Buddhism Offers Unitarian Universalists
by Doug Kraft
Universalist Society of Sacramento, CA
October 22, 2000
are six months old. Your dad places an attractive ball next to you. You try to
grasp it. But just before you touch the toy, your dad slips it into a fold in
the blanket. You turn away as if the ball never existed. All you have to do is
reach under the blanket, but at this age, out of sight is literally out of mind.
You do not have "object constancy." This is to say, you do not have
the capacity to hold a mental representation of the ball. If you cannot see it,
it might as well not exist. If the toy is then exposed, you might reach for it
again. If it is covered a second time, you turn away. You are "perceptually
seduced." Your responses to the world are reflexive and sense driven. Delight
in playing "peek-a-boo" may come from seeing people vanish from the
universe and magically re-materialize. (1)
When you are a little older, you
develop object constancy. It is a thrilling discovery. You throw crackers and
cups of juice off the high chair tray for the sheer joy of watching them disappear.
Then, leaning over and looking at the floor, joy of joys, there they are just
where you predicted! Parents are usually less enthusiastic about these young scientific
Now imagine that you are six years old. You can maintain
an inner representation of the world around you. You even enjoy drawing pictures
of what you've seen.
But the pictures in your mind are concrete and perceptually
based. For example, imagine sitting in front of a model. It has trees, mountains
and a little plastic rabbit. Your mom sits on the opposite side. She asks you
to draw the scene as it looks to her. You can't do it. You draw what you see,
not what she sees. If the rabbit is on your left but on her right, you draw it
on the left because that is how it looks to you. Before the age of seven, we do
not have the cognitive ability to picture things from a perspective different
from our own. (2)
During the middle and late childhood years, we develop
the capacity to take other people's points of view when dealing with concrete
situations. We can draw a picture of what it might look like from another's perspective.
We can mentally turn the model around in our head, if you will. But it is not
until early adolescence that we can do this in less concrete situations.
we reach the age of eleven or twelve, the capacity for formal abstract thinking
starts to emerge. As adolescents, we can think about more than just the world
we see. We can speculate about what could be. We become concerned not just with
what is real, but with what is possible. We can lie awake at night and dream and
philosophize with depth and breadth. In the proper setting, we delight in imagining
a better world just as much as toddlers enjoy making their apple sauce disappear
off the plate and reappear on the carpet.
Reason has always been
very important to Unitarian Universalists. The use of reason in religion is one
of the defining characteristics of our movement. But what exactly is it?
is a complex ability that takes years to develop. I've described just a few of
the many stages of maturation. But at it's core, reason is the capacity to take
someone else's perspective. It is the ability to picture the world from different
vantages. A reasonable person has to be able to consider views other than his
own. A scientist, for example, has to be able to come up with several different
models of some aspect of the world. Then he devises tests to see which model is
accurate. A tribal chieftain may have to consider conflicting views of several
people before arriving at a decision. This may require very sophisticated thinking.
you can't tolerate opinions that differ from your own, you can't do this. You
can't be reasonable. This is why we Unitarian Universalists feel so strongly about
tolerance and diversity as well as reason.
When we look at the world today,
we see an up-welling of pre-rational thinking. Fundamentalism is on the rise.
Fundamentalist beliefs are often pre-logical superstition. Some aspects of the
New Age lapses into pre-rational magical thinking. In government, politicians
are less and less willing to consider views different from their own.
Univeralist insistence on reason, tolerance and diversity is very important. Without
them, religion becomes shallow, non-sensical and sometimes dangerous. It becomes
the basis for ethnic cleansing, violence and indifference to the suffering around
But is reason enough? Is rational thought the best we
can do? If we want greater depth, is formal scientific thinking as deep as it
goes? Are there ways of using the mind/body/spirit that go beyond reason?
we ask the contemplative traditions or if we look at the research on human potential,
the answer is clear, unequivocal and emphatic. Reason is the mid-point, not the
pinnacle of human development. Rational thought process is the foundation of genuine
spirituality, but not the edifice. It is where real religion begins, not where
it arrives. If we want depth in life, we have to appreciate both the importance
of reason and its limitations. We must cultivate trans-rational thinking - that
is, thinking that incorporates reason but goes beyond it.
me give you an example of what I mean. Let's go back to our adolescence as we
lie awake at night thinking about possible worlds to be. We are engaging full
If we continue to develop, (a big "if" by the
way) sooner or later a question creeps in around the edges. As we envision many
possible worlds, we think, "So what? We're all going to die. Relationships
change. Nothing lasts." Given all the tens of hundreds of possible worlds,
they all begin to look a little empty, a little devoid of meaning. We ask "So
what?" of all of them.
This is a delicate moment. It is the existential
question. A client framed it succinctly: "Given the absolute meaninglessness
of my life, what would I choose to do next?"
It is a fierce question.
Many people collapse in the face of it. It's too overwhelming. "There has
to be meaning, so I'll just go a little faster." Or maybe we brush it off
with, "He who dies with the most toys wins." We make a joke of it. But
the existential question is "Wins what?" My family will grow old and
die. The church I build, the job I develop, the organization I nurture will change
and probably fade. A hundred years from now, will there be any evidence that I
ever put a foot on earth? A thousand years from now, will my life have meant anything
at all? Given the meaninglessness and emptiness of my life, what do I choose to
If this question arises genuinely, perhaps we don't run from it. Perhaps
we settle down and look at it quietly and deeply. We may despair for a while.
But rather than run from the despair, we keep asking, "Given the meaninglessness
of my life, what do I do next?"
Eventually something stirs inside. Eventually
we do choose to do something next. Perhaps we have a cup of tea on the porch.
Or go to visit a grand daughter. Or drop off a few cans at the local food pantry.
On some deep level, we know logically these are empty gestures. It's all meaningless
ultimately. But something deep inside moves us nevertheless. And out of this movement
may arise a deeper sense of peace, even joy.
Whatever it is that moved us is
trans-logical. It is beyond reason. It is not irrational. Our powers of rational
discernment have not abandoned us. We are not doing anything unreasonable. Yet
we are acting from a place that is deeper than reason. We are being motivated
by what the Quakers call the "still small voice within."
we have entered the contemplative realm. This is just a foot in the door. The
existential question is one of the gateways into the contemplative.
To say this differently, we live in three realms: the
physical, the mental and the contemplative. (3) These are not separate universes.
They are different aspects of what we experience.
The physical realm is seen
with the physical eye and perceived with other body senses. Everything here has
"simple location": it can be located in time and space. This is the
world of astronomy, food, medicine, physics and water polo.
The mental realm
is what we see with the mind's eye. It is the world of thought, emotion, psychology
and introspection. Anger and fear, for example, do not exist in the physical realm.
They may have biological correlates in the physical. But the actual experiences
of emotions arise only in our interior space. Thoughts are real, but can't be
touched the same way you touch your shoe laces. Mental phenomena are just as real
as physical phenomena, but we can view them only with the mind's eye. In surgery,
you can physically touch a brain, but you cannot touch a mind. The brain is part
of the physical realm. The mind is part of the mental realm.
Just as there
are telescopes and vernial calibrators and particle accelerators for studying
the material realm, there are tools for studying the mental realm. Free association,
dream analysis and introspection are a few of the classical instruments for exploring
The third domain is the contemplative realm. With the third eye
we see deeper wisdom. Higher spiritual truth does not exist in the material or
mental realms. Take the simple statement, "We are all One." To the physical
eye, this is nonsense. We aren't Siamese twins - give me a break. To the mental
eye, this is gibberish as well. Anyone who has ever been to a talk-back after
a Unitarian Univeralist service knows we don't all have the same thoughts and
feelings. But to the contemplative eye, we are all one. If you have ever felt
that, you have tasted the contemplative. Our seventh UU principal about respecting
the interdependent web of existence is a peek into the contemplative.
realm is not hidden or esoteric. It is right before us. Most of us have flashes
of it from time to time. Watching a sunset from the top of a mountain or seeing
your child sleeping after a hectic day, you may have gotten a whiff of life's
okayness. Sitting on a rock by a pounding surf, you may have felt a wonder and
a oneness. These are trans-rational peeks into the contemplative. They are a part
of life at its best. Our most inspiring moments are often contemplative glimpses.
as there are telescopes for studying material and free association for studying
mind, there are tools for studying spirit. There are a wealth of contemplative
practices, yogas, meditation techniques and disciplines. They are not all equally
valuable, but there are plenty of great value.
It is through the use of spiritual
practices that the contemplative eye can be cultivated. Without them, glimpses
of spiritual insight remain just that: glimpses. They are novel experiences. They
may be wonderful to remember, but they fade. They do not have a lasting impact.
They don't significantly affect the course of our life.
For those who say that
rationality and the mental realm are the height of human experience, I would remind
you of Galileo's inquisitors. They said, "The Bible says nothing about moons
around Jupiter. Church doctrine says nothing about moons around Jupiter. Therefore,
there are no moons around Jupiter and I know this with such confidence that I
don't even have to look through your devilish telescope."
deny the power of contemplative sight without seriously engaging in spiritual
practice is non-sense. In any other area of investigation, we don't expect truth
to reveal itself without some effort. I wouldn't expect to walk off the street
and be able to run a particle accelerator or do deep dream analysis. It takes
years of training. Likewise, to give rise to stable, dependable spiritual perspective
may take years of contemplative training. Maybe you don't want to take the time
to learn how to adjust a telescope. But until you have, you are in no position
to evaluate the truth it purports to reveal.
To deny the value of contemplative
practice, to deny the existence of ways of knowing beyond reason, is not rational.
The belief that rationality is the height of human ability is magical thinking.
of you know that I have practiced Buddhist meditation for the last two dozen years.
You sometimes ask how Buddhism fits with to Unitarian Universalism. I think that
one of its most valuable contribution is contemplative practice. Buddhist practice,
particularly the simpler practices such as Zen and Theravadan meditation are especially
appropriate for us for several reasons.
One, Buddhism has a healthy appreciation
of reason and the mind. In fact, the Abhidharma (the Buddhist psychology) is in
many areas much more sophisticated than what we have developed in the West.
Buddhists believe in the importance of working out our own path. When asked how
he became enlightened, the Buddha replied, "This is what I did, but it doesn't
help you with your problem. You've got to work that out for yourself. Don't take
anybody's word for it, even mine." This insistence on working things out
in our own experience rather than through blind faith is something Unitarian Universalists
share with Buddhists.
Three, Buddhism is the most peaceful of the five major
religions. Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus have all started significant wars
in the name of their faith. (4) Buddhism stands alone as the only major religion
that has not engaged in organized slaughter in order to promote their faith. And
in communities where Buddhism predominates, the poor and dispossessed have been
treated very well. The peaceful, compassionate nature of Buddhism is a direct
result of Buddhist practice. It can help our Unitarian Universalist values.
Buddhists are not caught up in theology or god language. They see them as a distraction
from what is practical. You don't have to buy a set of beliefs to enter into the
Five, Buddhism has developed spiritual practices that help cultivate
the contemplative eye. Unitarian Universalism has not. Their practices are developed
with many of the same values we have and are easy for us to enter into.
If we had a few more hours, we could look at the specifics of one
or several disciplines. Or we could talk about evolution. Several thousand years
ago, human evolution moved out of the physical realm and into the mental. Our
survival depended less on bigger teeth or biceps and more on how we used our minds.
Somewhere in the last hundred years, our evolution left the mental realm and entered
the contemplative. Our survival today is determined by our capacity to see the
interconnected web of life, and know that we are all One. Without contemplative
vision, we may well wipe ourselves off the face of the planet - and take a few
innocent species with us.
But these are large topics and our time is short.
Today, I just want to make a plea for the importance of contemplative practices.
don't care if you wear Reeboks or Nikes, but in the winter I do care that you
have a good pair of shoes. I don't care if you prefer apples over pears, but I
do care that you have healthy food. I don't care if you engage in Buddhist, Christian
or Sufi practices, but I do care that we engage in some serious spiritual discipline.
If you've ever been gripped by the existential questions, spiritual practice is
the way to go.
Reason is not the height of human maturity. It is our adolescence.
Our culture is a massive case of arrested development where most people don't
mature spiritually beyond a sixteen year old. We don't want to slip back into
pre-rational superstition and magical thinking. We want to mature. We want to
move forward into trans-logical contemplative sight.
Mature spirituality manifest
across the board. Not just in bliss consciousness, not just in racial justice,
not just in environmental awareness. It manifests in all realms: physical, mental
and contemplative. Spirit manifests as a more caring community, more tranquil
inner states, more humane treatment of disadvantaged, more acceptance of all people
and all creatures.
We need meditators in politics and politicians who meditate.
We need a more compassionate society to support contemplative vision. And we need
more contemplative practice to develop the compassion to make a more caring world.
world has grown fragmented and a little crazy.
I fear that without contemplative
practice, Unitarian Universalism may drift into obscurity. We aren't complete
enough. With contemplative practice, the best of what we offer can come into fruition.
If we are to remain relevant in the 21st century, if we truly want to help ourselves
and our world, we need to cultivate the contemplative eye so we can develop a
more integral vision for this world turned slightly crazy.
The Swiss cognitive psychologist, Jean Piaget, has made extensive study of the
development of intelligence. A good summary of his vast writings can be found
in John H. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget, (D. Van Nostrand
Company: Princeton, New Jersey. 1963). This behavior is typical of children around
the age of seven months. See Flavell, p. 132.
(2) Flavell, p. 156
Wilber in A Brief History of Everything (Shambhala: Boston, 1996) gives a more
detailed description of these realms.
(4) People who call themselves Buddhist
have certainly killed. But no one has gone to war in the name of Buddhism.