Category Archives: Buddhism

There are 10 Buddhist Entries in the UU Hymnal: The Answer to this Week’s UU Trivia Question

Between themselves, Philocrites and Paul Oakley came up with all of the Buddhist contributions to Singing the Living Tradition, the current hymnal of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  There are 10 in all (although several are repeats or near repeats):

181: excerpt from Metta Sutta (“Loving-kindness Sermon”) from the Sutta Nipata (“Collection of Sermons”)
183: excerpt from “To a Buddha Seated on a Lotus” by Sarojini Naidu
184: excerpt from Mahaparinibbana Sutta (“Great Final Nirvana Sermon”)
505 prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh
554 excerpt from “Earth Gathas” by Thich Nhat Hanh
595: excerpt from Metta Sutta (“Loving-kindness Sermon”) from the Sutta Nipata (“Collection of Sermons”)
596: excerpt from Metta Sutta (“Loving-kindness Sermon”) from the Sutta Nipata (“Collection of Sermons”)
597: Excerpt from the Dhammapada (“The Path of Truth”)
598: excerpt from Metta Sutta (“Loving-kindness Sermon”) from the Sutta Nipata (“Collection of Sermons”)
679 excerpt from Mahaparinibbana Sutta (“Great Final Nirvana Sermon”)

Note: many of these sources are improperly cited in the hymnal.  The list above provides the actual sources and spellings of those sources, including a translation of those texts cited in Pali.


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UU Trivia Question of the Week: Buddhism in the Hymnal

With the summer research period starting to wind down, it’s time to get some of the regular features here at Transient and Permanent back on track.  In other words, it’s trivia time!

This week’s trivia question takes a look at the current UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition.  This hymnal offers the most diverse collection of song and reading sources that Unitarian-Universalists have ever produced.  One measure of this diversity is how many of the inclusions come from religions other than Unitarianism/Universalism/Christianity, the direct tap-roots of the denomination.

Since this blog also has an interest in Buddhism, especially where it intersects with UUism, this week’s trivia question is: how many songs and readings in Singing the Living Tradition come from Buddhist sources?

Extra credit if you can list them.


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Convert Buddhism’s Ineffective “Open Door Syndrome”

Last week this blog offered an excerpt from a sermon on race and diversity in Unitarian-Universalist churches.  The sermon explored what the minister terms “open door syndrome,” the misunderstanding by white congregations that it is simply enough to open up the doors and announce that everyone is welcome, without doing any hard work to actually integrate the congregation and make it truly welcoming to people who don’t look like those who are already there.

Although that sermon originates in a specific denomination and place, it is worth pointing out that the same dynamic exists within white convert Buddhism, and is even more egregious considering that a) 99% of Buddhists in the world are non-white, b) between 75-80% of North American Buddhists are non-white, c) Buddhism in North America tends to be an urban phenomenon located in places that are both highly multiracial, and d) convert white Buddhism is strongly associated with progressive politics and the desire to remold Buddhism into a liberal social force.  Therefore it might be helpful if Buddhists too read and thought about the implications of the open door syndrome sermon.  Buddhism in North America often operates as a liberal religion; that means, among other things, that it is prone to all the defects that we see in other liberal religious groups.

One of the suggestions that Rev. Rodela makes in her sermon is that white churches partner with black churches.  This might be a good starting place for white Buddhists, who could partner with Asian-American temples.  The surprising level of ignorance about what actually goes on and why in Asian-American temples, and the very high levels of arrogance about how white convert Buddhism is allegedly better, would probably be reduced by such a partnership.  And naturally there are a great many other possible benefits of such cooperation.

Rev. James Ford, a UU minister and Zen teacher, offers some thoughts of his own on race and Buddhism on his blog, Monkey Mind.

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Buddhism: Christian America’s Liberal “Other”

A hypothesis to mull over: current popular attitudes toward Buddhism and Islam are two sides of the same phenomenon constituted by the needs of Christian (and Christian-derived) America’s imagination.  Islam is understood as the demonic other, a dangerous group fanaticism (Islamo-fascism, etc) that twists the familiar pattern of moralistic monotheism to produce enemies of America.  Buddhism is constituted as the angelic other, a peaceful individualistic path of private meditation that is so different from Christianity that it poses no boundary threats.  Buddhism in these narratives is the liberal, benign foreigner that presents no danger; Islam is the encroaching aggressor with a closed mind that can be neither opened or understood.  Neither depiction is even remotely close to capturing the general nature of either religion.

Buddhism receives almost universal good press in America, while Islam receives almost constant bad press.  The reasons for this are not simply that some practitioners of Islam have attacked Americans, at home and abroad, or that Islam is linked to violent struggles in some parts of the world.  After all, Buddhism is also linked to violent struggles and has plenty of blood on its hands, historically speaking, and Buddhists have supported armed conflicts with America within living memory, if not at this particular moment.

The answer seems to be that Buddhism is weak, while Islam is strong, and that is why Buddhism is perceived postively and Islam is believed to be wicked.  Buddhism poses no threat, military or otherwise.  Buddhism has been in a sharp numerical decline for well over a century.  Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, currently number two in terms of size.  Buddhism lags in perhaps fourth or fifth place.  Buddhism is growing in the United States, but there are probably twice as many Muslims here as Buddhists, and again, Islam is growing more rapidly.

This is meant as a general thought exercise, not hard data.  It seems reasonable that how we construct other religions is based at least as much on how much they challenge or frighten us (often based on current social/governmental factors, rather than religious one), as opposed to any particular qualities actually inherent in those religions.  Islam was our ally during the Cold War; Buddhism our enemy during WWII.  Should Buddhism become strong once more, it might lose much of its current favor in the United States, and if Islam begins to lose its ability to aggressively assert its own agenda(s) in the face of American desires, it will probably come to seem more inherently benign once again.


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New Unitarian-Universalist Translation of the Lotus Sutra

Buddhism in the West began in 1844, when Unitarian Elizabeth Palmer Peabody translated a section of the Lotus Sutra into English.  Now the tidal wave that began modestly with that first ripple has finally reached the shore.  Wisdom Publications has just released Rev. Dr. Gene Reeves’ complete translation of the Lotus Sutra, a strong contender for “most important Buddhist text.”

Rev. Reeves was for many years the head of Meadville-Lombard, one of the Unitarian-Universalist seminaries.  He has long been a main figure in the UU/Buddhist dialogue, largely because of his initial fascination with the Lotus Sutra and the subsequent relationship that he helped build between UUism and Rissho Koseikai, a liberal Japanese Buddhist group that focuses on study and devotion to the Lotus Sutra.  Rissho Koseikai ministers have been trained at Meadville-Lombard and a number of joint conferences were held in Chicago and Japan by the two religions; Rissho Koseikai also regularly sends speaking and participants to the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.  For many years, Rev. Reeves has lived in Tokyo and worked with Rissho Koseikai in various capacities.

A new translation of a major sutra like the Lotus is a very significant event for Buddhism in the West.  Rev. Reeves’s work is perhaps especially important because of his liberal religious connections.  He brings a perspective of both scholarship and sympathy to the text, which is extremely multifaceted and requires flexibility to fully represent its fascinating and at times somewhat frustrating elements.  In North America, the Lotus Sutra has become associated with an unfortunate exclusivity, because it was initially promoted to Westerners by dogmatic sectarians (whose interpretation was considered fringe in Japan).  Having a new and in some ways better translation by a scholar associated with more liberal hermaneutical approaches to the text will help to re-introduce this text (which, among other things, is a core part of Zen and many other Buddhisms in Asia).

This translation is also particulalry important because it includes the Sutra of Innumberable Meanings and the Sutra of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, which are traditionally considered to be the preface and appendix of the main text and hold an important place in the liturgy and study of the Lotus Sutra.  And Rev. Reeves has made a strong effort to make the text truly accessible to anyone, including non-Buddhists and non-specialists.

It took 164 years for Unitarians to finally complete their initial translation of the Lotus Sutra.  A lot has changed in both Unitarianism and Buddhism since then.  But in a way, both translations fit their times.  Peabody was part of a Unitarian-derived Transcendentalist movement that was just beginning to initiate the West into the spiritual resources of non-Christian traditions.  They were only able to absorb a small amount of Buddhist thinking (and even that was often misunderstood).  There were no Buddhists in North America at the time.  Today, there are millions of American and Canadian Buddhists, and the Western Buddhist community has largely reached a level of sophistication with key Buddhist concepts and practices.  Thus it is ripe for new, full translations of the major texts.


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Would Buddha be a Unitarian-Universalist?

Today at the Pullman Memorial Universalist Church’s blog, David Markham asserted that Jesus would probably have made a great Unitarian-Universalist.  It’s hard to know–after all, virtually every Christian (and some non-Christian) group has made the same claim, telling us more about the seemingly endless ways to imagine Jesus than about what he was really like (if that’s even possible to accurately speculate about, at this point).  Nevertheless, his vision of a UU-friendly Jesus is certainly appealing, and accords with particular readings of Jesus.

He then goes on to make the intriguing claim that Buddha too would make a good Unitarian-Universalist.  If anything, this could be even more interesting, since the Buddha came from an even more different religious culture from our own than Jesus did.  As with Jesus, it is extremely difficult to know who the historical Buddha truly was and what he taught and did not teach.  Every single textual source we have the Buddha is a sectarian one committed to the form we currently have it hundreds of years after his death.  In other words: there is no truly retreivable “historical Buddha,” only a variety of competing sectarian ones and speculatively “reconstructed” ones based on sectarian documents.

With that said, there is some broad agreement about the personality and some of the teachings of the Buddha.  And, oddly enough, there does seem to be some alignment with UU principles.  If we take the easy way out and reference the principles of the UUA (so much less than a creed, yet so tantalizingly convenient), the overlap is nothing short of remarkable:

  • 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.

These are indeed ideas that match up very well with the best guess of the flavor of the Buddha’s original teachings.  They aren’t perfect (the Sangha used democratic methods for some decision-making but was fundamentally based on a seniority system, for instance), but there’s a lot more in common than not.  This is one reason that Buddhism has been a rapidly growing phenomenon within UUism: many UUs are impressed by how well their core principles align with Buddhism, allowing them to move into Buddhist practice with relative comfort.

But we should not stop the conversation here.  The truth is that, while the principles listed above are one’s we can well imagine the Buddha broadly approving of, the Buddha himself would not have been a Unitarian-Universalist.  At its heart, UUism is about a free, personal exploration of spirituality, without being told precisely what your goal should be or what path it should take.  This was not the way of the historical Buddha, if our records are to be believed.

The Buddha taught specific dogmas that he held to be absolutely accurate descriptions of how things really are.  He seems to have believed that he alone in the entire world had discovered true religion, and his followers agreed: that’s what “Buddha” means.  A Buddha in the early tradition is the one person in a benighted world who has discovered the truth and teaches it to others; all other religious paths are inferior by definition.  And the truths that make someone a Buddha are about karma, rebirth, dependent co-origination, non-self, suffering, detachment, impermanence, and nirvana.  People who do not teach these dogmas are not in accord with actual reality, by the original (and still virtually all current) Buddhist understanding.  The Buddha seems to have believed that people must be free to draw their own conclusions, but this did not prevent him from very, very clearly teaching that conclusions other than his own were incorrect, a fact that is often glossed over in the rush to make the Buddha into a comfortably modern ecumenical figure.

In other words, while the Buddha could accept the principles of UUism, he would not have been a UU because his religion contained so much more doctrinal content and practical method than does UUism, including additional principles that conflict with UUism in practice. And for that matter, there is more to UUism too than the UUA principles, including aspects of UUism that would not have appealed to the Buddha, such as the current UU fetishism of covenants and congregational polity, or common practices such as hymn-singing and joys and concerns (he totally would’ve been down with story for all ages, however).

This does not invalidate the growth of UU Buddhism, of course.  Buddhists have continually reimagined Buddhism, often through contact with other cultures and religious paths that bring new perspectives and concerns to the pursuit of Dharma.  If UUs imagine a Buddhism that is compatible with their religion, they are doing nothing different from (nor doing more violence to the tradition than) earlier Hindus, Confucianists, Shintoists, and others who likewise reimagined Buddha and Buddhism.

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Creedless Creeds: A Buddhist Example

Creeds are a fraught issue for liberal religionists, especially Unitarian-Universalists.  It is interesting to note how a rather different form of religion, which nonetheless has many liberal elements in the North American situation, approaches creeds.  Jodo Shinshu Buddhists are the oldest organized form of Buddhism in America and Canada, based on traditions brought originally by Japanese immigrants.

Here is the Jodo Shinshu Creed from the main service book of the Buddhist Churches of America:

Entrusting the Vow of the Buddha and reciting the Sacred Name, I shall proceed through the journey of life with strength and joy.

Revering the Light of the Buddha, reflecting upon my imperfect self, I shall strive to live a life of gratitude.

Following the Teachings of the Buddha, discerning the Right Path, I shall spread the True Dharma.

Rejoicing in the Compassion of the Buddha, respecting and aiding one another, I shall do my best to work towards the welfare of society.

Usually, we think of creeds as being statements of belief.  But this Buddhist denomination has created a creed which nowhere declares the community’s adherence to dogma.  Rather, in general terms that leave plenty of room for individual interpretation, their creed is about what practices they commit themselves to as followers of the faith.  Is this then actually a creed, no matter what label they have given it?  Could this be a model in some way for other denominations?


Filed under Buddhism, Liberal Religious History