The Prophets and the Buddha

On Being a UU Buddhist, part 3

I am not just a Buddhist. I am a Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist. I was born and raised Unitarian Universalist for 40 years before starting Buddhist practice. And 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.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I learned to appreciate the Hebrew scriptures and Christian gospels, understanding when and how to treat them as allegorical, as metaphors. Fiction, yes, but like all good fiction, it tells us something true. I brought that interpretive felicity to Buddhism as well. Karma and reincarnation, for me, are metaphors for reminding us that our actions do have effects and that what we make of this life influences lives to come – not just one “next life,” I would say, but all lives to come. Every time a child is born, we are reincarnated in that child – every one of us in every child.

The thing that Buddhism doesn’t have, that none of the Eastern religions have, the thing that is vital to my faith, and the reason Buddhism alone is insufficient for me, is the prophetic tradition – the tradition of attention to social justice as an inseparable part of faith. My religious orientation is toward justice, fairness, equity. As Unitarian Universalists, our 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.

This has begun to change. In recent decades, there's been a lot of work developing "Socially Engaged Buddhism." But in the ancient texts of Buddhism, what “speaking truth to power” looked like was that sometimes a king would take an interest in his spiritual development and would come seeking the Buddha’s spiritual teaching.

In lands where, for millennia, the Emperor was simply the ultimate and unquestionable authority, 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. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible – Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and others – had a recognized role which even the king felt compelled to respect. The prophets were supposedly the mouths of God. In Deuteronomy, the Creator says,
“I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."
Utilizing the protections of a legitimate, recognized social role, the prophets criticized their government, criticized the powerful. Our idea of speaking truth to power goes back to those prophets.

You might recall that the prophets were always warning that the wrath of God was going to befall the people of Israel for straying from the divine law. What is sometimes forgotten is that the specific divine law from which the prophets were haranguing Israel for departing was divine law about 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 consensus, or, at least, majority agreement on what should be done.

Eastern Asia 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.

Being a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist means bringing together the practice and insight of the Buddhist tradition and the social commitments originating from ancient Athens and Jerusalem. Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism call my name, and I call theirs.

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

What’s calling your name?

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This is part 3 of 3 of "On Being a UU Buddhist"
See also
Part 1: A Path to Buddha
Part 2: Get a Spiritual Practice, They Said

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