Buddha Sitting Alone

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 and story copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from the Anapanasati Sutta, or the the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, translated from the Pali by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“What is the way to develop and practice continuously the method of Full Awareness of Breathing so that the practice will be rewarding and offer great benefit?

“It is like this…: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, and sits stably in the lotus position, holding his body quite straight. Breathing in, he knows that he is breathing in; and breathing out, he knows that he is breathing out.” [p. 6]

The second reading this morning is from a commentary on the Anapanasati Sutta written by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The second section is the heart of the sutra. This section elaborates the sixteen methods of Fully Aware Breathing in connection with the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

“In [the first and second methods], the object of awareness is the breath itself. The mind of the one who is breathing is the subject, and his or her breathing is the object. These breaths may be short, long, heavy, or light. We see that our breathing affects our mind, and our mind affects our breathing. The mind and the breath become one. We also see that breathing is an aspect of the body and that awareness of breathing is also awareness of the body.

“In the third method, the breath is connected with the whole body, not just a part of it. Awareness of the breathing is, at the same time, awareness of the entire body. The mind, the breath, and the whole body are one.

“In the fourth breathing method, the body’s functions begin calming down. The calming of the breath is accompanied by the claming of the body and the mind. The mind, the breathing, and the body are each calmed down equally.

“In just four breathing exercises, we can realize oneness of body and mind. Breathing is an excellent tool for establishing calmness and evenmindedness.” [pp. 26-27]

Story for all ages — Teaching How To Breathe

After he had perfected the practice of meditation, Buddha taught many other men and women how to meditate. Soon he had followers, called “bhikkus.” At the time of this story, about four hundred of his followers lived with Buddha in a retreat center in the middle of Eastern Park, which was a beautiful open space, dotted with trees, located in the town of Savatthi. Here is how they lived together:

Every day, everyone who lived in the retreat center got up and sat together meditating. The more experienced bhikkus, who had lived with Buddha the longest, helped teach the newer bhikkus how to meditate. After the meditation time was over, all the bhikkus would take a bowl and head into town to beg for food. They would all come back to the retreat center before noontime. Before they ate, some of the older, more experienced bhikkus would give a lecture to any townspeople who came by. Then everyone would eat.

After lunch, Buddha and all the bhikkus would go find a cool shady grove of trees. They would all sit together in the shade of the trees, and Buddha would give a talk, telling them how to be better people. Sometimes, when the moon was full, they would all stay up late and Buddha would give another talk in the moonlight.

One day, hundreds more of Buddha’s followers traveled to the retreat center in Eastern Park in the town of Savatthi. Soon there were over a thousand bhikkus, over a thousand followers of Buddha, all gathered together. It was the time of the full moon, and that evening, all the bhikkus gathered together outside to hear Buddha tell them how to meditate. Of course, all the bhikkus were already learning how to meditate, and practicing meditation every day. But for the first time, Buddha described his whole system of meditation from start to finish.

Here’s what Buddha said:

“When it’s time for you to meditate, bhikkus, go out and sit at the foot of a tree; or if you don’t live here with us in Eastern Park, just find a nice quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.

“Then sit down on the ground. Sit in the lotus position, that is, sit with your left foot on your right thigh, and your right foot on your left thigh. Be sure you hold your body straight.

“As you sit there, pay attention to your breathing. When you are breathing in, know that you are breathing in. When you are breathing out, know that you are breathing out.

Buddha kept talking in his calm, peaceful voice, describing in great detail how to meditate. He said:

“As you are breathing in and out, become aware of your whole body.

“As you are breathing in and out, let your breathing make your whole body calm and at peace.

“As you are breathing in and out, let yourself be full of joy.

“As you breathe in and out, let yourself feel happy.

“As you breathe in and out, let yourself be aware that your mind is active.

“As you breathe in and out, let your active mind become calm and peaceful.

“As you breathe in and out, let your mind become happy and peaceful.

“As you breathe in and out, concentrate your mind. Liberate your mind.”

Buddha kept talking in his calm, peaceful voice for over an hour. Everyone sat in stillness in the moonlight and listened. Everyone, all Buddha’s followers, felt calm and peaceful.

This is how Buddha taught his followers how to meditate. There are many people in the world today who still follow Buddha’s teachings; they are called Buddhists. We are not Buddhists, we are Unitarian Universalists; but we Unitarian Universalists have learned a lot about meditation from Buddha. In fact, I think every Unitarian Universalist child should learn how to meditate, just as every Unitarian Universalist child should memorize a couple of simple prayers. When I was a Unitarian Universalist teenager, I learned how to meditate, I meditated regularly for more than a decade, and I still meditate sometimes.

In Sunday school over the next month or so, the children will be hearing stories about Buddha, and they will be learning how to sit quietly and do some simple meditation; and Emma and I will be sending home a little booklet to families with children that tells parents how to introduce silent meditation at home. And perhaps we should have an adult education session on how to meditate, because it’s not a bad idea for Unitarian Universalist adults to learn how to meditate, too!

SERMON — “Buddha Sitting Alone”

Let me start off by saying something not entirely popular: I am not a big fan of Buddhism. In some Unitarian Universalist circles, I think Buddhism seems less messy than Christianity somehow; for some Unitarian Universalists, Christianity carries with it all kinds of unpleasant memories, and so, I think, Buddhism has become more popular among us.

I find, however, that I am just as critical of Buddhism as of Christianity. Buddhism, historically, has inclined its followers to varieties of passivity and quietism; and thus Buddhism has something of a history of bowing down to dictators and tyrannical regimes. Buddhism has also led its followers to excesses of superstition that equal any of the superstitions promoted by Christianity; superstitions that seem to me to be designed in large part to keep poorer people docile and unable to alter their lower status. Therefore, I believe that we religious liberals have to look at Buddhism with the same kind of critical and jaundiced eyes that we use to look at Christianity.

Asking a Unitarian Universalist to be critical is a little like asking a hungry cat to eat a fillet of salmon. If you lay a nice piece of fish before a cat, he or she will not hesitate to begin eating; because the cat knows all too well that fillets of salmon do not appear in one’s food dish every day. If you give a Unitarian Universalist an opportunity to be critical, he or she will not hesitate to bring to bear the faculties of reason and critical thinking; because the Unitarian Universalist knows that such dainties are not always placed within easy reach. So go ahead, be critical, and enjoy it as much as the cat enjoys eating the salmon fillet.

Having said that, there is no reason for us to be too critical. I have found many things in the Buddhist tradition to be of great value. And perhaps the greatest gift that Buddhism gives to the world is its deep understanding of the practice of meditation. Now I suspect that meditation has been a human practice for at least some individuals for as long as human beings have existed. There is something in some of us that longs to sit in stillness; there is something in us that longs for the peace and clarity that meditative practices can bring. But the Buddhists, even more than the Hindus and Yogis, even more than the mystics and meditators in every religious tradition, seem to me to have found the deepest and simplest truths about meditation.

We heard the core of the Buddhist insight into meditation in the first reading this morning. It was Siddartha Gotama, better known by his religious title, the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, who formulated a relatively simple yet rich and flexible method for meditation. At the most basic level, Buddha taught us to simply sit and pay attention to our breathing. That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Sit down, and pay attention to your breathing.

The story of how the Buddha reached this powerful understanding is worth retelling. Here’s what happened:

Siddhartha Gotama was born a prince, and the heir to his father’s vast kingdom. From his birth, everyone knew he was going to be a special person. His father was sure Siddhartha would grow up to be an even greater king than himself; but other people predicted that baby Siddhartha had all the marks of becoming some kind of religious genius. Needless to say, the king did not want his baby son to turn to religion, for in that land the religious personages were ascetics who renounced worldly things like palaces and kingdoms.

So the king protected his little son carefully. Above all, the king made sure that little Siddhartha never saw anyone who with a serious illness, anyone who was old and infirm, anyone who was dead, or anyone who had to beg for a living. (Sounds like the United States, doesn’t it? — hide away the sick, the elderly, the dead, and the homeless — that way we don’t have to think about difficult issues. But let’s get back to Buddha.)

Well, of course Siddhartha grew up to be a young man, and in spite of the king’s best efforts Siddhartha wound up seeing someone who was sick, someone who was elderly, a dead body, and a homeless beggar. Seeing people who were suffering, or who had suffered, raised all kinds of questions in Siddhartha’s mind. He felt the suffering of others so keenly, he found himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He decided he must go join one of the religious groups who lived in the woods, and in the dark of the night he slipped away from home, leaving behind his wife and his baby boy.

He went and lived in the woods with some pretty wild-eyed religious types, who believed that the truly religious person should sleep out in the open, wear rags, and eat as little food as possible. I don’t believe they bathed much, either. And they sat for hours in meditation, to the point where it must have seemed more like self-punishment than calming the mind. Soon Prince Siddhartha had lost so much weight he was little more than skin and bones; but he discovered that he was no closer to achieving deep religious understanding than before.

To make a long story short, Siddhartha gave up the more extreme religious practices, and began to work out some things on his own. He still meditated regularly, but he no longer tried to deny his physical body: no more starving himself to death. And he kept working on the problem of suffering.

One day, Siddhartha was meditating while sitting at the foot of a Bodhi tree. While he sat there, he achieved some kind of mental state that he later called “enlightenment.” Later, he tried to describe what it means to be enlightened. As I understand it (and I have to say that I do not understand it particularly well), enlightenment means a state of being where suffering disappears; enlightenment also means a state of being where one’s mind is always calm and peaceful. And once Siddhartha Gotama had achieved this state of enlightenment, he was entitled to be called the Buddha, which means, the enlightened one.

In this story, I find a few very interesting points. First, Buddha discovered that meditating led to some kind of release from suffering. Second, meditation helps you attain a calm and peaceful state of mind. Third, meditation is really something that anyone can do, something that requires practice but not inhuman devotion. Fourth, and this fourth point is a little vague but bear with me, Buddha discovered all this while sitting alone under a tree. Let me examine each of these points one by one.

Buddha discovered that meditating can help release us from suffering. Now, the Buddhist tradition as I understand it makes the large claim that you can train yourself to transcend all suffering by achieving “nirvana,” which means nothingness. I’m a little skeptical of this nirvana idea — sure, I can rid myself of all suffering by achieving nothingness; nothingness would logically imply nothing at all including both no suffering and no pleasure — yet I also admit that I don’t fully understand the concept of nirvana. Nonetheless, I know from having tried meditation myself that you really can be released from a certain amount of suffering through meditation. I don’t have a good explanation for why this is so, but perhaps meditation helps with suffering because it brings calm and peace to you.

Which brings us to the second point: meditation helps you achieve and calm and peaceful state of mind. I recall an extremely stressful time in my life: not enough money, personal tragedy, professional crisis, the works. I was so stressed out I couldn’t sleep at night. I hate to think of what my blood pressure was. This was when I was no longer meditating regularly, but finally the stress got so bad I decided to try meditation.

Now in my experience, learning how to meditate is a little like learning how to ride a bicycle: once you learn how, you never really forget; you may not be in shape to ride thirty miles the first time back on your bike, but you still know how to ride it. At that stressful time in my life, I went back to meditating, and immediately lowered my stress level, immediately became calmer and more peaceful. Indeed, this is why I think that every Unitarian Universalist kid should learn how to meditate: at some point in their lives, they will find themselves in a situation in which they will be glad to know how to meditate.

And that brings us to the third point: meditation is really quite simple, so simple even a child can do it. I’ve seen four-year olds who know some basic meditation technique. I’ve seen people well along in years take up meditation successfully. This is one of Buddha’s great insights: anyone can learn how to meditate. All you have to do is pay attention to your breath. Of course, Buddha went far beyond the simplest meditation techniques, but it’s all based on the simple idea of sitting quietly and paying attention to your breathing.

Which brings us at last to the final point: Buddha made his great discoveries about meditation while sitting alone outdoors at the foot of a tree. Meditation is essentially a solitary activity. You learn how to do it from someone else; you can sit in meditation with dozens of other people, as happens for example in the Zen Buddhist Zendo; you can talk about meditation with others. But the basic act of meditation happens with you sitting quietly, in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Certainly you will meditate better if someone teaches you how first. I have found that meditating in a room with other people can be a powerful experience. And I find it helpful to discuss meditation, as I am doing here with you this morning. But the actual act of meditation is something you have to do yourself; and in some measure, you are always meditating alone.

Not only that, Buddha made his great discoveries about meditation while sitting alone, and outdoors under a tree. The Buddhist scriptures are careful to let us know that Buddha was sitting outdoors when he achieved enlightenment; he was not sitting in a meditation ahll, he was not sitting in some religious building, he was sitting outdoors. Not only that, but the Buddhist scriptures carefully inform us as to the species of tree under which Buddha sat when he achieved enlightenment.

Why is it so important that we know the Buddha was sitting outdoors under a Bodhi tree? I don’t have a firm answer to that question, but I do know this. I have found that I had the most powerful experiences meditating while meditating outdoors. I know I have found that sitting outdoors can make meditation a more powerful experience; and I think this is related to the importance of sitting alone, that is, sitting away from the distractions of other human beings. As human beings, we need other human beings; but being around other human beings seems to set our minds working in well-defined paths. By sitting alone, I think it’s easier to feel our connection with all living beings, our essential connection with the whole universe.

African Ancestors

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) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an excerpt from a poem by Senegalese poet Birago Diop:

Those who are dead are never gone:
they are in the thickening shadow.

The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the tree that rustles,
they are in the wood that groans;

Those who are dead are never gone:
they are in the breast of the woman,
they are in the child that is wailing
and in the firebrand that flames.

The dead are not under the earth:
they are in the forest,
they are in the house.

The dead are not dead.

[English translation from Jacob K. Olupona, African Spirituality, p. 54]

The second reading this morning is from Varieties of African American Religious Experience, by Anthony Pinn:

“I suggest an alternative way of interpreting African American religion (and its often understated diversity) and culture by theologically embracing the creative and life-affirming, yet fragile, manifestations of African American culture.”

SERMON — “African Ancestors”

Who are our ancestors? How do we receive the wisdom of our ancestors? In our culture, we rarely revere our ancestors; it’s fine to take up the hobby of genealogy, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. We don’t even revere our elders much any more; our culture values the freshness of youth over the wisdom of age. There is even a part of our culture that consists in dismissing the great human wisdom of the past, telling us that only things which are new can be good.

In short, our culture whispers to us that we don’t need the wisdom of our ancestors, or of our elders: “Move on to something new; leave the past behind.” And you know, much of the time we follow that whispered advice to good effect. America has prospered precisely because we are willing to try new things, we are willing to innovate, to invent. this urge for the new is even a part of our religious heritage. A hundred years ago, Unitarians used to say they believed in “progress onwards and upwards forever.” There’s something in us that still believes that progress will keep going onwards and upwards forever.

One of the curious side effects of believing in progress onwards and upwards forever was that parts of the past could no longer be seen clearly; parts of the past get obscured, blurred, knocked out of focus. You can find examples of this everywhere in the American self-perception; but perhaps it is nowhere more evident than in African American history. The history of people of African descent in America has too often been knocked out of focus; it’s hard to see the African ancestors that we know must be there. So maybe we have to find a different way of looking for them.

For example, you have probably heard the stereotype that African Americans all became Christians pretty early on, until by the 20th century there was no evidence of any other religious tradition amongst African Americans. The second reading this morning was written by Anthony Pinn, an African American humanist theologian. As a humanist, that is, as someone who does not believe in God, Anthony Pinn was curious to know if the conventional wisdom is true: he wanted to know if African American religion exists solely in Christian churches. He found that Christian churches do not represent the only religion of African Americans, and in his field work he has found a rich diversity of African American religious traditions beyond Christianity, including Voodou, Santeria, Islam, and (of course) humanism.

Let me focus on this last African American religious tradition, humanism, for a moment — because African American humanism has a special importance for us Unitarian Universalists. In his field work and historical research, Anthony Pinn found that one major institutional home for African American humanists was, in fact, our own Unitarian Universalist Association. Pinn writes that “black humanism,” as it was called in Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s, took “into account the ‘unique’ demands and existential context of African Americans; the value of their ‘blackness’ was brought into human-centered thought and action.” Pinn has traced African American humanism well back into the 19th century; and in the second half of the 20th century, black humanism found an institutional home within Unitarian Universalism.

Not that Unitarian Universalism has necessarily been an entirely comfortable home for African American humanists, or any African American for that matter. Back in 1984, Mark Morrison-Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is African American, wrote: “Unitarian Universalism’s only significant penetration into the black community has been limited to a dozen inner city churches…. In 1968 when black involvement in the denomination was at a high point, blacks numbered 1,500 of the denomination’s members, less than one percent.” Yet having said that, it seems as if some things are changing. Bill Sinkford, the current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is an African American. A couple of those inner city churches that Mark Morrison-Reed mentions have been growing by leaps and bounds; in fact, I’ll be going to visit one of them, All Souls in Washington, D.C., when I’m away next week. So there has been a new feeling of hope that increasing numbers of African Americans will find a welcoming religious home in Unitarian Universalist churches.

I believe part of the process of welcoming more African Americans into Unitarian Universalism will be recognizing that not all African Americans go to Christian churches. I believe we have to bring the past into better focus, we have to better understand the ancestors. And this brings us back to Anthony Pinn, who has what he calls “an alternative way of interpreting African American religion (and its often understated diversity)… by theologically embracing the creative and life-affirming, yet fragile, manifestations of African American culture.” Pinn has a name for this alternative way; he calls it “theological archaeology”; and Pinn believes that “attention to archaeological method can mean a richer understanding of African American life extending beyond a select and distorted representation….” Pinn wants to show us that African American religious experience is far richer and far more diverse than it is commonly portrayed; but what I’d say he is really doing, is he is showing us how to listen to our religious ancestors.

I believe we should all learn how to engage in this “theological anthropology.” I don’t mean to imply that white folks like me should be the ones who are investigating African American religious experience; but I do think if we all start exploring our religious histories together, we can support each other in our various explorations. And for myself, I have found that I can learn from the African, and African American ancestors; those ancestors have helped me to learn how to listen to my own ancestors. Which brings us back to the first reading this morning.

The first reading this morning is a translation of a poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop. As you probably noticed, a slightly different version of the poem was used as the lyrics to the first hymn this morning. That first hymn was written by Ysaye Maria Barnwell, and she is a singer, composer, and scholar who performs with the a capella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock; and, as it happens, she is also a Unitarian Universalist. I believe that Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song gives us practical instructions on how to do theological anthropology; her song tells us how to find those fragile, vulnerable remnants of our religious histories.

The song starts out telling us to “Listen more often to things than to beings.” This seems odd; why should we listen to things instead of to people? The song tells us why: ” ‘Tis the ancestors’ words”: when we listen to things, we can hear the ancestors’ words directly. You see, if you listen to other people, you’re not listening to the ancestors’ voices directly. If you listen to other people, you’ll find that other people put their own interpretations on the ancestors. That’s what Anthony Pinn tells us: when he listened to other people, they told him that African American humanists didn’t really exist because all African Americans belonged to Christian churches. Pinn went out and did field work; he found things, old books and magazines, old folk tales, old blues songs; and in those books and folk tales and songs, he found the voices of the ancestors. These ancestors told him he was not alone in being an African American humanist; these ancestors told him that African American religious expression is far richer than most people say it is.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song goes on to give us more practical advice about doing this “theological anthropology”: “Those who have died have never, never left/ The dead are not under the earth./ They are in the rustling trees, they are in the groaning woods….”

In traditional African religions, the ancestors are literally living in the trees, and in the woods. For traditional African religions, the ancestors are very real. You pour libations for them: clear water, or millet mixed with water, or some palm wine. You ask them to intercede for you: to protect you from evil spirits, or to ask the divinities for assistance. In some African American religious traditions, such as Santeria, you might call on the ancestors in much the same way.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s song tells us to listen to the rustling trees, to listen to the groaning woods. It was deep in the groaning woods, that enslaved African Americans held their secret hush arbor meetings, places where they could have free expression for their own deep religious feelings, without interference from their white overseers. It was through the rustling trees that they passed, in the dead of night, as they slipped away to freedom, following the Underground Railroad, some of them through New Bedford. There is a fragile meaning in the sound of the rustling trees; there is a fragile meaning in the groaning woods; meanings that you will find in things, not in beings.

The song continues in this way: “Those who have died have never, never left/ The dead have a pact with the living….” This we must believe: our ancestors have not forsaken us, they are always there to give us guidance, if we will but take the time to hear them. The song tells us where to listen for their voices: “The dead have a pact with the living:/ They are in the woman’s breast, they are in the wailing child,/ They are with us in the home, they are with us in the crowd.” That is to say, we can hear the voices of the ancestors through our human interactions, we can find the voices of the ancestors in the religious experiences of the living. If we look deeply into ourselves, into the way we interact with others, if we look into our human institutions: then we can find the voice of the ancestors.

Our society today does not want us to listen too hard to our ancestors. Our society today would like us to be, for example, good little consumers. We are not supposed to yearn for greater spiritual richness and meaning in our lives, we are just supposed to spend more in order to keep the economy purring along. When you listen to the ancestors, though, you find a great spiritual richness to the world, you find that you and your world are far more complex than you had thought, you find that there are unplumbed depths in who you are. To listen to the ancestors is a religious act of seeking out identity, seeking out who you are, and what your place might be in this world. It is seeking out the fragile manifestations of who you are, before that fragility is crushed by the social imperative to buy more, to own more, to act just like the characters on the television screen. That fragile manifestaion is your true self.

So it is that we come to this church: to create for ourselves the time and the space to sit together in quietness, to listen, to think. Each among us will have somewhat different journeys we are making. If you’re an African American, you’ll be listening for different things from your ancestors than if you’re a white New England Yankee like me. Or whoever your ancestors were, whatever differences you may find in your journey. We come together knowing that we are each different, knowing that we are united by our search for truth and goodness, and knowing that we haven’t been satisfied with the usual religious platitudes. We are committed to rigorous thinking about religious matters, but rigorous thought alone isn’t enough. For what we seek is fragile; our thought and our actions must assume a delicacy and precision that only comes about through poetry: through listening more carefully to things than to beings.

Learn who you are by listening to who your people once were. When you are at home cooking, listen to the fire’s breath — even if you’re using an electric stove, you can hear the voice of a thousand generations of human beings in the voice of the hearth, the voice of the fire. When you wash your hands, listen to the voice of the waters. We all know that our dead loved ones are truly dead and gone. Yet though they are dead, they live on in us, they live on in the children. We allow the dead to live on when we uphold their highest ideals, when we use the gifts they gave us to better the world.

This we have learned from the African ancestors. This is perhaps the greatest truth of all: as the dead live on in us, so we will live on in the children and in those yet unborn. That is what is meant when we say: listen more often to things than to beings. In the quiet of the rustling grass, we listen to the ancestors that we may hear the truths of the past. In the quiet of the moaning rocks, we can know something of the coming generations so that we might save something of this good earth for them.

African Time

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) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading, an excerpt from the poem “Of the African Eve” by Everett Hoagland, is not included here due to copyright restrictions. Mr. Hoagland is the former Poet Laureate of New Bedford and member of this congregation.

The second reading this morning is from an essay titled “African Indigenous Religions” by James Cox:

“African indigenous religions can be called a form of humanism, because religious activity focuses on how positive benefits for society can be enhanced…. This humanism is a communal humanism and is not individualistic. Fulfillment comes for individuals as they participate in family and community relationships.

“Because religions focuses on communal wellbeing, Africans are concerned with the present moment and not with a future existence after death. There is no sense of the past moving through the present to some future event; the past and the future find their menaing in the present. Hence, distance from the present is more important than the direction time takes…. The fundamental concerns of African societies with health and well-being are expressed primarily through ritual activity. Festivals, feasts, dances, and artistic expressions celebrate communal existence, both of the living and the dead.” [pp. 127-128]

SERMON — “African Time”

For the past three months, I’ve been exploring our Western religious tradition in my sermons on Sunday morning. That is to say, I’ve been talking about the religious heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and the indigenous European traditions currently being revived as paganism. Now I’d like to turn our attention on Sunday mornings to a broader field, and spend a little time engaging in conversations with non-Western religious traditions.

I say we “engage in conversations with” other religious traditions, and I am careful to use exactly that phrase. In the last century, Unitarians and Universalists occasionally tried to adopt liturgies and other practices from other religious traditions. We have come to recognize that that sort of thing is wrong; we now have a term for it, “cultural misappropriation.” Rather than trying to steal the religious traditions of other peoples, we instead are coming to re-evaluate our own religious tradition, and we are finding great richness within our Unitarian and Universalist traditions; in short, we are becoming more comfortable with who we are, and we’re not trying to pretend we’re something else. Yet we also recognize that there are non-Western religious traditions out there, and we recognize how important it is to engage those religious traditions, not in the sense of trying to adopt them wholesale, or trying to co-opt them, but in the sense of engaging in conversations with equals.

In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d start us off by engaging in conversations with traditional African religions. I have been fascinated by traditional African religion and philosophy since 1983 when, as a philosophy student in college, I was introduced to this tradition by Lucius Outlaw, a philosopher and one of my mentors. I still remember when Lou had us read a book titled African Religions and Philosophy by John S. Mbiti. Mbiti was trained as a theologian, and I suppose you could say this was the very first book of theology I ever read.

Mbiti was a Christian; he went to seminary and served as an Anglican priest, and only later became a scholar. As a Christian, he was of course concerned to a certain extent with missionary work, and if you read his work carefully, you get the sense that one of his motivations for his scholarly work was how to communicate Christianity to persons embedded in a traditional African framework. Coming from that perspective, he believed the way people look at time, the way Westerners and traditional Africans experience time, was the fundamental problem for the Western tradition as we try to understand Africans.

You see, we Westerners believe that time is like a line. For us, time begins at some point — maybe with the Big Bang, or maybe with God creating the world. After that, everything moves forward in time. But one day, time will end — maybe time will end when entropy overtakes the universe, or maybe time will end with God’s last judgment. The specifics may differ, but whether you’re a traditional Christian, or a Jew or a Muslim; or whether you follow the insights of Western science; either way, we Westerners believe that time has a beginning and an end.

Time considered as a line is so fundamental to our culture that we don’t even question it. We assume that’s the way things are, that there can be no other way of thinking about time. I mean, what could be more basic than a timeline? It’s so basic that we learn about timelines as children.

But if you’ve ever taught younger children, you quickly realize that thinking of time as a line is a fairly sophisticated concept. If you show a timeline to a preschooler, he or she will simply not get what you’re taking about; preschoolers like timelines, they think they’re pretty, but they don’t really understand them. And when children start to learn how timelines work — really learn about timelines, to the point where they can create their own timeline without outside help — you can see the pride they take in this accomplishment. I can remember when I first learned how to make a timeline as a child; I remember feeling a sense of wonder at this fascinating new concept; it was something I quite literally had never thought of when I was younger.

So we Westerners train our children to think of time as a line. But John S. Mbiti tells us that traditional Africans think of time differently. Mbiti says in traditional Africa

“…time is a two-dimensional phenomenon, with a long past, a present, and virtually no future. The linear concept of time in Western thought, with an indefinite past, present, and infinite future, is practically foreign to African thinking…. What is taking place now no doubt unfolds in the future, but once an event has taken place, it is no longer in the future but in the present and the past. Actual time [as opposed to potential time] is therefore what is present and what is past. It moves ‘backward’ rather than ‘forward’; and people set their minds not on future things, but chiefly on what has taken place.” [pp. 21-23]

Since I first read this passage, twenty-some years ago, I have been fascinated by this idea that there could be a very different way of understanding time.

It should be obvious that a linear notion of time is essential to Western religions. For Christians and Jews, time begins when God created the universe, time unfold in a linear fashion, and one day God will bring about an end to time. All the indigenous European pagan traditions I’m familiar with have a similar understanding of time: time begins when the universe is created, and it flows in a line from that point to the present, and an many European pagan traditions the universe will someday end — think of Norse myths for one example. And non-theistic humanists are pretty sure that the universe started with the Big Bang, time proceeds in a linear fashion from there, and the universe will end when everything cools down from entropy.

It’s my guess that most of us here this morning think of time as a line, and for most of us, religion is unthinkable without linear time. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing to think about time as linear. Unitarians of a hundred years ago used to say they believed in salvation by character and progress onwards and upwards forever — progress onwards and upwards forever requires us to think of time as a line headed in one direction. At some level, we still retain that belief, which is why we are so dedicated to social justice work: we know, given time, that we can overcome injustice and make the world a better place. The good side of thinking of time as a line means that the Western tradition holds out the possibility of working towards greater justice in the world.

However, the traditional African concept of time challenges us to understand things in a new way. And this brings me to the first reading this morning, the poem by Everett Hoagland.

In the poem, Everett Hoagland points out the great irony of Westerners who claim to have discovered certain things. Christopher Columbus claimed to have discovered the Americas, while ignoring the native peoples who discovered the land thousands of years earlier. Livingston claimed to have discovered a waterfall in Africa, which he named after a British queen “to keep it from going native.” And now, says Everett Hoagland, based on the analysis of mitochondria in human DNA, there are scientists who claim to have discovered an ancient African woman who is the ancestor of all, and these scientists have named this hypothetical woman “Eve.” She was an “African Eve,” says Everett Hoagland, and these scientists who discovered and named her, “they acknowledge eden was/ and mother africa is.” And then later in the poem, we hear: “she is more than isis aphrodite madonna/ even more than eve.”

She was even more than Eve. And I’d like us to try to understand what the poet means when he says she is even more than Eve. For me, one way to understand how she is more than Eve is to understand time in a different way. So I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a moment — we’re going to go back to John S. Mbiti, get a little better understanding of how traditional Africans understand time, and then return to the African Eve.

First, back to John Mbiti. Mbiti did research in East African languages, and discovered that in some ways these East African languages have a richer understanding of time than do many Western languages. Mbiti found nine verb tenses in these languages. There are three future tenses: East Africans can talk about a far future of perhaps two years worth of natural cycles; an immediate future of within the next short while; and then a future that places one event after another event. East Africans have three present tenses: what’s in the process of happening right now; what has happened in the past hour or so; and what has happened today since morning. Then there are three past tenses: one which speaks of yesterday; one which speaks of any day before yesterday but within living memory; and then a tense which refers to the deep past of no specific time.

From a theological or religious point of view, I am especially fascinated by this last past-tense, which speaks of the deep past, a past of no specific time. If we had such a verb tense in English, it would solve lots of religious problems for us. In our Western languages, we are stuck on the timeline of historical time. When we speak of something in the past, we can only speak of it as if that event actually truly happened as history. This has caused us much confusion. For example, when we speak of God creating the world, we can only speak of that as if it actually happened, which confuses things badly. It confuses things so badly that there are people who are convinced that you can assign a historical date to God’s creation of the world: they say that God created the world in the year 4004 B.C.; so if you want to know exactly when the Biblical Eve was alive, it was 4,000 years ago. I was recently reading a news article about a Christian company that offers tours of the Grand Canyon, where they assume that the Grand Canyon is less than 6,000 years old, and they point out alleged evidence that the Grand Canyon was not carved out by the Colorado River over millions of years. These tours are very popular, but the only reason they exist is because in our Western tradition, we confuse the past-of-no-specific-time, and the actual historical past. Timelines are powerful, but they can be dangerous!

And in his poem, Everett Hoagland points out another danger. Those scientists who say they discovered an African Eve are actually using their verb tenses incorrectly. They need to distinguish between the past-of-no-specific-time, and the past-of-scientific-inquiry. Eve, whether she is an African Eve or a biblical Eve, lives in the past-of-no-specific-time. Eve did not ever live in the historical past, the past that can be explored by scientific inquiry; Eve is no more real than Anasi the spider, and in fact Anasi and Eve live in exactly the same time. It is extraordinarily presumptuous for those scientists to presume to name that hypothetical woman, the source of all human mitochondrial DNA, to name her “Eve.” Worse yet, those scientists give her a Western name, straight out of the Western religious tradition. And that’s as bad as Christopher Columbus claiming to have discovered the Americas; that’s just as presumptuous as when Livingston decided he would name that African waterfall.

Not only that, but once you call this hypothetical woman who was the source of all human DNA “Eve,” why that raises this funny possibility that the “African Eve” lived in some kind of “African Eden.” And from there, it would be easy to find ourselves right back in the same trap that certain fundamentalist Christians fall into, when those fundamentalist Christians try to tell us that when human beings lived in the Garden of Eden back in 4,004 B.C.E., the world was perfect and then woman sinned and it’s all been downhill from there. My friends, if we can just remember to distinguish between the past-of-no-specific time, and the actual past, we could save ourselves a lot of problems.

We challenge ourselves by exploring other religious traditions. Traditional African religions can teach us something about ourselves: they can show us that our religious tradition has us understand time as a line. Traditional African religions can also help us see that we have to be careful with our religious understandings of time as a line. For if time is a line, that timeline will come to an end sometime in the future. From a religious point of view, we Westerners have to watch our for a deep-seated belief in the inevitable end of the world. This kind of thinking can be most destructive: if you believe the world is going to end someday, maybe sooner rather than later, you have less incentive to make this present world any better; if everything’s going to end and die anyway, why clean up the environment, why feed the hungry, why correct social injustice?

So it is that by exploring other religious traditions, we learn more about ourselves than about those religious traditions.