An Invitation to Western Buddhists

By James Ishmael Ford

“One sangha member actually suggested–smiling sweetly–that I ‘try the Unitarians–they have children’s programs.'”
–Sandy Eastoak

I’ve heard this conversation before. In many Dharma groups people with children ask how they can raise their children Buddhist? Unfortunately, the response they get is rarely satisfactory. However, what surprises me most is how often the response turns out to be a referral–quite frequently to a Unitarian Universalist church.

So, what is this Unitarian Universalism to which so many Buddhists with children find themselves referred? For a start it is the most liberal of America’s long established religions. In some senses Unitarian Universalism is as American as apple pie. It has deep roots in New England congregationalism, and is closely connected with the foundations of this nation. In fact Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have served this nation in nearly every possible capacity from poet to educator to president.

At the same time it has, for the most part, moved well beyond its Christian origins. So much so that today some wags speak of Unitarian Universalists as a bunch of “atheists with children.” No wonder one might suggest a Western Buddhist parent investigate a Unitarian Universalist church.

As I reflect on that smile and that suggestion, I feel waves of emotion rolling over me. I sometimes find it hard to believe, but I’ve now practiced Zen for more than a quarter of a century. And, I’ve been seriously involved in Unitarian Universalism for nearly fifteen years. I’ve been a member of several congregations, and for the last five years I’ve been a UU minister.

In these years I’ve found trying to balance these two important aspects of my life very rich and very difficult. However, out of this personal struggle I believe I’ve come to understand many of the possible meanings of that smile and that suggestion. I believe following that suggestion may prove to be a very satisfactory solution to those seeking a way of integrating their Buddhist life with raising children, as well as living fully within our culture.

Perhaps not surprisingly Unitarians were among the first Westerners to express public interest in Buddhism. In 1844 the Unitarian writer Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published the very first English language version of a Buddhist text; a chapter of the Saddharmapundarika-sutra, in the Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. (Interestingly this was for years misattributed to another Unitarian, Henry David Thoreau.)

Since that time Unitarians and now Unitarian Universalists have continued to find Buddhism intriguing. At the beginning this interest was romantic and generally ill-informed. But over the years both interest and knowledge have deepened and broadened. Today there are a fair number of Unitarian Universalists who have embraced Buddhist teachings and practices.

There are numerous reasons for this. Today Unitarian Universalism is engaged in an internal dialogue, sometimes controversy, over a perceived “humanist/spiritual” dichotomy. A number of people within the UU movement have felt Buddhism is a particularly good way to bridge this apparent division. I am one. To understand how this might be the case it is important to at least briefly outline from where Unitarian Universalism comes, and what are its central assumptions.

Unitarian Universalism is a unique American religious expression. Grounded in New England congregationalism, Unitarianism first flowered as a rationally-oriented alternative both to Calvinist orthodoxy and the earliest revivals that swept through the new nation. This flowering gave birth to a sense of individualism and a strong faith in the power of reason, which have continued to mark the denomination down to the present day.

With Transcendentalism (a literary movement for most of America, but a central theological dispute within Unitarianism), Unitarians moved from any dependence on scripture to a faith more or less completely centered in human experience and human intuition. And so, while a UU may be Christian or Jewish or humanist or Buddhist; this emphasis on finding religion as a fundamental human experience is another basic assumption of Unitarian Universalism.

By the beginning of the Twentieth century Unitarianism and its theological cousin Universalism were clearly humanistic and rationalist churches, drawing more on the Enlightenment and modern science than on scriptural tradition. Unitarians were the first people of faith to support the theory of evolution and, indeed, to embrace the scientific method as an essential tool in understanding the way the world and the human mind works.

And so today in a worship service one may find readings from the Jewish and Christian scriptures, from Emily Dickinson or May Sarton, from the Bhagavad Gita or the Dhamapada, from Albert Einstein or the Dalai Lama. Contemporary Unitarian Universalism is content to find truth wherever it is encountered. It is a wide and expansive expression of Western religious liberalism. It is also very open to those truths to be found in the East.

To best understand contemporary Unitarian Universalism (the two denominations merged in 1961), the image I’ve generally found most helpful is to suggest Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious movement that has one foot within Christianity and the other outside. And, this is very important, sometime during this century the weight shifted to the outer foot.

Today, as a radically non-creedal body, individual Unitarian Universalists hold many different theological opinions. One may be a Christian, a Jew, an atheist, even a neo-pagan, while still being considered a “good” UU. One may even be a Buddhist, and ever more frequently this is becoming the case.

At this point to know what Unitarian Universalists actually believe it necessary to take a poll. In the last such poll, a 1989 study, The Quality of Religious Life in Unitarian Universalist Congregations, two percent of those surveyed formally identified themselves as Buddhist. There are about two hundred thousand Unitarian Universalists gathered in approximately one thousand congregations across the North American continent. So, two percent is not an insignificant number.

In fact I suspect the number of UU Buddhists today is much larger. While I acknowledge this is anecdotal, as an active UU Buddhist meeting many people across the continent in the course of my work; it is my impression that possibly as many as ten percent of UUs consider themselves Buddhist–or at the very least, seriously influenced by Buddhism. And, I feel, the percentage is possibly even higher among the clergy.

In the 1960’s most of these people coming into UUism felt hostile to their faiths of origin. They tended to be well education, politically very liberal, and inclined to shun classic Western theological language. Since the 1980’s, those coming into Unitarian Universalist societies, fellowships and churches, while remaining well educated, and more liberal than average, have also felt less hostile to their childhood faith’s than had the previous generation.

These new UUs tend to be more open to spiritual experiment and questioning. Possibly most have at least tried meditation in one form or another. And of these newer Unitarian Universalists, many continue to be interested in the possibilities of meditation and prayer and the development of a spiritual life.

There continue to be tensions between the “older” and “younger” Unitarian Universalists. To the older UUs, many of the newer folk seem flat-out irrational. To the new UUs, many of the older folk seem astonishingly rigid. And every once in a while one can hear the charge, “but that’s not real Unitarian Universalism.” I’ve heard this charge made from within both camps.

At the same time the trend toward a more “spiritual” perspective now seems irreversible. At the 1995 Convocation of Ministers, held in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the vast majority of working UU clergy gathered together and wrote a covenant declaring a profound “sense of the Holy” at the center of their faith.

Twenty years ago, such a statement would have been unthinkable. Today, anything less is unimaginable. At this time the majority of Unitarian Universalists, while generally of a rational and even humanistic disposition, are also clearly driven by a deep interest in “spirituality.”

However, just what is meant by this ambiguous term is in great dispute. While there is no UU “creed,” the General Assembly, an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists has produced a Statement of Principles and Purposes. This is an interesting document, wherein the member societies of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenanted to affirm and promote:

“The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Most of this document is typically UU abstract. However, that last clause, with its image of the interdependent web, has caught the imagination of many people. This has included both those styled “humanist” and those called “spiritual.” Also, many UU Buddhists have observed the similarities between this web and the Mahayana image of the Jeweled Net of Indra. Definitely, something rich is developing within this small denomination.

And, I feel, Unitarian Universalist Buddhists have, should we choose to take it, a great part in the dialogue. A place at the table has been prepared for Western Buddhists. I hope we will choose to join in. I find there are many reasons to consider doing this, and I hope we will think about them.

For Western Buddhists the first gain we get from joining Unitarian Universalist churches is obvious. It is that suggestion to Sandy Eastoak: religious education for our children. Here I think of that suggestion given to Sandy, and over the years, to many other Western Buddhists. I find it has a fundamental ring of truth about it.

Today few Western Buddhist centers are able to assist in providing competent or consistent religious education for our kids. The reasons for this are numerous. And, for good reasons or bad, it is not generally going to be possible to raise Western Buddhist children in currently structured Western Dharma centers. Nor, do I feel, is this situation likely to change at any time in the foreseeable future.

This is not to say that Unitarian Universalist societies are now places where one can raise Buddhist children without a great deal of conscious effort on the part of the parents. For instance, there are currently no explicitly Buddhist curricula available.

But. The existing curricula are very interesting; emphasizing the development good self-esteem, critical thinking skills, and respect for the world’s faiths. They also give children enough knowledge of the dominant Jewish and Christian stories to prevent the appalling religious illiteracy I’ve seen among so many unchurched liberal-raised children. I think there can be no doubt that the already existing UU religious education programming can provide a very good foundation for educating liberal Buddhists.

What is needed are Western Buddhist parents who will join UU societies and who will teach and begin to develop the curricula–for both children and for adults. There are great possibilities here for anyone willing to do the work.

And there are the beginnings of a UU Buddhist support network. I currently serve as secretary for the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. In this capacity I receive inquiries from across the continent, and even from overseas. At this time the UUBF is too small to be more than an information exchange. But, we do seem to be sitting at the edge of something larger. The frame exists, we need only flesh it out. All we need to accomplish something profound for our children and ourselves are willing hands.

And there are things other than religious education going on, as well. Increasingly, Western Buddhists who join UU societies are establishing meditation groups within their churches. This is helpful for the individuals involved, providing a place for these groups to meet. And, it is helpful for the larger UU community–which, as I’ve already suggested, is seeking forms of practical spirituality that can heal the humanist/spiritual rift.

UU Buddhists may be of immense help here. I really believe this is so. Buddhist meditation groups of nearly every type seem to have a place within UU churches. In fact, bringing Buddhist practices into the life of Unitarian Universalism may well be the greatest gift we can bring with us should we decide to come into these churches. Meditation is a precious gift, and one many UUs want.

Now, this UU/Buddhist connection is very much a two-way street. Besides providing the frame for a Buddhist religious education experience for our children, and places to engage our own spiritual practices; Unitarian Universalism offers interesting challenges to Western Buddhists. UUs have been in the forefront of ordaining women, as well as gays and lesbians to the clergy. Unitarian Universalists are deeply concerned with how human beings live lives engaged in the community. UUs are seriously confronting the questions of how we can live our lives fully in the real world.

I certainly feel these are serious questions Western Buddhists need to be addressing. Within UU societies one encounters a forum to engage those concerns of manifestation, of real life in the real world. Without a doubt challenge and dialogue come to Western Buddhists entering Unitarian Universalist churches. Indeed, thorny and difficult questions are asked on both sides. It is a gift that Unitarian Universalism gives to Western Buddhists.

I find in reflecting on those questions, and seeking the depths of clear responses, we Western Buddhists may well discover ourselves transformed into something deeper and truer than we likely could be before joining as Unitarian Universalists. It is hard to be smug, or to sit on one’s laurels, when asked “how can you possibly believe that?” Or, “Do you want to join in the death penalty protest?” Each of these questions may become koan for us, opening the way of deepest intimacy.

There are other areas of possible profit, as well. I know how important it has been for me to engage the spiritual questions of my religious heritage. I was raised a Baptist, and I owe a great deal to the faith of my childhood. At the same time there is no way I can return to a Baptist church, however liberal it may be. This debt and resentment over my childhood faith has been a conundrum I’ve had to face over the years.

But, within Unitarian Universalism, I find I can honestly pursue the meaning of my spiritual upbringing within the context of my adult faith. This is a precious gift that Unitarian Universalism has given me. And one for which I will always be grateful. So, while I certainly understand it may not be the best choice for everyone, I feel quite a few Western Buddhists can find much of value in joining UU societies.

There are great possibilities for Western Buddhists in joining Unitarian Universalists churches. There are also great possibilities for Unitarian Universalists when Western Buddhists come into those societies. I remember that invitation, “Try the Unitarians–they have children’s programs.” And, I find a great smile crossing my face. Great possibilities lie pregnant within that suggestion.

(James Ishmael Ford was ordained a Soto Zen priest in 1971. Since 1987 he has been a student of John Tarrant Roshi. In 1991 he was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister, and currently serves the Valley UU Church, in Chandler, Arizona.)