wizdUUm Blogs on Theology

All is Buddha & Buddha is All

One of the tensions with which I continually struggle is trying to reconcile two ideas, both of which I believe to be true, and yet seem contradictory.

Buddhists will say "All is Buddha, Buddha is all." Does that mean that rape and murder and torture are Buddha??! And many theists will say, "EVERYTHING that exists exists only because of God. Otoh, we want to say that God is GOOD." Again, does this mean that rape and murder and torture are good? If not, why does a good God allow bad things?

Can something - whether "Buddha" or "God" - be both "everything" and also only "good"?

The response I've often heard from practitioners of the Eastern traditions is that "good" and "bad" are only concepts created by the mind and have no reality otherwise. I accept that in theory. But in practice I don't accept that this means it's all the same. I don't think that the Buddha was saying that it's all the same. If he believed that, why would he bother to teach us the Dharma? Suffering is real. Intentionally causing suffering and intentionally relieving suffering are NOT the same. Even if ultimately good and bad are only concepts, there is a usefulness to these concepts in identifying what is the ideal and what is not.

So we are still left with the conundrum, if Buddha/God/the Ultimate is EVERYTHING, is It also those things from which we seek to deliver ourselves/society? How can Buddha/God/the Ultimate be both EVERYTHING and the IDEAL?

Another response I often hear is that goodness is like light and evil is like darkness. Both must be in balance with each other. Does that mean that there must always be evil? What implications does that have for social justice? Should we all just give up now?

Long ago a professor, William Chittick, tried to explain to me that it's a mistake to equate goodness with light and evil with dark. I believed him but didn't fully understand why until now.

Light isn't "goodness" and dark isn't "evil." We don't want 100% light all the time, or if we do we are sorely mistaken. (Anyone out there seen Insomnia?) What we actually want is for it to be light when we need it to be light and dark when we need it to be dark. We want the correct balance between light and dark.

What we call "goodness" is that balance, whereas what we call "evil" is the lack of balance. I can affirm then, that the universe is basically and inherently good. In the grand scheme of things, the Universe is always balanced. But it can become unbalanced locally and temporarily. And we can work to balance it again. It does matter what we do.

So.... all is indeed Buddha, and Buddha is the ideal. Both are true.

Interdependency and Inherent Worth

Every Sunday, I arrive at church an 1-1/2 early in order to attend a discussion group that meets before service.  The group serves as my covenant group of sorts, providing a safe place where we can explore issues in depth, with people whom we know well.  One of the things I most love about the group is our diversity of beliefs - from Christian to Pagan to atheist, and as we discuss theology I try to be always mindful of how it could pertain to everyone.

This morning the discussion turned towards our inherent worth and dignity.  For those of us who do not believe in a divine creator, what is the source of this worth?  Are non-theists stuck with a sort of relativist answer? - "we have inherent worth only because we say that we do."  Ethics based on tit-for-tat.  The problem with that kind of answer is obvious. What happens when someone refuses to agree?  In the realm of ethics, it would be nice to be able to point to a higher source of moral authority than just one's own preferences.  Otoh, someone pointed out that what is right/good should be right/good independent of the existence of God.

Even tho I am a theist, I see no need for a belief in God per se in order to avoid moral relativism.  One can get to "inherent worth of each person" without a concept of God.  Our worth is inherent in our interdependency. Our seventh principle is the basis for our first.  Interdependency goes beyond tit-for-tat.  Tit-for-tat is still too atomistic a framework for ethics.  It assumes that people act as individual agents who can choose whether or not to engage in beneficent reciprocity.  Interdependency says you don't really have a choice.  If you don't respect the worth of others, it will be to your own detriment.  Ultimately the ONLY way to benefit oneself is to be of benefit to others.

In fact, from the Buddhist perspective, interdependency says there is no difference between the other and yourself.  As you value yourself, so value others.  As you value others, so value yourself.  It adds another layer of meaning to Jesus' words, "Love thy neighbor as you love yourself."

Interdependency also bypasses the whole question of whether what is right/good can be separated from God.  As a panentheist, my God is in the connections between all sentient beings, and indeed between everything.  My God is the higher source of moral authority than just my own preferences, and my God is not separate from goodness itself.  They are mutually interdependent.

In Need of Grace

Maybe it's because I came back from my trip to Ithaca exhausted.  After a day of traveling by car and bus and finally metro train, I went directly to church for the last session of Theologies of Liberation.  Maybe it's because I myself am in need of Grace, but the most compelling thing that I remember from the participants' discussions is the feeling of being overwhelmed by the enormity of what is wrong in this world and our complicity.

For those who benefit from systems of oppression, sin is to contribute to the maintenance of these systems both actively and complicitly. For those who suffer under systems of oppression, sin is to accept this without resistance.

I have sinned.  We all have.  And despite our best intentions we will continue to do so.  We realized in that room that we are all in need of Grace.  And someone asked what Grace is.

Grace is forgiveness from sin.  It's the knowing that whatever wrong you've done, you are forgiven, without letting you off the hook for making things right.

Grace is unconditional love.  It's the feeling that whatever and whoever you are, you are loved, without letting you off the hook for being good.

Grace is the lifting of burden.  It's the realization that while you are fully responsible for your part, it's not only up to you to save the world.  Do what yours to do and trust that God/the interdependent web will do the rest.

Liberation from Racism

Since I've been co-facilitating a class on liberation theology at church, it's been on my mind a lot these days.  And since it's been on my mind already, we decided to do a theological reflection on it in the office today.  While going over some historical background and explaining liberation hermeneutics, the main thrust of my presentation was the difference between liberal theology and liberation theology.  To illustrate the difference, we looked at the concept of sin.

In traditional Christian theology, sin is going against God's will.  God defines what is right, and therefore going against God is always wrong.

We all agreed that liberals have difficulty with the concept of sin, with many rejecting it outright.  But if we were to formulate one, Adam came up with one that was both an accurate assessment of the liberal/UU framework, and the perfect foil for the liberation conception of sin. "Sin is going against my own conscience."

In liberation theology, one definition is this: For those who benefit from systems of oppression, sin is to contribute to the maintenance of these systems both actively and complicitly.  For those who suffer under systems of oppression, sin is to accept this without resistance.

Upon hearing this definition, EB pensively offered her thoughts.  Maybe, she said, this difference is the source of why we run into so much resistance when we do anti-racism work.  Because we're coming from a liberation (ie - systemic) point of view while most people are looking at racism from a liberal (ie - personal) point of view.  We're telling them that they still are complicit in racism because they participate in racially oppressive systems.  But from their point of view they are not racist because they have no personal feelings against people based on race.

I had known the difference between systemic and personal views of racism for a while now. Anyone who's taken ARAO (anti-racism/anti-oppression) training knows it, as had everyone in the office.  But it wasn't until today, and EB, that I tied it directly to theology.  It brought another dimension to the conversation that Joseph and I had had in March - that our goal is to move Unitarian Universalism from liberal theology to liberation theology.

Learn from your Elders

I have googled long and hard but still not been able to find an online copy of William Ellery Channing's "The Father's Love for Persons" that I could copy and paste for wizdum.net's online library. So, out of desperation, I've begun transcribing from paper to kilobytes. (If you knew how poorly I type you would understand how big a commitment this is.) Which means that I'm rereading Channing's essay rather thoroughly.

I've also been feeling pretty self-satisfied lately about my growing realization of the true depth of our Seventh Principle, how it is the basis for the First, and feeling that it is my interest in and knowledge of Buddhism that has helped guide me to these realizations. And then I read Channing...

There is a simple truth, which may help us to understand, that God does not intermit His attention to Individuals in consequence of His inspection of the Infinite Whole. It is this. The individual is a living part of this living whole, - vitally connected with it, - acting upon it and reacted upon by it, - receiving good and communicating good in return, in proportion to his growth and power. From this constitution of the Universe it follows, that the whole is preserved and perfected by the care of its parts. The General good is bound up in the Individual good. So that to superintend one is to superintend the other; and the neglect of either would be the neglect of both. What reason have I for considering myself overlooked, because God has such an immense family to provide for? I belong to this family. I am bound to it by vital bonds. I am always exerting an influence upon it. I can hardly perform an act that is confined in its consequences to myself. Others are affected by what I am, and say, and do. And these others have also their spheres of influence. So that a single act of mine may spread and spread in widening circles, through a nation or humanity. Through my vice I intensify the taint of vice throughout the Universe. Through my misery I make multitudes sad. On the other hand, every development of my virtue makes me an ampler blessing to my race. Every new truth that I gain makes me a brighter light to Humanity. I ought not then to imagine that God's interest in me is diminished, because His interest is extended to endless hosts of Spirits. On the contrary, God must be more interested in me on this very account, because I influence others as well as myself. I am a living member of the great Family of All Souls; and I cannot improve or suffer myself, without diffusing good or evil around me through an ever-enlarging sphere.

A hundred and thirty years ago, at least, Channing understood karma and interdependency without the aid of any lessons from the Buddha. He got it. From out of his Christian tradition, he got it. The individual and the whole are one and the same. Channing doesn't spell it out here, but I'm sure he also understood the corollary of this: that the first and second greatest commandments within the Judeo-Christian tradition are one and the same. Love thy God and love thy neighbor. You do one by doing the other.


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