UU Buddhists, who combine Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, “may be the largest convert Buddhist grouping in the country right now,” says James Ford, a Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister. As senior minister of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, Massachusetts, and a leading teacher at Boundless Way Zen, a regional consortium of Zen groups, Ford exemplifies the not-one, not-two spirit of UU Buddhism. Buddhism can offer Unitarian Universalists profound contemplative experience, and Unitarian Universalism can offer American Buddhists a traditional American-style congregation.
Describing UU Buddhism strains the vocabulary usually associated with religious groups. It is not a sect or branch of either Buddhism or Unitarian Universalism per se. It has no hierarchy and no rules and creeds. The defining statement on the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship website is open-ended: “Should a person feel affinity with both Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism, they may consider themselves a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist.”
According to Sam Trumbore, president of the UUBF, the fellowship is “a point of connection and conversation between Unitarian Universalists and the wider Buddhist universe.” It also provides support for “those who are both Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist in affiliation or affection,” which includes more than 125 practice groups in thirty-four states and Canada who list themselves with the UUBF. (Ford thinks there may be almost as many groups who have not chosen to list themselves.) It publishes a newsletter, UU Sangha, made up largely of talks on Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism (all available online), that taken together form a primer on what this tradition is all about. But according to Trumbore, the fellowship has no dominant agenda for itself or its members. The purpose of the UUBF, he says, is “to discover the purpose of the UUBF.” It presents workshops every year at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly to inform members of the possibility of having a Buddhist practice. One hundred and thirty people gathered at the first UUBF convocation in 2005, and more are expected to come to the next one in April 2007 at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York.
Both the Unitarian and the Universalist churches, which merged in 1961, have long histories in the United States. Many influential early Americans belonged to these denominations, which emphasized a humanist, rationalist perspective on spirituality that was very much in keeping with the early American experiment in self-government. Their ministers and theologians espoused the most liberal form of Protestantism. In the nineteenth century, the transcendentalists, including most prominently Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, influenced this tradition in the direction of a pluralism that embraced many possible paths, including Buddhism. According to Ford, UU has long been a church with “one foot in Christianity and one foot outside, and the trend lately has been toward the outside foot.” In UU World magazine, one UU member summed up the faith by saying “Unitarian Universalists believe that all life is sacred, all existence is interconnected, and that justice and compassion must be the foundation of our thoughts and deeds.” Another said, “Rather than choose your path for you, we provide a safe place for you to discover and pursue your own path.”
UU Buddhism encompasses a broad range of people, from those who simply allow Buddhist ideas to influence their thinking to those who call themselves Buddhists. Based on recent surveys, James Ford believes that if you apply the broadest possible definition, there may be some fifty thousand people influenced by UU Buddhism, about ten thousand of whom “have a regular daily practice or something close to it.” Trumbore says that all the main streams of Buddhism are represented in the UU population: “We have Zen practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists, Pure Land, Vipassana practitioners, Thich Nhat Hanh students, and a variety of others.”
People who have already started a Buddhist practice are often attracted to a UU congregation because it offers them a place to practice and a spiritual home that is not radically different from their Christian upbringing. It can also provide a religious education for their children that few Buddhist denominations in America offer. Melissa Blacker, a Zen practitioner who had just moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, with her husband and young daughter in the early 1990s, was “looking for a family-oriented church that didn’t limit us in terms of what we believed or worshiped or practiced.” The senior minister at a UU church they tried out had a meditation practice, and in the first sermon “she quoted an old Zen koan and T.S. Eliot, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is different kind of place!’”
Blacker went on to become a Zen priest and a teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, but she maintains her connection to the Unitarian Universalist congregation. When she first came to the Worcester church, she says, “people asked us what we did spiritually, and when we told them we practiced Zen, they asked us to do some workshops, teach people how to meditate, and teach something about Zen. We now have one Zen group that meets once a week that includes members from the congregation and another that meets in my home that doesn’t tend to attract people from the congregation.”
According to Ford and Trumbore, UU Buddhist practice groups generally meet for an hour or so once a week. During that time, they practice together and may also hear a talk, have a discussion, and socialize. The dominant form of the practice tends to be influenced by whoever has started the group, and some congregations even have two groups with differing orientations. Ford says the intensity of people’s practice varies considerably: some practice occasionally, others daily, and still others regularly go on retreats. At the gatherings themselves, there usually is not much ritual and form. Trumbore appreciates that. What he values most from Buddhism, he says, is “using meditation practice effectively to wake up. I’m not interested in chants, initiations, and other forms of ritual — the cultural trappings. I want the pure practice that awakens.”