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.