Reflections on the Jewel Net

"Thank You For Your Service"

Sometimes if feels like the Universe or Spirit (one and the same) is sending you a message. Or maybe it’s just a coincidence that allows you to see a pattern that seems meaningful. Whatever it is, I had such an experience yesterday, after Sunday worship service.


It started with a conversation about Christianity, and how it shifted from its early form emphasizing life to one emphasizing death. Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock detail this shift in their book “Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire.” The symbol for the early Christian Church was a simple cross, not crucifix. And the artwork adorning first century Christian churches contain no images of Jesus’s torturous death, only that of his life healing the sick and feeding the hungry, and images of him as the risen Christ. In other words, the iconography (and theology) focused on life.


So what happened to change the focus? Well in short, Pope Urban II had declared a crusade (the first) against the “heathens” who controlled the Holy Land, the birthplace of Christianity. And the crusade wasn’t going well partly because there weren’t enough Christians in Europe willing to go to war and die in a foreign land. He needed willing soldiers. So he declared that anyone who joined the crusade would be absolved of all their sins. With that, the idea that suffering is redemptive took root and grew. Instead of depictions of a living Jesus, the Church put forth depictions of his bloody crucifixion. Over time, the representations became more and more gruesome, culminating in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (I still have not seen that movie.) Instead of living to love and serve others, saints became martyrs. And the more they were tortured before death, the greater their devotion to God.

Such was the shift in theology in the eleventh century because Rome needed people who were willing to fight and die for empire. The shift did not happen overnight, but rather was gradual, might even have seemed “natural” at the time, but nevertheless it happened.

Shortly after that conversation about the shift in Christianity ended, I talked with a different member of UUSF about the anniversary of Armistice Day. For those of you who don’t know, what we now observe as Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of World War One. In accordance with the signed agreement, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, fighting ceased. (Soldiers actually continued shooting and bombing until 10:59 and then stopped a minute later. How weird is that?) At the time, WWI was thought to be the war to end all wars. There was the belief that its end was the beginning of a lasting peace, and Armistice Day was the celebration of that peace. It remained a somber yet hopeful holiday for many years, but obviously did not stay that way.


In 1954, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day. Part of the motivation for the change is understandable - WWI did not end all wars. We had had WWII and the Korean War, and we were about to enter the Vietnam War. So people wanted a day that would honor all veterans, not just those of WWI. But since the name change, Veterans Day has shifted from a somber hope for peace, to the flag-waving, military-parading, glorification of war.


Experiencing the two conversations so close to each other, I could see that it was the same pattern. (It’s not the first time that I’ve seen that the United States is the heir to the Roman Empire.) Washington needs soldiers to fight in its endless wars, and the way to make citizens willing to fight and die in foreign lands is to lift it up as the ideal.  Instead of paintings of Saint Lucy with her eyes gouged out or Saint Sebastian with a chest full of arrows, our televisions show us images of veterans missing arms and legs while flags wave and patriotic music swells in the background.


I want to be clear here that I do NOT want to return to the days during and after Vietnam, when those who answered the call to serve in our armed forces were spat upon and shunned. The willingness to serve our country - ie, our greater community - is noble, and recognition and gratitude are appropriate. What I object to is the shift from hope for peace to glorification of war. On Veterans Day now, we tell veterans “Thank you for your service,” but we (collectively) do nothing to make their sacrifice less required. Nothing to lessen war. For the sake of empire, we emphasize suffering and death over love and life.


No Use For Pretentious

I've decided that one word that I no longer have any use for is "pretentious." I used to think I knew what it meant. The dictionary says it's someone pretending to be more intelligent and/or cultured than they actually are. But I've heard so many people use the word against others for things that I personally did not find to be pretentious. I realized that the speaker was creating in their minds a whole negative backstory as to the motivation of the person they were judging, that may or may not be true. And that of course made me wonder how often I'd done the same thing to others.

Yes, so someone calls those mountains the Hi-MA-li-ahs, instead of the Hi-ma-LAY-ahs, and that sounds weird to you. But it isn't necessarily pretentious. That is, they may not be trying to sound more cultured than they are. They may be trying to be respectful to the culture of others, or have some personal connection to that pronunciation. The same with Ha-vah-ee and other words I cannot think of at the moment.

If someone wears an item of clothing or uses an accessory that is different from "the norm" that doesn't necessarily mean they're being pretentious. It may have personal significance to them, or give them confidence, or hell, they may just like it! It may not ever have occurred to them that someone else would look at it and judge that they were pretending to be other than they are.

I know that the word "pretentious" does have meaning. Like, if someone removes their People magazine from the coffee table and replaces it with Granta just before company comes over, that is pretentious. But the vast majority of the time that I've seen the word used, it's been far less clear.The thing about "pretentious" is that it's about the intent, not the action. And it's rare when we truly know the intent of someone's actions. When people do things that we consider to be "normal" we don't question their intent. It's only when they do something that is different from what we're accustomed to that we speculate and almost always (it seems) come up with a negative motivation. So the majority of the time when someone calls someone else pretentious, what they're really doing is talking about themselves. They're saying is "I'm not used to that and think it's strange."

Symbolic Suicide

Normally I put rituals in another section, not the blog, but this particular one needs explanation. It feels like it would be irresponsible to post it without context and caveats.

Many of us are reeling from the news that Anthony Bourdain killed himself last night, after years of struggling with mental illness. There has been a lot of discussion on social media about depression, how it manifests, and whether suicide is a choice. And there have been hard feelings over disagreements. For many of us, it's personal, it makes us vulnerable, and it's raw.  I strongly believe that what we call "depression" is most likely several different illnesses - with different causes and thus different treatments - that we've grouped together based on similar symptoms because we don't understand them well enough to differentiate. That is why SSRIs provide blessed relief to some people whereas they make me feel like I want to claw my skin open and crawl out of my body.  That is why some of us feel like we chose against suicide over and over whereas other folks insist that when one ends one's life it's not a choice.  And that's why it isn't useful - could be potentially harmful even - to insist to others that one's own experiences are the way it is for everyone.

So I can only speak for myself. That I've suffered from depression since at least sixth grade. That in high school I thought about suicide pretty much every day.  That the thing that kept me going was a sense of duty to others.  That self-loathing and suicidal impulses continued through college.  And that gradually, over time, things got better. I still get depressed, but no longer think of suicide.  There is research that shows that the symptoms of depression lessen with age, whether that's due to change in brain chemistry or having learned coping mechanisms or both. 

This is not to claim that it gets better for everyone, or to deny that some people suffer experiences later in life that result in severe depression and/or crisis. Clearly Anthony Bourdain, who was 61, still found the suffering unbearable.  Kate Spade was 55.  So I'm not claiming that just because things got easier for me, they will for everyone; nor can I guarantee that things will get easier for you, if you are struggling right now.  But you are the reason why I am writing this, just in case it helps. I want you to know that for many people, depression does lessen with age. The pain eases and you learn how to better manage the pain you still have. The trick is to help you survive long enough to get to that point. And this is where I'm hoping one of the coping mechanisms I developed in college might help. I recognize that not everyone may think of suicide for the same reasons. For example, this ritual will likely not help you if you are facing bullying or other acute external forces. But I'm hoping that the thing that helped me survive may help some of you in similar situations. I hope it doesn't harm. Well, here goes:

For me, the desire to kill myself stemmed from thoughts that I was such a failure, so damaged, impossible to fix, hopeless. What I longed for was a "reset" button, a chance to start over. But I knew I couldn't do that. Still, I needed to do something to release the urge. That is how I developed what I called "ritual suicide." Or symbolic suicide. You don't really kill youself, but perform a ritual to kill off that part of you that you despise. Give yourself the chance to start over. 

Symbolic Suicide 

Time: Ideally late evening, or just before you'd normally sleep.

Advance preparation: Pick your "poison." For the sake of ritual power, pick foods that you normally do not eat. When I was in college I was very health conscious (much more so than I am now), so my "poisons" were diet Dr. Pepper and Twinkies.  

Step one: Cleanse. Take a nice long hot bath. Light candles, use special bath salts, whatever makes the experience feel more special. Transitions usually involve cleansing. You want to go into your new life free of the dirt of the old.

Step two: Suicide. Consume the "poisons" that you've prepared. 

Step three: Sleep. Tell yourself as you lay down, that you're not just sleeping. That as you sleep, the poisons that you just ingested will work in your body through the night, killing off those parts of you that you detest. And that when morning comes, you will wake up a new person, able to make a fresh start. 

Coming of Age, UU Style

This past Sunday, our congregation had its annual Coming of Age worship service. I've been thinking about this since Sunday, and have hesitated to make a big deal out of it because: 1) there is so much other painful stuff going on right now; and 2) I suspect that this will hurt some people, including people I care about. But I'm going to talk about it anyway, because things keep calling me back to it.

Let me start by saying that I am all for rites of passage, communal rituals that mark changes in our lives. In fact, I think UUism should have more of them.  That is why I attended our congregation's annual Coming of Age worship service, even though I suspected that I would be squirming in my seat for the same reasons that I've squirmed during previous ones I've attended.  I've been a member of two congregations, and the annual Coming of Age worship service has essentially been the same in both, so I infer that both congregations are following some kind of curriculum/blueprint that is either association-wide or at least prevalent. I don't know what the curriculum is leading up to the annual service - having never taught (non-adult) RE - and some people might argue that means I don't have the right to be critical. But I would argue that an outsider can see things that people enmeshed on the inside cannot.

In every Coming of Age service I've attended, the youth (who are always great! - this is in no way a knock against them!) each present a short homily on what it is that they believe, and within that statement of belief there is almost always a mention of whether they believe in God (yes, no, or I don't know). And more often than not there is reference to having learned about other religions and a compare-and-contrast about what elements they liked.

I squirm for so many reasons. For one thing, I do not care whether or not you (proverbial you) believe in God, whether you are an adult or a youth. Why do we teach our kids that this is the most important question to ask themselves?! (That was rhetorical. I know that this is a fixation of North American and Western European liberals.)  Whether or not you believe in God or gods has no bearing on what kind of person you will be; it's what you believe that God/those gods call you to do that shapes your behavior.  So tell me about what you're going to do with your beliefs. *IF* you believe in God or gods, what do they inspire you to be like? If you don't believe, what are you inspired to be like? 

For another thing, it is good to learn about and appreciate other religions. Orders of magnitude better than remaining ignorant and suspicious about them. But the impression I get - and I can see this happening so easily given the UU emphasis on "deciding for yourself" - is that it's almost like going shopping. "I've looked at all the religions, but none of them really fit my needs." Or "I like the generosity of Islam and the compassion of Buddhism and the earth-centeredness of Paganism and the..."  Religion is not a product, like laundry detergent, where we read the ingredients and claims of various brands and then decide which one we like best. That's a consumerist mentality into which we've all been indoctrinated. It's also a colonial mentality, to think of different cultures as just things that we can adopt to suit our needs and tastes.

And third, while I heard a lot of appreciation for the congregation being an accepting place that allows spiritual exploration, what I did not hear was a sense of belonging, a sense of UU identity. Personal statements of belief are very individualistic things.

Again, I'm not criticizing the youth - they did a great job with the material they were given. (And if they think of our UU congregation as a safe place from which to explore other religions, well that's our fault, not theirs.) Nor am I criticizing the teachers. Hell, I'm not really criticizing anybody. I used to do all of the above. I used to think answering whether I believe in God or not was important. I used to compare and contrast the positives and negatives of different religions to try to decide which one to choose.  These are the waters into which we've all been inculturated.  I squirm in my seat in recognition and alarm that we're training/indoctrinating another generation to make the same mistakes.

Ironically, it was becoming a UU, along with studying religion at Georgetown, that turned me around.  It was committing to a religious community that helped me to realize that community is more important than individual beliefs.  After doing a survey of different religions and not finding any that matched my exact criteria, I settled on UUism as the "least bad" of all the options.  "At least," I thought to myself, that since UUism has no dogma, "there would never be anything in it to offend me."  Boy, was I wrong!  But having made a commitment to UUism I learned to stay even when things are said that offend me, even when there is difference of belief.  

Within our congregations we have Christians and atheists, Jews and Buddhists, Pagans and Muslims, Hindus and just plain UUs with no other religious identity. We of all people should know that it's not a set of beliefs that makes a religion.  Through interfaith work that I did as a UU, I have met atheist Christians who claim the Christian identity as part of the culture that they were born into and the community that they continue to be in covenant with, evn if they don't share certain core beliefs.  It was also through UUism and our ongoing racial justice work that I came to see that culture permeates religion.  (UUism is White Anglo-Saxxon Protestant in culture, regardless of how many athiests and/or Pagans sit in our pews.)  Religion isn't just a set of beliefs. It's culture. And it's community. Figuring out what it is that you personally believe is important, but equally important is a sense of UU identity - a connection to the larger tradition and to the community.

Again, I am all for rites of passage, communal rituals that mark changes in our lives. I think UUism should have more of them. But is this really is how we want to mark coming of age for our youth - to stand in front of the congregation and make a statement about individual beliefs.  Admittedly, the program does a good job of enculturating them into the the dominant UU white culture, which emphasizes individualism and intellectualism.  But is this really what we most value? Is this what we want to teach our kids to value?  Can we envision a different coming of age program that instills a deeper sense of UU identity?  What if, instead of asking each youth to write about what they personally believe we asked them to write about what they see for the future of UUism, what role they play in it, and what role UUism plays in the world?  

Story is Memory

How many of y'all here have been to Disneyland?

The first time I visited I must have been four, because my baby brother was literally still a baby in our mother's arms. It was Christmas time, as the Magic Kingdom looked especially magical decked out in holiday lights. Mom used to tell me that my favorite attraction was the General Electric-sponsored animatronic family in Tomorrowland that I made us watch three times. But I barely remembered that. The ride I remembered best and could recreate scene by scene in my mind as if I were riding it again, was the Pirates of the Caribbean. Do you remember that ride?

I remembered how we got on boats that moved along rails in the water, how we wrapped around a little island with a pile of shiny treasure, how we slowly approached a scary talking skull and crossbones, and then dropped, down into a dark cave with the cold wind rushing past my face – terrifying! – how at the end of the drop we passed some pirates locked in a cage trying to lure a dog with keys in its mouth. And how, after going along another dark bend, the ride opened up into a huge, bright space. A ballroom with lords and ladies in fancy dress spinning together in circles as an organ plays. Do you remember that?

I sincerely hope that no one said 'yes' because the ride I just described never existed, except in my mind. Which is not to say that I made it up out of nothing. Rather, as I learned when I visited Disneyland again in my 20s, what I remembered was parts from two different rides – the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean and a latter part of the Haunted Mansion – and my mind had fused them together to make one memory, which I would have sworn is how I experienced it.

This is, in fact, how memory works. Our brains recall only bits and pieces – who knows why some and not others, altho we can guess - and our minds automatically stitch them together, sometimes inventing new images to fill in blanks, sometimes altering events slightly such that it makes more sense to us. In short, we create a story of the events that is more or less based on reality, filtered by our personal perspective. And that story takes on its own reality.

If our memories that we have while still alive are already so altered, imagine what happens over generations to the stories passed down. To the stories that we tell as our collective memories.

Like the one about a baby laid in a manger, because there was no room at the inn. of whom angels sang, which scared some shepherds. did it happen? was it exaggerated? was it all made up? I'm sure we all have our opinions on this. But most of us here are likely familiar with this story, which gets repeated on this day in congregations and households across the world. A collective memory, that is also altered by personal perspective.

For example, as I heard Rev Dorsey Blake over at Fellowship Church preach about it one year, if Mary and Joseph were wealthy, you can bet that there'd have been room for them in that inn. To Rev Blake and others, the most salient part of the story is that Jesus was born poor. Others, especially from immigrant communities, focus on the part where Joseph and Mary go door-to-door seeking refuge, only to be turned away repeatedly until that last inn. And some congregations focus on the heavenly host singing their adoration to a newborn king.

Each one of these versions adds something extra to fill in blanks, or alters things slightly to make more sense to their perspective. (As the biblical writers likely did too.) The version that we tell reinforces our own perspective and passes it down to the next generation.

A popular Broadway show asks, “who tells your story?” If we don't tell our stories, then we let others tell them for us. We let others shape our future collective memories and realities. So tell your stories – your personal ones, your family ones, and our collective ones. Tell them in your own way, but tell them, because story is how we remember.

The Social (In)Justice of Thermostat Settings

San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area experienced an historic heatwave this weekend, with recorded temperatures in the city exceeding 100 degrees two days in a row. To give you some context, up until this week there had only been ten 100 degree or more days since 1904. That's only ten 100 degree or more days in 113 years. Because San Francisco so rarely gets hot, most houses do not have air conditioning. In the surrounding areas, temps average 10-20 degrees higher so some homes do have AC while others do not.

The thing is, air conditioning requires power. And so long as our energy comes from fossil fuels, running the AC burns more fossil fuels, which increases global warming, which results in hotter temperatures, which causes more people and businesses to run air-conditioners, which use more fossil fuels, which will make the temps even hotter....

Yesterday, someone was telling me how their friends keep their house at 60 degrees even when they're not home so that the cat will be comfortable, and I nearly cried. I stopped myself so that my friend wouldn't feel uncomfortable, but maybe I should have wept. Who knows? Maybe I should have pitched a fit and been the stereotypical "environmentalist."

I'm not opposed to air conditioning.  I totally understand that when the mercury exceeds a certain temperature, cooling becomes a necessity, not a luxury. The single biggest weather-related killer isn't hurricanes or tornadoes, it's heat. When the temperature exceeds a certain point, people die. Children, the elderly, and the infirm die quicker. As for the rest of us, even if our lives are not at risk, we still suffer.  So I am not opposed to air conditioning at all. If we had had AC in the house on Friday and Saturday, I would have used it.

But access to air conditioning depends on your economic situation. The wealthy can apparently cool an entire house to 60 degrees so that the cat is comfortable. Others make due with fans and lots of ice cold drinks, as my family did. And still others do not have access even to fans and refrigeration. All throughout the heat wave, I kept thinking about people on the streets without shelter. Concrete and asphalt absorb and radiate heat, raising the temps even higher. How did they survive? If some folks died, would the news even bother reporting it?

Buddhists and Unitarian Universalists alike, as well as others, affirm the reality of interdependency.  Interdependency means that the thermostat in your house (should you be fortunate enough to have one) is connected to the power plant which is connected to greenhouse gases which is connected to extreme weather in many places which is connected to the people sitting in the shelters and to the people sitting on the baking concrete sidewalks asking for money.  In other words, the temperature at which you decide to set the thermostat is not just a personal choice.  It affects others.  (There are other interdependent connections too, like who suffers to acquire and burn the fossil fuels that power your house.)  And whether or not you can pay your electric bill is not the only consideration of a responsible person.  

Climate change is a social justice issue.  Its effects impact the poor (who tend also to hold other marginalized identities) much more severely than the rich. The rich (and the middle-class) can shelter themselves from the impact of climate change... by more easily evacuating areas overcome by flood and wildfires, by more easily replacing possessions lost to flood and fire, by moving, by running the air-conditioning. And the rich (and middle-class) disproportionately engage in behaviors that accelerate climate change, making life even more miserable for the poor.

Thriving In Difficult Times

When Mom was diagnosed with a virulent cancer in 2009, I took a leave from my job with the UUA in DC to come back to San Francisco where my parents still lived, and watched helplessly while the cancer tortured and killed her over the course of seven weeks.

Shortly after the funeral I was weeding the yard, and I noticed that a plant was growing from underneath the building. Somehow, against the odds, a seed had landed through one of the small holes of a ventilation grate, taken root under what I imagine are not hospitable conditions, and then sent a stalk back through the grate to reach the life-giving sunlight.

After returning to DC in June that year, the worst accident in the history of the DC metro happened at the station nearest my house. Nine people died and scores more were injured. By the time I got to the station it was twilight. To my left, the lights of emergency vehicles flashed surreally in the growing dark. Turning and walking the other direction, dozens, maybe hundreds of fireflies flashed gently on green lawns, lighting my way home.

When Mom died so quickly and horribly, the world as I knew it ended. And yet it didn’t. I felt like the world should have stopped spinning and faded to black - and yet... the sun still shone, birds still sang, and fireflies still lit up summer nights.

A couple of weekends ago a fellow climate change activist exclaimed in despair, “The world has never faced a crisis like this before!” I’m not sure how convincing my response was to her then, or how it will be to you now, but what I tried to reassure her was that while the world may have never faced human-made climate change before, the world HAS faced crises LIKE it before. Humanity has suffered and survived global plagues and world wars that killed tens of millions and displaced many millions more, my parents included. I would not be here were it not for such a crisis. We are currently in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction and it is going to get a lot worse. But the fact that we’re in the middle of the sixth means that there have been five others before, and the world survived. Moreover, had there not been five mass extinctions before we humans would not be here today.

Changing climate patterns will and already have created new niches, which living beings will fill in ways that we cannot predict, for worse AND for better. As Buddhism recognizes, all that exists is the result of causes and conditions. Under changing conditions, creative, new ways of being will come into existence. New behaviors. New species.

To be clear, I am NOT saying that everything is going to be hunkydory so we don’t need to do anything, or that global upheaval is “all for the best” because it will provide new opportunities, or any other Pollyannaish nonsense. To talk like that ignores that tens of millions of people died in those plagues and wars. That among humans who suffer and die, it is more often people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups. That even tho living species including us will adapt, the conditions may change so fast that we won’t be able to keep up. So many have already succumbed.

I am NOT saying that everything will be ok. That would be a lie. But if history and biology can be our guide, SOME things will be ok. Something will survive, and hopefully thrive again. What the weed growing from under the building taught me was that while any one life is incredibly fragile LIFE as a whole, LIFE as a communal web is incredibly resilient. What the fireflies taught me was that even in the face of great loss and sorrow, joy and beauty still exist along side.

We are in the midst of a great deal of turmoil, ecologically, socially, economically, and politically. Y'all know what I'm talking about. And many of us have our private crises not known to all. You also already know that the future of the world depends on what we do right now. I don't need to remind you of that. What I’d like to add is that the quality of our lives right now also depends on how we react. It is ok to smile at beauty even when you’re grieving, if you want to. (Obviously, if you don't want to that's ok too.) It is ok to do things that bring you joy even in the midst of turmoil. In fact, that's probably the only way we're going to get thru this. Have faith that while the world needs you to act, it also needs you to care for yourself too and to enjoy the gift of your one precious life.

Revisiting Ethics 101

When I was in college I double-majored in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, which meant the vast majority of my classes were in or related to those areas. Berkeley required me to take a few humanities courses in the hopes that they would make me a well-rounded person, but the young, earnest me filled those breadth requirements with classes on Logic, "Eastern Philosophy," and Art (painting). I wanted all my classes to be "useful." Utilitarian, if you will. Bottom line, I did not have a liberal arts education.[1]

That is, not until many years later, after I left science and went back to school at Georgetown, and there early on took my first ethics class. If you've taken an ethics class from a Euro perspective, you probably know what we studied. It was a comparison between Kant and Mills. The categorical imperative versus utilitarianism. Coming fresh from science, my preference was strongly for utilitarianism. Reductionist. Materialist. RATIONAL. I had NO USE for this Kant dude. He seemed to me an ideologue, making unfounded claims and demanding purity.

The reason why I bring this up is because these past few days post-GA I've been saying, and agreeing with others who've been saying, that people are more important than rules. Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around. This is not a new claim. What's new to me is connecting this to the understanding that many UUs are still operating under an Enlightenment world view. They want to be able to articulate universal governing rules whereby we interact with the least harm. "Do we say Native American or American Indian?" "Do we say people with disabilities or disabled people?" Wanting to know the correct answers, and then once those answers are "known" wanting to impose them on everyone in the belief that if they are true then they are true for everyone. This approach is materialist, reductionist, rational...

The intent - wanting to do the least harm - is good, but it's this idea that people are objects (not subjects) that can be studied and then described in simple rules that is harmful. Heck, even in basic science when we are studying objects there are always outliers, always exceptions to the rule. We ignore those outliers in favor of being able to draw a line. And that is usually ok and even highly useful. But when it comes to interacting with *people*, we can't just ignore a differences and try to fit them to the line. Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around. People are Martin Buber's "thou." People are sacred.

I realized that over the subsequent years, that even though Kant didn't phrase it that way I've switched from a more utilitarian outlook to a more Kantian. And that realization was amusing. Which is NOT to say that I am now a proponent of Kantian ethics. Seriously, there are more ethical systems than just what was thought of by these two Euro men. (And yes, I would still kill one person in order to save a hundred people, if I'd exhausted all other possibilities and those were the only two open to me, Kant be damned.)  It's just to say that, without even noticing it as it happened, my shift in worldview has been profound.  Rules are created to serve people, not the other way around.

[1] To this day, if someone starts talking about Foucault or Derrida, I look at them as if they're from another planet.

The Pure Land on Earth












I've mentioned before that my family is what I call Chinese Buddhist - a mixture of Zen, Pure Land, and indigenous traditions. Most of you likely know about Zen, but you might not have heard of Pure Land.

The ultimate goal is still nirvana, as it is with all Buddhism, but Pure Land adherents believe in the existence of a Western paradise, created by the beneficence of the Amitabha Buddha. If one is fortunate enough to be reborn into this place of bliss, free from the distractions of suffering, one will easily attain nirvana. And one becomes so fortunate by praying to Amitabha for help. In his compassion for our suffering, he intervenes when we would not have made it by ourselves. One could call it grace.

And one can see why this flavor of Buddhism gained traction in China, particularly among the laboring class who struggled to feed their families. Pure Land says that 1) you are not alone - there is help, and 2) while conditions may be too difficult to attain nirvana now, there will be a time in the future,  when we’re in the Western Pure Land, when things will be good.

Contrast that with Zen where we are taught that we are all already Buddhas; we just need to remember it, to wake up, which can happen at any instant. Enlightenment is right here and now.

Zen and Pure Land might seem at odds with each other, and yet both exist in Chinese Buddhism for people to draw upon.

Last Sunday was Easter, which in traditional Christianity is thought of as the remedy for the Fall of humanity in the story of Eden. Adam and Eve, who represent us, lived in paradise, which was lost when they transgressed. Due to Jesus intervening for us, many Christians look forward to regaining paradise, heaven, in the future.

Now, most UUs would probably reject the idea of a Western Pure Land as most reject the idea of heaven. We Unitarians are known for focusing our attentions on this life and the needs of this world. As a dying Henry David Thoreau famously quipped when asked if he could see what's next, “One world at a time.”

And that is my take too. To me, the bodhisattva's vow to not cross over until every sentient being is free is a call to social action. Because the world is full of hardships that distract people from being able to attain enlightenment, we need to remove those hardships - such as racism, poverty, war, and environmental destruction - so that people have the space to practice. We need to create the Pure Land on earth, otherwise known as what Rev Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community.

It was this desire to create a better world that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the EPA, and passing of key environmental legislation to protect our air, water, land, and sibling species. This life, this world.

Yet recently I've realized that even though my focus is in this world, I've still been holding onto a notion of a future mythic paradise. Perhaps you are too. Not a paradise in an afterlife, no, but when I think of the Beloved Community or the Pure Land on earth, I catch myself thinking of the future, not the present. A future where humans live in harmony with each other and with Mother Earth, and all beings have enough. We just need to keep working, keep educating, keep advocating for change until we achieve it.

I call this a mythic paradise because in my more rational moments I realize that such a future cannot exist. Not as a steady state. To think that someday we’ll live in a utopia with no more social ills is a belief with little more basis in reality than belief in heaven or a Pure Land.  I'm not saying that we can't succeed in fighting climate change and racism, etc. I believe that we can and will prevail. But even as those social issues are resolved, others will arise. The work will always be ongoing.  That's just the nature of things.  Eden didn't “fall” because of some moral failing in humanity. “The Fall' was inevitable because change is inevitable. Because we are conditioned beings subject to impermanence. Because, entropy.

So, if the Beloved Community, or the Pure Land on earth, isn’t a state that can be achieved, one might despair and ask what’s the point? Well, aside from the fact that without the efforts of people who care things would be worse, there is this. In Chinese Buddhism there is both Pure Land and Zen.  Pure Land says enlightenment will happen in the future, and Zen says that enlightenment is right here and now for us to see.  We work for a better future, as our ancestors did for us, AND, every time we meet the Other with loving kindness, we create the Beloved Community at that moment. The Pure Land, paradise, already exists here and now, created by us over and over again.

Left-Wing Credentials

I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. I’m also aware that often times the things that peeve us do so because they remind us of something we don’t like about ourselves.

One of my pet peeves is that every time there is a story about a conservative who has had a change of heart because of personal experience — whether it’s someone who initially opposed Obamacare until they got sick, or someone who was trans/homophobic until they learned their child is trans/gay — every time there is a story like that, a lefty inevitably snarks about how the person should have known better in the first place.

My question is: Do you really think that you are an *inherently* better person? That if you had grown up in a conservative environment, been taught by your parents and teachers/clergy and everyone around you that there is only one way to be, gender/orientation-wise, and that big govt was not to be trusted… are you certain that despite all that you would have inherently known in your heart a better path? Because I’m not at all certain what I would be like if I’d grown up under different circumstances and had different experiences. True, there were times when I was taught hate and either immediately rejected it or eventually did, but I always had counter examples from which to draw. I’m not saying that there are no people in existence who would always reject exclusion and self-interest. But I question whether the majority of us on the left would have the same values had we been enculturated differently.

From my perspective, this idea that some folks are inherently “good” while others are inferior sounds a lot like the Calvinist theology I was taught in middle school and which so many lefties vociferously reject. From a Buddhist perspective, which is echoed in the UU 7th principle and backed by science, people are the result of a complex combination of a great number of things, including genetics, enculturation, and individual experiences. Even if you were born with a greater tendency towards empathy and altruism, that is the result of genetics - a gift from your parents and ancestors before them - not something that you “earned” yourself. And if you were taught to value diversity, that too was a gift from your community around you. Or if you learned from personal experience — whether because you’re a person of color, LGBTQ, religious minority, or have a disability — that it hurts to be discriminated against so you vowed not to do it to others, that was due to your personal experience. It is no different for the conservative mom who learned to respect trans people only after the personal experience of having a trans son. She just gained that personal experience later in life. And isn’t it wonderful that she was able to change? Because we know that countless other parents would instead disown their children.

Obviously, I don’t know anyone else’s heart except my own (and even then we often deceive ourselves). Maybe the folks who disparage people who didn’t “see the light” earlier truly are inherently superior and would have held the “correct” positions no matter what circumstances they grew up in. Maybe the snarky comments only bother me because I’m not as certain about my own goodness. Otoh, maybe people make snarky comments because the people who’ve had a change of heart later in life remind them of what they easily could have been like under different circumstances.


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