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Buddhism and Unitarianism: Past and Present

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by Wendy Bartlett

A Shared Spiritual Journey: Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism

    One of the “six sources” recognized by the Unitarian Universalist Association reads in part “…wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life…”[1] Although Judaism, Christianity, and humanism are specifically cited in the six sources, somewhat surprisingly, Buddhism is not. It is surprising because Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism share many similar values and ethics. For example, the seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism, which reads: “Respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part,”[2] is in concert with the core Buddhist teaching of “dependent origination,” in which no phenomena can occur without connection to other phenomena. This is commonly referred to as “interconnectedness” in Buddhism, and expresses itself in many ways, including addressing social inequities and caring for the earth, to name just two.

     Perhaps the most common word that the average person associates with Buddhism is “compassion” and indeed, the development of compassion for self and others is core. A similar ethic is contained in the second principle of Unitarian Universalism, which advocates for justice, equity, and compassion “in human relations.”[3] For Buddhists, “compassion” automatically includes justice and equity, and many Buddhists (and not a few Unitarian Universalists) would expand that ethic to include animals and the natural world.

     That these shared ethics and beliefs engender work for social justice is also a commonality between Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism. Interestingly, “socially engaged” Buddhism is a topic of much discussion in Buddhist circles. The reason for this is simple.  Classic Buddhism teaches that confrontation of any kind can be interpreted as a violent act, (even those which most people would consider examples of nonviolent social action) and therefore, encouraging the practice of contemplation and meditation that brings about detachment is preferable. The thinking is that, should everyone practice meditation and self-reflection, each person would understand that they should not harm others. Unfortunately, of course, the world does not work that way, and so many Buddhists participate in “socially engaged Buddhism,” that looks a great deal like the social justice work of Unitarian Universalists around anti-racism, income inequities, healthcare, food justice, immigration, and climate justice.  Per above, these principles and beliefs of both faith traditions, along with interconnectedness/interdependency leads to social justice work and socially engaged Buddhism.

     The Unitarian Universalist practice, as outlined in the first principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and as found in the fourth principle, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, are two core beliefs at the heart of a Buddhist practice as well. The Buddha taught that caste did not hinder or help the path to enlightenment. That was revolutionary and was one of the main distinctions that made Buddhism different than Hinduism. Like Unitarian Universalists, the individual’s ability to rationally discern their own relationship to the sacred and to one another is not only respected and honored in Buddhism, but indeed, Buddhism would not exist without these core beliefs. Attaining enlightenment is an ability contained within every individual, and the responsibility for seeking enlightenment is one everyone must undertake.

     In this way, Buddhism was also revolutionary in that the while Buddhists often work with a teacher, in the end, individuals must “do their own work” when it comes to meditation, study, and working toward enlightenment. There is no church authority that conveys enlightenment. In this way, Buddhism is like the shared spiritual journeys under the roof of a UU congregation. No two people may think the same or share precisely the same values, and no UU authority conveys a state of enlightenment or salvation. The journey is within, whether the UU is a humanist, agnostic, Christian, or Buddhist, and the individual is respected in that journey. This is like the third principle of Unitarian Universalism, in which the acceptance of one another and the encouragement of one another’s spiritual growth is emphasized. Buddhists often gather in communities, called “sanghas” in which they listen to dharma talks (not unlike sermons) and discuss them, and practice “sitting” or meditation, and work together on social justice issues.

     Finally, in much of Unitarian Universalism’s theological history, Unitarian Universalists sought to balance rational thought and inquiry with the miraculous and mystery of Christianity and other faith traditions. So too, does Buddhism engage the mind in the pursuit of the mystery; both are equally important, and act in concert on the path of enlightenment. In this way too, Unitarian Universalism respects and celebrates the achievements of science and inquiry yet remains open to spirituality in many forms and practices as part of the search for both truth and meaning.

     As seen above, Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism travel quite well together, and have for centuries. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, many Unitarian Universalists are also Buddhists. The Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship (UUBF)[4], created in the mid-1980’s, provides an international community for Unitarian Universalist Buddhists, many of whom are UU ministers. Prominent UUBF leaders have included the Reverend Florence Caplow and the Rev. James Ishmael Ford. Both Caplow and Ford have the distinction of being ordained both as UU ministers and Soto Zen priests. Ford’s In This Very Moment: A Simple Guide to Zen Buddhism[5] published by Skinner Books is a modern classic for Unitarian Universalists discovering Buddhism. And as part of the “Voices” series published by Skinner House, longtime UUBF leaders the Revs. Wayne Arnason and Sam Trumbore have edited Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism.[6]  The UUBF meets biannually, with the next in-person/hybrid convocation scheduled for Spring 2022; more information about the UUBF can be found on uubf.org/wp/[8].

Buddhism and UU Worship

     Many Unitarian Universalist congregations include worship services that honor Buddhist traditions, or include worship elements in their regular services that are based in Buddhist practices. When a congregation is invited to “join in a spirit of prayer or meditation,” the Buddhist practice of meditation is one of the traditions being honored. Meditation and mindfulness practices have connections to and a shared history with Buddhism. Buddhist writers like Thich Nhat Hanh are read and quoted in worship services. Because Unitarian Universalism casts a wide net regarding the spiritual traditions and practices that it honors, Buddhism is far from the only tradition where issues of cultural misappropriation may be at issue. But because Western Buddhism shares so many beliefs, ethics, and practices, and because it is largely practiced in UU settings by UU Buddhists of white European ancestry, issues of cultural misappropriation and Buddhism might be easily overlooked, or even part of “how UUs have always” conducted worship or sung hymns.

     And indeed, Buddhism’s journey alongside Unitarian Universalism has been such that Buddhist thought and writing have been used to create hymns as well. Included in the UU supplemental hymnal, Singing the Journey, is “Filled with Loving Kindness,”[9] a hymn based on Buddhism’s Metta Sutra. Included in the UU hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, are two hymns, “Be Ye Lamps Unto Yourselves,”  drawn from the Mahaparini Suttanta[10], and “No Matter if You Live Now Far or Near,” yet another interpretation of the Metta Sutra.[11]  Included in the section of readings entitled “Wisdom from the World’s Religions,” in Singing the Living Tradition are readings based on or drawn from Buddhist writings including works by writers like Thich Nhat Hanh, and lines from the Metta Sutra. Indeed, the sub-section is entitled “Buddhism.”[12]

     Historian Jeff Wilson, however, sounds a note of caution, pointing out these “…three hymns… intersect with Buddhism in some way, though one is a poorly labeled, inaccurate translation and the other is actually Hindu,”[13] illustrating the pitfalls of possible cultural misappropriation and misunderstanding if materials are used without a full understanding of their origin or meaning.

     The issue of cultural misappropriation regarding Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism is extremely complex because many Unitarian Universalists are themselves practicing Buddhists, employ Buddhist spiritual practices such as meditation, or cultivate mindfulness as part of their spiritual journey. What is curious is that it would seem to make the correct attributions of Buddhist works and writers in Unitarian Universalist hymnals a matter of more intense scrutiny and care, not less. No doubt in a future hymnal, such oversights will be corrected.

     Issues of cultural misappropriation include more than just the practice of “Western” Buddhism, as the practice of non-cradle Buddhists in North America is known. Conversations about Buddhism in Unitarian Universalist spaces may tend to overlook the fact that there may be Buddhist temples nearby where descendants of those from Buddhist countries, as well as Buddhists newly arrived in North America, practice Buddhism regularly. It is helpful to remember that UU Buddhists may be “cradle” Buddhists, or they may be “Western Buddhists” who have converted to Buddhism. Additionally, there are many different types of Buddhism. Buddhists within UU and Buddhists outside of it may identify as Zen, Vipassana, eclectic, Nichiren, Pure Land, and more.

     Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism,[14] edited by the Revs. Sam Trumbore and Wayne Arnason provides an excellent overview of modern UU Buddhism, including a chapter on “Diversity in Buddhism”[15] by Jeff Wilson, whose work is referenced above. These serve as an excellent starting point for discussion and careful consideration of possible issues of cultural misappropriation regarding Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism.

Adams, Child, and Peabody: Three Illuminations of Buddhism in the West

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

     Three of the earliest historic landmarks in Western Buddhism were accomplished by Unitarian women, namely Hannah Adams, Lydia Maria Child, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Without these three prominent Unitarian intellectuals of the 18th and 19th century, Western Buddhism might have had a very different history.

     In 1778, Hannah Adams of Massachusetts undertook the writing of A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, and Christian, Ancient and Modern. If this sounds an ambitious undertaking, it was. Exploration of different countries and the discovery of different cultures and religions led to great curiosity—and the great desire by many Christian thinkers to understand how Christianity appeared in conjunction with these belief systems. Adams’ book sold well, and she penned several subsequent editions. Addams’ dictionary included entries for a variety of Eastern religions, including a lengthy entry in the 1817 edition on “Thibetians” or Tibetan Buddhists, in which Adams writes knowledgeably about the Dalai Lama.

     Remembered primarily for her fiction and her work as an abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child also wrote at length about Buddhism, among other religions. Scholar Thomas Tweed calls Lydia Maria Child’s The Progress of Religious Ideas “[t]he most comprehensive interpretation of Asian religions, and Buddhism in particular, offered by a New England liberal between 1844 and 1857.”   Child, like many other early writers, attempted to define Buddhism in relation to Christianity, but managed to set down key Buddhist concepts including the Buddhist vision of the afterlife. 

     And in 1844, bookseller, publisher, translator, and educator, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody published the first translation of the Lotus Sutra into English.   Rather than explain Buddhism as a Christian viewing another religion from the outside, Peabody translated this seminal text, with commentary, so that readers who sought to understand Buddhism could read it and discern Buddhist concepts for themselves. Peabody published this translation in The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and for which Peabody had been the managing editor for some time. Despite her position as editor, the translation was misattributed to Henry David Thoreau and only correctly attributed to Peabody almost 150 years after her original work.

Transcendentalists Encounter Buddhism

     Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply interested in Buddhism and other Eastern religions, reading about and considering key concepts and including them in his own writing . He was familiar with an important book on Buddhism by Eugene Burnouf, Introduction a ̀ l’histoire du Buddhisme indien.  Burnouf’s book was published in 1844, the same year Elizabeth Palmer Peabody translated the Lotus Sutra in The Dial. Bournof’s work was a turning point in the understanding of Buddhism in the West because it relayed the history of Buddhism from an Indian point of view, free of the Christian missionary slant that colored earlier works. 

     But it was, perhaps not surprisingly, given his penchant for solitary contemplation,  Henry David Thoreau who really internalized the teachings of the Buddha. Thoreau read “The White Lotus of the Good Law” which had a profound influence on his understanding of the necessity of enlightenment. Biographer Laura Dassow Walls writes that Thoreau believed he “…must attempt a devotion so complete that he would be a teacher not merely in his writings, but in his life.”  And in a speech condemning the arrest of escaped slave Anthony Burns, an incendiary Thoreau spoke of a water lily—an American lotus flower—to illustrate the path of enlightenment from which he believed the country had strayed.

     In 1871, Unitarian minister and Harvard professor, James Freeman Clarke penned Ten Great Religions, which included a chapter on Buddhism. Historian Thomas Tweed suggests that Clarke was “probably the first university lecturer on comparative religion in the United States, and one of the most influential nineteenth-century American interpreters of Asian religions.”  In Ten Great Religions, Clarke begins by comparing Buddhism to Catholicism and Protestantism, and gives some particulars about outward rites and temples that had been observed by missionaries. Then, however, he relays an accurate accounting of the life of the Buddha and explains in great detail the teachings of the Buddha, beginning with the Four Noble Truths.  Given Clarke’s socioeconomic and geographic location, it is a pretty remarkable rendering of Buddhism.

     1871 also saw the publication of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “The Sympathy of Religions,” in the publication The Radical, in which Higginson shows an appreciation for the transcendence found in Buddhism; like Clarke, he understands this best when comparing Buddhism to Christianity. He references the ageless chant “Om mani padme hum,” writing “…at sunset, the low invocation, ‘oh, the gem in the lotus—oh, the gem in the lotus’—goes murmuring, like the cooing of many doves, across the vast surface of Tibet. True, ‘the gem in the lotus’ means nothing to us, but it means as much to the angels as ‘the Lamb of God,’ for it is a symbol of aspiration.”  Higginson also wrote with great understanding about the Dhammapada, which he had read in translation, in “The Buddhist Path of Virtue,” also published in The Radical the same year.

     The regard with which these 18th and 19th century Unitarians viewed other religions, and particularly Eastern religions including Buddhism, laid important groundwork for the acceptance and greater understanding of Buddhism in the West.  Without their descriptions, translations, teachings, and contemplation, Buddhism might have gained less of a foothold—or at least a much later one—in the pantheon of religions that eventually took root in the United States. The history of Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism would continue to travel a shared path well into the present day.

The Unitarian Role in the Westernization of Buddhism

While most Unitarian Universalists might identify Buddhism as one of the major influences on contemporary Unitarian Universalism, what they may not realize is that Unitarians actually played a significant role in “Westernizing” Buddhism in early 19th century Japan.

     This influence is one of the least well-known chapters of Unitarian history. Because Unitarianism was, and is, a non-evangelical religion for the most part, many people are quite surprised to learn that there were Unitarian missionaries at one time. “Unitarian missionaries” might sound like an oxymoron to most contemporary UUs, but they did exist in the early 19th century, when missionaries were a prominent part of most major religions. In light of what we now know about colonization and racism, missionaries are regarded as being part of colonization efforts that suppressed and degraded indigenous religions and cultures. The Unitarians’ story, while not completely free from selfish motives, does differ somewhat from the usual missionary story. Historian Michel Mohr writes that the Unitarians were conflicted about their own missionary intentions from the beginning noting that a religion that espoused complete freedom of belief while trying to put forth their own religion as superior, faced a bit of an identity crisis to say the least.[16]

     As Japan began to modernize under Emperor Meiji, Japanese students studied abroad, and some discovered Unitarianism, particularly in Britain. Enthusiastic to spread the word, they asked the American Unitarian Association to send missionaries to Japan. In 1887, Arthur May Knapp went to Japan to evaluate the proposition. Other missionaries followed. However, unlike most missionaries, and perhaps predictably, the Unitarians became as interested in Buddhism as the Japanese were in Unitarianism. And it is important to note that “Buddhism” was not a homogenous religion by any means. There were many schools and types of Buddhism in the late nineteenth century, just as there are today.

     Important Buddhist intellectuals like Furukawa Rosen, a Shin Buddhist, became interested in Unitarianism. Furukawa was taken by Unitarian principles, but questioned whether those principles constituted a religion. He wrote “I have a recommendation. I think Unitarianism should stop calling itself a religion, and should concentrate exclusively on washing away all the corrupt practices of the religious world.”[17] He added, “….if Unitarians would go one step further, it would be Buddhism.”[18]

     Unitarians might not have accomplished the conversions that missionaries in other religions eagerly sought, but perhaps predictably, they did wield significant and lasting influence in a sphere familiar to Unitarians: education. Another Buddhist intellectual, this time of the Zen school of Buddhism, Fukuzawa Yukichi, hired Unitarian missionaries to teach at Kei  University.[19] Inviting Western missionaries was part of Japan’s efforts toward modernization, and several important Buddhist students, who would have tremendous influence in shaping Western Buddhism, studied under these Unitarians, including Shaku Soen and his student, D.T. Suzuki.[20]

     Because of this influence, historian Jeff Wilson notes “[t]he Zen Buddhism which Shaku Soen and D.T. Suzuki presented to the West was already partially Unitarianized in Japan before it ever reached America.”[21] Wilson further notes that while Ralph Waldo Emerson studied Buddhist thought and writings, the interest was shared. “…Suzuki admired Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of the most important spiritual leaders of modern times.”[22] “Soen and Sukuzi,” Wilson writes, “sought to remake Zen into an intellectual, scientific, religion that was less about faith and more of a set of natural principles—precisely the way that the Japanese had understood Unitarianism.”[23]

     This early Unitarian influence on major “exporters” of Western Buddhism may offer an important clue as to why Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism have companioned so well over the past century plus. If Unitarians were offering a more rational and scientific Christianity to the Buddhists in Japan in the late 19th century, and the Buddhists were actively seeking to make Buddhism more “modern” by increasing its rational and scientific elements, then Western Buddhism, at least the Zen Buddhism offered by Soen and Suzuki, must have indeed felt very familiar to Unitarians in the West. It is tempting to wonder if this early shaping of Western Buddhism—particularly the seeking of a balance of the spiritual and the rational—is what has kept Buddhism so appealing to many Unitarian Universalists to the present day.





[1] Unitarian Universalist Association. “Sources of Our Living Tradition.” Website:www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources).

[2] Unitarian Universalist Association. “The Seven Principles.” website: www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/sources).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. Website: uubf.org/wp/.

[5] James Ishmael Ford. In This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists, 2nd ed. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2002.

[6] Wayne Aronson and Sam Trumbore, eds., Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013.

[7] Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. Website: uubf.org/wp/.

[8] Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. Website: uubf.org/wp/.

[9] Unitarian Universalist Association. Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, #1031,

[10] Jacqui James, Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition, 2nd ed. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1998, 48.

[11] Jeff Wilson, “Examining Buddhism in Unitarian Universalist Hymnals, 1894-2015,” Yale Journal of Music & Religion 4, no. 2, Article 4, 2018, 114.

[12] Unitarian Universalist Association. Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993, 595-8.

[13] Jeff Wilson, “Examining Buddhism in Unitarian Universalist Hymnals, 1894-2015,” Yale Journal of Music & Religion 4, no. 2, Article 4, 2018, 112-3.

[14] Wayne Aronson and Sam Trumbore, eds., Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013.

[15] Jeff Wilson, “Diversity Within Buddhism,” in Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Wayne Arnason and Sam Trumbore, eds., Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013.

[16] Michel Mohr, Buddhism, Unitarianism, and the Meiji Competition for Universality. (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, Harvard University Press, 2014), 26.

[17] Ibid, 72.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 53.

[20] Jeff Wilson, “A Brief History of Unitarian Universalist Buddhism,” in Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Wayne Arnason and Sam Trumbore, eds., Boston: Skinner House Books, 2013, 26.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.