My Story of Sorting Wheat from Chaff & Finding a Life Worth Living
James Ishmael Ford
11 October 2015
Pacific Unitarian Church
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
“Wisdom is knowing I am nothing, love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves.” Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
A couple of years ago I wrote an entry for my Monkey Mind blog titled “All Religions are False.” In the blogging universe I think they call a title like that “click bait.” I know I sure got a lot of visits that week. Today, as I share with you what my spirituality is, I find that phrase rising once more in my heart. All religions are false.
My experience is that the religions we’ve received are in fact all of them contaminated. Too much of what they are about is simply social control, keeping the poor and the rich in their places, making sure men are in charge, and that we’re all suitably afraid of outsiders and their strange ways, and that there are lots of outsiders, but most of all never ever rocking the boat. Beyond that religions are larded with all sorts of assertions about the world that contradict what our eyes see, and assert many truth-claims about our human condition and destiny that make no sense in broad daylight. I will spare you the litany of falsehoods associated with just about all religions. But I’m sure you can think of a number of inconsistencies or right out whoppers in your favorite religions without breaking into a sweat.
And, this is equally important. This isn’t a call to walk away from religion. Because at the same time, I could have, and may yet someday write a blog column titled “all religions are true.” There is no doubt in my heart there are subtle and wonderful things to be found within pretty much all of them from Christianity to Judaism to Islam to Hinduism to the kaleidoscopic varieties of earth-centered faiths. Each contains pearls of great price. Religions, after all, are, in addition to those less savory things, the treasure troves of human wisdom, the repositories of the deep intuitions of many generations.
The problem is that with each and every one of them we need to sort wheat from chaff, noise from message. And this has been the great project of my life. I started out within a Fundamentalist Christian household, although I moved on quickly. I’ve listened to teachers in many traditions and scoured their spiritual texts. I lived in a Buddhist monastery for several years and a Sufi khanqah for another year. I delved particularly deeply into the arts of Zen meditation, and am now an authorized teacher in two Zen lineages. In my middle years I attended college and then a theological school, earning degrees in psychology, the arts of ministry, and the philosophy of religion. And I am now I hope you’ve noticed, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I’ve served liberal religious congregations around this country for a quarter of a century.
Over these years of investigation into the heart of religion I’ve thought, I’ve prayed, I’ve meditated, I’ve examined my life and the lives of this world in the light of these traditions, and these traditions through the light of my life. And over these years I’ve come to some conclusions.
Today, I’ve come to stand with my feet placed firmly within two spiritual traditions. They are both terribly important to me. And, I suspect living within the tension between them has been as helpful in my formation as what each offers on its own.
One foot stands in the reformed Zen Buddhism that has planted itself in our Western soil over the last hundred odd years. It is itself rooted in some ancient spiritual practices, and insights, which now live within my heart and inform who I am. However, with something of a twist. Buddhism starts with an observation of pervasive suffering. And I find that observation runs true. The “however” comes in that the healing project in classical Buddhism in pretty much all versions, the ending of suffering, was ending an individual cycle of rebirths in the sense of stopping the train and getting off. Rather, within my experience of Zen Buddhism, I have found the heart healing we all long for in this world is discovered not from getting off the train but by bringing the divided heart/mind together, bringing the many parts of who we are back home, finding the many lives within this one life, even within this one breath. It is all about an ending of the cycles of life and death through an ending of the illusion of separation.
The Buddhism of my experience finds suffering and grace, hurt and joy, as well as my ethical choices are all informed by a deep knowing that every blessed thing is united, is in a very real sense “one.” Reality is intimate, intimate. Now actually even that word “one” is an extra added to this intimacy, so Buddhism often prefers the term “empty.” I’d call it spaciousness, boundlessness. You can think of it as our family name. You and you and I are each ourselves following our own trajectory in the great play of causes and effects, but we all have that same family name: boundless.
I think a lot about how in practice we are all one family. And that brings us to Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes it is called “liberal religion.” I think of it as embracing the way of the rational heart. And it is very much concerned with how we live, exploring what religion might mean if it isn’t about social control, but rather is about community.
I first came to Unitarian Universalism because I felt a lack in Zen as I encountered it in the nineteen sixties, seventies, and eighties. As I said all religions are false, each has its limitations, none offers the truth unvarnished with that big capital “T.” And while Buddhism may be a bit less false than most, it too has limitations. A little research will show you a fair amount in its teachings are internally contradictory, silly or wrong-headed. Worst of all is how belief in that literal chain of rebirths comes with a deadly ethic of where you are, is because of what you did in a past life. And it becomes the great support of keeping things as they are. Back to religion as social control.
As much as that bothered me, the thing that mostly concerned me, however, wasn’t doctrinal. The issue of whether there is rebirth or if each breath presents a new life leads to the same disciplines, and the same possibility of discovering our true intimacy. The issue was that there just wasn’t much attention given to community in contemporary Western Zen. Oh, a tip of the hat here and there. But, for instance if a Western Buddhist wanted a spiritual home for their kids, everyone I knew in the nineteen sixties, and seventies, and eighties ended up in a UU church. If someone wanted a spiritual community as something more than going to a spiritual gym, and then home, pretty much the only place where I could go that didn’t contradict the parts of Zen I found useful and true, turned out to be at the local UU church. Bottom line I wanted full spiritual community, a place to put my spirituality into practice. And I found it at the UU church.
I vividly remember my first visit to a UU congregation. I’d been working in a bookstore and had found a copy of William Ellery Channing’s famous 1819 “Baltimore Sermon,” also called “Unitarian Christianity,” considered one of the founding documents of the American Unitarian movement. Hoping for so much. Expecting a lot. I went that very Sunday to my closest UU church. And I promptly fell asleep during the sermon. But, as an old Zen hand, I know about falling asleep during spiritual practices. So, not judging too quickly, I returned. And returned. And I found something very interesting, some healthful wheat amidst the chaff. Quite a bit, actually.
Unitarian Universalism has two principal currents and two methodologies that exist sometimes smoothly, sometimes not so smoothly which are derived ultimately from the two traditions that formed the Association. The first is Unitarianism, which has historically been concerned with reason and ethics. The slogan for this current has been “salvation by character.” The second is Universalism, which has been concerned with healing, and for which the slogan has been “God is love.” Or, “Love over creed.” Pacific Unitarian’s slogan “Love Beyond Belief” is a contemporary rephrasing of that older term by the contemporary UU theologian Thandeka.
Love is another name for that sense of intimacy I found in the silent places. And working out the healing of my life through attention to how I live, both individually and within community is where that sense of love leads. Once I understood these twin currents, salvation by character and love over creed as completely connected to my life of Zen practice, I felt I’d found the completion of my spiritual quest. Not the completion of the practice, of the doing, but I had found all the parts I needed for a whole lifetime, for my spiritual maturation, and for how I could respond in this world to what is.
So, what to call this? I like Unitarian Universalist Zen Buddhist. Sometimes for short I just say Liberal Zen Buddhist.
Whatever, this is my faith. My confession.
Here I stand. I can do no other.
One more thing, an addendum, a benediction of sorts. I’ve shared my heart. And I hope sharing this provides some suggestions for you on your own quest of sorting wheat from chaff, moving beyond the ills of religion to its healing heart. Putting it all together here are the slogans of an authentic life as I understand it. Sit down, shut up, pay attention. See the connections. Then get up and do something. Live as if your salvation is found through your character. Remember the family. And with every step remember love over creed. Always, love beyond belief.
So be it. Blessed be. And, amen.