Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"Buddhism & Christianity in Dialogue" - Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore

Spoken & Silent Meditation

A Selection from the Hua Hu Ching translated by Brian Walker

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death. All that is dear to me and everyone I love is of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand. Whatever joy there is in this world, All comes from desiring others to be happy, And whatever suffering there is in this world, All comes from desiring myself to be happy. To the ordinary person, the body of humanity seems vast. In truth, it is neither bigger nor smaller than anything else. To the ordinary person, there are others whose awareness needs raising. In truth, there is no self, and no other. To the ordinary person, the temple is sacred and the field is not. This, too, is dualism which runs counter to the truth. Those who are highly evolved maintain an undiscriminating perception. Seeing everything, labeling nothing, they maintain their awarenesss of the Great Oneness. Thus they are supported by it.

Readings Buddhist and Christian Parables

Christian Parable

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought fourth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.

Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak in parables?"

Jesus answered them, "To you has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand."

"But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

"Here then the parable of the sower. When any one hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight of riches choke the word and it proves unfruitful.

"As for what is sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."

Buddhist Parable

And the Blessed One thought:

"I have taught the truth which is excellent in the beginning, excellent in the middle, and excellent in the end; it is glorious in its spirit and glorious in its letter. But simple as it is, the people cannot understand it. I must speak to them in their own language. I must adapt my thoughts to their thoughts. They are like unto children, and love to hear tales. Therefore, I will tell them stories to explain the glory of the Dharma. If they cannot grasp the truth in the abstract arguments by which I have reached it, they may nevertheless come to understand it, if it is illustrated in parables."

Bharadvaja, a wealthy Brahman farmer, was celebrating his harvest-thanksgiving when the Blessed One came with his alms-bowl, begging for food.Some of the people paid him reverence, but the Brahman was angry and said: "O samana, it would be more fitting for thee to go to work than to beg. I plough and sow, and having ploughed and sown, I eat.If thou didst likewise, thou, too, wouldst have something to eat."

The Tathagata answered him and said: "O Brahman, I too, plough and sow, and having ploughed and sown, I eat."

"Dost thou profess to be a farmer?" replied the Brahman. "Where, then, are thy bullocks? Where is the seed and the plough?"

The Blessed One said: "Confidence is the seed I sow: good works are the rain that fertilizes it; wisdom and modesty are the plough; my mind is the guiding-rein; I lay hold of the handle of the law; earnestness is the goad I use, and exertion is my draught-ox. This ploughing is ploughed to destroy the weeds of illusion. The harvest it yields is the immortal fruit of Nirvana, and thus all sorrow ends."

Then the Brahman poured rice-milk into a golden bowl and offered it to the Blessed One, saying: "Let the Teacher of mankind partake of the rice-milk, for the venerable Gotama ploughs a ploughing that bears the fruit of immortality."


In the spirit of parables, I'd like to share another one with you about the meeting of a Zen Buddhist monk and a Trappist Christian monk on a balmy spring day with the trees leafing out and many flowers in bloom. They bowed and shook hands admiring each other's robes and discussing many points of similarity in the organization of their monastic lives. Both had taken vows of poverty. Both were celibate. Both lived in separated communities. Both had rituals they did every day. Enjoying this process of comparing their lives, they decided to explore the ideas that informed their religious orders. They found a shady bench to gain shelter from the afternoon sun and began to talk.

First the Trappist monk exclaimed, "Central to our thinking is the Trinitarian understanding of God. God is one expressed as three: The Father God from whom the Universe was created and to whom it will return; The Son who took human form to show us, the alienated creatures of God, how to restore our relationship and who gave his life to appease the Father; and the Holy Spirit who continues the Divine presence in our daily lives by making the reality of God known to us in each moment."

The Zen monk responded, "Your ideas of God are very strange to us. We do not believe in an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God. In fact we believe just the opposite. That there is nothing beyond this wheel of cause and effect. Here is how we talk about it in the Lotus Sutra, one of our most inspiring texts:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion From the depths of prajna wisdom saw the emptiness and sundered the bonds that caused suffering.

Form here is only emptiness, emptiness only form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.

Gate, Gate, Para gate, Para sam gate, bohdi svaha! Gone, Gone, Gone beyond; Gone beyond the beyond, Wow! (very loosely translated) Respect, honor and attention to the Awakened One!

"Hmmm," said the Trappist Monk. "This isn't going to be as easy as I had hoped. Some of what you say reminds me of the centering prayer we do but it is also different. One thing I think we can agree upon is the importance of what we do to help people get to heaven. I know that the fruit of my cloistered life will be to ascend to heaven after I die.

"Not me!" said the Zen monk. "I have taken Bodhisattva vows. I will be reborn in this world again and again until all beings have been brought to enlightenment. If being born in hell helps in that process, I'd gladly go."

"Very noble and courageous!" said the Trappist monk. "I see our cosmologies are very different. I think though there is one area that I'm sure we can find agreement. The importance of faith. We must believe our scriptures and teachers. We must clean out our doubts and fill our mind with Divine Truth."

"Sadly, again we have differences in thinking" said the Zen monk. "The Buddha taught that we must not speculate about the nature of divine truth or overly revere a particular teacher. In fact if we meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! This expression is a very profound puzzle, what we call a koan, we wrestle with. Our goal is to be independent of outside authority and find out what is true for ourselves. The Buddha insisted that his disciples not take his word for anything. The disciple was encouraged to sit down, meditate, follow his instructions and find out the answer through personal experience."

For a moment the two sat with their brows furrowed wondering how they could talk to each other when they had so many conceptual disagreements. One believed in God and the other didn't. One was guided by faith and the other wasn't. One believed we had one life and the other many lives. How could they communicate?

"I propose another way for us to dialogue with each other." Said the Zen monk.

Quietly he drew in a long deep breath and slowly exhaled the breath followed by a short shallow breath in and out. The Trappist monk winked at him and repeated the same breaths. The incense of lilac was in the warming spring air which awakened their minds to the present moment. The Trappist monk gestured to a bold robin as it flew to their feet and chirped at them. The Zen monk closed his eyes as a gentle breeze brushed his cheek. The Trappist monk scooped up some water from a nearby pool and sprinkled a little on the Zen monk's shaved head. The Zen monk smiled and bowed.

While they couldn't agree conceptually about the structures of their religions, in that silent moment of spiritual practice, they recognized something in the other which connected them as brothers in wordless agreement.

I speak to you in parables this morning because the Christian and Buddhist worlds construct the universe, humanity, our ultimate goals and ends, and our experience of consciousness very differently. Yet for all their differences, the West and the East have been in contact with each other directly and indirectly over many, many years. The Buddha attained his enlightenment 2,500 years ago and taught for 40 or so years. About 200 years later, the Indian King Asoka was converted to Buddhism and sent out missionaries in all directions. Undoubtedly, Alexander the Great in his conquests had contact with Buddhist monks. The Greek king Milindra met one of these monks named Nagasena and had an extended dialogue which was recorded for posterity in Buddhist Scriptures. While races and tribes may have been restricted geographically, their religious ideas probably traveled along their trade routes with them. I've argued that Jesus was probably affected by these ideas most likely though Greek Philosophy that came with their conquest of Palestine.

In our century, this dialogue as continued on two fronts. The first is among the theologians. Whitehead's Process Theology has a number of interesting connections with Eastern thinking which the academics have noted. In the early 70's Process theologian John Cobb initiated meetings with Kyoto School Buddhist philosopher Abe Masao to explore these interconnections. These dialogues gave birth to the Society for Buddhist Christian Studies in 1987. Their work together so far has focused on philosophy and doctrine, spiritual practice and cooperative social engagement. A great deal of intellectual cross pollination has come from these dialogues.[1]

A second avenue has been to investigate the other religious tradition from the inside through spiritual practice based connections. Thomas Merton is probably the best known Westerner to explore this approach. Today there are a number of Christians who have been rigorously trained in Zen to the point that they have even been authorized to teach Zen to others.

Robert Kennedy is one such ex-Catholic priest. What I find interesting is he hasn't converted to Buddhism. He remains a follower of Jesus. In fact, he says he is probably a better Catholic than before studying Zen. When he studied with his first Roshi, the Roshi told him that he didn't want to convert him to Buddhism but rather help him be a better Catholic.

A Catholic monk, David Steindl-Rast, has also practiced Zen under a number of teachers. His practice has brought him to make this rather striking statement:

I have no problem identifying differences between the [Buddhist and Christian] traditions, but I have an enormous problem accepting differences that are opposed rather than complementary. It just doesn't fit my worldview. I have never come across such a thing, and I don't expect ever to come across it.

If I were to discover an apparent opposition between the two traditions, it would merely make me say, "Well, I haven't fully understood it. I know that when I understand it, I'll see it as complementary [2]"

(Wouldn't it be great if our fundamentalist neighbors could have such a broad minded view?)

Much of the productive dialogue between different religious traditions comes from this kind of attitude. It often gets formulated in this analogy: We are all trying to climb the same mountain. There are many paths up the mountain. On the rainy side of the mountain, everything is lush and green along the path. On the dry side of the mountain the path is barren and rocky. If we look only at the path, they look very different. But if we follow the paths to their destination, they arrive at the same place.

This analogy was used recently at one of our Unitarian Universalist minister's meetings and one of our number, a professor of religion, objected to the analogy. He proposed that it might be possible that there are actually two peaks, not just one, that are quite different. In conversation afterwards, I probed further. He complained that some of the religious paths in the world may actually lead away from the greatness of what humanity can achieve and de-evolve us back into the animal world. I suggested perhaps his analogy might be better put, many paths might lead up the mountain but others might lead down into a bottomless pit.

From all I can see neither the Buddhists nor the Christians who are willing to engage in dialogue are headed for the bottomless pit. The dialogue is actually having an unintended result which I find very exciting. As the Christians and Buddhists dialogue, they are helping mark another newer trail up the mountain we call Unitarian Universalism.

Belief in God is central to all Christian doctrines. While some Buddhists do have deities they revere, they are not parallel to the Western conception of God. Buddhism has heaven and hell realms but they are not ontological. They are temporary abodes where beings can be reborn and reside while not here on earth. Eventually all will be reborn back in this world to try again until they escape from the wheel of birth and death. In Buddhism there is no absolute creator God outside of time and space.

When pushed on the nature of the absolute, the Buddha would deflect the question directing people away from speculation and into practice. In human form we can discover satisfying answers to all our questions by carefully observing our own experience. (Easy to say, very hard to do)

This dialogue makes room for our non-theistic approach to religion. We do not require belief or unbelief in God for participation in Unitarian Universalism. Like the Buddhists, we are directed to the wisdom of our own experience. Instead of basing our religious ideals on faith in revealed doctrine, we direct people to figure things out for ourselves by listening both inwardly to our hearts and outwardly to each other and our leaders and philosophers. This may lead us to a devout belief in God...or to atheism. There are no pre-ordained answers. If there were, it wouldn't be a free search.

On the issue of soul verses the Buddhist idea of emptiness and no-self, we find ourselves more informed by our Christian heritage, especially the Universalists who believed we are all saved by Jesus' atonement. We rejected the idea of Original Sin and the depravity of man as it came to us from Calvinism. In the Buddhist Christian dialogue, coming to a more expansive understanding of no-self has brought further support to our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Buddhists don't separate the saved and the damned - they want to save everyone and more. The Buddhists don't worry about just helping all people become enlightened, they want to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment which includes the birds, the bees and the bears. The absence of the soul idea means that we are not separate from other life forms but part of a larger universe which includes us. There are no good creatures and bad creatures just as there are no absolutely good people or evil people. We are all deluded not knowing our true Buddha nature which we can realize in this or some future lifetime.

The most important encouragement to our liberal tradition from Buddhist Christian dialogue is the process of dialogue itself. The process of dialogue is a central article of UU faith and practice. My words are not authoritative. Neither are yours. It is, to use Henry Nelson Wieman's term, our creative interchange of ideas and experiences which allows new ideas and understandings to emerge; new ideas and understanding more expansive than the ones initially brought to the conversation. This is the great gift to us of the free religious tradition we inherit from our forebears. None of us are asked to conform our thinking to a doctrine we may not understand and which will limit our perception of what is real. Rather, we take up the challenge to engage each other creatively in the pursuit of truth. For all truth is new and fresh when we first discover and later reconfirm its reality for ourselves.

Thoreau puts this process so beautifully in these words:

"I wish to live deep and suck all the marrow of life. I want to cut a broad swath, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world, Or if it is sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it."

Buddhist Christian dialogue is representative of the essence of our religious tradition which calls us to live life passionately, know it, speak the truth we find, follow the guidance of that truth and integrate it into our existence. Rather than pretending we know the answers when we don't, we honestly take up the path before us.

Let us be faithful companions to each other as we dialogue, walking together in the search for beauty, truth and right.[3]

So be it.

Closing Words

Thomas Merton said, "I couldn't understand the Christian teaching the way I do if it weren't in the light of Buddhism[4]." I add to that, I couldn't understand Unitarian Universalism the way I do without my contact with Christianity and Buddhism, and Sufism, and Hinduism, and Taoism, and Humanism, and Science and many other isms. Our ever growing dialogue expands us and does not diminish us.

May we take up the opportunity to engage others in our congregation who do not think and believe as we do and learn from the exchange. It is a gift of our free faith for our growth.

Go in peace, Make peace, Be at peace.


[1] Jones, Charles B., "Reflections on the Buddhist-Christian Dialogue in its Second Decade: Issues in Theory and Practice", Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Volume 4 1997: p310-320 ISSN 1076-9005 [2] Aitken, Robert & Steindl-Rast, David, The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian, Shambala, 1994, ISBN 1-57062-219-1, p. 22. [3] Other good books are: The Zen Teaching of Jesus by Kenneth S. Leong (ISBN 0-8245-1481-5) The Gethsemani Encounter: a Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics edited by Mitchell & Wiseman (ISBN 0-8264-1046-4) [4] Aitken & Steindel-Rast, p. 47.