(Zen) Buddhists & the Unitarian (Universalist) Encounter

(Zen) Buddhists & the Unitarian (Universalist) Encounter May 29, 2018





Inspired by a conversation about the Japanese Buddhist and American Unitarian encounter, I dug around to find this paper which I first delivered back in 2014. It’s about some details of that meeting between Buddhism, really mostly the meeting of Zen Buddhism and Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. I consider it an important subject. 


A Preliminary Report from the Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist Encounter

A Paper Delivered at the
Fraters of the Wayside Inn
Sudbury, Massachusetts

27 January 2014

James Ishmael Ford

In 1844, a chapter from the Sadharmapundarika-sutra, the seminal Mahayana Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra was published in the Boston Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. Best I can tell, this chapter, published as “The Preaching of Buddha,” was the first Buddhist text to be rendered in the English language.

As a footnote to a footnote, “The Preaching of Buddha” was for many years wrongly credited to Henry David Thoreau. It was a reasonable enough speculation as the chapter was published anonymously, he was editor of the journal at the time, and was well known to be interested in matters Eastern. Of course, pretty much all of the Transcendentalists were interested in those matters Eastern, to one degree or another. But, in fact, once again anonymous turned out to be a woman. The translator of Eugene Burnouf’s French rendering of the Sanskrit was the astonishing public intellectual Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. At the time she was the proprietor of Boston’s West Street Bookstore, one of the principal gathering places of Boston’s Transcendentalists.

It wasn’t the first Eastern text to fall into Unitarian hands, nor would it be the last. A great jumble of Eastern texts appeared in English in those early mid decades of the nineteenth century. So much so people had trouble sorting what was what. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s oft-cited high praise for the Bhagavad Gita as a wonderful expression of Buddhist wisdom was typical of that moment.

In fact Buddhism proved to be a rich field for projection. For instance, in The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages, Unitarian writer Lydia Maria Child described the Buddha as a “heavenly spirit.” She went on to blithely count “God,” “soul,” and “creation” as Buddhist concepts. Today all this would likely raise a smile in most who might run across it, and to a few it could be fairly offensive

Of all the Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau has been consistently described as the most Buddhist, or Buddhist-like. While he read what was available, pretty much as soon as it was available, Thoreau more likely discovered from his own observation that Zen Buddhist perspective of the thing-in-itself. Ultimately, I think it more accurate to characterize his nature mysticism as more proto-Taoist than any flavor of Buddhist.

Buddhism, while continuing to interest religious liberals, also continued to be misunderstood throughout the nineteenth century. Even by the end of the century the Unitarian writer James Freeman Clarke, like Lydia Maria Child before him, searched for and “found” arguments for immortality of the soul and for God in the teachings of Buddha and Buddhism.

Slowly, however, people began to find in Buddhism something more than that field of projection, where they were looking for a purified or corrected form of Christianity. Such doctrines as sunyata, emptiness, boundlessness, and anatman no soul, no abiding self, and karma, the play of causality began to capture western imaginations, enriching our western spiritual dialogue.

And something else happened, as well. Profound influences began to flow in both directions, east to west, yes, but also west to east. For example the Unitarian and Buddhist scholar Jeff Wilson outlines the remarkable story of Nakahama Manjiro, a boy who in 1841, along with several other Japanese fishermen was caught in a storm and swept out to sea.

They were rescued from near certain death by a New Bedford whaler. The crew was dropped off in Hawaii, except for young Nakahama. Captivated by the boy’s intelligence and curiosity about everything he encountered, the ship’s captain William Whitmer took Nakahama into his personal care. They returned to Massachusetts, only to find Whitmer’s Methodist church informing the family that “no coloreds” (actually I don’t think that’s the term they used) were allowed. So, they joined Fairhaven’s Unitarian congregation. And so the boy now known as John Mung grew into adulthood as a Unitarian.

After an adventurous life well worth pursuing in greater detail, including life as a whaler and later a successful gold prospector, he gathered enough wealth to allow him to return to Japan a mere decade after he and his companions had been swept out to sea. Once back in Japan he endured the long established test to prevent Christians from entering the country. A picture of the Virgin Mary was placed on the ground and he was required to step on it. As a Unitarian, Manjiro had no problem doing so.

He would rise to fame and further fortune in Japan, invited to the imperial court and eventually was even raised to the rank of Samurai. In 1868 with the revolt that established the Meiji emperor, many of Manjiro’s courtier disciples were recruited into the reforming leadership. Wilson draws a pretty clear line from Manjiro’s Unitarianism not only to many of the era’s social reforms, but also to many reforms within the Buddhist sects, particularly Pure Land and Zen.

Wilson states how these “Unitarian-derived modernist principles helped Japanese Buddhists turn the tide of the anti-Buddhist movement infecting state-Shinto-dominated Meiji Japan.” Then, as if returning the favor, the first Zen master to visit America as part of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions was the Rinzai abbot Soyen Shaku.

The roshi had in his youth studied at Keio University. Wilson argues the Zen Buddhism taught at the university was deeply influenced by the progressive and largely Unitarian spirit of rational inquiry together with a broad humanism. And this modified Japanese Zen in a way making it recognizable and compelling to many western spiritual seekers of a critical disposition. Two of the abbot’s disciples, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki and Nyogen Senzaki would prove to be central to introducing Zen to the West. Senzaki influencing a generation of early spiritual seekers, and Suzuki most of all as a prolific writer and translator, and through Suzuki’s disciple Alan Watts, a popularized version of a rationalist Zen became the Zen most English speaking people would encounter.

What’s important to distinguish here is how religious dialogue moves from misunderstanding and projection to offering subtle coloring and expanded perspectives in each tradition. And sometimes whole new traditions emerge. The place of meeting is incredibly rich, with a riot of possibilities emerging.

To continue to point to some of the variations in conversation I think for Unitarian Universalism in the twentieth century one of the most important of the many dialogues occurring between Buddhism and Western religions and psychology, was the Buddhist meeting with humanism.

At first for many humanists, Buddhism appeared to be an intriguingly ancient faith that like humanism was not directly concerned with questions of God or gods, those grand cosmological speculations that many comparative religion theorists have posited as fundamental to any “authentic religion.” Or, did, until they began to understand what Buddhists taught. Buddhism’s existence challenged the conventions of early comparative religion and comforted many religious liberals and radicals.

Now, while humanists, like many before, misconstrued some of the teachings of Buddhism, and in recent years have had to deal with the unpleasant realization that there are deities and magic in Buddhism as well as a resonant analysis of the human condition and rational approaches to the matter of human hurt. Nonetheless, Unitarian Universalist humanists have provided a strong start replicating the radical questioning at the heart of Zen Buddhist practice.

Buddhism offers western humanists much more than confirmation of an authentic non-theistic or atheistic spiritual perspective and a call for radical self-reliance, as well as that powerful attention to that thing-in-itself. I find humanism and Buddhism are complementary approaches to the great religious questions of life and death, not the only possible compliments, but powerful ones. This has been deeply important in my own spiritual life.

Of course the ongoing interest in Buddhism among Unitarian Universalists has not been exclusive to humanists. Christian Unitarian Universalists have also been attracted to the practical mysticism of Buddhism. And a number have tried various Buddhist meditation disciplines. As an example the UU Christian writer and minister Eric Wikstrom maintains a regular Zen meditation discipline. He is not alone.

In fact Buddhist insights have been in conversation with all the emergent spiritualities of Unitarian Universalism from paganism to Hinduism, each potentially rich. The Unitarian Universalist world has become a microcosm of world spiritual dialogue, and for me, more importantly, of potential religious synthesis. Some of it will come to nothing, probably most of it. Some will be silly. And some may open hearts to previously undreamed possibilities.

I believe I see some of the contours of those possibilities.

There’s been ample precedent for this sort of thing. As Buddhism has entered other cultures it has engaged the indigenous religions, often with powerful consequences. For instance the encounter between Indian Buddhism and Chinese religion, particularly Taoism produced Zen. And there is no doubt the conversations between humanists and Christians and Jews and Buddhism is a rich field. But, at this point, it seems the most powerful of the many conversations going on is between Buddhism and Western psychology. The range of literature is vastly too wide to even begin to list here, but its importance would be difficult to under estimate.

Among the mutual areas of interest are ecological and economic justice, Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism each informing the other in finding fruitful ways to engage what seem intractable problems. Also, the Western Buddhist convert community has paralleled the Unitarian Universalist community, where both are much more white, highly educated, and middle class than either finds comfortable. Looking at the areas of hurt and disappointment can prove as rich as any other part of this ongoing exploration.

The conversation continues, the dance expands.

It is perhaps not surprising to see how many Unitarian Universalists today are deeply involved in Buddhist matters. UUs such as former Meadville Lombard dean Gene Reeves and Jeff Wilson at the University of Waterloo are making important contributions to the scholarly study of Buddhism. And increasing numbers of Unitarian Universalists are becoming spiritual directors within Buddhist disciplines. UU minister Doug Kraft is one of a number of longtime Buddhist meditation teachers within the Association. Birthright UU Tara Brach is one of the most prominent Vipassana meditation teachers in the country. UU minister Joel Baehr is a senior student of the western Tibetan meditation teacher Surya Das and has been authorized by him to teach. UU minister Robert Schaibly has been designated a Dharmacharya, an associate teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh. David Rynick, Melissa Blacker and I are the first three Unitarian Universalists to receive Dharma transmission, full authorization as Zen teachers. And we don’t look to be the end of that line. (In fact since the publication of this paper the Reverend Florence Caplow has become the second person after me to be both a (Soto) Zen Buddhist priest and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Others are investigating this combination, as well…)

One recent survey suggests that ten thousand Unitarian Universalists consider themselves Buddhist. And if one counts the number of those who consider Buddhism an influence swells enormously. It can be argued Buddhism is one of two most important spiritual currents informing Unitarian Universalism today. Possibly as much as feminism, but at least approaching it, Buddhism challenges and may well reshape western religious thought in general and the Unitarian Universalist way in particular.

So. Where is all this going? Not possible to say. Not yet. And not for a long time. What I can say is that I see something rich in possibility happening. Maybe even a facet in the jewel that is our emerging new universalism.

As, for me, at least, I find some sense of hope for our beautiful and hurt humanity, for our beautiful and hurt world.

And in the moment, perhaps that’s enough.

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