Boomer Buddhist

Those of us who, like me, were born in the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) have seen a lot of change. We started life in a world in which father knew best, schools and lunch counters were segregated or just beginning to be desegregated, people smoked everywhere, TV had three stations, and every kid was a free-range kid. I grew up a white, middle-class, American boomer -- which is to say, for instance, I was quite familiar with spaghetti, but I'd never heard of fettucine -- or sushi, or pesto, or quiche.

It’s a whole new world. Through US history up into the 1970s, more than 90 percent of Americans were Christian. Outside of Asian immigrant communities, there was no Buddhism to speak of. I think I was about 14 before I ever encountered Eastern religion of any kind: an older friend took me along to a Hare Krishna party. Boomers came into a world where there were very few English-speaking Buddhist or Zen groups. Today the number of Americans who identify as Christian is down to about 70 percent, and there is hardly a town in the country without a legitimate Buddhist teacher and sangha, representing one of the many lineages and traditions.

What once seemed exotic -- like quiche and fettucine alfredo – has come to be perfectly ordinary – like quiche and fettucine alfredo.

Here’s how it happened for me. I entered seminary to prepare for a second career as a minister. In 2001, at the end of my first year of seminary, I had the prescribed interview with my regional subcommittee on candidacy. I was nervous. I intellectualized as my protective strategy.

"Do you have a spiritual practice?" one of the members of this 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 there. But did I have a spiritual practice?

I told them that while I was exercising on my ski machine, I liked to put on a CD of the chants of the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. The regional subcommittee on candidacy was unimpressed. Their advice to me: get a spiritual practice. They didn’t define “spiritual practice.” They just said, get one. And I am forever in their debt for changing my life on that day.

I’d read about Buddhism, and I agreed with what it said. So I decided to begin practicing it. Six years later, in 2007, I received jukai – formally received the Buddhist precepts. It’s kinda like confirmation. I was given a dharma name: “Hotetsu.”

So I am both Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist. Unitarian Universalist has a number of theological subgroups. We have our Unitarian Universalist humanists, our Unitarian Universalist Christians, our Unitarian Universalist pagans, our Unitarian Universalist Jews. Less numerous, but in existence, there are Unitarian Universalist Muslims, and Unitarian Universalist Hindus. And, of course, some of us are simply Unitarian Universalist Unitarian Universalist.

Some years ago, a survey of Unitarian Universalists sought to gather data about how our various theological subgroups are accepted in our congregation. The Unitarian Universalist Christians tended to say that they felt mostly accepted, but sometimes felt a little marginalized in their Unitarian Universalist congregation. The Unitarian Universalist pagans mostly said that they felt mostly accepted, but sometimes did feel a little marginalized. The Unitarian Universalist Humanists said they were generally accepted, but occasionally felt a little marginalized. The Unitarian Universalist Buddhists said, “We’re just fine.” Interesting!

All the while I was becoming Buddhist I was also becoming more Unitarian Universalist 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. 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.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "UU Buddhism"
See also:
Part 2: Athens, Jerusalem, and Buddha
Part 3: How to Save the World


  1. I'm very gratified that this worked out well for you personally (and I would like to become better acquainted with Buddhist practice myself). At the same time, as a humanist I can't help but be a bit disturbed by your story. Insisting that ministerial candidates have a "spiritual practice" strikes me as a pretty effective tool for screening humanists out of the UU ministry.

    1. Screen out humanists? Not at all, Steve. I'm still a humanist myself (a Humanist Buddhist Unitarian). Just Google "spiritual atheism" for reams of material on humanists developing their spirituality. Finally, though, I don't think every ministerial candidate is required to have spiritual practice. I think the committee saw me and saw that a spiritual practice would be helpful for me.