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

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

Opening words

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, the introductory remarks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calming the Quarrel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “Calming the Quarrel”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.