How To Save The World

I know that a part of the appeal of Buddhism for some Westerners is that it looks like a mystical escape from the realities of the workaday world. I know that Buddhist compassion, just like Christian love, is sometimes – to outside observers and maybe to the practitioners themselves – taken to mean being nice to people with whom we are in face-to-face contact rather than committing ourselves to justice for the faceless people far away who sew our shirts, or work the fields of our sugar and coffee.

In fact, however, Eastern religions can help the West be more West – more prophetic, more justice-oriented, more activist. The truth is, we aren't always very energetic about carrying through on our ideals. Or sometimes, for a while, an activist might be very intense about advocating those ideals, but then get burned out. Attention to spiritual training and discipline is necessary. The Eastern traditions can be very helpful with that.

A human brain can agree with the ideals of social justice, can admire the social justice heroes, but it has difficulty sustaining commitments. Old habits return: resentments, envy, insecurity, fears, a sense of scarcity rather than abundance, a felt need to guard or promote our status. The skills of sustaining compassion and insight require intentional and disciplined cultivation. Get down on that cushion. Put in the meditation time – the sitting time -- or the time in some other spiritual practice. Put in the time strengthening awareness of the connection to ourselves and our feelings -- our neuroses -- and the connection to one another. Feel, rather than merely say, “I am you, and the 3rd-world sweatshop worker, the homeless alcoholic, the teen prostitute, the ethically-compromised Wall Street millionaire – all these people are I, and I they.” Know it in your bones not just on your lips. Retrain those neural pathways so that this awareness is a habit rather than a fleeting glimpse.

For 10 years my Zen teacher was Ruben Habito, a Filipino man who, as a young adult, became a Jesuit priest, got stationed in Japan, and found himself practicing Zen at a monastery there for 16 years – then came to Dallas, where he teaches at Perkins Theological School. In one of his books, Healing Breath: Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth, Ruben wrote:
“To see the natural world as one’s own body radically changes our attitude to everything in it. The pain of Earth at the violence being wrought upon it ceases to be something out there, but comes to be our very own pain, crying out for redress and healing. In Zen sitting, breathing in and breathing out, we are disposed to listen to the sounds of Earth from the depths of our being. The lament of the forests turning into barren desert, the plaint of the oceans continually being violated with toxic matter that poisons the life nurtured therein, the cry of the dolphins and the fish, come to be our very own pain, our own cry, from the depths of our very being.”
If we don't do the spiritual work to make and maintain interbeing as our felt and lived truth, to understand that the natural world is our very own body not merely as cognitive knowledge but as visceral awareness – if we haven't trained ourselves in calmness and steadfastness, aren’t centered or cleansed or in touch with ourselves or interconnected with all beings, never feel anything close to a luminous sense of joy and peace flowing throughout the world -- then we are not going to sustain any work to transform injustice. Only when energized by deliberate spiritual strengthening, can we make Unitarian Universalism be all we say it is.

So get down on that cushion. Then get up off it. Spiritual practice must engage the world, confront wrongdoing; renounce the systems of greed. As steadfast and peaceful happiness enables justice work, so also does justice work facilitate steadfast and peaceful happiness.

We have developed systems of single-minded devotion to producing and consuming. These systems reduce the possibilities of human relations to solely economic relations. They oppress ultimately both the poor laborers and wealthy consumers. It's a system in which we allow others -- far away and out of sight -- to be exploited, downtrodden, broken, beaten, malnourished and diseased so that we may gain loneliness and alienation. It's a hell of a deal.

The life of passionate and compassionate activism and service and the life of equanimity, inner peace, and joy support each other. The prophetic tradition of the west which, as Unitarian Universalists, we inherit and carry forward, is absolutely essential. The various traditions, many of them Eastern or Eastern influenced, for doing our own inner work are also essential.

We must stand with those who challenge and confront powers and structures of injustice, violence, and oppression. But we won’t be able to stand for very long if we don’t also sit.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "UU Buddhism"
See also:
Part 1: Boomer Buddhism
Part 2: Athens, Jerusalem, and Buddha


This Week's Prayer

“God, lover of us all, most holy one, help us to respond to you, to create what you want for us here on earth. Give us today enough for our needs. Forgive our weak and deliberate offenses, just as we must forgive others when they hurt us. Help us to resist evil and to do what is good, for we are yours, endowed with your power to make our world whole” (Lala Winkley, SLT #514)
Our hearts are broken by the shootings Thursday at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College leaving 10 dead and 7 wounded. We are deeply saddened by this loss of life, and saddened and angered by our country’s evident willingness to allow mass shootings to continue.

Twenty-six dead at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown. Thirteen dead at the Washington Navy Yard. Three dead at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. Nine dead in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Three dead, nine injured, in a theater in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Sacred ground of being, can’t we make this stop?

There have been many more mass shooting than those that make the headlines. There have been 294 mass shootings – incidents where four or more people are killed or injured by gunfire – in the US, in 2015 alone. That’s an average of more than one a day.

Sacred ground of being, can’t we make this stop?

We know that we can. May we find the courage to do so.

We acknowledge that America’s devotion to guns is unique in the world; it is complicated, and it follows from a great many factors in our nation’s unique history. Let fearfulness be met by compassion. Let fantasies of protection give way to safer and more effective protection.

Where racial fears or immigrant fears or fear of a faith tradition have a role in our country’s amassing of firearms, may we tirelessly seek ways to build trust, understanding, and fair treatment.

Where fear of crime plays a role, may we seek ways to assuage fears. Building trust in our police departments, and insisting that police be worthy of trust, is a part of that. We know that reduced crime does not correlate with reduced fear of crime, but programs that address causes of crime are also valuable for their own sake – anti-poverty programs, jobs programs, education grants, drug treatment facilities, counseling, assistance, and rehabilitation.

May we be a part of building a beloved community that takes care of everyone, that educates everyone, that finds a productive and meaningful role for everyone. Sacred ground of being, may we be agents of the love that drives out fear.


Athens, Jerusalem, and Buddha

From "Boomer Buddhist":
There’s a lot of overlap between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, especially the naturalized, liberal Buddhism that I practice and teach. But to get a picture of what UU Buddhism looks like, we need to look at one important thing that’s very UU and isn’t Buddhist. In fact, none of the Eastern religions include it: an orientation toward justice as part of the religion. The Unitarian Universalist second principle is "justice, equity, and compassion" (justice also appears in our sixth principle). The Buddhist tradition has a lot to say about compassion; very little about justice or equity.
Buddhism is great on lovingkindness, and has very helpful practices for cultivating equanimity, which social justice activists require to ground and sustain their work, but there is very little there in the way of a tradition of engaging with the question of how society ought to be set up, what arrangement of powers and authorities would be fair and reasonable.

In recent decades this has begun to change. There's been a lot of work developing "Socially Engaged Buddhism." But the Eastern traditions have not, historically, focused on justice the way the Western faith traditions have. In lands where, for millennia, the Emperor was simply in charge, the idea that your spiritual development also called for you to engage in questions of public policy just never arose.

Western civilization, by contrast, took its shape from the interaction between two powerful and enduring traditions – call them Athens and Jerusalem. In the millennium before the Common Era began, the Greeks developed a limited form of democracy. Along with it came public discourse about what was right and fair for the state to do. And the Israelites developed a society with a place for the prophets.

Our English word “prophet” comes from a Greek word meaning advocate. The Hebrew word, navi, translated as prophet, means spokesperson. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, et al – had a recognized role which even the king felt compelled to respect. The prophets were supposedly the mouths of God. It was a society built around certain texts, and one of those texts, Deuteronomy, gave the people a formative narrative according to which the Creator said, “I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."

There was a recognized place for prophets -- the mouths of God. Utilizing the protections of a legitimate, recognized social role, the prophets criticized their government, criticized the powerful. When we today say "speak truth to power," we are alluding back to those ancient Israelite prophets. The prophets often warned that the wrath of God was going to befall the people of Israel for straying from the divine law. A central part of that divine law had to do with treating people fairly and taking care of the poor. Isaiah said, “What do you mean by crushing my people, and grinding down the poor?” He denounced judges who took bribes and failed to give proper justice in cases involving the orphan and the widow. Amos proclaimed divine judgment upon those who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.” Says Biblical scholar D.N. Premnath:
“One thing we learn from the prophets is that poverty or injustice is no accident. They knew exactly what the causes were and who was responsible for it. They did not speak in abstraction. They knew what the oppression/injustice was, and who the oppressors and oppressed were.”
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams recognized the enduring importance of the prophetic tradition for Unitarians:
“Old Testament prophetism institutionalized dissent and criticism and thus initiated the separation of powers. The prophets said that the culture was not under the control of centralized power; viable culture requires the institutionalization of dissent – in other words, the freedom to criticize the powers that be.”
Out of Jerusalem going back 3,000 years, we have this tradition of dissent, of appealing to an authority greater than the king to counterbalance the king’s power. Out of Athens, going back 2500 years, we have this tradition of public discourse, citizens trying to reason with each other to reach consensus or at least majority agreement on what should be done.

To get a sense of how remarkable that is, contrast it with Eastern Asia, which had neither of those traditions. The Emperor’s power of decree was hindered by no channel of dissent recognized as legitimate and no need to persuade anyone with reasons.

It might be tempting to summarize this difference between East and West by saying that the Western religious traditions have this outward-directed component, and Eastern religions are more inward-directed. Tempting – but not true to my experience.

I don't meditate for myself. (Actually, I don’t usually call it meditating. I just call it sitting. Get still, get quiet, and notice. Just sit.) I sit to see more clearly that there's no self there, and in that awareness, notice all being shift a bit toward peace, equanimity, compassion, insight, and wisdom. The practices and teachings to which I committed myself at jukai change the world every day.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "UU Buddhism"
See also:
Part 1: Boomer Buddhist


What'll You Get Out of It?

Suppose you got serious about maintaining a spiritual discipline. You engage your practice daily; you do it mindfully, you do it with intention to cultivate compassion, connection, nonjudgmental curiosity -- self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance; you get together regularly with a group that helps you maintain and explore the spiritual focus of your practice, and you develop your base with daily silence, journaling, and study. What then? What will happen? If you do everything to ensure that your practice is a true, bona fide spiritual practice, and you do that spiritual practice long enough – every day for a year, or 10 years, or 30 years – will you then exude equanimity and compassion while unperturbable calm inner peace and beauty continuously manifests as you gracefully, lovingly flow through your life? Maybe. I offer no guarantees.

Spirituality, as I mentioned in the previous post in this series, is not a matter of will. Strong muscles aren’t either. That is, you can’t just decide to bench press 500 pounds, and then go do it. But at least with muscles, there’s a fairly predictable timeline by which exercise increases strength. If you have a normal and healthy physiology, and you adopt a regimen of exercise, and stick to it, then you will get stronger. There’s a smooth curve by which you’ll progress toward the limit to which that regimen can take you. Spiritual strengthening doesn’t go like that. It’s not a reliable product of putting in the time doing the exercise. The spirit has its own schedule. Committed serious spiritual practitioners can go for years when their practice just seems void and useless. Then they can hit a patch where they actually seem to be regressing. They’re acting as cranky, unkind, disconnected -- as withdrawn, on the one hand, or as controlling, on the other – as they ever had before they started any spiritual practice. There is no smooth curve of progress.

The Worst Motive

I started my primary spiritual practice for the worst reason: because an authority told me to. Fourteen-and-a-half years ago I was in Chicago trying to pass muster to become a minister, trying to prove I was good enough. I had just finished my first year of divinity school, and I was meeting with the Midwest regional subcommittee on candidacy. "Do you have a spiritual practice?" the committee asked me.

Before starting seminary, I had spent two years as the congregational facilitator and preacher for the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee. Before that, I'd served as a president of our Fellowship in Waco, Texas, as Vice President of our church in Charlottesville, Virginia and had worked as the church secretary for a year at our Nashville, Tennessee church. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I was a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist. I had a Ph.D. I'd been a university professor of philosophy for four years. I could debate about metaphysics, metaethics, metatheology, poststructuralism, postindustrialism, and postmodernism. If it was meta-, or post-, I was all over it. But did I have a spiritual practice?

Well, no, I didn't.

“Get a spiritual practice,” the committee told me.

It is contradictory to take up a path of self-acceptance and trusting in my own inner wisdom because an outside authority told me to. Yet that’s what I did. It is contradictory to judge myself for judging myself too much. Yet that’s what I did, and still do, albeit somewhat more gently. Usually. I’ve now had a chance to talk with a number of people on a path of serious spiritual practice. All of us, or so it seems, began, as I did, in some form of contradiction. We felt broken, wrong, inadequate, and we thought spiritual practice would fix us. But spiritual practice isn’t about fixing anything – which is why there’s no smooth curve toward becoming fixed.

You're Not Broken and Don't Need Fixing

Spiritual awakening is about realizing that we aren’t broke and don’t need fixing. We aren’t broken and from the beginning never have been.

(Earlier, I listed some symptoms of developing spirituality -- increased this and decreased that -- and I mentioned Cloninger's measures of spirituality: self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. Do not, however, imagine that these are the goals of spiritual practice. Any practice that has a goal is not a spiritual practice. Yes, there is a role to play for intending to cultivate those qualities -- but it is a rather small role, and attempting to measure progress toward such qualities is delusion. A spiritual practice will tend -- naturally, on its own, but irregularly and unpredictably -- to bring fuller recognition that we are not broken, that we are whole and perfect just as we are and always have been; and fuller recognition of our intrinsic wholeness will tend -- naturally, on its own, but irregularly and unpredictably -- to bring the symptoms of developing spirituality.)

It’s hard to really believe that we are not broken and don't need fixing. Our culture constantly tells us we aren’t good enough, get better, buy this product, this treatment, this school, this exercise, this method.

Spirituality is about remembering the fact of abundance in the midst of the daily barrage of messages of scarcity. Will recognition of abundance happen if you do the practice? I can tell you there will be more ups and downs than the stock market. But over the long haul? Probably, yes. If you love just doing the practice, and you do it just because it is who you are, and not with any idea that you’re gaining something from it – if judgment about gain and loss, progress and regress, falls away and there’s just you, loving who you are and loving the way you, and the whole universe, manifest in and through your practice, then, yes. The fact of abundance will be clearer to you.


At the end of “Dr. Strangelove,” the bomber plane is set to release its nuclear payload, which will set off a nuclear conflagration to end civilization, but the release mechanism jams. Slim Pickens climbs down into the bomb-bay to fix the jam. He succeeds, and the bomb is released -- while he’s still sitting on it.

In the film’s most memorable shot, Slim Pickens is waving his cowboy hat and whooping as he rides the bomb down to his – and what will ultimately be the planet’s – destruction.


Maybe that’s what learning to stop worrying and love the bomb looks like. He does seem to be living in the moment.

That was such a striking shot when I first saw it because I knew if I were falling out of the sky riding on a nuclear bomb, I’d be freaked out in fear and despair: “My god, my god, my god, I’ve only got maybe one minute to live.”

But look at what Slim Pickens’ character is doing with his minute! Woooo-hooooo.

All of us are riding that bomb. Our time is so short before life blows up on us.

There’s something very pure about this – just one chance at every minute. This is it.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Spirituality"
See also:
Part 1: Atheist Spirituality vs. The Family Business
Part 2: What Is Spirituality?