Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Interreligious Understanding and the UUA

Consider the principles espoused by the Unitarian Universalist Association...
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.
-from the UUA Principles and Purposes

I recall reading that there was a bit of debate about the bolded portion, especially because of an issue over whether UU congregations should embrace ideas resembling anything like "God". Then there is the issue of whether UU should be a respectful coming together of people of faith in a religiously liberal atmosphere, a synthesis of certain elements from various sacred traditions, or some combination of the two.

Which brings me to a list of guidelines for interreligious understanding I came across a year or two ago and which I contemplate often when considering interfaith issues...
The Snowmass Conference's Guidelines for Interreligious Understanding:
1. The world religions bear witness to the experience of the Ultimate Reality to which they give various names: Brahman, the Absolute, God, Allah, (the) Great Spirit, the Transcendent.
2. The Ultimate Reality surpasses any name or concept that can be given to It.
3. The Ultimate Reality is the source (ground of being) of all existence.
4. Faith is opening, surrendering, and responding to the Ultimate Reality. This relationship precedes every belief system.
5. The potential for human wholeness -- or in other frames of reference, liberation, self-transcendence, enlightenment, salvation, transforming union, moksha, nirvana, fana -- is present in every human person.
6. The Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships and service to others.
7. The differences among belief systems should be presented as facts that distinguish them, not as points of superiority.
8. In the light of the globalization of life and culture now in process, the personal and social ethical principles proposed by the world religions in the past need to be re-thought and re-expressed.
-from Speaking of Silence: Christian and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way by Thomas Keating
So, how do you feel about these guidelines? Are they of value to UUism? How important is the integrity of each sacred tradition? Would someone interested in such guidelines be wise to look into UUism?

Consider the way one interprets the narratives of various traditions. I tend to think of them as literature - taking the stories and mythology in the most literal sense misses the point, but so does scrutinizing them for historical accuracy. It's like saying that you can "get" a moving song because it is 100% based on historical events or by examing the meter, the rhythm, the length, etc. I think that overall sacred traditions can be considered in a similar fashion - like a collection of songs or stories in other contexts but with a different intention. Just because you may like Jazz, or Country Western, doesn't mean you don't like everything calling itself Jazz or Country Western. Plus it's possible to like many genres, and artistically to blend or fuse them. Some folks see scared traditions the same way - mix, match, and blend. Then there are some elements that don't really splice as well. If you like The Matrix, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, for example, you appreciate them individually, though you may compare themes or characters. But to take footage from each and re-edit it into a new hybrid would lose too much of what is special or interesting about each.

Perhaps then one can appreciate the individual elements of each sacred tradition (whatever the school, denomination, or sect) as a coherent whole, but also value the greater common truths to which they may point.


  1. "Faith is opening, surrendering, and responding to the Ultimate Reality. This relationship precedes every belief system"

    I like this post a lot. Too much of "interfaith" has the tendency towards "beige" rather than being "the colours of the rainbow" (as a hospital chaplain friend puts it).

    My path is pureland, but my teacher makes no claims for exclusivity.

    "In Mahayana Buddhism, we vow to help all sentient being to attain complete awakening and, in order to do so, we vow to transform all our negative passions into love and compassion, to master all the Buddha's teachings and to fulfil every step of the Buddhist path. These bodhisttva vows stand like a kind of heroic gesture. No matter how many lifetimes it takes, I will overcome all the harm and suffering in the world and bring all beings to the land of bliss. When we look at the vows from the ordinary perspective they seem like a personal challenge. How shall I do it? Where must I begin? In our morning service we recite these vows. We re-enter the bodhisattva path each new day. Then immediately after doing so we recite the refuges which in our tradition begin with taking refuge in Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is the highest Buddha, representative of all Buddhas, past, present and future, in this and all possible worlds. We take refuge in those Buddhas. This provides us with the means to fulfil the bodhisattva vow. By our own power alone we could not do it. We will not do it by our own determination alone. We can only do it by relying upon the Buddhas. When we entrust ourselves in this way, the task looks completely different. It is no longer oneself who is helping all beings and overcoming all passions - it is Amida Nyorai. We are carried along by Nyorai, guided and held. As we take refuge in Nyorai who represents all Buddhas, so we recognise the need to take refuge in Shakyamuni, the particular Buddha of the age that we happen to have been born into. As we take refuge in Shakyamuni we see the need to take refuge in his Dharma. If taking refuge in Dharma means anything it is that we enter into and take refuge in sangha. And if refuge in sangha means anything it becomes refuge in the vision of a Pure Land since this is the full realisation of sangha. Thus, in practical Buddhism, there is a constant going back and forth between self-power and other-power, but, in the end, it is other-power that sees us through. At the heart of all Buddhism is the act of refuge and the grace of Nyorai.

    There are thus two basic approaches to Buddhism, commonly referred to as self-power and other-power, or, in Japanese, jiriki and tariki. When Shakyamuni Buddha died his disciples wanted to keep the Dharma alive in the world. Some felt that this meant following the example given by Shakyamuni while others emphasised expressing their love for him. The first group saw the Dharma as a matter of learning methods based on the way that Shakyamuni practised. By perfecting those methods they hoped to emulate the founder and become Buddhas themselves in due course. That approach is called self-power because it assumes that each person has the power within him or herself to become a Buddha and that that is what is required. Such an approach emphasises the “Buddha nature” of the individual. Other disciples took a different view. When they reflected upon the experience that they had had, they realised that the Buddha had come into their life unbidden. He came to them. The arrival of Shakyamuni in their village was not a product of long years of training or practice on their part. The Buddha came into their lives and they were changed, not by their effort, but by their encounter with him. The nature of Buddha was not conceived to be a property of the individual but as something beyond that come to us, as Tathagata (Tatha-agata = "that which IS and which has come for us"). The Buddha came o call them. He inspired them, won their affection, saw through their delusions, had sympathy for them, accepted them and cherished them. For this they felt enormous gratitude. Their hearts were touched. They felt that the Buddha had cared about them and had put them in touch with the deep meaning of life. This second type of attitude is called other-power because it is essentially a matter of gratitude for what has been freely given. As it has been passed down to us it has become the practice of mystical encounter with Nyorai, of calling and being called. This is a truly religious approach that can change people in the core of their being quite suddenly. The presence of the Buddha entering into one's heart produces a sudden and dramatic inner disarmament and a release of energy into an active life of service and dedication.

    An important feature of this faith centred Buddhism is an emphasis upon what can be done by the ordinary person. The encounter with Nyorai is not a function of having reached a particular mind state, spiritual level, or degree of virtue. It is something that can happen to anybody. The Pureland master Inagaki wrote a short poem:
    Just as you are...
    Just as you are

    This expresses very well the spirit of Pureland. The Buddha is enlightened and that means that he has universal compassion and that, in turn, means that Nyorai does not discriminate. Whoever is willing to open their heart to it can have this great love.

    Amida literally means measureless. Pureland is about having the faith to live in conscious relation to the limitless love of Nyorai, all the while knowing that one is simply an ordinary person of no special worth. In other-power Buddhism there is no qudos in appearing virtuous or enlightened. We recognise that we are all vulnerable, all have failings, and none of us is capable of overcoming all our karmic hindrances by ourselves. We need help. At the same time, this means that we do not feel that we have to have reached some particular spiritual level before we can be of use in the Buddha's scheme of things. The influence of Nyorai is constantly tending toward the emergence of a better world, a Pure Land, where love, compassion, joy and peace prevail. As members of Amida-shu we become part of this movement toward the emergence of a better world. This is a natural expression of the gratitude that the practitioner feels for the grace that Nyorai brings.

    These teachings are not dissimilar from the core principles of most major religious traditions. To live in relation to something greater than oneself, in gratitude and modesty, touched by the love and compassion of the ancestral sages, working together in a sense of communion, with hope of a better, kinder world to come... this is the wisdom of ages. Pureland does not claim any exclusivity. It simply points out what is at the heart of the human religious quest and actualises it in the context of its own particular tradition that has come down to us directly through India, China and Japan and is also augmented by parallel streams in all the other countries that have been substantially influenced by the enlightened wisdom of the gentle Buddha. It is the very flower of Buddhism.

    The spiritual life is both a singular matter in which each person walks alone with Nyorai and, at the same time, it is completely social, being concerned with the development of the fullness of community and mutual support. The Buddha emphasised both dimensions. At the foundation of all Buddhism is the act of taking refuge. To take refuge in Buddha is to acknowledge the direct, solitary encouter with Nyorai. To take refuge in Dharma is to acknowledge the universal implication of doing so. To take refuge in sangha is to acknowledge that the result is a completely new kind of harmony between individuals, between peoples, even between species.

    Pureland as practised in Amida-shu gives a thorough grounding to the individual in the timeless wisdom of Buddhism and in the ways of the Buddhist community. It is a spirituality of religious feeling and communion, of personal responsibility and community in ordinary life celebrating our entrustment of ourselves to the sublime influence of Nyorai's all-embracing compassion. It expresses itself in deep practice and in social engagement, in the unity of faith and action."


  2. Sounds very much like Shin, which isn't so surprising, but I don't recognize the term Nyorai. I have generally seen Amitayus/Amitabha or Amitabha Buddha (translated Sanskrit), Amituofo (Chinese), and Amida Buddha or Amida Butsu (Japanese). I don't recall the Korean and Vietnamese forms, but they were also very similar.


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