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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 27, 2011

The Case for a Buddhist Unitarian Universalism

So the hymn comes to a close with an unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick run through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in hand. He hikes his black robe at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren't for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else. In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six-year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home from vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice- president of a bank who twice this week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part, even from himself, creases his order of service with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee. The preacher pulls a little chord that turns the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence he will tell them?

— Frederick Buechner

A few months ago we had a service where instead of a traditional sermon I solicited questions from the congregation. They were written on cards, collected and given to me as I stood on the platform. Some were silly, but most were about heart and longing and hope. I stood there and responded to them in order as best I could until the clock said it was time to stop. I only got through about a third of them. Since then I’ve read all the questions and saw there were some patterns. For instance a number of people present at that service wanted to know about my Buddhism and how it related to my Unitarian Universalism.

I think we’re all familiar with that line how it is better to remain silent and be thought foolish than to speak and remove all doubt. As you may imagine this is a difficult piece of advice for someone in my trade. However, our ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed how a sermon might be foolishly preached and yet be wisely heard. I’ve actually built my entire preaching career on that dictum. But I’ve rarely felt so much the need for that wise listening as I do today.

I say this because this morning I will be opening my heart even more so than usual. I’m painfully aware of Frederick Buechner’s words and I know that you are here hoping for a useful word spoken from this holy spot and this sacred hour, something meaningful said out of the silence. This is all I’ve got.

The Unitarian Universalist divine Forrest Church used to say that our human knowing we are alive and that we will die births all religions. The great urgency to find some meaning and purpose within our fleeting existence has been the heart of the spiritual enterprise. Of course, religions, all of ‘em, have been caught up in many other things, as well, sometimes much less savory. Crowd control comes to mind. Most all religions have some variation on the line: (my spiritual text) said it, I believe it, that settles it. Of course, no it doesn’t.

This discontinuity between my experience and what religions say are why I left my childhood Fundamentalist Christian faith. This is what drove me into the Zen monastery. This is what caused me to leave that organization. This is what caused me to find another, less dogmatic Zen practice. And it is what has led me to enter the Unitarian Universalist church, and eventually to become a minister. Truthfully, the constantly arising discontinuities continue to challenge and inform me.

Some time ago I wrote a blog column and titled it “all religions are false.” And I meant it. My experience is that the religions we’ve received are in fact all of them limited. They are larded with all sorts of assertions about the world that contradict what our eyes see, and assert many truth-claims about our human condition and destiny that make no sense in broad daylight. I will spare you the litany of falsehoods associated with just about all religions. But I’m sure you can think of a number of inconsistencies or right out whoppers in your favorite religions without much effort.

And, this is equally important. At the same time, I could have, and may yet write a blog column titled “all religions are true.” There is no doubt in my heart there are subtle and wonderful things to be found within pretty much all of them from Christianity to Judaism to Islam to Hinduism to the kaleidoscopic varieties of earth-centered faiths. Each contains pearls of great price. I think of the gospel music we’ve heard and participated in today, truly expressing our human longing, the need for a helping hand, and how we all can find it by opening our hearts wide. Religions, after all, are, in addition to those less savory things, the treasure troves of human wisdom, the repositories of the deep intuitions of many generations.

The problem is that in each and every one of them, we need to sort wheat from chaff, noise from message. In order to find the true within religions we need to bring our hearts open, and our heads clear. I’ve spent the better part of my life engaged in this process. I started in, as I’ve said, a Fundamentalist Christian household. I’ve listened to teachers in many traditions and scoured their spiritual texts. I lived in a Buddhist monastery for several years. I’m now an authorized teacher in two Zen lineages. I’ve attended theological schools. I’ve thought, I’ve prayed, I’ve meditated, I’ve examined my life and the lives of this world in the light of these traditions I’ve studied. And over the years I’ve come to some conclusions about what is wheat, and what is chaff, about what in religions actually matters.

Now, as most here know, I’ve come to stand with my feet placed firmly within two spiritual traditions. One foot stands in the reformed Zen Buddhism that has planted itself in our Western soil over the last hundred odd years. It is rooted in some ancient spiritual practices, and insights, which now live within my heart and inform who I am.

However with a twist. Salvation in classical Buddhism in pretty much all versions, was to end the cycle of rebirth, which was believed to be at its heart, suffering. That’s not my Buddhism. Rather the highly psychologized Buddhisms of the West, and particularly within my experience of Zen Buddhism, have found salvation, the heart healing we all long for in this world marked by suffering, is discovered by bringing the divided heart/mind together, binging the many parts of who we are back home, finding the many lives within this one life.

The Buddhism of my experience finds suffering and grace, hurt and joy, as well as my ethical choices are all informed by a deep knowing discovered through my disciplines and life that every blessed thing is united, is in a very real sense “one,” or using a traditional Buddhist metaphor, “empty.” This spaciousness, this boundlessness is our true home. And for me this discovery as a personal truth, a deep knowing, or, again, in the language of this tradition this great not knowing, is the point of all religion, and what makes it worth putting up with a fair amount of nonsense and bother.

While not a Buddhist text, the Chinese classic the Tao Te Ching sings of this home, as at first nameless, after all ultimately words, all words fail, hence not knowing; and then named, after all at some point we must speak, our words and actions are intimate and of great consequence: “The nameless” the Tao Te Ching tells us, “is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.” The nameless, the empty, the great void, the Way, if you wish God, if you wish Love: is our source, our sustenance and our eternal return. Whatever our preferred placeholder for this experience, it is our family name. And, this is equally important, it is found here in this world, in this body, by you and by me.

This is my heart’s knowing. These twin truths of unity and separation birthing as love in this world informs everything I do and am.

And, as you may have noticed, my other foot is placed joyfully within Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes called “liberal religion,” embracing the way of the rational heart. And here we find the liberal of my liberal Buddhism.

I first came to Unitarian Universalism because I felt a lack in Zen as I encountered it in the sixties, seventies and eighties. As I said all religions are false, each has its limitations, none offers the truth with a big capital “T.” And while Buddhism may be a bit less false than most, it too has limitations. Again, I won’t bore you with details here. A little research will show you a fair amount in its teachings you can find internally contradictory, silly or wrong-headed.

The thing that mostly concerned me, however, wasn’t doctrinal. The issue of whether there is rebirth or if each breath presents a new life leads to the same disciplines. The issue was that there just wasn’t much attention given to community in contemporary Western Zen. Oh, a tip of the hat here and there. But, if a Western Buddhist wanted a spiritual home for their kids, everyone I knew ended up in a UU church. If someone wanted a spiritual community as something more than a place to do the discipline, sort of like going to a spiritual gym, and then home, pretty much the only place where I could go that didn’t contradict the parts of Zen I found useful and true, turned out to be at the local UU church. Bottom line I wanted full spiritual community, and there was precious little at the local Zen center. I found it instead at the UU church. My goodness, I did. But, I also got something more. In fact much more.

I vividly remember my first visit to a UU church. Hoping for so much. Expecting a lot. And falling asleep during the sermon. But, as an old Zen hand, I know about falling asleep during spiritual practices. And I returned. And returned. And I found something very interesting, some healthful wheat amidst the chaff.

Unitarian Universalism has two principal currents and two methodologies that exist sometimes smoothly, sometimes not so smoothly which are derived ultimately from the two traditions that formed the Association. The first is Unitarianism, which has historically been concerned with reason and ethics. The slogan for this current has been “salvation by character.” The second is Universalism, which has been concerned with healing, and for which the slogan has been “God is love.” Or, “Love over creed.” Love. The same love it seems as I found in my Zen practice.

Once I understood these twin currents, salvation by character and love over creed, I felt I’d found the completion of my spiritual quest. Not the completion of the practice, of the doing, but I had found all the parts I needed for a whole lifetime, for my spiritual maturation, and for how I could respond in this world to what is.

Of course there’s still that all religions are false thing. The Buddha warned how we need to take up our practice with diligence, and while looking for wise counsel to never put another head on top of our own. Unitarian Universalism in practice is pretty good at the spiritual community thing. We know how to organize ourselves, to provide a nurturing shelter for our children, to engage each other, and to reach out into the world. This year’s focus of this congregation in standing for marriage equality is simply part of who we have always been. We’re very good at the doing.

Not so much so with the reflection part, with holding our hearts to account. When I arrived I pretty much had to bring my own spiritual practice. As most of us moved away from Christianity most also forgot how to pray, the classic spiritual discipline of Western religions. Things are getting better. Chalice circles are important. Meditation, usually Buddhist, has become common in UU churches. But, that discipline part is still pretty fragile. We need to be careful to cultivate the opportunities for deep reflection for ourselves and for each other.

What this practice is, in all its different forms is reaching out with an open heart. All we need is to stretch our hand out. It will be taken up. Call it God. Call it Lord. Call it the great Boundless. Call it the Way. It has many names. But, it will respond. Let us remember the whole way: open heart, critical mind, and a hand reaching out. This is love. This is the healing of our individual hearts. This is the healing of the world.

This is my confession. This is my faith. I hope it brings you a word of hope. I hope it encourages you to trust your head and to know that doesn’t mean shutting down your heart. Here are the slogans of my heart. Sit down, shut up, and pay attention. Salvation by character. And love over creed. Always, love over creed.

Our way, however we call it, is ultimately about love. It is about reaching out our hearts and hands. Do it, and you will find a hand taking yours. Call it Quanyin, call it Jesus. Love doesn’t care. Love just is.

This is my faith.

And so out of all this I think of Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite hymn.

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.

This is my faith.