A Path to Buddha

On Being a UU Buddhist, part 1

Hush, Hush. Somebody’s callin' my name.
Oh, Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin' my name.
Hush. Hush. Somebody’s callin' my name,
Oh, my Lord, Oh, my Lord, what shall I do?

- Choir Anthem, tradidtional

What’s calling your name? What labels claim you, and do you claim? Labels can be problematic -- but they are also handy for giving shape to who we are, and how we represent ourselves to others and to ourselves. I claim the label "Unitarian Universalist," and "Buddhist." Sometimes I claim the label, "humanist." I've been called a Christian -- very rarely -- and while I'm not at pains to deny that label, it's not one that I claim for myself. There are also labels I don't really want -- like "white" -- but it's important to acknowledge. We won't get to a post-racist society by pretending we already are there. It's important that those of us who have been privileged own up to our privilege. Labels sometimes chafe, and they are sometimes diminishing or dismissive, but they can also help us know who we are.

My parents were college professors. Mom’s PhD was in physical chemistry, and she taught physics and chemistry. Dad’s field was English. His specialty was 18th-century British Literature: “The Age of Reason.” As their first-born, I imbibed their core value: know stuff. Knowledge is good. I remember that in the house we lived in when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, Dad had a plaque over his desk, quoting Plato:
“There is only one good, knowledge; only one evil, ignorance.”
My parents were rationalist, humanist, academics. I grew up and went into the family business: being a rationalist, humanist, academic. I became a philosophy professor.

Along the way, little bits of an Eastern perspective slipped in. There was some exposure to it in my RE classes as I grew up a UU kid.

In eighth grade, I read Hermann Hesse’s novel, Siddhartha – and I loved it. The year was 1972. Some of the hippie types were into wisdom from the East, and I began to pick up on that vibe.

Later, as a college sophomore, I saw a copy of the Dao De Jing in the campus bookstore and bought it. Its opening lines told me:
“The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.”
This was not my father’s Oldsmobile – or my mother’s.

Despite these dabblings and the impress they made, my studies focused on Western philosophy. But my interest in philosophy was in deconstructing its own assumptions. Philosophical conundrums result from stretching concepts outside the contexts where those concepts make sense. I studied particularly the pragmatists and was something of an anti-philosophy philosopher.

I took a job in the religion and philosophy department at Fisk University. I was called upon occasionally to teach a “Humanities” course that included surveying the world religions. As I prepared for the Buddhism unit, I found many of the teachings eerily reminiscent of what I’d spent graduate school thinking about. In one of the sutras, the Buddha is presented with the sort of questions that philosophy and religion typically wrestle: Is the world eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or different? Does a person exist after death or not? The Buddha replies:
“Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a Brahmin or a merchant or a worker; until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of middle height; was dark or brown or golden-skinned; lives in such a village or town or city; until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; the bowstring was fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; the shaft was wild or cultivated; with what kind of feathers the shaft was fitted; with what kind of sinew the shaft was bound; whether the arrow was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander. All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die.”
The sutra goes on to say that having any of these views -- that the world is eternal, not eternal, etc., -- precludes the holy life. The Buddha refuses to address any such question because it
“does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.”
This fit nicely with my own anti-philosophy philosophy.

The rest of what Buddhism had to say made sense to me, too. Life has some hard stuff: we get old, we get sick, we die. Our reactivity against this reality makes it harder. Extremes of self-denial don’t help. Self-indulgence isn’t so helpful either. Take the middle way. That resonated for me because I’d always appreciated Aristotle’s point about the virtues being the golden mean between vicious extremes on either end.

After some years as a philosophy professor, I felt the call to Unitarian Universalist ministry. I wanted to work with congregations rather than classes because, for one thing, I was attracted to the prospect for long-term relationships. In the academy, you could be part of people’s growth and development, but then the semester ended and they all went away. In congregations, we get to keep on working together and learning together indefinitely.

Also: I really like that I don’t have to grade your papers. I was not very good at the whole paper-grading thing.

So off I went to seminary.

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "On Being a UU Buddhist"
See also
Part 2: Get a Spiritual Practice, They Said
Part 3: The Prophets and the Buddha

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