Buddhism and Unitarian-Universalism:
Two Traditions Learning From Each Other

By Jeff Wilson


    The history of Unitarian interest in Buddhism
stretches back more than two centuries.
But it is only in recent decades that Buddhism has come to be
a visible force within UU circles,
with the creation of the Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
and the phenomenal growth
of UU meditation groups across North America.
Now Buddhist texts appear in our hymnal
and it is common to hear Zen aphorisms quoted in the pulpit.
What exactly is the attraction that Buddhism holds for UUs?
What can we learn from Buddhism,
and what can Buddhism learn from UUism?
What does UU Buddhist practice look like?


1. Whispers From the East
2. Understanding the Attraction of Buddhism
3. Learning From Buddhism
4. The Wisdom of the West
5. The Practice of UU Buddhism
6. Conclusion

1. Whispers From the East

    Unitarian interest in Buddhism began in the late 1700s,
as missionaries and trade in the East
brought people in Boston into contact with Asian religion.
By the mid-1800s this interest had grown
from mere curiosity into attempts to understand
the spiritual practices and doctrines of Buddhism.
In 1844 a Unitarian writer, Elizabeth Peabody,
published the first English translation of a Buddhist scripture.
It appeared in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist publication
The Dial under the editorship of Henry David Thoreau.
Soon Thoreau would proclaim
that Buddha was as much his spiritual teacher as Jesus.

    Today there are Buddhist practice groups
in Unitarian-Universalist churches across North America,
and the Unitarian-Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
is officially affiliated with the UUA.
Buddhist texts appear in the UU hymnal,
and ministers can be heard quoting the Four Noble Truths
or crazy Zen aphorisms from the pulpit.
Why is it that UUs have found Buddhism so compelling?

2. Understanding the Attraction of Buddhism

    Perhaps the main reason UUs are drawn to Buddhism
is that it offers a wide range of deep spiritual practices.
Modern UUism is an open-ended religion focusing on
social action, personal quest and responsibility,
and the promotion of safe and tolerant communities.
This emphasis on discovering one’s own path is a great strength,
but it also has drawbacks.
UU children and youth are not taught
systematic methods for spiritual cultivation,
which can lead to personal stagnation and stunt the growth of one’s spirit.
UUs struggling with difficult times, transitions, or big existential questions
have few tried-and-true methods
for resolving or understanding these situations.

    Buddhism, however, has a rich set of “spiritual technologies”
that have been developed and refined over 2500 years.
Perhaps the most basic and appealing is meditation,
a personal discipline that leads to calm, clarity, and insight.
Other common Buddhist practices include chanting,
bowing, visualizations, creation of personal altars,
pilgrimages, study of texts, working with the arts,
and puzzling over special riddles known as koans.
The Buddhist toolbox is brimming over with techniques
that can be put to use on the path
to increasing one’s wisdom and compassion.

    Another important factor is that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion,
meaning that it can be practiced without a firm belief in a deity.
At the same time, many theists have found
that this makes it easily adaptable to a variety of theistic approaches.
The central point of Buddhism is not devotion to a god,
but introspection to discover one’s true nature,
joined with compassion toward all beings.
Buddhism’s flexibility means that the elements that speak to
atheists, humanists, theists, pagans and others can be utilized
without major disruption of their current beliefs.
There is also a widespread perception
that Buddhism lacks the history of sectarian violence
that characterizes religion in the West.

3. Learning From Buddhism

    Beyond spiritual technologies such as meditation and chanting,
Buddhism offers a view of reality that is affirmative of one’s potential
and teaches that enlightenment is not only possible, but inevitable.
Buddhists believe that all things in the universe arise interdependently,
and that the realization of our interconnection
produces peace, joy, and loving-kindness.
Through learning to let go of egocentricity
and lessening our self-centered attachments to things and people,
we come to appreciate the beauty and purity of the present moment
and develop a sense of gratitude and kinship.

4. The Wisdom of the West

    The growth in UU interest in Buddhism
has also led to an appreciation of the strengths of Unitarian-Universalism
and discovery of ways in which UUism
can benefit the ancient traditions of Buddhism.
For one, UUism carries a much greater emphasis
on positive action in the social and political sphere,
putting our values to work for the advancement of our society.
UUism’s fierce commitment to feminism
helps to balance the chauvinistic aspects of Asian culture
that have seeped into Buddhism over the centuries.
While Buddhism has never produced holy wars,
like all religions it contains competing sects,
and the open-minded and non-dogmatic approach of UUism
helps to develop an atmosphere of mutual exploration and discovery,
and keeps the emphasis on how the practice is helping us
to become better and wiser people,
rather than on inherited customs
and outdated rituals from foreign cultures.

5. The Practice of UU Buddhism

    Nowadays UU Buddhist practice groups are common.
Usually they meet weekly for group meditation practice,
which may last anywhere from 20-45 minutes at a stretch.
Many groups also include periods of discussion,
readings, and even potluck meals.
While a designated teacher leads most Buddhist temples,
UU Buddhist groups tend to govern themselves by consensus
and avoid elevating any one member as an authority figure.

    Many UUs also practice Buddhism at home,
reading books on Buddhist thought and practice,
and meditating or chanting at a specific time each day.
Such individuals may attend nearby Buddhist temples on occasion,
at the same time that they are members of their local UU churches.

6. Conclusion

    Buddhism is now an accepted path within UU circles,
and each year more people are discovering
the value of Buddhist spiritual practices
and the holistic Buddhist view of life.
At the same time, UUs are modifying Buddhism
to meet their needs for a socially engaged, non-discriminatory,
and democratic form of religious practice.
The ties between these two traditions,
one from the ancient East
and the other charting the cutting edge of religion in the West,
will only grow stronger and more fruitful in coming years.


    Jeff Wilson is the editor of UU Sangha:
The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship.
A lifelong UU, he is the author of The Buddhist Guide to New York
and a frequent contributor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
He Is working on his Ph.D. in American Religious History
at the University of North Carolina.
He can be reached at jwilson403@hotmail.com


    The Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
maintains a webpage that includes back issues of UU Sangha,
a list of over forty UU Buddhist groups in North America,
and links to other resources for learning about Buddhism.
It can be found at http://www.uua.org/uubf

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