The Best Things in Life

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. More than the usual number of typos and errors in the text, but I didn’t have time to fix them — sorry!

Moment for All Ages: “Prince Gotama and the Four Sights”

Once upon a time, a prince named Gotama lived in a royal palace in the land of Kapilavastu, which was on the border between the countries we now call India and Nepal. Gotama’s family was very wealthy. As he grew up, the prince had everything money could buy. He had servants to take care of every need. He had the finest food. He had all the toys he could wish for.

The story is told that while Gotama was still young, a sage came to visit his parents, the King and the Queen. This sage was very wise. He looked at the young boy and said, “This child will grow up to be either a great king, or a great spiritual leader.”

Now his father wanted Gotama to become king after the father died. Therefore, the King decided that the young prince must never see anything that might raise spiritual questions in him. The King instructed everyone in the palace that Prince Gotama must never be allowed to go outside the palace grounds by himself, lest he fall into conversation with a wandering spiritual person. The King also ruled that Prince Toama must not see anyone who was ill, or disabled in any way, nor anyone who was old. The King also ruled that if someone died, the prince should hear nothing of it. Thus the King hoped to keep the prince from asking any spiritual questions.

To keep Gotama happy, the King and Queen gave him everything he could want, so that he would want to stay inside the palace grounds. And when he was old enough, they found the kindest and most beautiful young woman in all the kingdom to marry the Prince. Both the prince and his new wife were vary happy, and they became even more happy when they had their first child together. The King and Queen hoped that the prince had forgotten his wish to leave the palace on his own.

One day, when he was twenty nine years old, Gotama went out of the palace to go hunting, accompanied by his servant Channa. As they were riding along on their two horses, they came upon a man lying beside a rock, groaning in pain.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is ill,” said Channa.

“But why is he in such pain?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Chana. “It is just what happens when people are ill.” And they rode on.

When he was back at the palace, he tried to ask the wise men there about illness, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they passed a woman whose hair was white and whose skin was wrinkled, and who used a cane to walk.

“What is wrong with this woman?” asked Gotama.

“She is old,” said Channa.

“But what do you mean by ‘old’?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Channa. “It happens to anyone who lives a long time.”

Back at the palace, Gotama tried to ask the wise men there about being old, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they came across man lying as if asleep. But Gotama could not wake him.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is dead,” said Channa. “This is the way of life, people must one day die.”

Gotama and Channa went out hunting a fourth time and saw a wandering holy person. Gotama asked Channa who he was.

“He is a wandering holy person,” said Channa. “He wanders around the world begging for his food, and seeking spiritual enlightenment.”

This was something Prince Gotama had never heard of before. That night, Gotama could not sleep. He remembered both the suffering he had seen, and the holy man seeking enlightenment. Gotama realized that he himself would one day face illness, old age, and death.

“I must leave the palace where I’m always protected,” he thought to himself. “I must find answers to my questions.”

He got up, and told Channa to saddle his horse. The he looked in at the bedroom where his wife and their child lay sleeping. If he left the palace, he worried that his his wife and son would not be safe. He didn’t want to make them go with him.

He stood looking at them, wondering what to do. Should he stay? Or should he go?

As it happens, we know what Prince Gotama did. He left his wife and child behind, went out into the wide world, and after many hardships he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one of the greatest spiritual leaders the world has ever known. Knowing that, what would you do? Would you stay and become a great king, or leave and become a great spiritual leader? Would you give up the chance of being enlightened to stay with your family?


The first reading is from “The Wealth of Nations,” book 4, chapter 1, by Adam Smith.

“A rich country, in the same manner as a rich man, is supposed to be a country abounding in money; and to heap up gold and silver in any country is supposed to be the readiest way to enrich it. For some time after the discovery of America, the first inquiry of the Spaniards, when they arrived upon any unknown coast, used to be, if there was any gold or silver to be found in the neighborhood. By the information which they received, they judged whether it was worth while to make a settlement there, or if the country was worth the conquering.

“Plano Carpino, a monk sent ambassador from the King of France to one of the sons of the famous Genghis Khan, says, that the Tartars used frequently to ask him, if there was plenty of sheep and oxen in the kingdom of France. Their inquiry had the same object with that of the Spaniards. They wanted to know if the country was rich enough to be worth the conquering. Among the Tartars, as among all other nations of shepherds, who are generally ignorant of tho use of money, cattle are the instruments of commerce and the measures of value. Wealth, therefore, according to them, consisted in cattle, as according to the Spaniards it consisted in gold and silver. Of the two, the Tartar notion, perhaps, was the nearest to the truth.”

The second reading was the lyrics from the song “Money (that’s What I Want),” a song written by Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy in 1959.

Sermon: “The Best Things in Life”

What are the best things in life? We like to pretend that the best things in life are free. Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy skewered that pious sentiment way back in 1959 with their song “Money (That’s What I Want).” In the song, Bradford and Gordy said they believed that “Money don’t get everything, it’s true / But what it don’t get I can’t use.”

So what are we to believe? Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? I’d like to think out loud about this question by presenting you with some case studies.

The very brief case study is the story of Genghis Khan’s son, as told by Adam Smith, one of the primary theorists of capitalism. Genghis Khan, as you will recall, was the leader of the Mongol Empire. His people lived on the steppes of central Asia, and periodically erupted from the steppes to invade Europe, the Middle East, and China, pillaging as they went and leaving destruction in their wake. According to Adam Smith, Genghis Khan’s son did not ask how much money — how much gold and silver — there was in France, but rather he wanted to know how many sheep or oxen. The point here is that different societies measure wealth in different ways. While the Spaniards wanted to know how much gold and silver they would get before they invaded a foreign land, whereas the Mongol Empire wanted to know how many cattle they would get, they just had different ways of measuring wealth. If Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy wanted their song to be true across cultures, I guess they should have named their song “Wealth (That’s What I Want).”

However, this still doesn’t answer the question of whether the best things is life are free, or whether wealth is all that matters. So let’s turn to the case of Prince Siddhartha Gotama, which we heard in this morning’s Moment for All Ages.

As you recall, Siddartha Gotama was raised by his parents so that he was never exposed to anything that might upset him — he was never exposed to anything that might him start asking big difficult questions about the meaning of life. In particular, his parents did not want Prince Gotama to see anyone ill, anyone old, anyone who had died, nor anyone who followed a religious vocation. This desire to protect their child from everything unpleasant and difficult backfired on them. As soon as Siddhartha Gotama saw the Four Sights — an ill person, and old person, a dead person, and a religious person — he immediately conceived an intense desire to know why there was suffering in the world. This intense spiritual yearning caused Siddhartha Gotama to want to leave the wealthy and comfortable life he had been living, safe inside the palace walls, and go outside to enter into the life of a wandering saddhu [sah-doo], that is, a spiritual seeker who has renounced worldly life in order to focus on higher matters.

I will say parenthetically that I find this to be one of the most difficult stories of any major religious tradition. In order to become a saddhu, Prince Gotama basically abandons his wife and his baby — that is what I find difficult. In most retellings of the story, Prince Gotama stands looking at his sleeping wife and child. He wants to give them one last kiss and caress. But he knows that if he does so, they would awaken, and probably convince him not to leave. So he turns away and leaves them behind without even saying goodbye. I really don’t like that part of the story.

However, this does tell us something about how Siddhartha Gotama might answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or whether the best thing in life is money. And his is not a simple answer to the question. On the one hand, Siddhartha Gotama clearly believes that for him, the best thing is to leave money behind. The best things in life are not just free, the best things in life require the absence of money. It is only in the absence of money, thinks Siddhartha Gotama, that he will be able to find what he is seeking for. And of course that’s exactly what happens for Siddhartha Gotama — by living a life without wealth, he is able find the enlightenment that he seeks. He in fact becomes the Buddha, the Enlightened One. After his enlightenment, he turns to teaching others how to deal with suffering in this world; and according to some sources, after his enlightenment, he does reconnect with his wife and their son.

On the other hand, Siddhartha Gotama did not take his wife and their baby out into the world to lead the lives of wandering spiritual seekers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to become a wandering saddhu was to choose to live on the street, to become what we now call an unhoused person, to sleep outdoors and beg for your food, and more than likely to go sleep cold and hungry as often as not. That is not the kind of life that anyone would choose for their baby. Siddhartha Gotama knew that if he left his wife and baby behind, they would be cared for and cherished and loved by his parents.

So here is how Siddhartha Gotama answered the question. For himself, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are free, and he wanted to abandon all his wealth so that it could not distract him from the burning spiritual questions he had to answer. But for his child, and incidentally for his wife, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are not free, and that what they really needed and wanted was money.

Now I’ll turn to a third and even more complex case study. This is the case study of Juanita and Wally Nelson. My spouse Carol first met Juanita and Wally Nelson in the 1990s, when they used to attend meetings of the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association (or NOFA). They were hard to miss, for not only were they older than most of the other people at NOFA events, they were also some of the very few non-White organic farmers in those days. But Juanita and Wally Nelson’s story is far more complex than the story of an older Black couple who decided to become organic farmers.

Their story is worth telling in some detail. It will serve as my third and final case study. And I think it will further help us to answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or not. I’m going to focus on Juanita Nelson to tell the story, because I was able to get more details of her life from her oral history interview, which you can read on the Massachusetts Department of Education website.

Juanita Morrow was born in 1923, and grew up in Cleveland. She was a student at Howard University for two years, and in 1943 while at Howard she was arrested for the first time when she and some classmates tried to get served at a segregated restaurant.She had to drop out of college after two years for financial reasons, and began working as a reporter. In 1944, while she was a reporter, she interviewed a conscientious objector named Wally Nelson. Wally was a pacifist who refused to serve in the military for moral reasons. Juanita realized that she was a pacifist too, and when Wally was released from federal prison after the Second World War was over, they became — in her words — partners. They went on to work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), helping to end Jim Crow racial discrimination in the United States.

As committed pacifists, they gradually came to the realization that they did not want to support the military industrial complex in any way, if they could help it. And so in 1970, when Juanita was 47 and Wally was 61 years old, they started farming and living off the land. Although they were not religious themselves, as pacifists they got to know many Quakers — pacifism is one of the central religious beliefs of Quakerism — and theQuakers who were running an alternative school at the Woolman Hill Quaker center in Deerfield, Massachusetts, invited them to come live there. Which they did. Wally died there in 2002, and Juanita stayed there until she was no longer able to care for herself. She died at a friend’s home in 2015.

Even though Juanita and Wally Nelson were not religious, they remind me a great deal of Siddhartha Gotama. Like Siddhartha Gotama, they decided to renounce the world of money and wealth. Instead of money and wealth, they pursued higher values — Siddhartha Gotama pursued his quest for the truth about human suffering; Juanita and Wally Nelson pursued their truth about peacemaking and pacifism. Siddhartha Gotama lived as a wandering saddhu, which was not an easy life — there were many times when he did not get enough to eat. Juanita and Wally Nelson refused to buy anything if they could help it, and while they were able to build a comfortable house using salvaged materials, they refused to have electric power or indoor plumbing. Juanita wrote a number of pieces about what it was like to live off the land, both the inconvenience of it, and the power of it. I’d like to read to you from one of these pieces she wrote, a poem called “Outhouse Blues”:

Well, I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs,
I even make my own soap and my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil and ITT and those other gouging guys….

Oh, but it ain’t easy, when it’s rainy and there’s mud
To put on my old bathrobe and walk out in that crud;
I look out through the open door and see a distant star
And sometimes think this simple life is taking things too far.

Juanita and Wally Nelson gave up a comfortable life — gave up wealth and money — in order to pursue the higher purpose of peacemaking. But in this poem, Juanita also acknowledges the attractions of having money. If she had money, she wouldn’t have to go out into the cold and the rain and the mud to use the outhouse. For Juanita and Wally Nelson, money and wealth may have their uses, but they can also distract you from following the highest purposes of life. So we can see that the Nelsons had much in common with Siddhartha Gotama. In a funny kind of a way, the Nelsons had something in common with Adam Smith, who concluded that the desire for wealth could lead to war; Genghis Khan’s son wanted to know how many cattle lived in France, so he could decide if that country were worth invading.

All this is very interesting, but we still don’t have a simple answer to the questions with which I began. Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? Siddhartha Gotama abandoned his life of wealth in the palace, because that wealth was keeping him from answering some urgent spiritual questions. But he left his wife and baby in the palace, where there was sufficient wealth to take adequate care of them. Juanita Nelson left behind a comfortable American middle class life, because the comfort that came with her relative wealth was keeping her from pursuing an urgently moral course of action. But she acknowledged the very real downsides that came with living without money.

I’m not convinced that we can ever have final answers to these questions. Yet we can reach some fairly obvious conclusions. First of all, as Siddhartha Gotama knew, poverty and life on the streets is not good for children. Children need adequate food and secure and stable homes. Secondly, money and wealth do seem to get in the way of spiritual progress. I don’t know why this is so, although perhaps it’s because wealth can cause to covetousness, and covetousness can lead to greed, and greed can end up in war and violence.

What these stories seem to be telling us is that there is a balance between having money, and not having money — and that balance is hard to find. Having too much money does seem to bring problems. Thus Siddhartha Gotama felt that the extreme wealth of his family insulated him from reality, and kept him from from making spiritual progress. Where your money comes from can also bring problems. In an extreme case, Juanita and Wally Nelson felt that all money in our society is tied in with the military industrial complex, and thus having any money kept them from making the moral and ethical path they wanted to follow. But even though money might have problems associated with it, money is good when it is used to help us to raise our children; money is good when it is used to take care of those who are weaker and more vulnerable.

More generally, perhaps money can become a good thing if it can help us turn our highest values into reality. If you can use what money you have at your disposal to support your highest moral and ethical values, then perhaps money can become a positive good. Although by doing so, you can run into other people trying to use their money to support moral and ethical values which are in conflict with yours. So for example, I support First Parish financially, in part because we’re willing to fly a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse to show that we support LGBTQ+ rights; while there are those in this town (and I’ve heard from a couple of them) who are angered by the fact that we have a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse. If money can promote our values in the wider world, then we run into the far larger problem of how to mediate between competing values; but that’s a topic for another sermon.

That’s my inconclusive conclusion for this sermon. I will only add that First Parish is beginning our annual fundraising campaign this week. Since I believe First Parish promotes my values in our community, I’ll be giving at least two and a half percent of my annual income to support First Parish and those values; this in addition to my other charitable giving.

Why I’m Not a Buddhist (But Maybe You Should Be)

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Interbeing” by Thich Nhat Hanh. To read it, go to this webpage and scroll down.


The first reading comes from the book “Why I Am Not a Buddhist” by Evan Thompson, a philosopher who has studied Buddhist philosophy extensively:

“I didn’t want to be someone who just wrote about Buddhist philosophy without practicing meditation and experiencing what the philosophy was supposedly about. ‘That’s like readings about sex and never having any,’ American Buddhist devotees would say to me…. Looking for a path forward, I visited many Buddhist meditation centers over the years of writing my philosophy dissertation, … and doing my postdoctoral work. But I couldn’t connect with any of them. It didn’t feel right to count my breath in Korean or chant in Japanese or try to do complex visualization of Tibetan Buddhist deities…. I wonder whether I was being too uptight and why I couldn’t just let go….”

The second reading is from an essay by Rev. Takashi Kenryu Tsuji titled “The Heart of the Buddha-Dharma: Following the Jodo-Shinshu Path”:

Shinran Shonin and the teachers before him explained that the Pure Land was situated in the western corners of the universe, zillions of miles away. It was pictured as a very beautiful place, free of suffering, where everyone is happy. Philosophically speaking, however, the Pure Land does not refer to a specific location out there somewhere. Rather, the Pure Land is symbolic; it symbolizes the transcendence of relativity, of all limited qualities, of the finiteness of human life. In this transcendence, there is Compassion-Wisdom, an active moving, spiritual force. The Pure Land ideal is the culmination of the teaching of Wisdom and Compassion.

(As quoted by Jeff Wilson in Dixie Dharma, UNC Press, 2012)

Sermon: Why I’m Not a Buddhist (But Maybe You Should Be)

I’m going to begin with some introductory remarks. Then I’ll tell you why I’m not a Buddhist, even though I’m fascinated by Buddhism. And I’ll wind up talking about some forms of Buddhism that seem worthy of your attention.

First, the introductory remarks:

When First Parish posted this sermon topic on the Cohasset 143 Facebook page, one or two commenters made it clear why they are not Buddhists. One person made their point in simple, straightforward terms: “I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ as My Lord [and] Savior.” Another person, presumably also a conservative Christian, wrote: “They [meaning Buddhists] don’t worship a God!” Actually, what this person meant was that Buddhists don’t worship the Christian God, which is a true statement. And if you’re a conservative Christian, these are both worthy reasons for not being a Buddhist.

Yet another conservative Christian scornfully wrote: “‘I am the Lord thy God thou shalt not have false gods before me.’ — The First Commandment. (Did you not ‘get’ that basic point Reverend?)” This comment is worth paying attention to, because it’s an example of a conservative Christian assuming that everyone should believe exactly what they believe. But it’s not just conservative Christians who make this assumption. The vocal critic of religion Richard Dawkins takes the same attitude towards those who are not the kind of atheist he is; and Dawkins has an unfortunate tendency to anathematize atheists who differ from his own views, as for example atheists who belong to a religious organization like this one.

I find these kinds of comments troubling mostly because they reveal an unpleasant truth about the current state of society in the United States today. All of us in the United States today are prone to believe that we are right and that people who disagree with us are wrong. We either hate Donald Trump or we hate Joe Biden, and anyone who disagrees with us is a horrible person. We are either right-to-lifers or we are pro-choicers, and anyone who disagrees with us is a horrible person. We are either conservative Christians, or we are not, and anyone who is not like us is a horrible person.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude makes it difficult to listen to those who might have different viewpoints or experiences from ours. As we are seeing in the House of Representatives right now, this kind of attitude makes it hard to have a functioning democracy. And we are all guilty of it. It’s so much a part of the atmosphere that I’m willing to bet everyone in this room has made a disparaging comment about someone with whom they disagree. I know I’ve done it.

It’s not good for us to be this way. This kind of thing can make us angry, and when you get angry you can feel the negative effects of that anger in your body.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to give this sermon. I am not giving a sermon titled, “I’m not a Buddhist, and you shouldn’t be either or you’ll burn in hell.” I am not giving a sermon titled, “I’m a Buddhist and if you were a truly good person, you’d be one too.” Instead, I’m trying to respect the diversity in our world, while at the same time trying to think with you about what is true.

That’s the introduction. Now I’ll tell you very briefly why I’m not a Buddhist.

When I was a Unitarian Universalist teenager, Pat Green, the assistant minister of our church ran our youth group, and one week he talked to us about Zen Buddhism. Pat told us about “the sound of one hand clapping” and sitting meditation and all the rest. All of us in the youth group were fascinated. And I continued to try to learn about Zen Buddhism over the next couple of decades. Ultimately, I discovered that learning about Buddhism was a lot of work — I’m one of those people who, if I’m going to do something, have to pursue the highest level of excellence. I could have wound up like the philosopher Evan Thompson in the first reading, who not only read Buddhist philosophy in the original languages, but also spent a great deal of time learning Buddhist practices. Unlike Evan Thompson, I had grown up in a religious tradition that I felt comfortable in, and I finally realized that I was doing just fine as a Unitarian Universalist. Maybe I was simply lazy, but eventually I stopped trying to pursue Zen Buddhism, or any kind of Buddhist practice.

So that’s why I’m not a Buddhist. But one thing I hope you noticed in that little story is that it’s perfectly acceptable for a Unitarian Universalist to participate in more than one religious tradition. You can be a Unitarian Universalist, while at the same time practicing Buddhism, or taking Buddhism seriously. Nor is this something that’s limited to Unitarian Universalists. It is increasingly common in Western society for a person to have more than one religious affiliation. This has long been the case in other societies — as for example in some east Asian societies, where it is common for an individual to feel connected to Buddhism, Daoism, and folk religions all at the same time. We began to see multiple religious affiliations emerge in the West in the middle of the last century. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was one of the people who popularized the notion of multiple religious affiliations, when he began to augment his Christian practices with Buddhist practices.

The notion of having multiple religious affiliations seriously annoys some conservative Christians, as we heard at the beginning of this sermon. We have a different point of view. We feel it’s OK to have multiple religious affiliations. Even if you have only one religious affiliation, we feel that encountering other religious traditions can help widen our perspectives and give us a better understanding of what it means to be human. With that in mind, I’d like to point out some varieties of Buddhism that might be worthy of your attention.

First and foremost, we have a Buddhist meditation group right here within First Parish. This group is led by Christine Allen, who is both a practicing Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist. She has spent years developing her own Buddhist meditation practice, and has a deep understanding of Buddhist philosophy. You can find one of her dharma talks on the First Parish website, a talk she gave at a meditation retreat she led in Trueblood Hall last year. If you’re looking for an introduction to Buddhist practice and thought, Christine Allen and the First Parish meditation group would be a good place to start.

Our First Parish group represents a strand of Buddhism that we might call Westernized Buddhism. As Buddhism spread around the world from India where it originated, it has taken on the cultural characteristics of the places it has spread to. Westernized Buddhism adapts Buddhist thought and practice to Western cultures and Western languages. This makes it easier for Westerners to engage with Buddhism, without having to learn another language or new cultural norms.

I do have to point out that there is one form of Westernized Buddhism that it’s best to avoid. That’s the Buddhism that’s become fashionable in Silicon Valley in recent years. That’s the Buddhism that says if you practice meditation and mindfulness, you can become more successful in your career because mindfulness training allows you to work incredibly long hours in spite of poor work-life balance. I like to call this the “Prosperity Dharma,” because it’s analogous to the “Prosperity Gospel” of Christianity. The Prosperity Gospel of Christianity tells you to believe in God, give lots of money to the preacher who preaching the Prosperity Gospel to you, and that will make you financially successful. But the Prosperity Gospel really has nothing to do with Christianity, just as the Prosperity Dharma really has nothing to due with Buddhism — these aren’t religions, they’re ways for other people to make money from your credulity.

The Prosperity Dharma has a couple of other problems. Carolyn Chen, a sociologist at the University of California in Berkeley, has pointed out that the people who push the Prosperity Dharma in Silicon Valley are mostly affluent White people who are openly dismissive of Asian Buddhist traditions and practices. Instead of being Westernized Buddhism, this is what Chen calls this “Whitened Buddhism”: “it erases the ‘ethnic’ and ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans in favor of the thinking of White Westerners.” It’s a subtle form of racism.

I’m also troubled when the advocates of the Prosperity Dharma want to teach mindfulness in the schools to help children deal with stress. This perverts the real purpose of Buddhism. Mindfulness is not supposed to help your child deal with stress so they can get into Harvard. Buddhism is supposed to make you a better person. Prosperity Dharma treats children as a means to an end. Real Buddhism, like all real religions, treats persons as ends in themselves.

Now that we’ve disposed of the Prosperity Dharma, let’s look at a couple of other forms of Buddhism.

If I were going to affiliate with a Buddhist group, my first choice would be the Buddhist Churches of America. This is a Pure Land Buddhist group affiliated with the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha tradition based in Kyoto, Japan. Pure Land Buddhism reminds me of our own Universalist tradition. The old Universalists, using Christian terms, said that everyone gets to go to heaven. Pure Land Buddhists say that everyone can can enter Buddha’s Pure land, everyone can achieve Buddhahood. Just as we Unitarian Universalists have translated the old Universalist ideas into modern terms, so the Buddhist Churches of America have translated the old ideas of the Pure Land into modern terms — we heard this in the second reading today, where Rev. Takashi Kenryu Tsuji said, “The Pure Land ideal is the culmination of the teaching of Wisdom and Compassion.” I also like the fact that the Buddhist Churches of America do not place much emphasis on meditation, because I have a hard time meditating. Sadly, the closest Buddhist Church of America is in New York, but if there were one nearby I would love to see if there were a way for our congregations to work together.

And if I were going to affiliate with a Buddhist group, my second choice would be to affiliate with the Engaged Buddhism tradition, whose best known advocate is the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Engaged Buddhism teaches that a primary purpose of religion is to make this world a better place. Engaged Buddhism started out by working for world peace, and they have since expanded into other social justice work such a human rights work and women’s rights. Beyond that, Thich Nhat Hanh is, in my opinion, one of the best religious writers of the past fifty years. Even though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve gotten a lot from Thich Nhat Hanh’s books on pacifism and peace. In particular, his concept of “interbeing” — which we heard a little about in the first reading — has given me a new way to think about world peace.

We began by hearing from some people who commented on the Cohasset 143 Facebook page, telling us how they restrict themselves to one exclusive religious tradition. By contrast, we Unitarian Universalists are open to other religious points of view, and curious about other religion. We believe it is acceptable to have more than one religious affiliation. You can be a Unitarian Universalist, and you can be a Buddhist — just as you can be a Unitarian Universalist and an atheist, or you can be a Unitarian Universalist and a Christian. You can even be all of these things at once.

This brings me to one final point I’d like to leave you with. When we talk with people who have a different religious outlook from ours, we don’t have to be defensive. We don’t have to immediately tell them about our religious outlook. We can respect the diversity in our world, while at the same time respecting our own religious outlook. We can engage in respectful dialogue that will enrich us, and make the world a more peaceful place.

Calming the Quarrel


The reading this morning is rather long, but I think you’ll find it engaging. It is a Buddhist story, Jataka tale no. 33, translated by Viggo Fausboll, and published in 1873 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. I have lightly edited and modernized the language.

“Living in harmony.” The Master related this story, while living in the grove of banyan-trees near Kapilavatthu, in reference to a dispute he had just witnessed. The Master, admonishing his royal relations, said: ‘Dispute between relatives is not becoming. Even animals which had conquered their enemies while living in concord, when quarreling suffered great destruction.’ Then his royal relatives called upon him to tell this story.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, the Bodhisattva was born a quail. He lived in the wood, with a following of many thousands of quails.

One day a quail-hunter went their dwelling-place and counterfeited the cry of quails. When the hunter saw that they had assembled, he threw his net over them, and after drawing it together, he filled his basket. He went to his house, sold the quails, and thus had his livelihood with that money.

The Bodhisattva said to the quails, “This quail-hunter destroys our kin. But I know a means by which he will not be able to catch us. As soon as he throws the net over us, each of you put your head into one mesh of the net. Then fly together and lift the net and carry it to a thorn-bush. This being done, we shall escape each from under his place.”

Saying, “Very good!” they all promised to do so.

The next day when the quail-hunter threw the net over them, they lifted the net together, and having cast it on a thorn-bush, they themselves fled away from underneath. It took so long for the fowler to extricate the net from the thorn-bush that it became dark, and he went away empty-handed.

Day after day, the quails continued in the same way. Each day the quail-hunter went to his house empty-handed. His wife grew angry, saying, “You come empty-handed every day. I think you are keeping another household.”

The fowler said, “Dear, I have no other household. Those quails live in harmony, and as soon as I throw my net on them, they fly away with it and cast it on a thorn-bush, and so escape. But fear not, they will not always live in harmony. Thou must not grieve. When they fall into disunion, I will take them all. Then I shall come and make your face smile.” Then he repeated this short poem:

While they agree, the birds go
and carry off the net;
but when they quarrel
they will fall into my power.

Not long thereafter, one quail, descending on the pasture-ground, unawares trod on the head of another. The other was angry, and said, “Who trod on my head?” The first said, “Be not angry, I trod upon you unawares.” Yet the first quail was angry. They began to quarrel. Before long, one said scornfully, “It is thou, I suppose, that liftest the net all by yourself.”

Hearing them quarreling, the Bodhisatta thought, “For those who quarrel there is no safety. Now they will not lift the net together. Then they will incur great destruction, and the quail-hutner will capture them. I cannot stay in this place any longer.” So he gathered together his close followers and flew away.

Soon the quail-hunter returned. Once again, he counterfeited the cry of the quails, and when they had assembled he threw the net over them. Then one quail said mockingly, “They say that last time while lifting the net, the feathers on thy head fell off. Now this time, lift!” Another said, “While thou wert lifting the net, thy wings on both sides dropped. Now you lift.”

While they quarreled thus, the fowler threw his net over them, gathered them together, and filled his basket. He went home, showed all the quails to his wife, and made her smile.

Having finished telling this story, the Master said, “Thus, O King! dispute among kinfolk is the root of destruction.” Having given this moral instruction, he completed the story by saying: “At that time the unwise quail was Devadatta, while I was the wise quail.”

Sermon: “Calming the Quarrel”

The reading this morning is one of the Jataka tales. The Jataka tales are ostensibly stories about one of the Buddha’s previous lives. At the same time, they are stories that often help us reflect on the problems of day to day life.

The Jataka tales typically start with a brief description of a problem faced by Buddha’s followers. The problem reminds Buddha of one of his previous lives — for, being an enlightened being he can remember all of his five hundred or so previous lives. The Buddha tells the story of this previous life, and concludes by drawing a moral to instruct his followers in how to live a better life. So there’s a framing story that presents an opening problem, a story told by Buddha, and a conclusion of the framing story, with a closing moral.

This reading this morning was Jataka tale number 33, the Sammodamāna-Jātaka. You have probably heard it before, in some form or another, for it is one of the best-known stories in the South Asian cultural legacy. It’s a simple story, the kind of story you tell to your children to keep siblings from fighting with one another. Although perhaps we hope that children don’t feel the full horror of the ending of the story. When the quails quarrel, the quail-hunter captures them, and crushes them in a basket, where not doubt they panic and trod on one another’s heads and smother one another, until they are pulled out and sold for someone’s dinner. In short, as a result of their quarreling, they die a miserable death.

This story reminds me of the current situation in the United States. We face problems that can kill some of us. Those problems include things like a decrease in the number of decent jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, a looming environmental disaster, and conflict with aggressive nations like Russia and North Korea. We have been told — we know in our hearts — that if we could just work together, we could address these problems. If we could keep our common goals in the forefront of our minds, we could work together. Only if we work together can we extricate ourselves from the danger.

So (to paraphrase a catchphrase made popular in 1896 by Christian Socialist Charles Sheldon), when we are faced with overwhelming social problems, we first ask the question: What would Buddha do? Then we ask the question: Can we follow the Buddha’s lead?

What does Buddha do in the story of the quails? He first tries persuasion and leadership. He gently explains the problem to the other quails: the reason so many of them are disappearing is that a quail-hunter is using a net to catch them. He then explains what they can do to avoid the problem: they can fly up together, lifting the net. And finally he persuades them to try.

Can we follow the Buddha’s lead? At first glance, it looks like we can follow the Buddha’s lead. We face more complex problems than the quails faced. We face — among other things — loss of jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, environmental disaster, and international conflict. But if we worked together, we could address these problems.

On the other hand, we also know that not everyone is in complete agreement with the nature of the problems facing us. The quails in the story seemed to be in agreement about the problem facing them. But we today do not agree about everything. For example, some people in the United States would add same-sex marriage to the list of problems facing us; while we Unitarian Universalists generally support same sex marriage. So at second glance, it looks like we cannot follow the Buddha’s lead.

But if we look again, I think we can indeed follow the Buddha’s lead. We do not have to agree on everything in order to work together. As an example of what I mean, I can point to the last two Unitarian Universalist congregations I served. Both those congregations did a lot to fight homelessness. Both of those Unitarian Universalist congregations had to team up with other congregations in order to carry on an effective fight against homelessness, and some of those other congregations we worked with were bitterly opposed to same sex marriage. But we managed to put aside our differences to work together towards a common goal.

And I suspect the story of the quails glosses over some of the problems the Buddha faced to convince the other quails to work together. The story makes it sound easy, but I’m willing to bet that the Buddhas had to do a lot of persuading and explaining to get the quails to work together.

The real miracle in this story is that the Buddha did all that persuading and explaining without losing his temper, without losing his cool. He managed to not get into any fights with the other quails. He managed to stay calm and centered. And remember too that at this point he wasn’t yet the Buddha; he had not yet achieved Enlightenment. In that incarnation, he was merely a Boddhisatva, that is, someone who has the potential to reach Enlightenment. The progressive Buddhists I know believe we all have the potential to achieve Enlightenment, meaning each of us (in that specific sense) is a Boddhisatva.

In other words, we — you and I — have the capability to do what the Buddha did in his incarnation as a quail. We have the capability to persuade and explain how to work together for the common good. And to do that, we will have to be like the Buddha, and remain calm and centered.

That’s the hard part, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at persuading and explaining. But in order to be good at explaining and persuading, you have to stay calm and centered. I found this out when I was selling building materials. I quickly learned that if you came across as desperate, you were likely to lose the sale. Similarly, if the Buddha had come across as desperate, half the quails would just stop listening to him. He cultivated a state of being where he was both fully aware of the danger — it was, after all, a matter of life and death — and he did not let the danger ruffle the calm of his soul.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the big problems we face in the United States today. We are letting danger ruffle the calm of our souls. We go from passive to frantic very quickly. When we become frantic, we are no longer effective at either explaining or persuading.

So how can we stay calm and centered? This is something that religion is actually quite useful for. In fact, helping people stay calm and centered is one of the default settings in just about any organized religion. And most organized religions offer a number of different techniques we can use to stay calm and centered. We human beings are a diverse lot, and organized religions typically offer more than one path to being calm and centered. Buddhism, for example, encourages people to meditate, to study sacred texts, to chant, to gather together in community, to give offerings and alms, and Zen Buddhists even get to practice archery.

Or, more to the point, take our own organized religion, Unitarian Universalism. In our worship service alone, we offer a diversity of paths: we can sit in community, we can sing, we can listen to music, we can share our joys and sorrows, we can listen to a sermon, we even have a short time of silence for those of us who need silence. Beyond Sunday morning worship, you can join a Circle Ministry group, you can go on a meditation retreat, you can do hands-on volunteering, you can lead worship yourself in the summer. These are all spiritual practices you can find in our congregation, practices that can help you get calm and centered.

And I suspect the most important aspect of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice, or indeed of any organized religion, is the communal aspect. Thich Nhat Hahn, one of the most interesting Buddhist thinkers of the past few decades, used the term “inter-being” to describe how we are linked to all beings. Thich Nhat Hahn said, “You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else.” (1) We Unitarian Universalists often use the phrase, “the interdependent web of existence,” which means much the same thing. (2)

“You cannot be by yourself alone.” This is the most important part of learning how to be calm and centered. “You have to inter-be with everything else.” This is how the Buddha remained calm and centered in the story about the quails: he was always fully aware of how he was “inter-being” with all the other quails, and indeed with all existence.

So in our spiritual practices, this is what we must always remain fully aware of: we are all part of each other; we all “inter-be.” It’s fairly easy to remember that when we gather for Sunday worship services. We mostly like one another, and while there are inevitably feuds and squabbles in every congregation, the bonds between us end to be stronger than the weak forces trying to pull us apart. So we gather for Sunday worship — or for Circle Ministry, or to volunteer, or for a mediation retreat — we gather together with people we more or less get along with, and that is the key to our spiritual practice. We remember what it is to get along with other people. We remember inter-being.

The next step is to take that spiritual practice out into the wider world. When we hear something inflammatory on social media, we can remember that feeling of inter-being. Instead of lashing out, we remain calm and centered. Remaining calm and centered, we can stay focused on what’s really important: that we must work together if we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in. And so we can remember that we don’t need to react to that inflammatory social media post. When we don’t react to that social media post, that helps other to back down, so that they can return to being calm and centered. So it is that calmness can spread, and so it might be that we can learn to work together again.

Not that this is an easy task. It’s hard to remember about inter-being. It’s hard to really and truly believe in the interdependent web of existence. That’s why we keep coming back to communities like this one; we all need constant reminders. Well, maybe not all of us. It does seem that there are a few special persons, like the Buddha, who don’t need constant reminders. The rest of us rely on each other, we rely on our gathered community, to help us stay calm and centered. And then we’re able to take that feeling of calm, that feeling of being centered, out into the world. May it be so: may we spread calm wherever we go in our lives; may we live our lives as if we are all interdependent.


(1) Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998, “The Island of Self” This dharma talk was reprinted in a slightly different form in the book No Mud No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering (Parallax Press). Available as a print book or ebook from Parallax Press or it can be borrowed online from the Internet Archive.

(2) The phrase “interdependent web of existence” comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, who was affiliated with the Unitarian Unviersalists and the Presbyterians. Loomer used the phrase to describe what Jesus of Nazareth meant by the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.” One can also find parallels between the concepts of interdependence and intersubjectivity, and the Jewish Philopher Martin Buber’s book I and Thou. While all these concepts have distinct differences, arising in part out of the distinctly different religious traditions from whence they come, nevertheless the parallels are striking.