The Power of Stories

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

I’d like to speak to you this morning about the power of stories, both formal stories with a beginning, middle, and end, and the informal stories that we tell about ourselves. And I’ll begin by telling you a story, the story of the Frightened Rabbit. You may have heard this story before in a slightly different form, but I’m going to tell it more or less the way Buddhists have told it for the last two thousand five hundred years. 1


One day in the town of Savatthi, some of Buddha’s followers, known as the bhikkus, went out to beg for their food, as they did every day.

Each day, the bhikkus went to a different part of the town to beg. One day, they went past some holy men who lay naked on beds of thorn-plants, in the hope that this would help them become more holy. Further along, they saw more holy men. These holy men had built a large bonfire, and even though the day was hot and the sun was bright, they sat as close as they could to the broiling fire, in the hope that the burning heat would help them become more holy.

The bhikkus continued on their way, stopping at each house to beg for their food. When each of their begging bowls was filled with food, they returned to where they lived with Buddha. And Buddha came to sit and eat with them.

“Buddha,” said one bhikku, “when we were out getting our food this morning, we walked past some holy men who were lying naked on cruel, sharp thorns.” She paused for a moment. “Will doing this make them any more holy?”

“And Buddha,” said another bhikku, “we also walked past some holy men who were sitting next to a blazing fire, out under the blazing hot sun. Will this make them any more holy?”

“No,” said Buddha. “These men are heretics. They have deluded themselves, and so they avoid the truth. They lie on thorns and bake themselves only because someone told them to. Which reminds me of the frightened rabbit and the horrible noise.” And then the Buddha told this story:


Once upon a time (said the Buddha), there was a little rabbit who lived in a forest by the Western Ocean. This little rabbit lived in a beautiful grove of trees, at the foot of a Bengal quince tree, the kind of tree under which the god Shiva was said to have lived. Next to the Bengal quince tree was a palm tree where the little rabbit liked to sit and nibble grass.

A Bengal quince (Aegle marmelos)

One fine day, the little rabbit sat under the palm tree nibbling grass and thinking about what would happen to him if the world got destroyed by Lord Shiva. At just that moment, a large, hard Bengal quince fell off the tree and hit the ground directly behind the little rabbit.

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit, and he ran as fast as he could away from the sound.

Another rabbit saw him running, and said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the little rabbit.

The second rabbit ran after him, shouting, “The earth is cracking apart!” Soon, all the rabbits in the neighborhood were running with them.

When the other animals saw all the rabbits running, they said, “What’s going on?”

“The earth is cracking apart!” cried the rabbits, “Run for your lives!”

The other animals began to run, too: the wild pigs, the deer, the buffaloes, the rhinoceroses, the tigers, and even the elephants all began to run, shouting, “The earth is being destroyed!”

      Ad lib comment during service: Perhaps this story will
      remind you of a story in the news yesterday and today.

Now, in another part of the forest there lived a good and kind lion. She saw all the animals running, and heard them shouting, “The earth is being destroyed! Run for your lives!” The lion was wise, and immediately saw that the earth was not being destroyed. She could also see that the animals were so frightened that if they didn’t stop they would run into the Western Ocean and drown. She ran as fast as she could and got in front of all the animals. She roared three times.

When the animals heard the good and kind lion roaring, they call came to a stop.

The lion said, “Why are you all running?”

“The earth is being destroyed,” said the animals.

The lion said, “How do you know the earth is being destroyed?”

One animal said, “The elephants saw it.”

But the elephants said, “It wasn’t us. The tigers saw it.”

But the tigers hadn’t seen anything. “It was the rhinoceroses,” they said.

But the rhinoceroses said, “The water buffaloes gave the alarm,” they said.

But the buffaloes hadn’t given the alarm. Nor did the deer know anything. The wild pigs said they started running when they saw the rabbits running. One by one, each of the rabbits said that they hadn’t seen anything, until at last the little rabbit said, “I was the one who heard the earth breaking into pieces.”

The lion said, “Where were you when you saw this?”

“I was at home in the beautiful grove of trees,” said the little rabbit, “next to my house at the foot of the Bengal quince tree. I was sitting near my favorite little palm tree nibbling grass, when I heard the earth start to break up behind me. So I ran away.”

The lion knew that the Bengal quinces were starting to ripen, and she suspected that one of the fruits had fallen from the tree and hit the ground behind the little rabbit. “Stay here for a while,” she said to the animals. “I will take the little rabbit with me, and we will see what is happening there.”

The kind lion had the little rabbit jump up onto her broad back, and off she ran to where the little rabbit had been sitting nibbling grass. When they got to the Bengal quince tree, the little rabbit pointed in terror and said, “There! There it is! That’s where the earth is breaking up!” And he closed his eyes in terror.

“Little rabbit,” said the lion in a kind voice, “open your eyes and you will see that the earth is not breaking up. I can see just where you were crouching under the little palm tree nibbling on some grass, and right behind that a large fruit from the Bengal quince tree is lying on the ground. What you heard was the sound of that big quince hitting the ground behind you. It must have made a loud sound, and no wonder you got scared, but there really is nothing to fear.”

The good lion went back and told the other animals what she had found. The animals all sighed in relief, and everything returned to normal.


“That’s the story,” said the Buddha.

One of the bhikkus said, “Those animals should not have listened to the little rabbit without checking for themselves that the earth was breaking up. Common sense should have told them that the earth wasn’t breaking up.”

Another bhikku said, “I guess those men who lie naked on the thorns are like the animals in the story. They didn’t pay attention to their common sense.”

A bhikku added, “The lion was truly wise and compassionate. If it had not been for her, all the animals would have drowned.”

Then, because Buddha and his followers all believed that they had lived many different lives, the Buddha said that in one of his previous lives he had been the lion in the story: a wise and compassionate being who helped others.


Did you notice what happened in this story? — or I should say, in each of these stories: the story about the animals, and the story about Buddha’s followers?

In the story about the animals, a Bengal quince, a piece of fruit, falls to the ground. The little rabbit hears the sound and thinks the world is cracking apart! When the wise lion hears the little rabbit’s story about what he thought had happened, she figures out what really happened, and she helps the little rabbit to retell the story in a better way. In the story about Buddha’s followers, they see some holy men lying on thorns and baking themselves in intense heat, and they’re trying to make sense out of what they see. Buddha tells them a story to help them understand what they already knew — lying on thorns and baking in intense heat are not going to make you any more holy.

We have our educational goals, and there are the Seven Principles printed on those wallet cards you can get outside the main door to this room; as important as these are, they are not nearly as important to our religious community as the stories we tell to one another.

At the beginning of the service, Jack Hardy told us: “When I listen to stories at church I imagine what the person in the story is feeling and thinking what I would do in that situation.” So when Buddha tells the story about the little rabbit to his followers, his followers imagine that they are the little rabbit, and they imagine that they are the wise lion, and they realize that it is better to be the wise lion than the little rabbit. And in listening to the story, and using their imaginations, Buddha’s followers are changed, transformed for the better.

At the beginning of the service, Heather Chen told us how our congregation is a unique community for kids. Now even though she didn’t start with “Once upon a time” and end with “they lived happily ever after,” Heather was really telling us a kind of story about how our kids experience our congregation: she is telling us that while our kids are learning a lot, more importantly they are becoming a part of the community that is our congregation. We are constantly telling each other little stories about who we are and what’s important to us, and these little stories shape us, transform us for the better.

The writer Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, “We shape each other to be human.” 2 This is why we tell each other stories — big formal stories that may begin with the words “Once upon a time…” and informal little stories and conversations that reveal what is in our hearts and souls. Story by story, conversation by conversation, bit by bit, we shape each other, transform each other into better human beings.



Note 1:

The story in the sermon is Jataka tale number 322, Duddubha Jataka. My source was The Jataka: Stories of the Buddha’s Former Births, ed. E. B. Cowell, vol. III, trans. H. T. Francis and R. A. Neil (1895; rpt., Pali Text Society: Oxford, 2005) pp. 49-52.

Note 2:

Ursula K. LeGuin, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” in New Legends, ed. Greg Bear, (Tor, 1995).

Flowing Water

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation — more than usual in this case. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is from the Chuang-Tze, translated by James Legge:

“Time never stops, but is always moving on; man’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way. Therefore men of great wisdom, looking at things far off or near at hand, do not think them insignificant for being small, nor much of them for being great:– knowing how capacities differ illimitably. They appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course. They examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of man’s lot….'”

[Section 17. From Sacred Books of the East, vol. 39, 1891.]

The second reading this morning consists of two chapters from the Tao te Ching, or Book of Changes. This translation is by James Legge (ch. 9, 15; from vol. 39, Sacred Books of the East, 1891)

9 When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself. When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven….

15 The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep (also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise. They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of themselves)….


This is the second in a series of sermons this month on Chinese religious texts and traditions.

I begin with the assumption that there is something to be learned from all the great religious traditions of the world, and I follow that with an assumption that we can often learn from other religious traditions and apply their wisdom to some of our problems.

Now if you attend worship services here fairly regularly, you already know that I am concerned about the decline of liberal religion in the United States. Charles Gaines, a retired Universalist minister, has shown that there are 65,000 fewer Unitarian Universalists of all ages now than there were in 1968. In that time, the population of the United States has increased by 93 million people. Considered as a percentage of the total population, our liberal faith is indeed in decline. I believe that we are in decline for all the wrong reasons, and I believe wisdom from that ancient Chinese religious tradition called Taoism has something to teach us about how to reverse liberal religion’s decline.

Actually, I believe we have no excuse at all to be in decline. Bill Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has pointed out that there are 250,000 people who are certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations — and another 250,000 people who regularly report themselves as Unitarian Universalists on surveys and polls, but who aren’t part of our congregations! In addition, Sinkford says that if you look at the demographic data, there are between five and six million people in the United States today who are pretty much like us, people who are already Unitarian Universalists, but who are part of our congregations. The evidence does point to a slow decline in the numbers of Unitarian Universalists. The evidence also indicates that our liberal religion could easily be five times the size it is now.

That doesn’t mean that I think everyone should become a Unitarian Universalist, nor do I believe that everyone should become part of our congregation — I’m not like those conservative Christians who think everyone should be just like them, religiously speaking. Yet what I see over and over again is people who really want to become Unitarian Universalists, but who can’t seem to find a place in one of our congregations. These people already like our theology, they already like our liberal religion, so I know the problem lies somewhere else. And investigating that problem can lead us straight to the heart of a serious theological puzzle that has bedeviled us religious liberals for years:– the problem of religious authority.

In our religious tradition, each individual is his or her own religious authority. I, as a minister, have no authority to tell you what to believe, or to tell you how to live out your religious life. No member of this congregation — neither a member of the Board of Trustees, nor some member with power or money or influence, nor any other member of the congregation — can tell you what to believe, or tell you how to live our your religious life. You are the ultimate religious authority for yourself. Of course, this also means that you cannot tell anyone else what to believe, or how to live out her or his religious life. This also means that the congregation cannot tell its minister what to preach, or what not to preach (although you could certainly fire me if you don’t like what I preach). We don’t have bishops or popes or imams or Parsis or gurus, because we are each our own religious authority.

Having said this, it’s also perfectly clear that there are those among us who speak with authority;– those among us to whom others listen with some deference. I have seen some Unitarian Universalist congregations where a minister speaks with real authority. I have seen other Unitarian Universalist congregations where certain lay leaders speak with real authority. By “real authority,” I mean these are people whose thoughts and feelings carry real weight; these are people who can influence decisions, or who may even make decisions. Then there are other Unitarian Universalist congregations where no one person has a great amount of authority, where lay leaders and the minister and other members of the congregation all share authority more or less equally.

If you were counting, I just mentioned three different types of congregations: one type where a minister has the most authority, a second type where certain lay leaders have the most authority, and a third type where authority is shared and no person or group has the most authority. I can tell you from my own observations that each of these three types of congregation can work extremely well. And each of these three types of congregation can be just as Unitarian Universalist as the other two — in other words, I can find no theological difference between them. As near as I can tell, the only difference between the three different types of congregation is that larger congregations tend to have one minister who has the most authority, small and tiny congregations tend to have a small group of lay leaders with most or all of the authority, and medium sized congregations tend to be places where everyone shares authority equally.

And my observations are confirmed by Edward Koster, an attorney and a Presbyterian minister in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Koster got interested in nonverbal communication, and how people communicate authority nonverbally in a congregation. Drawing on the theory of meta-communciations, Koster says we can separate out the content of what we say from the relationship between the two parties who are communicating. If we just look at the relationship between two people, Koster points out that there are only two types of relationship that are possible: there’s a symmetrical relationship where the two people are equally influential; and there’s a complementary relationship where one person is clearly the boss.

I’ll give you an obvious example: in most cases, a parent and a young child will be in a complementary relationship with each other, where the parent is in the “one-up” position, and the child is in the “one-down” position. When there’s a conflict between the two of them, the parent is generally going to “win.” I’ll give you another example: my relationship with my life partner, Carol, is a symmetrical relationship. Neither one of us is the boss. When we get into a conflict, the outcome of that conflict is uncertain.

Now remember, neither of these relationships is inherently good or bad. I know plenty of good marriages and partnerships that are complementary, where one of the partners is in the “one-up” position and the other partner is in the “one-down” position. We don’t want to make moral judgments about which type of relationship is best. But we can make judgments about which type of relationship is most proper — I think you’ll agree with me that it is appropriate for a young child to be in a “one-down” relationship with his or her parent. Once you learn this concept, you’ll start noticing it at work in many of your own personal relationships — you’ll realize that you’re in a complementary relationship with your boss, where you’re in the “one-down” position — and you’ll find lots of relationships which are symmetrical relationships.

Getting back to congregations, Koster believes we can find this kind of relationship in congregations. Specifically, he found that the relationship between clergyperson and laypeople in many smaller congregations, those with an average attendance of less than a hundred, was a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-down” position. This makes complete sense, given that small congregations often have part-time ministers, or lots of turn over in their ministers, so the laypeople have to take on more authority. Then Koster found that the relationship between clergy and laypeople in medium-sized congregations, those with between a hundred and two hundred average attendance, is a symmetrical relationship. And — you guessed it — in large congregations, with more than two hundred in attendance, it’s a complementary relationship with the clergy in the “one-up” position. Here again, this makes complete sense, because a bigger congregation becomes so much more complex that you pretty much need a full-time, paid person to be in charge.

I don’t think I need to point out that this is a small congregation, with less than a hundred people in attendance each week. That means that I, as the clergyperson, am in the “one-down” position, and that lay leaders are the ones with the authority to initiate change. Except for one little point, this is neither good nor bad from my point of view — it’s simply that that’s the way things work around here.

Except for one little point — if the laypeople who are the leaders, the one in the “one-up” position, decide that they want this congregation to grow, Edward Koster predicts we’re going to hit a barrier when we start getting about a hundred people each Sunday. That barrier will hit us when the laypeople who are the leaders have to give up a big chunk of their authority, and start sharing authority with the minister and with other laypeople. That will not be an easy task. With all the visitors that we have been getting this year, we could reach a hundred people in worship within twelve months — we could hit that barrier within a year.

What will we do when we hit that barrier? To help address that question, I’d like to turn to the readings we heard this morning. And I turn first to the first reading, by Chuang-tze.

Chuang-tze tells us that persons of great wisdom “appeal with intelligence to things of ancient and recent occurrence, without being troubled by the remoteness of the former, or standing on tiptoe to lay hold of the latter:– knowing that time never stops in its course.” That is to say, persons of great wisdom acknowledge the past, both the distant past and the very recent past; and in acknowledging the past, they are acknowledging that the stream of time is always flowing onwards. Chuang-tze continues, saying that person of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of” humanity’s lot. Sometimes things get better, sometimes things get worse; sometimes we are in times of plenty, sometimes we are in times of great want; yet the person of great wisdom remains on an even keel, knowing that life is inconstant and always changing.

This is pretty good advice for any one of us. I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading Chuang-tze over the years, and he strikes me as being full of good advice. I have found that if I accept his advice, if I am able to remember the inconstancy of humanity’s lot, I am able to stay centered, stable, secure in myself. When I am able to remember to stay centered, stable, secure in myself (and I’m the first to say that I find that a difficult task), I am able to follow up on successes, and I remain clearheaded so that I can deal with the problems at hand. Getting excited by success or dragged down by failure, however, doesn’t provide any advantage at all.

So says Chuang-tze. And his thoughts are a direct outgrowth of the words of his master, Lao-tze. In the second reading, we heard similar ideas from Lao-tze, who said: “When gold and jade fill the hall, their possessor cannot keep them safe. When wealth and honours lead to arrogancy, this brings its evil on itself.” In other words, glorying in success can lead to a downfall.

Lao-tze continues: “When the work is done, and one’s name is becoming distinguished, to withdraw into obscurity is the way of Heaven.” In other words, the wise leader is the one who pulls back from the limelight at the moment of success so that the people can say, We have done this ourselves. Lao-tze says, The best leaders look grave like a guest in awe of his host, “evanescent,” “unpretentious,” and “dull like muddy water.”

In today’s American society, we are not familiar with this idea of leadership. The politicians in Washington set the tone for us, and too often we believe that real leaders have to be authoritarian, bossy, always in control, they have to micro-manage every detail of everything. Yet we do know what it means for a leader to be unpretentious; George Washington was unpretentious; so was Abraham Lincoln. So we do know another path of leadership, a path that values humilty over authoritarianism, a path that values evanescence over micro-managing.

And Lao-tze gives us advice about how to accomplish this second, unpretentious kind of leadership. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? he writes. Let the water remain still, and it will gradually become clear; who can secure the condition of rest? –let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

Lao-tze often uses the image of flowing water, and that image captures something of what he’s trying to tell us. Be like water, that flows effortlessly, always seeking the lowest place. Accept that change is going to happen, and don’t resist change. We even have a saying in English with a similar idea: go with the flow.

Chuang-tze writes that persons of great wisdom “examine with discrimination cases of fulness and of want, not overjoyed by success, nor disheartened by failure:– knowing the inconstancy of humanity’s lot.” Knowing that change happens, let us examine one case of fulness, not letting ourselves be overjoyed by their success. Over the past twenty years, the fastest growing new congregation in Unitarian Universalism is Horizon Unitarian Universalist congregation in Carrollton, Texas. Founded in 1987 with 34 members, they’re closing in on 400 members with a $400,00 annual operating budget.

A couple of years ago, I heard their parish minister, Dennis Hamilton, speak at General Assembly, the annual gathering of United States Unitarian Universalists. In his talk, Dennis Hamilton said that one reason Horizon has grown is that they know their congregation changes people’s lives, and changes the world. He put it more forcefully, and I’ll read you his words:

“To grow and thrive a church must see itself as a redemptive force in the community, that its presence makes a difference. It cannot see itself as a reclusive retreat for free thinkers and rebels. Ministers need to project this vision for their congregations and members need to share in it. Even more, from individual congregations and from our denominational leadership, we need to see ourselves as the religion of the future. We cannot live in the past or find our importance in the past. As we continue to celebrate our religion through our historical leaders, and find validity by pointing to past heroes, we come to look like trust fund babies, living indolently off of past greatness. It is up to us to create our own history by being great and by being bold in our vision.” So writes Dennis Hamilton.

While he might disagree with me, I think Dennis Hamilton is saying something similar to Lao-tze. Change is inevitable. Therefore, we must let go of the past and move forward into the future. And how are we to do that? Hamilton says by accepting our role as a redemptive force in the community.

Dennis Hamilton tells us we “must see [ourselves] as a redemptive force in the community, that [our] presence makes a difference.” This means more than doing more social justice projects, although there’s nothing wrong with more social justice projects, as long as you don’t burn out your social justice committee. It means seeing ourselves for who we really are, in all our strengths and weaknesses. If we look at who we really are, we Unitarian Universalists are not very effective at doing social justice. If we compare ourselves to Habitat for Humanity, or to the Sierra Club, or to the American Civil Liberties Union, it’s clear that those other organizations do more social justice than we can — simply because that’s all they do. We do something more. We take our great theological message out into the world: we tell people that the search for truth is more important than trying to codify truth in creeds and doctrines. We spread the word that the world needs open conversations about deep questions, rather than fights and wars based on preliminary conclusions.

Which is to say, what really distinguishes us is our unique religious belief system. We make a difference in the community around us simply by living out our theological openness. Yes, it would be great if we did more social justice, but I think we should give ourselves some credit for the amazing things we already do here at First Unitarian. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we allow women to be clergy — this makes a huge difference in a world that still denigrates women. Our theological openness means that, unlike other religions, we have been sanctioning religious marriages between same-sex couples for decades, and we will continue to sanction same sex marriages even if the anti-gay amendment gets added to the state constitution. Our theological openness has been moving us to the point where on any given Sunday morning, twenty percent of our congregation might be a so-called minority: non-white and/or Hispanic.

So you see, the fact that we exist at all is the most important thing we do here in New Bedford. And in fact, what we really show the surrounding community is that change is possible. When we realized that it wasn’t right to make women be second-class citizens, we changed — and it was a change for the better. When we realized that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, we changed — and it was a change for the better. Now we are realizing that a multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation makes sense, so we are changing for the better. We are the religion of the future, and we are making a difference in New Bedford by being the religion of the future.

That being the case, our theological openness should also allow us to change by growing. If we are to grow, I think the most difficult change for this congregation will be changing the relationship between the minister and the congregation. As a congregation grows to having more than a hundred people here each Sunday, can we change so that we create a symmetrical relationship between the minister and the congregation? To do so will result in major changes in the way we do things — organization, communications, trust. It will upset ways of doing things that go back several generations.

To grow for the sake of growth is a waste of time. But I believe we should live out our new destiny as a redemptive force in our community. That means that when people are attracted to us because of who we are, we should not chase them away, and we should not allow them to slip through our fingers. If someone walks in the door of this building, it is because they need to be here — they need to be a part of our liberal faith — the need us to be a redemptive force in their lives. They need us — they need us to welcome them, to say: join us, now you’re home.

To change for the sake of changing is a waste of time. But change is inevitable, and we should be ready for it. We should not waste the huge amount of effort it takes to resist change. Chuang-tze says: “Time never stops, but is always moving on; humanity’s lot is ever changing; the end and the beginning of things never occur twice in the same way.” May we embrace change.


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Responsive reading

“The Book of Changes”

Anciently, when the sages wrote the Book of Changes, it was their design that its images should conform with the principles underlying the nature of humanity and things, and the ordinances for them appointed by Heaven

With this view, the sages described the way of heaven, naming yin and yang; and the way of earth, naming the weak and the strong; and the way of humanity, under the names of benevolence and righteousness.

The symbols of heaven and earth took their determinate positions; the symbols for mountains and collections of water interchanged their influences;

The symbols for thunder and wind excited each other the more; and the symbols for water and fire did each other no harm.

Then among these eight symbols there was a mutual communication.

Thunder serves to put things in motion; wind to scatter the genial seeds of them; rain to moisten them; the sun to warm them;

The crash of thunder to arrest them and keep them in their places; water in a lake to give them joyful course; the strong and undivided to rule them; and the weak and divided to store them up.

The Supreme God comes forth in the crash of thunder; brings processes into full and equal action in wind;

Processes are manifested to one another in brightness; the greatest service is done in the weak and divided;

The Supreme God rejoices in the water in a lake; and struggles in the strong and undivided;

The Supreme God is comforted and enters into rest in water; and completes the work of the year in the crash of thunder.

When we speak of Spirit we mean the subtle presence and operation of the Supreme God with all things.

Water and fire contribute together to the one object; thunder and wind do not act contrary to one another;

Mountains and collections of water interchange their influences.

It is in this way that they are able to change and transform, and to give completion to all things.

Arranged DH, from the Legge translation of the Yi Jing.


The first reading this morning comes from an essay about the I Ching, written by the famed psychologist Carl Jung as the Foreword to the Richard Wilhelm. Cary Baynes translation of the I Ching. Jung writes:

“I can assure my reader that it is not altogether easy to find the right access to [the I Ching,] this monument of Chinese thought, which departs so completely from our ways of thinking. In order to understand what such a book is all about, it is imperative to cast off certain prejudices of the Western mind. It is a curious fact that such a gifted and intelligent people as the Chinese has never developed what we call science. Our science, however, is based upon the principle of causality, and causality is considered to be an axiomatic truth. But a great change in our standpoint is setting in. What Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason failed to do, is being accomplished by modern physics. The axioms of causality are being shaken to their foundations: we know now that what we term natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must necessarily allow for exceptions. We have not sufficiently taken into account as yet that we need the laboratory with its incisive restrictions in order to demonstrate the invariable validity of natural law. If we leave things to nature, we see a very different picture: every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance….

“…whoever invented the I Ching was convinced that the hexagram worked out in a certain moment coincided with [that moment] in quality no less than time. To him the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast…. This assumption involved a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since [causality] is merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.” [p. xxii; xxiv]

The second reading this morning comes from the best-known English translation of the I Ching, the translation by Richard Wilhelm and Cary Baynes. I could not decide which piece of this huge work would be the most suitable introduction for a sermon about the I Ching, so I took my cue from Carl Jung, and decided to consult the I Ching using standard divinatory practices, and use the resulting text as my reading. For this purpose, I had to pose a question, so I used a question that has been on mind from last week’s sermon: “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?”

Upon consulting the I Ching oracle, I was referred to the hexagram Sun; which, translated into English, is Decrease.

The Judgment:

    Decrease combined with sincerity
    Brings about supreme good fortune
    Without blame.
    One may be persevering in this.
    It furthers one to undertake something.
    How is this to be carried out?
    One may use two small bowls for the sacrifice.

Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense. If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings. Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of the content makes up for the simplicity of the form. There is no need of presenting false appearances to God. Even with slender means, the sentiment of the heart can be expresses.

The image:

    At the foot of the mountain, the lake:
    The image of Decrease.
    Thus the superior man controls his anger
    And restrains his instincts.

The lake at the foot of the mountain evaporates. In this way it decreases to the benefit of the mountain, which is enriched by its moisture. The mountain stands as the symbol of a stubborn strength that can harden into anger. The lake is the symbol of unchecked gaiety that can develop into passionate drives at the expense of the life forces. Therefore decrease is necessary; anger must be decreased by keeping still, the instincts must be curbed by restriction. By this decrease of the lower powers of the psyche, the higher aspects of the soul are enriched….


To come up with the second reading this morning, I consulted an ancient Chinese oracle, or tool of divination. I daresay the more skeptical among you this morning have probably concluded that I have gone off the deep end — consulting an ancient Chinese oracle, for pity’s sake! For someone like me who claims to be pro-science, who started out his academic career studying physics, consulting an oracle is close to heresy. The word “woo-woo” comes to mind.

So before I go any further, and before you convict me in your minds of the peculiarly Unitarian Universalist heresy of being non-rational, I had better explain why consulting the I Ching is not necessarily “woo-woo.”

Ordinarily, we human beings rely on the principle of causality. We think that a certain cause will always lead to a certain effect. Drop a ball, and it will always hit the ground. The principle of causality tells us that a given cause will produce the same effect every time. Measure something more than once, we’ll get the same measurement every time. That’s what we ordinarily believe. But when I was studying physics, I learned that modern physics shows that cause-and effect doesn’t always work. Let me give you two examples.

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg showed that you can’t accurately measure both the momentum and the location of a sub-atomic particle. If you accurately measure the velocity of a certain subatomic particle, you cannot accurately measure its location; in fact, it could be way over on the other side of the galaxy. We cannot measure anything to perfect accuracy; some uncertainty will always creep into our measurements. This is called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Second, there’s the “observer effect.” It turns out that whenever we observe something, we change what we’re trying to observe simply by observing it. There’s the famous thought experiment of Erwin Schrödinger’s cat, which goes like this: Let’s say you have a cat in a box, and in that box you set up a Geiger counter that can measure the decay of some radioactive substance that has a fifty-fifty chance of setting off the Geiger counter in any one hour. Then set it up so that if the Geiger counter goes off, it trips a mechanism that releases poisonous gas into the air, killing the cat. Until you open up that sealed box, you can’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. Schrödinger says the box has inside it “the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.” Similarly, if you hitch up an voltmeter to a circuit, by so doing you change the voltage. In the medical world, researchers can alter the outcome of research unless they use double-blind research techniques.

So you see, the principle of causality is not quite so universal as we ordinarily believe. And this has a direct impact on religion.

For many people — maybe for most people in the Western world — religion depends on the principle of causality. Many Westerners believe that if you do something wrong, God is going to get you, and throw you into hell when you die. That’s straight-forward cause-and-effect: you do something bad, you get thrown into hell. Conversely, many people believe that if you are good, if you read the Bible as the literal word of God, and if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then you get to go to heaven when you die. Straightforward cause-and-effect: do the right things, go to heaven.

Modern physics has been telling us that causality, cause-and-effect, is not quite so straightforward. Modern physics tells us: we cannot say with one hundred percent accuracy that a certain effect will always arise from a certain cause. We might be able to say that some effect will arise from some cause with, say, ninety-nine point nine percent certainty. Certainly that’s good enough for everyday life. But when it comes to getting thrown into hell for all the rest of eternity, I for one would prefer to have one hundred percent confidence that I’m either going to go to heaven or I’m going to go to hell. If we start to doubt the principle of causality, that raises some really interesting religious questions.

Our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters tell us that we can have one hundred percent certainty: just accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, they tell us, and you are one hundred percent assured of going to heaven. Although from what I see, that’s not how they live out their lives. They are constantly observing one another to make sure every good Christian is sticking to the straight and narrow path, because if you stray you could go to hell; which implies that even if you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you are not one hundred percent certain that you’ll get to heaven. According to this kind of Christian belief, we’re sort of like Schrödinger’s cat, because we can’t determine whether we’re saved or damned until God observes us after we die. In any case, we Unitarian Universalists do not think life is quite that simple.

The ancient Chinese book the I Ching gives us another way of looking at the world. The ancient Chinese who wrote the I Ching didn’t believe in an all-powerful God who ran the world. Instead, they saw the world as a complex web of relationships. That’s what we heard in the responsive reading this morning: that there is a “mutual communication” between things; that different things “interchange influences.” The person who translated what we heard in the responsive reading used the term “Supreme God,” but he certainly didn’t mean “God” in the usual Christian sense. Instead, the term “Supreme God” means process and change.

The psychologist Carl Jung claims that there’s an interdependence between the events around us — and that there’s a link between those outside events and what’s going on inside us. We’re not just observers of the world, we’re fully immersed in the world. We’re connected in many and various ways to each other and to everything around us. Our hearts and minds and bodies are connected to the world, not merely through linear cause and effect, but through a vastly complex web of chance and synchronicity.

That’s why I decided that if I’m going to be true to the I Ching in this sermon, I should skip all this dry and logical explanation, and treat it as an oracle. So I did. I asked the I Ching a question that came up in last week’s sermon. I asked: “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?”

And the I Ching gave me a thoughtful “answer.” Here’s how I got that thoughtful “answer” : — I asked the question. Then, according to an accepted method of consulting the I Ching oracle, I threw three coins down on the table six different times. According to an established formula, the various combinations of heads and tails generated by random chance pointed me to certain passages in the book. I copied those passages down, and read them as if those passages were an answer to my question. Considered as strict cause-and-effect, I know that sounds a little goofy; but according to the internal logic of the I Ching, I asked a question of the oracle and it gave me an answer.

I asked the oracle, “How should we understand our personal responsibility for life?” The oracle said this: “Decrease does not under all circumstances mean something bad. Increase and decrease come in their own time. What matters here is to understand the time and not to try to cover up poverty with empty pretense.” That’s a moderately wise and fairly cogent response to my question. When we talk about personal responsibility, chances are that we are talking about our responsibility for mistakes, failures, or for inability to live up to high expectations. I did not ask, “How can we take credit for the good things we have done?” nor did I ask, “How can we understand it when good things happen to us?” The phrase “personal responsibility” implies the possibility of, or the reality of, something having gone wrong. The oracle tells us that even when it seems as though things are going downhill, that doesn’t always mean something bad. The path our life takes is never all uphill to glory; inevitably, there are downhill runs. The oracle tells us that when things are headed downhill, that too is a natural part of life’s path. We need not try to pretend everything is hunky-dory when it’s not — sound advice indeed.

The oracle continues: “If a time of scanty resources brings out an inner truth, one must not feel ashamed of simplicity. For simplicity is then the very thing needed to provide inner strength for further undertakings.” This is a profound truth. Of course times of decrease are normal in the world around us: warmth and growth decrease in the autumn and winter, light decreases at dusk. But the oracle tells us that times of decrease can allow us to see inner truths: when the leaves fall off the trees in autumn, we can see the inner structure of the trunks and branches; when light decreases at dusk, we can at last see the stars which are always there. More prosaically, the oracle tells us that simplicity, or the stripping away of inconsequentials, can grant us the strength to move forward in new endeavors. Day leads to night, and night leads to day; just so, times of decrease can lead to times of increase.

I believe the next part of the oracle’s answer pertains directly to us as a congregation. I like our congregation quite a bit: we are a group of interesting, smart people who are doing exciting things with our lives. Knowing what a great group we are, I have a hard time understanding why there are only forty or fifty of us here on a given Sunday — there should be two or three hundred of us! The oracle tells me: “Indeed, there need be no concern if the outward beauty of the civilization, even the elaboration of religious forms, should have to suffer because of simplicity. One must draw on the strength of the inner attitude to compensate for what is lacking in externals; then the power of the content makes up for the simplicity of the form.” Thus, the oracle tells me that even though we don’t have three hundred people here this morning — nor do we have a 60 voice choir, nor a particularly polished preacher and worship associate — nonetheless there is power in our simplicity. There is power in simply being who we are. The power of our being, the message of our liberal faith, is what counts. The oracle continues: “There is no need of presenting false appearances to Heaven.” We don’t need to try to be something we are not, because who we really are is more than good enough.

Having given us this judgment, the I Ching goes on to give us an image to think about. For me, this affirms that what we are hearing is a kind of poetic truth: not simple linear truth based in cause-and-effect relationships, but poetic truth that works through a web of connected images and ideas. The image that the oracle presents is this: “The superior man controls his anger / and restrains his instincts…. Decrease is necessary; anger must be decreased by keeping still, the instincts must be curbed by restriction. By this decrease of the lower powers of the psyche, the higher aspects of the soul are enriched.” I would add: while anger may an appropriate and necessary emotion at certain times, it is useless to get angry at the natural process of decrease. At such times, the instinct to become angry must be kept in check; by so doing, the higher aspects of our souls will be enriched. For example, we need not become angry because our congregation is small while the Religious Right seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. Instead of anger, we can pursue a path that enriches the higher parts of our soul.

In the image, the moisture of the lake evaporates, and the trees and plants growing on the mountain benefit from the lake’s moisture. Even though the lake decreases, its decrease is necessary for life elsewhere. And this image assures us that the decrease of the lake is not permanent: the rains will surely come again, and replenish the lake. Decrease is part of the natural cycle of life.

So ends the major part of the oracle’s answer to my question. It goes one to give an piece of advice.

The oracle tells us: “Perseverance brings good fortune. / It furthers one to undertake something.” I began by asking the oracle: How should we understand our personal responsibility for life? The oracle has already told us that decrease is a natural phenomenon, and we are not personally responsible for natural occurrences. The oracle has also told us that luck and chance always play a part in life — no matter how well prepared you are, there is a chance you can run into bad luck. But now the oracle is telling us to persevere; it is telling us that we should undertake something. Luck, chance, and natural phenomena play large parts in our lives. Yet that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and simply give up. At some point we have to do something — at some point, we have to act as if we are in control of our destiny, we have to act as if we are mostly responsible for our actions. And the oracle adds this line: “Through perseverance and zealous work a man wins success and finds helpers as they are needed.” If we engage in worthwhile and meaningful work, other people will see what we are doing, they will see that what we are doing matters, and they will join our work.

How should we understand our personal responsibility for life? We tend to accept personal responsibility for everything; we often act as if we are the cause of everything in the world, and that we must take responsibility for every effect; we take the weight of the world on our shoulders. Sometimes, we Americans seem to think we can solve all the world’s problems. We say, for example, if we invade Iraq the Iraqi people will seize the chance to become a democratic society, and we will be able to leave Iraq within a year. We say, if only I had the right job, or the right clothes, or the right spouse, then life would be perfect. We say (at least, quite a few of us say), if I am good and read the Bible and accept Jesus, I’ll go to heaven when I die. But we cannot use such simplistic notions of cause and effect.

From our religious point of view as Unitarian Universalists, we know that life is not that simple. We know that chance and luck, and natural processes over which we have no control, all are a part of life. We know that we have to act as if we can take full responsibility for our own actions; but we understand the role of chance and luck and synchronicity in life. Thus we don’t have to take the weight of the world on our shoulders. We know that life is complex, that all of life is interconnected. And so we find ourselves in partial agreement with the ancient wisdom of the I Ching: knowing that we must act as if we are responsible, but acknowledging the interconnections of all life, and acknowledging the role of chance and luck and natural processes.