Sunday, October 21, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday October 21st, 2007

OPENING WORDS: from Henry Clarke Warren,  Buddhism In Translations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1896), 283-84

A large part of the pleasure that I have experienced in the study of Buddhism has arisen from what I may call the strangeness of the intellectual landscape. All the ideas, the modes of argument, even the postulates assumed and not argued about, have always seemed so strange, so different from anything to which I have been accustomed, that I felt all the time as though walking in Fairyland. Much of the charm that the Oriental thoughts and ideas have for me appears to be because they so seldom fit into Western categories.


Listening last week to Rabbi Sky tell that story about the monastery in the woods, where all the brothers treated one another with such respect, because they were told that the Messiah was living among them, reminded me of a Buddhist monastery I once heard about, located on a small island in the South Pacific, where the monks essentially lived in complete silence.

With the exception of the absolute minimum amount of non-verbal communication required for safety, the monks basically only spoke twice a day. Every morning when they came in for breakfast at the conclusion of their morning meditation, the Abbot would wait until everyone was seated, and then he would stand up at the head of the refectory and chant “Good Morning.” And all of the other monks would chant back in unison “Good Morning,” before eating their humble meal together in silence.

And then at night, at the conclusion of the evening meal, the Abbot would again stand at the head of the refectory and chant “Good Evening,” and all of the monks would answer “Good Evening,” before heading back to their cells to sleep.

Now there was one young monk, recently arrived on the island from the United States, who really struggled to fit in with this discipline. And after a few months of this routine, he was nearly at the breaking point. So one morning, when the Abbot stood up at the head of the refectory and chanted “Good Morning,” and all of the other monks chanted back “Good Morning,” this one rebellious monk chanted instead “Good Evening.”

There is silence, and then there is silence. The Abbot gazed out across the crowded room, carefully scrutinizing the face of each monk. And then he said, [singing] “Some [-one/en-]chanted evening....”

On one level, my sermon this morning deals with a very personal subject: it is essentially the story of how my own study of Buddhism when I was younger eventually helped me to better understand and appreciate my culturally Christian roots, and also helped make me into a better Unitarian Universalist minister in the process. But it also deals with topics far more wide-ranging in their scope. Nearly half a century ago, in the midst of what we have now come to think of as “the Cold War,” historian Arnold Toynbee observed that a thousand years hence, when the historians of that day sit down to write the history of ours, they will care little about this brief period of conflict between the Communist nations of Eastern Europe and those more liberal nations to the West who enjoy a somewhat freer polity. Rather, what they will really want to know is what happened to both Christianity and to Buddhism when these two great world religions encountered one another for the first time. "Buddhism has transformed every culture it has entered, and Buddhism has been transformed by its entry into that culture,” Toynbee remarked. “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the Twentieth Century.”

Toynbee, of course, certainly had (and has) his critics: equally brilliant intellectuals somewhat more grounded in their imagination, who essentially have dismissed Toynbee’s work as “metaphysics masquerading as history.” But we need only look back a thousand years ago to appreciate the essential insight of Toynbee's opinion. Who among us can remember who won the Hundred Years War, much less why it started, or what was at stake? Perhaps Agincourt or Joan of Arc may ring a bell; maybe we have seen a movie or two set in that period. But when we think about the legacy of Christianity's first encounter with Islam, and the reintroduction of Aristotelian science into western Europe, at the subsequent Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment of Christendom (not to mention those little things called “the Crusades,”) we discover that the legacy of that encounter is still very much alive and with us today. The deep currents of human history move slowly, but they carry before them the tide of all civilization.

My story, of course, is my own, but I also suspect that in many ways it is somewhat typical of those deeper cultural currents. Like many young people, I first became interested in the great questions posed by Religion during my adolescence, and turned first for answers to what I have now come to think of as the “feel good” Christianity of popular culture, the faith I saw all around me. I was fascinated by the idea of being “born again,” and with the idealism of making a lift-transforming commitment to something larger than myself, of devoting my loyalty to a transcendent being who loved me like a father loves his children, and in whose eyes all human beings are brothers and sisters. I admired the great ethical and spiritual insights I discovered in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and in the wisdom of the parables and the Golden Rule; I was excited by the drama of a Last Judgment, and a final showdown between good and evil.

Yet it also bothered me that the popular Cultural Christianity presented to me on television and through the efforts of evangelical student groups didn't really add up for me intellectually. I was particularly bothered by the whole idea of being “saved” and the doctrine of original sin and vicarious atonement which stood behind it. I mean, even as a teenager I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t really lie or cheat or steal (or at least not so you’d notice), and I certainly hadn’t murdered anyone (much less committed adultery). I was reasonably good about honoring my mother and father (at least for a teenager, that is), and I thought that coveting my neighbors possessions was just part of the American Way.

And I suppose I could have been a little better about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. But I certainly wasn’t worshipping any other Gods before him, or making any graven images. But it bothered me. How could a Just and Loving God possibly hold anyone accountable for something that supposedly happened long before they were even born, and what was something so simple and innocuous as professing faith in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior going to do to change it?

I suppose that had I been a better algebra student, I would have realized that the two terms simply canceled one another out: that since I didn't do anything in particular to get myself into this state of sin in the first place, I shouldn't feel too compelled to do anything especially onerous to get out of it either. But by that point it had all started to seem like a giant scam: Christ the Cosmic Repo Man, who redeemed our souls from their debt to the Devil only to charge a higher rate of interest, and threaten us with the same punishment of eternal damnation if we failed to make the payments.

And while we’re at it, what was all this nonsense about the Virgin Birth? What kind of God would get a young girl pregnant out of wedlock in the first place, and without even asking her opinion on the matter, much less her consent? If God had created the World in seven days six thousand years ago, what about those dinosaurs I’d heard so much about, whose decomposed remains powered the wheels that made our entire civilization go round? Walking on the water; rising from the all started to sound like just another fairy tale intended to frighten young children into doing what their parents told them. I had more faith in astrology, and in the existence of life on other planets.

I suppose what originally attracted me to Buddhism was the fact that it seemed so different from the Christianity I saw around me - so much more pristine, honest, and contemplative: the "exotic wisdom of the orient" standing in sharp contrast to the materialism and hypocrisy of popular evangelical Christianity. Of course, I didn't really know that much about Buddhism in those days either: just what I saw on television, or read in books by popularizers like Alan Watts, Thomas Merton, and DT Suzuki. In time I would come to see that there were just as many strange Buddhist superstitions as there were silly Christian ones, and that miracles like the Buddha's building of 40,000 Stupas (or temples) across the island of Sri Lanka in a single night made little things like walking on the water look like small potatoes. But by then I was already in Divinity school, and had learned enough that it didn't bother me any more.

Within the Christian tradition, Ultimate Reality has typically been characterized as something "wholly other" from human beings: a sovereign God, Creator of the Universe by Word alone, from whom we are alienated by our sinful nature, and yet who, as sovereign, demands both our Worship and our Obedience, has been revealed to us through history as recorded in the Scripture, and ultimately, through God's Word incarnate in human flesh, Jesus Christ, the Anointed King and Son of God, the ˇperfect” human being. This basic theological paradigm, perhaps with different emphases, is shared in its essence by every Christian group known to history, and (with the exception of the “Jesus” part) by the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Islam as well. God stands outside the world, as its Creator and its Judge; we live within the world, as creatures, waiting to be judged.

At its worst, when fundamentalist literalism rears its head, this world view often results in a rigid, fatalistic, uncompromising style of faith -- a faith based on blind Obedience rather than the fullness and fulfillment of human potential. Yet at its best, it manifests itself through a profound sense of social justice (in obedience to God's will); a sensitivity to the linear flow of history and our destiny within it, a recognition of our accountability for our choices and actions, and of our responsibility both to the generous and compassionate Spirit which created us, and to our fellow human beings.

But Buddhism, in many ways, is based on an entirely different set of assumptions. The Buddha was the "awakened one" -- the one who came to see the true Nature of our human existence. Born Siddhartha Gautama, the son of an Indian King, it was prophesied at his birth that he would become either a great king himself, a World Conqueror; or a great religious leader, a World Renouncer. His father (who naturally wished to see his son continue in the family business of conquering things) went to great lengths to insure that the young Prince gain no knowledge of the profound pain and suffering which accompany human existence, and typically provide the catalyst for our religious yearnings.

Yet destiny is not to be denied, and after a series of excursions into the countryside during which the young prince discovered the existence of poverty, disease, old age and death, the man who was destined to become the Buddha left his father's house and began a career as a wandering Ascetic, practicing all sorts of disciplines and mortifications in order to gain the wisdom he desired.

After a period of years during which he had grown no closer to his goal, he sat down one day beneath a Bo tree, vowing not to move from that spot until he achieved enlightenment. A passerby mistook him for a deity and offered him some nourishment, and that night Siddhartha discovered the Dharma, the Four Noble Truths of the Middle Way. All Existence consists of Suffering, through an endless series of deaths and rebirths; and the cause of this suffering is our human "Thirst" for the finite and transient things of this world, "conditional" things, which “come into being and pass away.”

Yet there is an escape from this destiny of endless sorrow, through the Middle Way of the Noble eight-fold path: right Views, right Intention, right Speech, right Action, right Livelihood, right Effort, right Mindfulness, and right Concentration: a balanced approach of Spiritual Wisdom, Ethical Conduct, and Mental Development leading to the detachment and liberation of our personalities from conditional reality, and the eventual extinction of our "selves" in the vast emptiness which fills the spaces between the endlessly changing web of impermanent "things."

Unlike Christianity's emphasis on the authority and revelation of an unchanging, sovereign God, Buddhism expresses itself through a deeply contemplative analysis and existential response to the human condition, and a profound sensitivity to the interrelatedness of all things in a changing, natural world.

There are exceptions to these broad generalizations of course. The various "pure land" sects of Buddhism, for instance, express a world view very similar to that of traditional Christianity; while the writings of Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart or Julian of Norwich reveal a sensitivity to the essential emptiness of this world which would feel quite familiar to a Buddhist monk sitting in meditation. Nevertheless, on the whole the one Great Commandment to Christians remains: "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and love thy neighbor as thyself;" while a pious Buddhist would feel far more at home with this aphorism attributed to the 13th century Zen monk Dogen: "To study the way is to study the self; to study the self is to lose the self; to lose the self is to be enlightened by all the world."

Scholars point out that already the encounter between Buddhism and Christianity here in the half century since Toynbee first make his observation has subtlety started to influence both of these two great religions. For Buddhism, it has meant a renewed interest in the importance of history, and a deeper recognition of the social justice imperatives which accompany religious conviction. For Christianity, it has meant a resurgence of interest in contemplative spirituality, and a more profound appreciation for the ecological interconnectedness of our planet.

Yet for someone who is neither (strictly speaking) a practicing Buddhist nor a confessing Christian, but rather a life-long Unitarian Universalist, who believes that all Truth (as we know it) is merely part of a much larger mystery, at once both harmonious and contradictory, and that no creed or dogma is ever safe from the inquiries and scrutiny of Reason and Experience, the dialog between these two great religious traditions is just beginning to bear fruit. And it promises to us a deeper understanding of the life of faith itself, which recognizes that the future is the result of what we do in the moment, yet appreciates the subtle web of interdependent relationships that bind us all together: a faith sensitive to the mystical unity between ourselves and Ultimate Reality, yet capable of deliberate and deeply-committed Social Action to insure that Justice and Compassion ultimately triumph over Evil.

It promises a religion in which "sin" is not so much transgression, but rather alienation from the Divine Source of Life Itself, manifested through our desire (or thirst) for things which are ultimately not important and which pass away; and where “Repentance" is not based on guilt, but rather represents a "Transformation of Mind,” a letting go of our attachment to temporary things in favor of a commitment to ethical conduct, the constant search for greater wisdom, and a deeply personal devotion to the contemplation of the mysteries of human existence.

It is a faith which recognizes that it is not enough to "see" the Divine, one must also learn to BE divine, (or perhaps more accurately, learn how to get our own egos out of the way so that The Divine may be in us); that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and that one must first lose one's life in order to find it.

For to study the Way is to study the Self, to study the Self is to lose the Self, to lose the Self is to be Enlightened by all the World.