and a lively renewal of interest in Buddhist thought and practice among UU's. Should humanists within the UUA feel threatened by this newest hyphenated theological minority within our faith, or do UU humanists and Buddhists share too much in common to make such mutual suspicion self-destructive for both? It is probably obvious by now that many in the UU Buddhist Fellowship believe the latter to be true, and in dedicating this program time to my reflections on this question, we hope to build some bridges between these two communities within Unitarian Universalism.         

The impressions that Kurt has about what Buddhism entails are typical stereotypes, and like most stereotypes, have some basis in fact. Buddhism does come wrapped in many different cultural packages around the world, and some of those cultural packages include rituals and practices which many Humanists find puzzling at best and abhorrent at worst. Buddhism can be very thick on ritual, but unlike some of the other faiths associated with Asia, in its basic teachings it is very much a religion of this world! Indeed, some world religion scholars even argue that Buddhism doesn't fit the usual definition for what a religion is -- that it's more a philosophy or a way of life. So if we set ritual aside for the moment, and look instead to the basic teachings and insights of both Buddhism and Humanism, perhaps we will find more in common than we might think.

Let's start with Humanism. A useful brief definition of humanism written in 1996 by the Board of the International Humanist and Ethical Union says: "Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society, through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

        There is very little, if anything, that the UU Buddhists I know, would argue with in that statement. Although I presume most Humanists would be very comfortable with that definition, it's worth noting that Humanism has its own internal divisions, both philosophically and culturally. Secular humanists uncomfortable with the degree of ritual and theism that is prevalent in Unitarian Universalism have groups and organizations completely detached from our congregations and networks. Most UU humanists seem more comfortable with the label "religious humanists".

In reviewing the summaries of religious humanism available in print and on-line, I find most of the propositions religious humanists assert to be completely compatible with Buddhist understanding and practice. Here are some examples, drawn from summaries of the Humanist Manifestos:

  1. Religious humanists regardthe universe as self-existing and not created.
  2. Humanism believes that humans are part of nature and that they have emerged as a result of a continuous process.
  3. Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.
  4. Humanism asserts that the nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values
  5. Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.
In brief then, we could summarize the essence of religious humanism in the words of Harvey Lebrun: as "an ethic or way of life based on human experience and imbued with compassion for other human beings". LeBrun's summary is exactly where where Buddhism starts - with compassion, compassion for the experience of human suffering. Buddhism is a this-worldly non-supernatural practice that offers a way in this world and this life for human suffering to be understood and alleviated.

Given these commonalities, what is it that Humanism contains, or negates, that Buddhism denies or affirms? If we stick to the broadest statements of belief, the answer may be - not much! Compared to the rest of the religious world, recognizing that both Humanism and Buddhism are non-theistic and human-centered, sets these two faiths into a category of their own. But beliefs are not the only thing that you judge a religion by. You have to look at what the believers in a religion actually do to know if you'd feel comfortable identifying with them.

The most important barrier that prevents Buddhists from feeling closer to Humanists is the feeling that Humanism is fine as far as it goes but that it just doesn't go far enough. Humanism seems to accept the working of the mind at face value. In its affirmation of the central value of reason in our lives, Humanism fails to recognize both the limits and the possibilities for human experience and understanding. Buddhists see rational thinking as an invaluable tool, not a prison.

The most important barrier that prevents Humanists from feeling closer to Buddhists is the Humanist suspicion of organized ritual, structured spiritual practices, and the authority systems that lay behind the evolution of ritual and practice. The fact that many Buddhist centers and monasteries function within the cultural authority structures of Asian societies makes it even more difficult for Humanists reared in Western democratic traditions to feel comfortable with Buddhists. These two significant differences make in highly unlikely that these two paths within Unitarian Universalism will ever merge together into one road. But that's not a problem for me, and not the goal of this lecture and this conversation. Rather than devoting all our time to cataloging the common ground between Humanism and Buddhism, I also want to affirm our differences, and what we have to teach each other. Humanism, it seems to me, has a lot that it can teach to Buddhist practitioners.

The most important example that comes to my mind is Humanism's emphasis on justice as a religious principle. All too often throughout its history, Buddhism has accommodated itself to the political life of its host countries in passive ways. Buddhism does have profound social teachings but the consequences of Buddhist insight for political behavior are only beginning to be explored, both in Asian countries and in American Buddhism. "Engaged Buddhism" has been one of the cutting edges of the American manifestation of this practice, and represents one important way that this country and culture is influencing Buddhism worldwide. Humanism has long asserted that the true test of the integrity of any faith is in how it concretely alleviates the suffering of others and moves the world towards equality and justice for all. This is a teaching that Buddhists can take more to heart.

Another area where Humanism has much to offer Buddhism is in a certain suspicion of authority structures. During the 80's several American Buddhist communities got into deep trouble when faced with malfeasance or abuse from a revered teacher. The transitions from one teacher or generation to another have proved difficult because some of the first generation Buddhist teachers from other countries brought expectations about their authority that did not sit well with American cultural norms. The Humanist emphasis on democratic decision making and non-authoritarian structures that reflect the worth and dignity of each person is very important not only to the Humanists among us but to all of us who affirm the principles and purposes of Unitarian Universalism. church. As UU Buddhist practitioners, we carry with us Humanism's healthy respect for democracy as a religious duty, and offer this as a teaching to the Buddhist communities in which we participate."

There is another side to this coin -- the gifts and teachings that Buddhists can offer to Humanists. One of these gifts is an excellent model for how to spread a faith. As an entrepreneurial tradition, in which there is no central control over teachers, Buddhism has managed to strike a balance between individual freedom and institutional integrity, and created a tradition that has within it great diversity in practice arising out of a strong set of common beliefs. Even though there are lots of people who hold Humanist beliefs, it seems to me that Humanists have yet to find a way to build communities and institutions that will serve all those people. Many UU humanists feel that our church is the best vehicle for supporting the kind of religious humanism which they affirm, whereas other more secular humanists are seek to create a strong humanist movement independent of Unitarian Universalism. Both groups within the Humanist movement can learn from the methods of spreading the faith that Buddhists have practiced for almost 2500 years.        

One thing that Buddhists and Humanists can learn from and reinforce in each other is a lesson about the deeper meanings of idolatry. Buddhism has consistently affirmed that we human beings have an infinite capacity for deceiving ourselves into thinking we are smarter, more compassionate, more caring, and more enlightened than we really are. Although Humanists and Buddhists join together in warning us against idolatry - kidding ourselves that a belief or teacher is sacred or ultimate when it really isn't - I think both groups can take themselves a little too seriously sometimes. Perhaps Humanists take all the chanting and bowing in Buddhism more literally than the Buddhists do. It's important that all of us avoid making teachings an end in themselves. The common goal is to serve humanity, not to be ideologically pure.

It turns out that Kurt and Sid were able to cover all these issues and more in their conversation over potluck supper in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church. When it was time to leave, Kurt asked Sid if their conversation had made any difference in his thinking.

"Absolutely" Sid replied. "Maybe there's a place for me among the Humanists in a church like this one after all. I think after all I've been through, however, I want to keep meditating, and being in community with people who have that practice. But the common ground that Buddhism and Humanism share is just too big to be ignored. I guess the most important part of it for me is seeing the wonder and beauty of all life as the most important source of religious revelation and insight. Buddha abandoned all scriptures and ascetic practices in his quest for the truth. He finally just sat down and watched the world go by, and watched the part his mind and body played in that world. All the truth we ever need is in our human experience of this wonderful planet and universe in which we live. I think its especially true that in Buddhist teachings about the value of mindful awareness of the interdependent world around us, Humanists find much that they can affirm and practice."

"So you think you might come back to our potluck next week? ", Kurt asked.

"Quite possibly", said Sid. "I'm thinking of starting a meditation group in the park on Sunday mornings -- but maybe I'll come after it's over. "

"Great!" said Kurt "I'll be glad to see you."

So as Kurt and Sid go their separate ways, my hope is that their conversation does not end here. Humanism in various forms continues to be central to the religious beliefs of most of our church's members. It may not be Capital "H" humanism, and I realize that holding firm to a capital "H" Humanist perspective is important to many of us. The small "h" humanists among us, those who may not be sure about God, and who like ritual, and who will sing a hymn with some traditional religious language in it, find inspiration in so much is affirmed by capital H Humanist leaders. American Buddhists are a new development in our religious scene and in Unitarian Universalism, but they are not a passing fad. My hope is that Humanists in the UUA will look for allies rather than enemies in the changing theological mix of our churches. The small but growing UU Buddhist network is such an ally. In our common belief in human self reliance, in our affirmation of the wonder in the interdependent web of all life, and in our commitment to compassion as the primary religious emotion, we find much to support our mutual goals and mutual search.

May it be so.

The Reverend Wayne Arnason is minister of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, in Charlottesville, North Carolina.


by Richelle Carmichael Russell

Buddhism may not be for us. "It's too exotic," said one man. "I'm uncomfortable with the colorful rituals and symbols," said another. "Bowing before the Buddha grates against our sense of individual worth," commented one woman. "I have a real problem with any religion that asks for submission or obedience," exclaimed another. "The belief that a serious practice requires a teacher goes against our belief in self-reliance and the 'priesthood of all believers.' All that talk about suffering is too negative. Buddhism is just a fad and it will pass."

These have been some of my own feelings and concerns related to Buddhism, perhaps you have experienced something like them too. When I first explored Buddhism as a young woman studying in Northeastern India, I was very attracted to the deeply philosophical teachings. But I discovered that there were things associated with Buddhism that I didn't like. I was uncomfortable with the expectation I felt from some that I wholly convert to Buddhism. I wanted to be a student of the Buddha more than a Buddhist. Although I liked the Tibetan monks an awful lot, I could not bring myself to perform the ritual prostration followed by sitting at their feet in order to learn from them. Nor could I comply with the whacking of a wooden board on the shoulder of the sleepy or slouching meditation student that was routinely practiced in the Japanese Zen temple.

The greatest separation I felt was on worldly matters. In India, we were surrounded by the most abject poverty and occasions of violent social unrest. Yet, my Western Buddhist peers seemed indifferent to this. Inward and still, Buddhist meditation appeared to be more important than responding to the crying need just outside the temple walls.

A student once said: "When I was a Buddhist, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am a Buddha, nobody is upset at all."

Before going any further on this, let's discover how Buddhism came to engage Westerners in the first place. It didn't come to us from Westerners looking East but from Asian Buddhist immigrants moving West and settling on these shores. Of course, to them, Buddhism is not exotic but an ancient and familiar cultural and spiritual practice. The Chinese were the earliest Buddhist settlers in the United States. They worked as cooks, launderers, barbers and storekeepers and built Chinese Buddhist temples for their community. No sooner had they arrived than they were met with much hostility and violence from the Euro-Americans (who had arrived shortly before them). Anti-Chinese ordinances were enacted in the 1880's and these quickly stopped the flow of Chinese immigration to our country. Later, the Johnson Reed Act in 1924 effectively barred Asian immigrants for four decades. This barring of Asian immigration and the anti-Asian sentiments effectively suppressed Buddhism in the West too.

At the same time that people who were born and raised as Buddhists came to our shores, there were Western seekers looking East for new insights. The first big breakthrough for the "Western" interest in Buddhism was a result of India becoming a British colony. The first English translations of Buddhist scriptures were made. This becomes important to us as Unitarian Universalists because those early translations made their way across the Atlantic to the hands of a small, eccentric band of New England Unitarians called the Transcendentalists. A member of this group, Elizabeth Peabody, published the first Buddhist tract translated into English on this continent. (Note that this is commonly, falsely credited to her friend, Thoreau.)

However, Thoreau is who embodied the true spirit of Buddhism. Thoreau's style of contemplation was a forecast of the American Buddhism that arose over a century later. Thoreau was perhaps the first American to explore a non-theistic mode of meditation which is a distinguishing mark of Buddhism. Though he probably did not learn this contemplation from Asia, he received encouragement by a reading friendship with Buddhist and Hindu scriptures. He wrote,

I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will still be a success if I shall have left myself behind.

Much later in 1965, our national policy for immigration from Asia and other parts of the world opened the gates again. As a result, new Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Thai, and Burmese Buddhist communities were established, mostly on the West Coast. Also worth mentioning is the small, but distinct community of Tibetan Buddhist refugees coming to our shores.

    monk comes or goes by the karma-relation
    horizon seems to be extending endlessly
    current, however, takes us to the New World
    Yesterday, the whales swam around us.
    the clouds shut off the sight of old Japan.
    the West to the East I go.
    turning to the South, I may visit
    and Ceylon again, making a pilgrimage like Sudhana
    Before long, our boat will enter the Golden Gate
    the sea-gulls, perhaps, may guide me to the destination.
    (Written by Soyen Shaku aboard the steamer Cleveland, which carried him, along with eighty Japanese immigrants, to America.)

At the same time that the blockades to Asians immigrating were lifted, again Euro-Americans and also African Americans of the Beatniks and Hippies looked East. A relationship developed between great Asian Buddhist teachers and Beat artists like Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac. This movement created the fertile ground for the emergence of an truly American Buddhism.

The most notable of the Asian instructors is Shunryu Suzuki, a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk. When Suzuki arrived in the West in 1958, he intended only a short visit. But he was so impressed by the quality of "beginner's mind" and the seriousness he found among Americans interested in Zen that he finally became a permanent resident in San Francisco. A true dialogue between Asian Buddhism and Westerners began. Through people wanting to join him in his practice, the Zen Center came into being, and as other Zen centers developed, the first Zen training monastery outside of Asia was created. Suzuki's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, is still a classic for Westerners on Japanese Zen Buddhism.

Buddhist teachers, like Suzuki, who appreciated qualities unique to our culture, carried us from exotic dabbling in Buddhism to a genuine Western Buddhist practice. Suzuzki died in the 1970's. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, carries on this tradition with his solid Asian Buddhist training and an openness to Western culture. He says,

I believe that the encounter between Buddhism and the West will bring about something...very important. There are important values in the Western society, such as the scientific way of looking at things, the spirit of free inquiry, and democracy. An encounter between Buddhism and these values will give humankind something very new, very exciting.

Hanh tells a story about encountering a young man who had decided to drop out of society and came to a meditation center. Because this Buddhist temple is a place of compassion, they welcomed him, they gave him comfort. They let this alienated young man come and have a place to cry. How, long, how many days, how many years did he need to cry? That is not known. But once he had taken refuge at the meditation center he did not want to go back to society. He had enough. But, Hanh says,

One day I came and burned his meditation center, which was only a small hut--his last shelter! From his perspective he had nothing else and nowhere to go because society was not his. He thought he had come to gain his own release, but in the light of Buddhism, there is no such thing as individual self. When you come into a Buddhist center, you bring with you all the scars, all the wounds from society, you bring the whole society as well. By burning the shelter I hoped the young man would witness his true deliverance and new existence. I took his hands into mine and asked him how much he wanted, he smiled and said "I want it all." Just as I did.

Hanh adds,

To me, a meditation center is where you get back to yourself, you get a clearer understanding of reality, you get more strength in understanding and love, and you prepare for re-entry into society. If that is not the purpose it is not a real meditation center. As we develop greater understanding we must make a real contribution.

Hanh is appealing to Unitarian Universalists because of his tireless devotion to world peace and justice. His form of Buddhism is hardly an escape but an active engagement in the world.

The blend of Western culture with Buddhism is exciting indeed. While the core Buddhist teachings endure, they have taken on a new and distinctly American shape. For example, American Buddhists are less hierarchical and more self-taught. We emphasize a practice that every man, woman and child can do. Women are recognized as valued partners and instructors. American Buddhism is not otherworldly, but is actively engaged with and firmly planted in this world.

Before the rain stops we can hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we can see snowdrops and some new growth (D.T. Suzuki).

Although I may always remain a hyphenated Buddhist--first a Buddhist-Humanist, now a Buddhist-Theist I am grateful for what Buddhism brings to my spiritual and intellectual life. I gain a greater sense of peace. It gives me joy. Like you, perhaps, I have wanted a genuine spiritual practice that does not compromise my beliefs. The Buddhist directive to let go of unnecessary trappings allows my life to become more effortless. By living in the present, I am awakened.

Is Buddhism in the West a fad? Not at all. Is it a primary source for Unitarian Universalists to draw upon? Yes! Core Buddhist teachings are rooted in personal experience in the real world. Buddhism emphasizes the present. It is truth-telling and values oriented. All life is connected like our interdependent web. It is non-creedal and not ultimately concerned about God. It is a rationally based spiritual practice. Each of us possesses the resources within us to address life and death, religious and moral issues. I close with our Unitarian-Buddhist, Thoreau:

Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me...We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of [people] to elevate [their lives] by conscious endeavor....It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look...To affect the quality of the day.

Note: the primary source for historical background was Rick Field's excellent book, How the Swans Came to the Lake, A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Boston: Shambhala, 1992).

The Richelle Carmichael Russell is minister of the First Congregational Unitarian Church in Northborough, Massachusetts.