The Buddhist & Unitarian Universalist Encounter & A New Universalism

James Ishmael Ford

(I’ve delivered versions of this sermon for the last couple of years. This is my latest. But not the last. Today as I delivered this version at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles I saw it has several rough spots with awkward transitions. Still trying to get the ideas out. Basically my word of hope for hard times.)


Buddhism is now an accepted path within Unitarian Universalist circles, and each year more people are discovering the value of Buddhist spiritual practices and the holistic Buddhist view of life. At the same time, UUs are modifying Buddhism to meet their needs for a socially engaged, non-discriminatory, and democratic form of religious practice. The ties between these two traditions, one from the ancient East and the other charting the cutting edge of religion in the West, will only grow stronger and more fruitful in the coming years.” Jeff Wilson, PhD, Professor of Religious and East Asian Studies at the University of Waterloo, author of “Buddhism of the Heart.”


There is a term in Buddhism. “The world is on fire.”

Perhaps you have a sense of what that might mean. For me I believe what that image is pointing to is much of the reason there are religions. I believe I can even be categorical here. All religions exist in some significant degree in response to that terrible observation. The world is on fire.

Today I’m going to address how two different and yet complementary responses to the reality of this burning world encountered each other. Then out of that encounter, how something new and wondrous is birthing. Is. This is a dynamic continuing to this day. Here we will explore the meeting of Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. And with that what are some of the new possibilities which are emerging.

I am offering some good news. I am bringing a word of hope for this poor, suffering world. This strangest of encounters offers possibilities that can be healing for us as individuals and our communities. In this hard moment, particularly, particularly in this hard moment as we seek ways to not just survive, but maybe even to flourish, out of the meeting of Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism we may well be finding a way through.

Let’s see if you’ll agree.

There are many possible moments that could be used to mark out a beginning for all this. But, let’s start in 1844. That’s when a chapter from the Sadharmapundarika, a foundational Mahayana Buddhist text, best known as the Lotus Sutra, was published in the Boston based, and not incidentally Transcendentalist Unitarian journal, the Dial. Best I can tell, this chapter published as “The Preaching of Buddha,” was the first Buddhist text to be rendered into the English language.

As a footnote to a footnote, “The Preaching of Buddha” was for many years credited to our UU sage saint, Henry David Thoreau. It was a reasonable enough speculation as the chapter was published anonymously when he was editor of the journal. And he was well known to be interested in all matters Eastern. The actual translator, however, was the remarkable Unitarian thinker Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Anonymous, as you may have noticed, is quite often a woman.

From that auspicious and complicated beginning the conversation between Western liberal religion and Buddhists began. But, absolutely, that wasn’t the only event that happened in those complex, dangerous, and often fruitful years running up to our American Civil War. The Unitarian and Buddhist scholar Jeff Wilson offers another beginning, outlining the remarkable story of Nakahama Manjiro. In 1841, three years before that Lotus Sutratext appeared is definitely another candidate for marking a beginning of this dialogue between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism. That’s when Nakahama, when a boat of Japanese fishermen was caught up in a sudden storm.

The fishermen were swept out to sea. They were rescued from near certain death by a New Bedford whaling ship. Unable to return to Japan, which by the prevailing sakoku isolation laws would lead to everyone’s instant execution, the ship simply continued on. Eventually the crew was dropped off in Hawaii, all except for young Nakahama Manjiro. Captivated by the boy’s intelligence and curiosity about everything he encountered, the ship’s captain William Whitmer took him under his personal care.

They returned to Massachusetts, only to find Whitmer’s Methodist church informing the family that no colored people, although they didn’t actually say colored, were allowed in the church. So, they walked down the street and joined Fairhaven’s Unitarian congregation. With that the boy now known as John Mung grew into adulthood as a Unitarian.

After an adventurous life well worth pursuing in greater detail, and perhaps sometime you will, including following his mentor as a whaler and later as a successful gold prospector, Manjiro accumulated 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 and contaminating it with their alien ideologies. A picture of the Virgin Mary was placed on the ground and he was required to step on it. Up until that point the only Christians the Japanese had encountered were all Catholics, and this was a pretty good way to find them out. However, as a Unitarian, Manjiro had no problem walking on the picture.

He would rise to fame and further fortune in Japan, initially through his translation of Bowditch’s Practical Navigator. This would be followed by many other books of a practical nature. Invited to the imperial court he was eventually raised to the rank of Samurai. He grew in wealth and influence.

And here’s where thing get really interesting. At court he gathered a circle of disciples among the younger courtiers. Then, in 1868 with the revolt that established the Meiji emperor and an era of reforms, many of those disciples were recruited into leadership. Professor Wilson draws a pretty straight line from Manjiro’s Unitarianism not only to many of the era’s social reforms, but also to many reforms within Buddhist sects, particularly Pure Land and Zen.

A few years later, 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 abbot had in his youth studied at Keio University, which had been founded by a younger associate of Manjiro’s. Professor Wilson argues that the Zen Buddhism taught at the university was deeply influenced by a progressive spirit of rational inquiry infused with a broad humanism, derived directly from Manjiro’s Unitarian experience.

Two of the abbot’s disciples, Nyogen Senzaki and Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki would prove to be central to introducing Zen to the West. Senzaki influencing a generation of early spiritual seekers on the West coast, introducing them to zazen, Zen’s meditation discipline, and Suzuki most of all as a prolific writer and translator, and through his own disciple Alan Watts, a popularized version of this rationalist, naturalistic, humanistic Zen became the Zen most English speaking people would first encounter. One could say, to this day.

Such are the fruits of interfaith dialogue. What’s important to distinguish here is how within religious encounters, participants move can from misunderstanding and projection to finding subtle coloring and expanded perspectives in each tradition. Sometimes within such encounters the original traditions find themselves profoundly changed, and sometimes whole new traditions emerge. Right off I find myself thinking of how the terrible clash between Islam and Hinduism in Western India created the Sikh tradition. This place of meeting, obviously, is dangerous, but also is incredibly rich, run through with a riot of possibilities.

I suggest something like that is happening right now. In fact, the Unitarian Universalist world has become a microcosm of world spiritual dialogue, messy, complicated, internally contradictory, and I find; wildly compelling. Some of it will come to nothing, probably most of it. Some will be silly. Some is. And some may open hearts to previously undreamed possibilities. And that’s what I’m interested in. There is something amazing going on. We just need to notice. Maybe it even is the secret of our heart’s longing. Possibly it contains the response to our individual knowing this world is on fire that up until now has been a part of our dreams.

Over these past decades as I’ve observed and practiced in this liminal place that is our open Unitarian Universalist Buddhist spirituality, I believe I’ve seen some of the contours of those possibilities as they’re emerging. The list is long, starting with the Buddhist and humanist encounter, but also within our wild tradition, including Buddhist influencing of UU versions of Christianity, Judaism, and paganism. And, I would be remiss to not mention the enormous possibilities for us in the Buddhist conversation with Western psychology. All of these things are important and rich and are seeping into the very farthest corners of our individual and communal assumptions. And it is racing through our contemporary Unitarian Universalism.

As we draw to the end, one point among these many possibilities seems most important to me. Today the large majority of Unitarian Universalists feel a deep need to be engaged in the hurt of this world. The world is, after all, on fire. And at this moment, I suggest, never more so, never more urgently do we need to find way to be more helpful than harmful.

Now in facing all the turmoil around us, some have observed justice is what love looks like in action. Love. We UUs hold up that word love as a north star. But, what is it? What is it really? Is it in fact anything more than wishful thinking, a vague aspiration to allow us to hope in the face of so much that is ill, in the face of that world which is on fire?

Well, I have a suggestion, at once, as natural as can be, and at the same time an invitation to something powerful. Among the areas of mutual interest for us as Unitarian Universalists and Buddhists are the themes of an emerging theology of radical interdependence. We as UUs find what that can mean when we bring the first and seventh principles together. The preciousness of each one of us as we are, but that we only exist within a web of relationships. This is where we’re going to find love as meaningful, as, can I say it, the deep truth of our lives.

We UUs have for some time now embraced the seventh principle as a core theological insight, and justly so. In my opinion when it is joined with the first, that holding up of an inherent worth of every individual, we get something dynamic and challenging and absolutely life-saving. And it is here that we begin to understand what love actually is. Although it remains always something we see through that famous glass, darkly. That’s the nature of things. We never know completely, we are always in motion, walking through the shadow. So, not to hold any definition hard, but to see the poetry of our lives, the dreams that can become living things.

There are ways to cast more light on the matter, to understand this sense of love that arises within us, and compels us to action. For instance, we can look to Buddhism, and its exploration of interdependence within texts like the Avatamsaka Sutra, which translates roughly as the Flower Ornament Sutra, and find what we’ve devoted the past several decades to has been ruminated on within Buddhism for a thousand years and more. It points to that love which informs our desire for justice.

And we’re offered more than good theory. There are also the many disciplines of presence which we now have access to, which can inform how we encounter things, bringing head and heart together as the one thing they are meant to be. Zen, Insight, the many possibilities of mindfulness – not for commercial use, not to lower blood pressure or get an edge in business; but, as they were originally intended, to help us find out who we really are.

Me, I find understanding love as an experience, my experience, of radical interdependence is critical for us as we aspire to be of some use in this world. I suggest you may find this calling to your hearts, as well.

In Japan there’s a saying. Vision without action is a dream. And, action without vision is a nightmare. Love as radical interdependence is, or should be, our North Star. It can guide us through the dark night. And this insight, of course, has direct consequences when we think of specifics such as our ecological concerns, and our viscerally felt need for economic justice. This insight into our true intimacy is both why and, it hints at how we can approach this. It tells us how we can meet this burning world.

One survey suggests that some ten thousand Unitarian Universalists consider themselves, ourselves, Buddhist. And if one counts the number of those who consider Buddhism a significant influence, that number swells enormously, twice, maybe three times. That’s a lot of us. So, something is happening. This perspective is alive and powerful. And every day it grows a little more.

Now, I’m a preacher, by trade and by inclination. As I draw this reflection to a close, back to the good news I want to share. In these hard, hard times, facing this burning world, some good news.

A gate has been thrown wide open. And people are walking through it and toward something. I think about this burning world. And, as I think about this, I feel the wisdom of interdependence particularly washed through the insights of Buddhism as the new voice of Unitarian Universalism. It is the ancient and ever present insight of love over creed, of love beyond belief. I notice this and despite the terrible things happening all around us, I am filled with hope, hope for us all.

What is happening is that ancient wisdom of healing and guidance is reappearing in ways appropriate for our time, and our place. This period of encounter, clash, confrontation, integration, and synthesis is birthing new ways for us to see and to act. One could even be forgiven for feeling some benign deity is reaching out and giving us a word of hope. It’s that powerful. But, actually, it is as natural as a flower opening in the morning.

Right here. Right now. And, oh my, not a moment too soon: Hope for you and for me. Hope for this burning world.

Our new Universalism.


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