Taking Refuge

Nation, we are not amused by what’s going on. An end-of-the-year USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll finds an overwhelming 71% of people surveyed dissatisfied with the way things are going in our country. Just 49% predict 2015 will be better—this is the first time since 1990 that optimism for the year ahead has dipped below 50%.

Why? The improved economy doesn’t feel like it’s boosting everyone. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and middle class folks feel like they’re on increasingly thin ice.

Then there’s despair over governmental gridlock. Can Washington really get things done? The most recent elections were not a vote of confidence in the Republicans. The results were mostly about people’s patience for President Obama and Democratic policies running out. Appearance IS reality in politics, and things appear messy. Doesn’t matter if there’s been real improvement. Yet another reason for the blues….

And then this, from Tuesday: the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report about the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation techniques.  CIA Director John Brennan calls them “EITs” which is shorthand for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” but we need to cut through the Big Brother doublespeak and call it like it is: waterboarding, wall slamming, forced nudity, rectal rehydration and rectal feedings—anything to create a state of “learned helplessness” where you will say anything to save yourself. Anyone who doesn’t see that as torture plain and simple: what universe are you living in?

Gail Collins, in The New York Times, reminds us of a certain episode during World War II, how “an American pilot was shot down over Japan just after the Hiroshima attack and was tortured repeatedly for information about the atomic bomb, of which he knew nothing. Threatened with beheading, the pilot told his captors that the U.S. had 100 atomic bombs and that Tokyo was next on the target list. The bogus information was immediately shared with the war minister and the Japanese cabinet.” Shifting to the present day, Gail Collins then refers to the Senate Intelligence Committee report and its conclusion that “all the torturing produced very little information that was useful and possibly quite a bit that was made-up.”

The uselessness of these so-called EIT’s is bad enough, but far worse is the immorality of it.

Another story from World War II is equally instructive. In June of 1941, Hitler suddenly renounced the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and invaded the Soviet Union, with the ultimate goal of establishing a vast settling ground for the German people. To that end, he wanted his generals to get busy implementing–by any means necessary, to raze key Soviet Union cities and expel if not exterminate their occupants. One of the generals balked. It is wrong. But Hitler told them to lose their moral scruples. Hitler said, “The Führer is determined to erase the city of Petersburg from the face of the earth.”

In the days following 9/11, it appears that our own leaders (Bush, Cheney, Brennan) spoke words just as chilling, and were just as despicable in encouraging people to lose their scruples.

It’s wave after wave of reasons to lose hope. Wave after wave.

We still can’t breathe.

But we must breathe.


It may come as no surprise that for me a big part of the answer is Unitarian Universalism. Being the minister I am, I have just a little stake in folks drinking the kool-aid and taking up the cause.

But to read my intentions like this would be mistaken. Because I had already drunk the kool-aid long before becoming a minister. It’s why I became one.

Because in Unitarian Universalism, I found a source of hope.  A way to keep showing up with an open heart no matter what.

Today I want to share what I found and continue to find.

And to help me do this, I want to draw on Buddhism. Now this might sound like a big detour, but it’s not. It just provides yet another reason for experiencing Unitarian Universalism as a source of hope.

From our very beginnings as a religious faith, there’s been the desire to be in positive relationship with different religious ways. 500 years ago, the communities that are the spiritual ancestors of our Unitarian Universalist congregations today were Christian through and through—and yet they conscientiously rejected doctrines (like that of the Trinity) which would alienate them from Muslims and Jews. It felt wrong to them to be at odds with these fellow spiritual travelers who were of a decidedly different faith.

Beyond this, our Christian ancestors from 500 years ago believed that they could learn important things about themselves by being students of other faiths. No less than Micheal Servetus, one of our major heroes, does this. Here’s an example. In his book from 1531, The Errors of the Trinity, he says this: “Some are scandalised at my calling Christ the prophet, because they happen not themselves to apply to him the epithet; they fancy that all who do so are chargeable with Judaism and Mohametism [his word for Islam], regardless of the fact that the Scriptures and ancient writers call him the prophet.” Now this is a fascinating passage. What we are witnessing is the classic Unitarian Universalist mind at work. A metaphor like “the prophet” comes to us from non-Christian faiths like Judaism and Islam, and Servetus is experimenting with it, seeing through it to discover what fresh things might be revealed about the Christian Jesus. From that which is strange, he wants to learn something new about what’s familiar.

That’s what we’re doing this morning as well. And again, in itself it is such a source of hope. That there can be a religious faith which believes there’s no shortage of truth in this world but an abundance, and it makes no sense to fight over who’s right and who’s wrong. Hope: that the tradition of our faith is to go wherever truth might be found, and to be respectful in our finding, and to digest what we’ve found, and to live what we’ve found, and above all, to know that we Unitarian Universalists exist within an interdependent web of religious faiths and we are all family, we are all aiming towards Love, so therefore let there be peace. Let all our energies be trained on real injustice and not drained by futile fighting against each other.

Can I hear an AMEN?

We’re going to Buddhism today to learn something about ourselves, and right there is a reason to breathe.

But now, what do we find?

We find Siddhartha Gautama at the moment of his enlightenment saying “Wonderful, wonderful: all beings and all things are already enlightened.” And from one perspective, that’s a really strange thing to say. For he also said that suffering is the main characteristic of existence. Yet the point is this: in life is a natural grace, a natural bliss, a natural Buddhahood potential. Release this potential and you become just like the lotus flower: heart and mind all beauty, all courage, all wisdom, even as your fleshy roots inescapably sink into the muck and mire of human existence. Siddhartha Gautama knew this directly and (as our video today says) so did Nichiren in the 13th century. Split the atom of the ego, and you will experience a boundlessness of compassion energy.

For Nichiren, the Buddhist scripture that says all this best is the Lotus Sutra. His signature conviction, which launched an entire movement, is that there’s something uniquely powerful about the sounds that are made when the title of the Lotus Sutra is given voice (and this is in Chinese): myo, ho, ren, ge, kyo. “Nam” is the sound that means “to dedicate oneself.” This is where the full mantra comes from: Nam myoho renge kyo. It means, “I dedicate myself to the Lotus Sutra vision.” Nichirin was convinced that if a person were to commit oneself to saying this mantra over and over again in a truly mindful way—to “pray without ceasing” as a Christian might say it—then that in itself could take a person all the way to Nirvana.

Practically, however, such a commitment needs support, and Buddhists calls this support system “The Three Jewels:” Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Just this past Monday (Dec. 8) was Bodhi Day, a huge holiday in Buddhist communities around the world in which people commemorate Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment experience. Multi-colored lights are strung about the home to symbolize the many pathways to enlightenment. Special fig trees are strung with beads and hung with three shiny ornaments: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Three Jewels.

What are they?

Begin with the Buddha. This is the person who shows us the way. The historical Buddha who lived 2600 years ago; all the teachers who lived after him, like Nichiren. They show us that Enlightenment is no pipe dream. It’s real, and humans can experience it. They did, so we can too. The potential is in all of us, no matter what our class happens to be, or race, or educational achievements, or abilities, and on and on.

As for the Dharma: it’s the teachings that support the full realization of our Buddhahood. The Sutras and all the writings of Buddhist teachers across the centuries. But also any piece of writing or just anything that is a bearer of the truth and helps set us free.

And then the third Jewel: the Sangha. This is the community of people who share the vision of every-person Buddhahood. These are the people who strengthen you when you are weak. These are the people who challenge you when you need challenging.

The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha: here’s where hope for Buddhists comes from, and so they say:

Taking refuge in the Buddha,
we learn to transform anger into compassion;
taking refuge in the Dharma,
we learn to transform delusion into wisdom;
taking refuge in the Sangha,
we learn to transform desire into generosity.

Buddhists take refuge. They have something to take refuge in.

But do we? Can Unitarian Universalists take refuge too?

You better believe it.

Despite governmental gridlock, despite a twisted economic system, despite politicians who order others to lose their scruples and approve torture, despite wave after wave of insult to human goodness and therefore hope, we take refuge in the knowledge that Buddhas are everywhere, in all cultures and from all times. Sometimes they are of major stature like THE Buddha, or Jesus, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and sometimes they are unknown to history but nevertheless they changed our lives in some way.

We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even the politicians who drive us crazy and the people who seem to just keep feeding the sickness in our world: they too have inherent worth and dignity. It doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to their brand of insanity. No—we maintain our boundaries, we hold them accountable for their actions. But we believe that no one should be frozen in time. People who seem far gone can still surprise us by their capacity to do better. And even if they continue to disappoint, still, no one deserves to be treated like a thing. No one. This is a prime article of our faith.

We take refuge in that.

We take refuge, too, in our Unitarian Universalist version of the Dharma. Nature has always been a go-to source of truth for us—for instance, the pattern of the seasons, which helps us know that no matter how deep and difficult a Winter episode may be in life, it’s never the last word. Spring is coming. This too shall pass.

We take refuge.

So many sources of the Dharma for us. We take refuge in our Six Sources, we take refuge in our Seven Principles, we take refuge in truth wherever truth may be found. We are a truth-seeking people, because just like Buddhists we know that that’s what it takes to split the atom of the ego. Listen to this truth from scientist Stephen J. Gould: “The patterns of human history,” he said shortly after 9/11, “mix decency and depravity in equal measure. We often assume, therefore, that such a fine balance of results must emerge from societies made of decent and depraved people in equal numbers. But we need to expose … the fallacy of this conclusion so that, in this moment of crisis, we may reaffirm an essential truth too easily forgotten, and regain some crucial comfort too readily forgone. Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one. The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people. Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” And then he says, “We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior.”

We take refuge.

Especially in that which brings us together and unites us in concerns that are far too large for any one person alone to carry. The Sangha, or as we Unitarian Universalists say it, the Beloved Community. How we support each other in our spiritual journeys and then join together for justice and for peace. How we need not think alike to love alike. How, together, we are far more effective than when apart. Every spectacular incident of evil is balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, and that’s the work we are called to. Our 10,000 acts! The Great Asymmetry happens because communities like ours make it happen.

We take refuge in that. Like the lotus flower, we can feel our roots in the muck and mire, but it does not discourage us. Our hearts and minds rise like a flower into compassion, and wisdom, and courage. 49% of Americans polled predict 2015 will be a better year that 2014, yes, but even as we know there’s so much to save, we can balance that with a capacity to savor what is good and to savor gratitude for our lives and to savor hopefulness about what happens next. Lots to save, but don’t forget to savor.

Nam myoho renge kyo is what Nichiren Buddhists chant as their way to remember who they are in the deepest sense, and where they’re headed.

For us, our chant? It comes straight out of our history. From the Unitarian side, we receive the wisdom that there is only one source of everything, and we are all family, brothers and sisters together. From the Universalist side, we receive the wisdom that no one’s going to be left out of Heaven, all are going to get there eventually, so why don’t we stop worrying about all that and get busy making our here-and-now earth more peaceful and just? We receive this wisdom, and today we give it voice like this: Love is our one source. Love is our one destiny. No one left out.

That’s our version of Nam myoho renge kyo. Chant it with full mindfulness of what it means, and yes, it takes us Unitarian Universalists all the way to being the change we wish to see in the world.

Love our one source

Love our one destiny

No one left out

Let’s take refuge in that everyday.

It’ll help us breathe.