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.
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"
Part 1: Boomer Buddhist
Part 3: How to Save the World