UU and Buddhist . . . and Prophetic

I am a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist. I was born and raised a UU in white, middle-class, US culture. I think I was about 14 before I ever encountered Eastern religion of any kind (a friend took me along to a Hare Krishna party). In my 30s, as an assistant professor of philosophy in a "Philosophical and Religious Studies" department, I took my turn teaching a course that surveyed the world religions. Preparing for that, I began to learn about, among others, Buddhism. In my early-40s, I had a little chat with six people calling themselves "The Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy." They suggested that I "get a spiritual practice." (They also suggested that I start journaling, take up either yoga or tai chi, and do a whole year, rather than the customary single 10-week unit, of CPE*.) That's when I started meditating, and looking around for a Buddhist teacher. I was 48 when I sewed a rakusu**, went through a jukai ceremony, formally received the Buddhist precepts, was given a Dharma name ("Hotetsu") and confirmed as a Zen Buddhist.

All the while I was becoming Buddhist I was also becoming more UU than ever. I was studying our history, our polity, our theology, our congregational life -- and loving us more and more.

There’s a lot of overlap between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, especially the naturalized, liberal Buddhism that I practice and teach.

The thing that Buddhism doesn’t have, that none of the Eastern religions have, is a religious orientation toward justice, fairness, equity. The UU's second principle is "justice, equity, and compassion." The Buddhist tradition has a lot to say about compassion; very little about justice and equity. It’s 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.") 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. The origin of our idea of speaking truth to power goes back to those 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, here’s 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 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.

I don't meditate for myself. 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 have, in their way, changed the world. At the same time, the prophetic tradition which, as a UU, I inherit and carry forward, is absolutely indispensable. I stand, as I must, with those who challenge and confront powers and structures of injustice, violence, and oppression.

As a Buddhist, I sit. As a Unitarian Universalist, I stand.

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*CPE = Clinical Pastoral Education. It's a program based in hospitals in which the student works as a chaplain intern, meeting with patients, with a supervisor, and with a small group of the other interns for going deep together.

**rakusu = a patchwork apron-like garment that symbolically represents the robes of the original Buddhist mendicants.


  1. Meredith ~ thank you for this piece. It is useful for my own ministerial formation. I remember our talking at the last UU Buddhist Fellowship gathering. Perhaps you will be at the next one? I plan to attend. ~ Karen