Jeff Wilson On "Vague Buddhism"
"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 www.uglydress.com, you might find it amusing based on your Beauty Tips blog. "
PeaceBang here again, thanking Jeff for his wonderful contribution to this discussion. Jeff, godspeed in Kyoto (what are you doing there?) and we'll all look forward to reading your book when it's published. Very exciting work, and we're grateful for your research and your insights!