Thursday, August 10, 2006

Humanism or Vague Buddhism, Part II

The comments on my first post on this topic have been very thoughtful and interesting. I encourage you to read them.

I added this just now:

"Jaume has spoken most directly to what I am trying to get my finger on specifically, as has the Enforcer. I would like to have Ogre's optimism but I don't see the evidence to support it; specifically, I don't think that our emphasis on 'show me' religion is much different than any muscular version of Judaism or Christianity, or any other engaged faith tradition.

Furthermore, if we truly believed in the religion of treating people well, our congregations would provide evidence for that, and they don't. I would very much like to believe that UUs deeply and passionately embrace the ethic of incarnating Love above all (as Ogre says, it's a radical idea), but I don't think we are. Again, our level of in-fighting, congregational conflict and mediocre hospitality proves that this is not, in actuality, our religion.
If this is the 'new, solid and crystalline' ethic of our future, I'd like to see evidence of that somewhere.

The Dalai Lama said, 'My religion is kindness.' I think all UUs can respect and resonate with that. ALL of us. If that's true, I ask again, what are the spiritual practices & disciplines, devotional materials and worship resources and teachers that we agree would guide us there, since we so clearly have a long way to go?

Hence my question about 'vague Buddhism.' I suspect that we are, in fact, moving to a consensus that the religion of kindness and action is our raison d'etre, and away from worrying or caring how to articulate the theological foundations beneath that religion of kindness and Doing. We move into 'vague Buddhism' because we can't just get together on Sundays and read poems and talk about how good we're trying to be. Our rich heritage of Protestant worship is still too much with us to allow that (although some UU congregations or groups probably do something close to that as their 'worship').

We have a liturgical tradition, and since most of us have omitted prayers to God, Bible readings, confession of sin, and Communion from that liturgy, we seek to put something worthy and inspiring in their place.

What I was wondering was whether or not we were mostly putting Buddhist teachings and readings and quasi-spiritual practices (like 30- second 'meditation') where Christian instruction and ritual used to be. I continue to wonder this, and am curious as to whether our congregants are getting a lot more Buddhism than classical Humanism in their worship services and ministry of spiritual formation.

It would be fascinating if all UU ministers and active laymen and women reading this would offer a brief comment reporting how much Buddhist teaching and spiritual guidance they are using in worship and Adult RE offerings. I would also be interested in knowing how the prevalence of Buddhism (albeit watered-down Buddhism Lite, as Jaume warns we are probably propagating) compares to the prevalence of specifically Humanist sources (don't ask me how to define "Humanist" sources. I don't think I want to tackle that. Maybe one of you would like to try). "

Again, my intention is not to determine whether or not Unitarian Universalists really understand Buddhism (or even one specific branch of Buddhism), but to gather more information about our current sources for spiritual instruction and faith formation. I suspect that the majority of UUs are ingesting popular American Buddhism at a far higher rate than they are any other specific religious tradition, and that ministers are using Buddhist readings and sources (or even quasi-Buddhist readings) on a very regular basis in worship.

If I haven't made it clear that I don't think this is a bad thing, I hope it's clear now. The only bad thing about this would be if we remained largely unconscious of it, uncritically engaged in Buddhism (if that's the tradition we're borrowing from most liberally nowadays), and unwilling to acknowledge that many our members who identify as Humanist are turning more frequently to Buddhist sources for their spiritual formation than specifically humanistic ones. If this is the trend, we should know it, talk about it, understand it, be responsible about it, and use it for the common good.


Blogger Chalicechick said...

(((Furthermore, if we truly believed in the religion of treating people well, our congregations would provide evidence for that, and they don't.I would very much like to believe that UUs deeply and passionately embrace the ethic of incarnating Love above all (as Ogre says, it's a radical idea), but I don't think we are. Again, our level of in-fighting, congregational conflict and mediocre hospitality proves that this is not, in actuality, our religion.
If this is the "new, solid and crystalline" ethic of our future, I'd like to see evidence of that somewhere)))

Wouldn’t surprise me if you see evidence of it all the time.

I strongly suspect that if I asked you if your own congregation reflected your words here, you would be quick to tell me that they are mostly peaceable people who do welcome strangers much of the time and basically do the best they can.

I’m sure you’d be right. That’s how I feel about the congregations I’ve gone to, mostly.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding you again, but I’m sort of puzzled at what I’m reading as a very black-and-white view of these things. I really doubt that you look at all the unforgiving Christians in the world and take a similarly scornful view of their words about forgiving each other. That they don’t offer classes on loving thy neighbor or even preach on something that simple very often doesn’t mean it isn’t an ideal they are working toward in their own lives.

As for Buddhism, I don’t know. Maybe I don't know it when I see it, but I feel like I haven't seen much of it. I hear a lot more Christianity and Humanism than Buddhism. I’ve been to one sermon on Midnfulness in the last year, but otherwise, I don’t see it much. I know two Buddhists in my church personally, but dozens of Christians and Humanists.

My church’s classes/activities last fall:
three classes on UUism, for beginners and otherwise, including BYOT,
four classes on personal finance that seemed mostly aimed at senior citizens, a class on non-violent communication, a class reading and discussing “a tent of Abraham,” a book by a nun, a rabbi and a sufi Muslim, yoga, “Accessing your intuition through creative writing.” “film as a theological text” “Introduction to the bible,” “A history of religion” “Pathwork:A practical spirituality,” “Scottish Circle dance,” “Contemporary Issues forum” “Covenant groups” “Daytimers” Two book groups,

And, yes, a Buddhist meditation group.

A few of these are explicitly Buddhist, a few could be interpreted as Buddhist but we can’t really know. Most of them don’t seem particularly Buddhist-influenced to me.

Humanism comes up pretty often in my church, most recently last Sunday in a sermon about how people with very different views on almost everything can find shared values. (Kind of hackneyed stuff, but the intern was preaching) Next week is looking at the concept of the “interdependent web of existence” through Darwin and classical Christian theology.

But that’s my church and you’re in a better position to know what’s going on in the denomination.


Blogger THeath said...

As a non-theistic Buddhist myself (former Baptist/Episcopalian) I'm finding this discussion fascinating. I don't have anything in particular to add to it, but it's just interesting to hear what people have to say.

Blogger John Plummer said...

PB - Have you thought about luring James Ishmael Ford into this discussion? I assume you know James, as he is the senior minister of the First Unitarian Society of Newton, MA, which I think is not so terribly far from you? James is also a traditionally trained Zen teacher (inka from J Tarrant, and earlier, dharma transmission from Jiy-Kennett Roshi). And, if you get a couple of drinks in him, he might admit that he was once an independent catholic bishop in the wild days of his youth (and that he wrote a very fine MA thesis on the subject) - which is how I know him.

Blogger Ron said...

PB, a quick thought. First to check in on your inquiry, thinking back over the past two years here, outside of readings and scripture from Christians, which you would expect, Buddhism probably does come in second. Maybe that's because I think humanism is in the air around those who come here, even in the Bible Belt. Also because people are interested in Buddhism or some whiff of it and of course it is one of the fastest growing faiths in North America, and because since they get so much Christian here I know they also like to live out their Christianity in the UU style of being in touch with other world religions so it meets that need. I tend to go for Centering Prayer over practices of Mindfulness and sitting prayer but have had people come in to discuss and demonstrate those too. My case here is atypical, but you asked.

Secondly, in your earlier post what resonated with me was more the word Vague than Buddhist, though maybe it is the filtered Buddhism that presents itself in a vague way that they are picking up on, so it is the vagueness that is attractive whatever its stripe.

I don't know if this is related, but when I was writing the sermon today for this Sunday your questions sometimes kept coming up even though I was updating my travelling "UU Christian" sermon. In it this time I focus on the movement from UU Christianity as a conundrum (borrowed from E. Holt, who talked of it going from commonplace to contradiction to conundrum) to it as a convergence. Actually I said we are still pretty much in the conundrum stage with glimpses of convergence showing themselves. One of the characteristics of the "conundrum" phase is what I call (or will this Sunday) an attitude of "I don't get it but if it works for you that's fine with me as long as you don't get in my way." Is there something particularly Buddhist about that? I don't know. But it leads to Religious Detente and Parallel Play (and works against the church as a "people who".) Maybe we are in the conundrum phase all around not just with Christianity but with Humanism Buddhism Paganism Theism et al.

Conundrum fits in with late Modernity while Convergence, where you do get in each other's way in mutual transformation, is more a Pomo emergent thing, so there might be not much we can do but witness about it all.

Thanks for this kind of "open source" space for sermon thinking :) I will post the sermon at progressivechurchplanting blog when it gets in a little better shape and I think about its planter aspects.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Wow, Ron! I'll very much look forward to reading your sermon when you get it done. Glad to know that these posts were whirling around your brain as you composed it!

I'd like to hear more about convergence and conundrum, etc. because when I hear the word "convergence" I think of harmony, not "getting in each other's way." So this is very intersting to me.

Blogger CK said...

I suspect that the majority of UUs are ingesting popular American Buddhism at a far higher rate than they are any other specific religious tradition, and that ministers are using Buddhist readings and sources (or even quasi-Buddhist readings) on a very regular basis in worship.

I think this is probably a good generalization. At least from my experience, I had been initially attracted to Buddhism because it seems like it could fit with some other beliefs that I more or less assume already. It seems empirical--try it and see, irreligious--god, heaven and hell, etc. aren't the point. Yet it gives me a sense that I'm striving towards something (even if it's to stop striving) and isn't too hard.

Of course, that's somewhat of a caricature, but I think it has the ring of truth. Shawn at LoFi Tribe has an interesting post about rest in liberal religion that I thought might tie into this topic. I wonder if people are looking for something that promises--and seems to deliver in this lifetime--rest. Buddhism "lite" certainly gives us something along those lines, though I'm not sure if it is ultimately satisfying.

(As you requested, I won't go into whether UUs understand Buddhism. But I read The Foundations of Buddhism by Rupert Gethin while flying back and forth to San Fran the past couple of days, and it's definitely not what most people think. In my unenlightened opinion....)

Blogger anakashiko said...

Hi there, this is Jeff Wilson writing from Kyoto. I've been researching this subject for several years and could provide a lot of info, but unfortunately since I'm in Japan until November I can't really do so at this point.

Suffice it to say that Buddhism is a major source for contemporary UU sermons, meditation manuals, and adult RE activities. It also shows up in our Sunday School materials. Most often, it is Thich Nhat Hanh (originally from Vietnam, but living in France for many decades at this point) or the Dalai Lama who are referenced, or some (often uncredited) "Zen master" from ancient or modern China, Japan, or even the USA. These are the Buddhist thinkers/traditions that are most assimilated to upper-middle class American culture, so it's no real surprise their adapted versions of Buddhism appear in our pulpits etc most often.

I have recorded not dozens, but hundreds of instances of UU sermons in the past several years that draw on Buddhism in some form. In some churches the ministers are personally interested in Buddhism (either as a meditation practice or a way of thinking) and it is virtually impossible NOT to hear about Buddhism on any given Sunday. I'm talking abstractly here but actually I could name names very easily.

I myself do not go in for the "vague Buddhism" of UUism. I prefer my Buddhism to be Buddhism, which is why I mainly go to actual Buddhist temples on Sunday morning (my form of Buddhism is more devotional than most and is universalistic in attitude: i.e. it is about expressing gratitude since Amida Buddha liberates beings without exception). When I go to UU churches I seek out those that do not contain vague Buddhism. I prefer my UU churches to be actually churchy, to tell the truth.

That said, however, I'm not really down on vague UU Buddhism. I don't mind too much the appropriation of Buddhism by UUs. I do just wish people would take it more seriously if they're going to do it, to really think through what they are taking, what they are leaving out, and what justifies their appropriations (as well as investigating why they think some things should be left out--UUs always talk about getting rid of the "cultural baggage" of Asian Buddhism, which strikes me as flat-out racist in many cases). And this is not meant to harsh on the many UUs who are deeply involved in a real Buddhist tradition and have demonstrated self-reflexivity. I think someone mentioned James Ford, I would definately count him in this latter group.

I am slowly collecting material for a forthcoming (academic) book on UUism and Buddhism. The thesis will argue that in the nineteenth century there was a net movement of ideas from Unitarianism into Asian Buddhism, especially Japanese Buddhism. Japanese Buddhists even proposed a merger of Unitarianism and Buddhism as a new religion of the future, but Unitarians balked because they considered themselves part of the Christian tradition. The middle of the book charts Unitarianized Japanese Buddhism's subsequent success in America, where it was perceived as authentic, original Buddhism rather than a pre-packaged, post-contact liberalized modern Buddhism. The final argument of the book is that by the end of the 20th century and into the 21st the arrow of influence had decisively changed, so that now there is a net movement of influence from Buddhism into UUism. In part, I argue that this 180 change comes because UUism lost much of its willingness to remain in the Christian fold and, lacking a central focus, eventually became available for infiltration (not used in a judgmental way, please note) by alternative forms of religion with more positive associations in liberal circles, such as Buddhism.

This comment may be too long or inappropriate for this forum. I apologize. But I have to warn
you, debates about UU vague Buddhism are potential fodder for my work!

Random note: Peacebang, if you haven't seen, you might find it amusing based on your Beauty Tips blog.

Blogger Greg said...

I posted briefly on this topic here.

Blogger James said...

There's a nice article on UU Buddhism in the current issue of Buddhadharma. Possibly germaine to those reading this thread.

Blogger James said...

I so admire Jeff Wilson and his formal and acadmeic study of the UU/Buddhist encounter. I look forward to the fruits of this examination when it reaches publication.

There's not a lot I feel I can add to this thread, other than my observation that there is a new forming Unitarian Universalism. The two "alien" traditions that have been informing this forming have been neo-paganism and various Buddhisms. It appears to me the influence of neo-paganism, particularly a reclamation of reverence for the earth as a sacred duty, and perhaps the reintroduction of god via the goddess was the first major influence. As a sympathetic outsider it seems after making those contributions UU neo-paganism has been waning. I suspect this is in part because at some point both the UU neo-pagans and the "mainstream" of UUs have seen neo-paganism as marginal to the movement/association/denomination. Too early to be sure, of course.

Then there's the Buddhist contribution. I have no doubt Jeff's analysis of what forms of Buddhism have been primarily introduced into Unitarian Universalism. These forms are for the most part rationalist and perhaps modernist. Jeff's note that they have been washed through forms of Unitarianism before export to this side of the ocean is well worth noting. Whatever, these Unitarian-influenced forms of Buddhism have found deep resonances among contemporary UUs.

In particular they have provided a way to think about the widespread intuitions of interconnection and maybe even nonduality shared by I suspect a majority of contemporary UUs.

And the connections continue. It appears to me for the most part UU Buddhists see themselves as part of the main current of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. And they're often perceived as such by those "mainstream" UUs. I suspect that UU Buddhism has become such a big factor in our common lives this may change. I've been told I've been used as an illustration of what's wrong with contemporary Unitarian Universalism after many years of being thought an interesting novelty...

What I'm seeing is an emerging Unitarian Universalism that is using a Buddhist lens to understand it's own tradition in a more systematic and deep way. In particular I suspect its the various UU Buddhist takes on "the inherent worth and dignity" of each person and the "interdependent web" of existence of which we are all a part where we are seeing this influence most clearly.

It is my hope more self-identified UU Buddhists will occasionally set down that book on their nightstand and take up an active practice. But whether that becomes a reality or not, I personally find the Buddhist influence on contemporary Unitarian Universalism to be a net positive.


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