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'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.

When the Spirit Moves Us

I've got the Holy Spirit and interconnectedness on the brain these days.  I see them everywhere.

This morning before service, our discussion group was reading an essay from Rebecca Parker's Blessing the World where she describes a soldier's story of how he was ordered to take on a mission that he knew was hopeless.  He knew that most of his men would die, and yet, after some resistance, he gave in and did it anyway.  

We discussed the psychology behind that, how hard it is to go against the crowd.  And talk of war naturally led to discussion of the current war in Iraq, and how so many groups - the Dems, the media, the former generals... - are blaming each other now for not questioning the administration at the time, when the arguments in favor of war were so obviously faulty.

And as we talked, so many things came together.  How to relate them?  

First, I thought of how they too - the Dems, the media, the former generals... - were like that guy in Parker's story.  It's so hard to go against a crowd.  Second, I thought of my own complacency - how I knew the war was wrong but also kind of accepted that it was going to happen.  I felt powerless to stop it.  And then I remembered what Taquiena had told me - that those in power stay in power by convincing the rest of us that we have no power.  

It's so hard to go against a crowd.  And yet... if we had all gone against the crowd, or even just enough of us, we would have been the crowd.   If we had all used our power, or even just enough of us, we would have had the power to stop the war.  If enough of us had tried, the rest of us would have known that we weren't alone, and it would have been easier to try too.

I think we've all experienced it.  When the losing team of a game all of the sudden starts to believe they can win and then they seem unstoppable.  Or when a political movement ignites.  When people who thought they were powerless realize they have power.

That is the Holy Spirit of Life in action.  Moving through us.  Connecting us.  Empowering us.


Good and Evil and the Individual

I needed a day to reflect on this...

Yesterday in the office we had theological reflection on the shootings at Virginia Tech, and I struggled once again to reconcile our belief in a divine spark within each of us - our innate capacity for Godliness - and what one person did to 32 others and himself.  And as I was speaking it occurred to me that I was framing the question incorrectly - that my conceiving of us as separate individuals was getting in the way of discernment.

Later on yesterday, as I prepared for a course I'm co-facilitating at All Souls, I read that in liberation theology sin is not conceived of at the level of individual failure, but rather societal systems of oppression.  Sin is the perpetuance of systems that prevent people from reaching their full potential.

I have said for a long time now that there are good and evil acts, but one cannot judge an individual as either good or evil.  But I think I better understand now why it really is true.

Good and evil have no meaning in the context of an individual person.  They only have meaning in the interactions between people, in the effect we have on each other.  It is all about connection, and the lack of connection.

It is not quite right then to say then that God is inherently in us - as if we each are individual little containers of Godliness or goodliness.  Rather, we are only potential for such - potential that cannot be attained in isolation.  It is when we make connections that there is "good."  And it is when we perpetuate those things that keep us from connecting, or actively sever connection that there is "bad."

Again, in liberation theology, is the idea of the Holy Spirit as an active force flowing through all of creation, connecting.  God inherent in the connections between us.

We as UUs start with the inherent worth and dignity of the individual.  Because that's where our bias lies.  But really, it is the seventh principle that underlies the first.  Our interconnectedness is the basis for our worth.

Reflections on the 7th Principle

I was asked to give some spiritual/theological reflections to my congregation on Earth Day.  Here goes.


As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.

Personally I think its funny that we felt the need to add that last bit – "of which we are a part."  If there is an interdependent web of all existence then of course we are a part of it, right?  But the need to add that last bit underscores our feeling of separateness.  We humans as separate from the rest of creation, from Earth.  We as individuals separate from each other. 

As a culture, we celebrate our independence instead of our interdependence.

Our 7th principle came to us late, being adopted in 1985, two dozen years after what in essence were the first 6 principles, and it’s the only one that mentions anything other than human beings. Yet it is much beloved and much cited amongst UUs.  Pagan UUs see in it a reverence for the earth.  Humanist UUs see in it a recognition of the theories of ecology – no living thing exists in isolation from its environment.  And given my Buddhist leanings, I see in it the concept of patrika samaipata – interdependent co-arising.  The idea that all existence is interdependent and mutually give rise to each other.

Our seventh principle calls us to recognize this inherent mutuality.  Separateness is an illusion.   Our existing separate from the world is an illusion.  Our existing separate from our effects on the world is an illusion.  That means we affect the world with everything we do, all of time.  Every time.

Our seventh principle calls us to recognize this inherent mutuality and equality.  There is no hierarchy.  It is not right that some of us can make decisions that affect others and they have no say in it.  Not only are all people equal.  But also, all existence is equal.  Just as we should not use another human to suit our needs, we should not us the rest of existence simply to suit our needs.  We are called to live in ways that are mutually beneficial to all.

Separateness from each other is an illusion.  I said that our 7th principle came to us late, but this idea has been with Unitarian Universalism since our beginning.  It was inherent in the Universalist concept of universal salvation.  Everyone is saved.  In other words, no one is saved unless everyone is saved.  In a religion that calls us to engage in this world, not some future world, there can be no “salvation” – however one defines salvation – unless it is for all of us.  Ultimately, there can be no clean air and water here for those of us who can afford it if there is no clean air and water there for everyone else.  We can try to compartmentalize it, we can try to build "gated communities", but ultimately that’s futile.    We are all in this together.

Lastly, there is one more illusion of separation that we must overcome.  Some of us tend to view spirituality as separate from justice.  We do our meditation or we contemplate a pristine vista and we consider that "spiritual."  And then we come back to the grimy city in order to do "justice."  We need to understand that doing the work of justice is spiritual work. The two are interdependent.

The word "religion" comes from the Latin, religare, to bind together.  Religion, and in particular our religion of Unitarian Universalism calls us to live whole, integrated lives.  On this Earth Day and every day.

When a Divine Spark Goes Dark

We were talking about yesterday's shootings at Virginia Tech in the office today. Over 30 people killed. Worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history. Shades of Columbine. Someone mentioned Kent State.  For me, what came to mind was stories of a guy in a clock tower in Austin TX.

It is a credit to my UU colleagues that while we expressed great sorrow for those killed, and especially for those left behind to grieve the loss, none of us vilified the shooter. No talk of evil, etc.

Still... I wonder... what makes a person want to kill a bunch of people that he doesn't know?

I am grappling with our belief in inherent worth and that each of us carries a spark of the Divine.  How can divinity wreak such evil?

Not long ago in church I tried to expand upon the analogy of the flame - our divine spark, our inner chalice.  Fire needs fuel to grow - it needs connection.  The easiest way to extinguish a flame is to cover it, isolate it from the oxygen around.  Even when battling large forest fires, where it would be impossible to cover or isolate from oxygen, the strategy is to dig fire lines and otherwise isolate the flames to keep them from spreading.  In isolation a flame dies.

In social isolation our divine spark dies as well.

That still doesn't explain why one would kill so many others.  When one is so isolated from the rest of divinity, suicide is understandable but why violence towards others?  Even in the dementia that comes from rage and desperation, there is still a kind of rationale, even if it only makes sense to the killer.  To think otherwise is to deny that person's worth.  What did the shooter hope to attain by his actions?

The only answer that I can think of comes from the amazing movie Crash.  In it a character describes feeling so socially isolated that one might intentionally crash into another just to feel the connection.  For one brief moment, as he was impacting the lives of others in the biggest way possible, did he feel more alive?

Know Your Values and Frame the Debate

based on 1 Samuel 15:10 - 16:8

The word of the Lord came to Samuel: "I repent of having made George W Bush President of the United States of America, for he has turned his back on me and has not obeyed my commands. The world has changed so much that I can no longer take care of Israel alone. I must care for all my creation. Since the U.S. is the most powerful nation, what its leadership does is critical for me."

Samuel was angry; all night he cried to the Lord: "I know that George thinks he is doing what you have commanded. He has prayed to you often. He was elected by citizens of that country who also pray to you often. Also, he's done a whole lot for Israel. Can't you support him instead of letting him down?"

But by morning, Samuel had overcome his anger and went to meet George. Samuel said to him, "Time was when you thought little of yourself, but now you are head of the United States, and the leader, in effect, of the world. The Lord sent you with strict instructions to Iraq. Why did you pounce upon the spoil and do what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord?"

George answered Samuel, "But I did obey the Lord; I went where the Lord sent me, and I have captured Husein, the former leader of Iraq. A new democratic government is in process there. Of course there are some things we still have to do there, not least of which is establishing a permanent base so we and others will have access to their oil. But surely the Lord will not begrudge us that after all the sacrifices we have made in order to establish our presence there."

Samuel said, "Does the Lord desire sacrifices as he desires obedience? Listening to him and obedience is better than sacrifice. Defiance of him is sinful, arrogance is evil. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, the Lord has rejected you as President of the United States of America. The Lord is no longer caring for Israel alone. He is caring for all of his creation. The spoilage of war ‹ the terrible harm to the environment ‹ the deaths of so many people, the failure to find a way beforehand through the United Nations -- an institution which the Lord hoped would lead the way to more justice and compassion ‹ all matter greatly to the Lord."

He turned to go, but George caught the edge of his suit and it tore. And Samuel said to him, "the Lord has torn the United States of America from your hand today and will give it to another, a better man or woman than you." George went back to the White House and Samuel went home. He never saw George again to his dying day, but he mourned for him. The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for George because I have rejected him as president of the United States? I am sending you to seek out two people who will help me decide whom to choose to be the next president. Remember that the Lord does not see as man sees; men judge by appearances but the Lord judges by the heart."

"First, talk with Bill Moyers, a recently retired journalist who knows a great deal about why so many followers of George don't seem to care that the earth I created is being despoiled. He said recently, "We must match the science of human health to what the ancient Israelites called hochma ‹ the science of the heart, the capacity to see and feel and then to act as if the future depended on us. Believe me, it does."

"Then look up George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist who has published a best-selling book that ought to help people who did not support George Bush re-frame the political debate. That way the man or woman I choose to be the next president can be elected.'*

*The title of Lakoff's book: "don't think of an elephant! KNOW YOUR VALUES AND FRAME THE DEBATE" 2004 Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction Vermont $10


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative