Buddhism, The New Buddhism, and Unitarian Universalism

The living tradition we share draws on many sources, [including] words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with compassion, justice, and the transforming power of love.

One of the sources of the living tradition we share as religious liberals is this tradition of the prophets – those who called attention to harm, to our failures to live by the ideals we espouse. Whether you are Jewish, or identify as Christian or not, we Unitarian Universalists are a branch of the tree that springs from the prophetic tradition in Hebrew Scripture. Justice is integral to Unitarian Universalist faith. James Luther Adams’ “prophethood of all members,” was but an extension of the prophetic tradition going back 3,000 years in Western spirituality.

It’s not in Eastern religions. Thousands of years of Taoist sages and Hindu gurus and Buddhist monks: hardly a word of anything recognizable as social critique. A lot on compassion. Not much on justice. Thousands upon thousands of pages of writings and hardly a drop of ink about systemic oppression and the moral as well as spiritual imperative to resist structures of social injustice.

There are a number of Zen Koans in which a student asks a teacher, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" Bodhidharma, according to legend came from India, west to China, where he is credited with founding Zen. The students are asking: "Would life really be any different if he hadn’t? What does it mean that we have this set of practices and customs called Zen? What was Bodhidharma doing in coming from the West and establishing this thing? What’s it all for?"

Monks wrestled with that question through the centuries. They’d ask their teacher: "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?"
Master Zhoazhou answered: "The oak tree in the yard."
Master Xianglin answered: "From sitting a long time, I am tired."
Master Linji said, “Pass me that cushion” – and he then hit the student with it.

The question is why Bodhidharma came from the west. They’re not asking, "Why are there poor?" They’re not asking, "What principles of fairness apply even to the emperor?"

Many of you know, I identify as a Zen Buddhist. I was born and raised Unitarian Universalist, and now I’m a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist. Meditation, and chanting, and reading the sutras and trying to take them to heart – these are important parts of my spiritual life. For me, they are necessary. They are not sufficient. My faith also needs that prophetic tradition: the tradition of social critique that includes Amos and Jeremiah and also Socrates and Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Karl Marx, and thousands of muckraking journalists exposing corruption. My faith needs our prophetic tradition reminding me that nothing less than the sacred ground of being, the source of healing and wholeness that we call by many names, the creativity and aliveness of reality, calls out for social justice. I need a community of shared understanding that justice work is not merely good work. It is holy work.

I'm attracted to something called "the New Buddhism." It's the Western Buddhism emerging as an Eastern tradition meets Western habits and assumptions. The traditional Buddhism as practiced in Asia for millennia, by itself, doesn’t grab me all that much. When that wisdom and those practices are combined with the West’s prophetic tradition -- when, that is, the Western spirit and the Eastern spirit meet in a synergistic merger greater than the sum of its parts, something very real and very hopeful is born.

More and more people are seeing how inner peace and social justice support each other.

Inner peace has always been a grounding for compassion. The application of peace and compassion, nurtured in contemplative practice, to working for social change is a development within my life time.

Social justice has always felt righteous. But the idea that signing a petition or camping out in Zuccotti park to occupy Wall Street might flow from – and toward – a deepening sense of union with all things, is fairly new.

The New Buddhism looks a lot like Unitarian Universalism – just a bit more of the sitting still and being quiet thing. The lessons from the East can help us be better Unitarian Universalists because, as we are coming to better understand, inner peace supports outer justice.

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Part 2 of "Transforming Power"
Next: Part 3: "Why Did Channing Go to Baltimore?"
Previous: Part 1: "Our Unitarian Universalist Story: James Luther Adams"

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