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"Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 22, 2016

We're sorry, no audio is available for this service, but feel free to read the full-text below.

Our first reading is a compilation of sayings attributed to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama:
All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.

An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.

Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love; this is [an] eternal rule.

One who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.
Our second reading is from the essay, “Upstream,” by poet Mary Oliver, who was our esteemed Ware Lecturer at the 2006 UUA General Assembly in St. Louis:
One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people – a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes. In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be. Wordsworth studied himself and found the subject astonishing. Actually what he studied was his relationship to the harmonies and also the discords of the natural world. That's what created the excitement.

Do you think there is anything not attached by an unbreakable cord to everything else?

… Attention is the beginning of devotion.
Our sermon this morning, - "Why I Am a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist," is the fourth in an occasional series being presented throughout the course of this year. Copies of earlier installments – "Why I Am a UU Spiritual Humanist," "Why... a UU Christian” and "Why... a UU Jew" are available on the church website or in the Parish House Parlor.

My intention with this series is to view life experience as a Unitarian Universalist through a number of theological perspectives, in ways that I hope will be of value to those of us who claim to be religious liberals embracing diversity and freedom of conscience in religious matters. Our faith tradition encourages us to look through different lenses with the hope of possibly seeing larger glimpses of truth, in order that we might find greater meaning in our lives. Another part of the intention is to address a question that I've often heard raised by a number of you here at First Unitarian during this interim period. That is: what is our spiritual center here?

My premise is that the core of Unitarian Universalism cannot be found within any single religious perspective, but that our theological/spiritual heart can indeed be found in all traditions that, as we proclaim in the introduction to our Principles and Purposes, provide us “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life."

There is no one button we can push. But there is a gravitational pull that draws us to a center of our gratitude and service to the mystery which is the source of life. Our fidelity, I would suggest, lies in our ardent search for truth and not in any exclusive or orthodox claims to its ownership. Our spiritual center may very well lie in the hospitable sharing of our explorations and experiences of that center.

Since the title of each of these sermons begins with "Why I am a Unitarian Universalist," once again I begin there with a great sense of appreciation. I am a Unitarian Universalist because here I am not told what to believe. I'm asked what I do believe. Moreover, I'm asked how that belief matters, both in my own life and in the world. I am asked here to accept things on faith, but on my faith—not anyone else’s. I am a UU because I know my life’s path is a journey, a pilgrimage, and not just a meaningless passage from birth to death.

I am a Unitarian Universalist because this faith tradition calls me – in community – to make the most of my life, to do the best I can with it, and to love as fully as I can. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I believe in the human potential to learn and grow. And with that potential, I believe, no matter how dark it may feel at times, in the possibility of a better world, rooted more firmly in our ideals of truth, beauty, love and justice.

It's sometimes surprising to me, although it shouldn't be, just how providence so often plays a part in how worship services come together. I selected the theme for this morning's service all the way back last May. Now, as so many of us wait in trepidation to see how the new presidential administration in Washington will unfold, I think there could hardly be a better time to explore a Buddhist approach in our relationships with life and with the emerging world we find ourselves in.


My own introduction to Eastern thought was through the rather unorthodox, or at least un-oriental, source, which I imagine was a common introduction to Buddhism for many in my generation. At the age of 19, I began to read the works of German author Herman Hesse. Eventually I read nearly every word ever published by Hesse, but those first books – Beneath the Wheel, Damien and Siddhartha – had an impact on me that continues to influence the meanings I am able to make and find in my life, even to this day. From Hesse, I learned that the human longing for meaning was as ancient as humanity itself, and that it was not just a product of my own adolescent angst. From him, I also learned that for meaning to have depth and satisfaction, it had to be gained through considerations that were larger than self; that in truth, the only limitations there could ever be to the meaning one might take from their experiences were the limitations that a person sets through their own perceptions.

Let me take just a moment to tell you what this sermon is not about. This will not be a crash course in Buddhism. Even I don’t have the audacity to try to condense 2,500 years of religious tradition and thought into a 20-minute presentation. Nor will this be a lesson in vocabulary; if you don’t know what Dharma or Dukkha, the Eightfold Path or Nirvana are now, you probably still won’t know them a few minutes from now.

Nor am I going to dwell on issues of reincarnation, a belief that is at the core of Buddhism. I would only say that maybe reincarnation happens and maybe it doesn’t. While I’ve had experiences that have made me think both of these possibilities are likely, I’ve had many more experiences that have convinced me that rebirth is something that can happen many times in any individual lifetime, sometimes even within the course of a single day.

I suppose if there is any validity in my claim of being a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist, the claim would have to include the qualification that I am a heretical UU Buddhist. I could never sit still for more than a minute. And even though I’ve read and studied a considerable amount of Buddhist thought since my introduction to it nearly 50 years ago, it’s not the thought or the study that intrigue me. It’s the application.

So there are three particular issues regarding Buddhism that interest me as a UU practitioner of it. First is the apparent dichotomy between the concepts of compassion and avoiding attachment, especially as it relates to compassion. Second is the capacity Buddhism provides for being unbounded by apparent boundaries. And finally, the importance of paying attention.

Avoiding Attachment vs. Compassion:

The thinking often goes, “If you don't have attachments, naturally you're liberated.” From ancient times, a story goes, there was an old farmer who asked for instructions from a monk. "Great Monk, let me ask you, how can I attain liberation?" The monk asked, "Who tied you up?" The old farmer answered, "Nobody tied me up." So,” the monk said, "then why do you seek liberation?"

One of the greatest misunderstandings of Buddhism, I think, is the idea that avoidance of attachment encourages disinterest or a lack of caring. As best I see it, it's really quite the opposite. Siddhartha Gautama, the actual Buddha, sat at the very threshold of enlightenment and chose instead to return to the world – out of compassion for humanity – in order to be of service to others, that they too might find their way to fulfillment. Shunning attachment is not meant to be about avoiding our lives or about denial of our relationships with this planet or its inhabitants. It’s about fully engaging in our lives and caring deeply about our relationships.

Lack of attachment is not in conflict with our being connected to the process of our life. Instead, it's about letting go of our attachment to the outcomes of the many facets of that process. Poet Mary Oliver said it so well:
“To live in this world/you must be able/to do three things:
To love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
And, when the time comes to let
it go,
to let it go."
Being attached to an outcome is about grandiosity. It’s about the fantasy of being in charge of, or in control of, what happens. In the end, such attachment is always self-limiting, if not crippling, as we constantly try to manipulate the variables and the people in the world in order to force the outcome that we’ve envisioned. If, instead, we invested our time and our life energy on the here and now – with great caring and great compassion – then perhaps we might be blessed with some greater level of fulfillment, and perhaps that could spill over into the world.

I think there is a bit more in regard to attachment that we might take note of, and that is the balance between being engaged in the here and now, and being stuck or overly attached to the here and now. Addictions are a way of being overly attached to the moment, like being addicted to perfection or even apathy, commercialism or power, drugs or alcohol, sex, self-absorption or navel gazing. The point of being free to live our lives is so that we might be free to do what we do because we are free to do it – not in doing what we do because we have to and not because we have trained ourselves so deeply in it that we can’t step out of our deeply rutted existence in order to face life anew. The point is in choosing and acting in ways that allow us greater breadth and depth, greater connection, greater compassion… because we are free to choose that kind of completeness. This, I think, is the possibility of liberation.

Unbound by Our Boundaries:

In Buddhism there are “Five Remembrances,” which come from a sacred text called the Anguttara Nikaya. As your former minister and Buddhist Roshi, James Ford says, "It is core Buddhism." The Five Remembrances are:
  • I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
  • I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
  • I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  • All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  • My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
There was a woman in my former congregation who was into her 80s when I met her. Ellen Studdiford had been longtime member of the congregation that I serve back in New Jersey, and had been it's first woman president. She died at the age of 90. For most of the nine years that I knew her, she was basically confined, not only to her house but to her living room, which was furnished with her bed and the chair that sat next to it. She perched like a queen on that chair, and I often thought of her as a kind of Buddhist queen.

Her skin was almost translucent and nothing short of radiant peace and serenity emanated her very knowing and mindful smile. I don't think I've ever known anyone whose life was more confined to such a physically limited, small space. And I don't think I've ever known anyone else whose inner life was so incredibly expansive. She could be anywhere she wanted, while sitting right there in that chair.

When I’d go to visit, I’d get the feeling that there was no place else she would more rather be than sitting right there visiting with me. And then, when I'd leave, I still had the sense that she was exactly where she would have chosen to be, if she’d had the choice. So many times she told me how much she loved her life and all the people and places in it. Whatever pain she was in, whatever her limitations, it didn't matter. She loved her life and she was grateful for it. When I grow up, if I ever do, I want to be just like Ellen Studdiford.

No matter the bounds set by our circumstances or our conditions, we are the ones who are capable of finding and making the meaning that might be gained from our experiences. And in that regard, whatever limitation we might face, we are boundless. I feel compelled to add that this shouldn't be misunderstood to mean that no matter what kind of abusive situation we might be in, we should be able to make our peace with it. If we're in an abusive situation, we need to end the abuse or get out of it. This is to say though, that we are free to make of our experience what we will. Human existence is finite, but the human experience is infinite.

Paying Attention:

Here's where I think the idea of reincarnation comes into play. If we are really paying attention to the content and context of our lives, how can we help but be amazed by them, by this world, by a sunlit and crisp winter day, or a cold, gray and rainy one? It is all a miracle. I have to suspect that attention was what Jesus was talking about when he said that, unless we come as a child, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. It's not that Jesus was threatening to keep anyone out; it's that, if we fail to pay attention, we will surely miss the very point of our lives.

Children pay attention to nearly everything. Somewhere along the way though, some of us tend to fall asleep. The Buddha said, "Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it."

I remember one warm beautiful spring afternoon several years ago – okay, more like three decades ago – I was out doing some yard work at our home in Davenport, Iowa. Our daughter Shana, then about four, was keeping me company. I noticed her lying in the grass on her tummy with her chin propped up on her hands, in front of a batch of daffodils. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Oh, I'm just watching these flowers grow," she said. And that's exactly what she was doing with all the appreciation and attention her little heart could muster.

The Sufi mystic poet Rumi put it this way, "Sell your cleverness... and purchase bewilderment." I wish for you endless spring days, lifetimes filled with daffodils and bewilderment. For as Mary Oliver said, "Attention is the beginning of devotion."


Buddhism is so incredibly Unitarian Universalist. At the core of our faith tradition is a belief in the unity of all things. The Buddha said, "one who experiences the unity of life sees his own self in all beings, and all beings in his own self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye." And he said, "Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else."

At the core of our faith tradition is the belief, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in the famous Divinity School Address, at Harvard back in 1838, that we well ought to "... go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil." The Buddha said, "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense."

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles encourage us not only to think about things but to act on them by affirming and promoting what we believe in. The Buddha said, "An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea."

I don't want to trivialize what I think of as the importance of a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist perspective by suggesting that this is an antidote to the fears we might be experiencing in regard to this new world which we are now entering. What I am suggesting is that we are not in charge of what happens, but we are responsible for our responses to whatever that may be. I am suggesting that we might do well to be passionate about compassion; that we leave the outcomes to be what they will be; that whatever boundaries might be imposed upon us, we are free to be unlimited by them. I am suggesting that we pay attention, that we always pay attention – that by our attention we might experience awe, be drawn to gratitude, and dedicated passionately and compassionately to serve humanity and our planet as the circumstances of the day, even this day, challenge us.

The commonalities between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism are really quite amazing and quite endless. You could say that we are ONE. The experiences that come from such a oneness can indeed heal our spirits, and in the healing make way for ever greater attention, boundlessness, engagement and undying compassion for our world and for all of our neighbors.

Could there be any greater calling? Could there be a more fulfilling kind of life? In any other way, could there be the possibility of more hope, of more love, for us or for our world? If there is, may this way lead us to that way, which is even greater. And may our hearts be filled with gratitude for the gift of life, which is ours, and for all the richness that is its potential.

What prayer is there left to say? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.