River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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Welcoming the Stranger Within

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, August 20, 2000

Ginger Luke


Reading from
Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras,
by Diana L. Eck

When Hindu Swami Vivekananda came to the World's Parliament of Religions in 1893, he toured America and was deeply upset by what seemed to him to be spiritual emptiness. He felt that it was the responsibility of Hindus to help.. . . He announced that America was in need of mission. His call to mission had the urgency and passion of any church mission society:

Spirituality must conquer the West. Slowly they are finding out that what they want is spirituality to preserve them as nations. They are waiting for it. They are eager for it. Where is the supply to come from? .....

As he launched the Ramakrishna Mission to help revitalize and reform Hindu society in India, he also launched the Vedanta society to bring Hindu teachers to America to teach the wisdom of Vedanta. While in India his Ramakrishna Mission took on social, educational, and health projects, it seems to have been Vivekandanda's view that the social and humanitarian dimension of religiousness was well developed in the U.S. What was needed was the depth dimension, the spiritual nurturance that the East could offer. (He was a missionary from India to America.)

Vivekananda's perception that the crying need of the West was something he called "spirituality" has been borne out in the one hundred years since the Parliament. Especially in the past twenty years, teachers with a rainbow of spiritual methods and messages have come from India, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan. Like religious teachers everywhere, some have been genuine spiritual leaders and others spiritual hucksters. But all of their movements have spoken to the question of spirituality. Transcendental Meditation, Zen, yoga, Tibetan meditation, mantra, and asana have come into our common vocabulary. Even people who have little interest in deepening their spiritual life may practice yoga as a physical discipline to tone and balance the body, or may be taught meditation as a means of lowering blood pressure and decreasing the occurrence of stress-related illness. In medical terms, the hypometabolic state produced by meditation for twenty minutes is deeply restful to the body, like sleep, and yet is a state of wakefulness.

Reading from
Encountering God, A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras
by Diana L. Eck
The Spirit Blows East

The Cambridge Insight Meditation Center is an old Victorian house surround by a simple Japanese fence and a peaceful garden of shrubs and flagstone. Every day in the early morning and evening people gather in the tranquillity of the large meditation hall and sit for an hour together on the rows of forest-green zafus and zabutons. . . . . .Those who come to the center practice the discipline of attentiveness, presence, awakeness called vipassana meditation. The Tuesday evening introductory courses, open to the public, are usually well attended by twenty or thirty people from all walks of life. The Wednesday night "sitting" sessions, followed by informal "Dharma talks" on the Buddhist path, are packed. Not long ago, the resident teacher let it be known that he would offer the opportunity for those who had long been practicing to "take refuge"-to place themselves intentionally on the Buddhist path. More than 150 regulars, mostly Cambridge and Boston professional people, came that evening, and after a session of sitting and a brief Dharma talk, took the vows: "I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma, the Teaching. I take refuge in the Sangha, the Community." They also pledged themselves, in English and in Pali, to the simple moral precepts at the basis of any spiritual life: to refrain from harming others, from taking anything not freely given, from speaking in harmful ways, from misusing sexual energy, and from alcohol and drugs.

There are three other major Buddhist meditation centers within a five-mile radius of Harvard Square. Some of the hundreds of people who frequent these centers would call themselves Buddhists, but I am quite certain that many more are Episcopalians, Methodists, Catholics, and Jews. (And I would add Unitarian Universalists.) There are also seekers who do not wish to attach any label to their seeking. This serious "crossing over" into the spiritual terrain of an Eastern religious tradition is one of the most important spiritual movements of today. Indeed, Buddhist meditation is becoming an important strand of Christian spirituality. (And again, I would add Unitarian Universalist spirituality.) On a Tuesday evening there is no church among the dozen in Harvard Square that is packed with seekers who want to deepen their life of prayer; no church even opens its door for such an offering. Those who are serious about spiritual practice go to the Buddhists.

This summer when I visited my mother, I gave her a book, which was a collection of Christmas notes and writings of the Second World War. These were collected by the Smithsonian and were Christmas letters from GIs and loved ones, and newspaper editorials, and I think even a snippet or two from a sermon being preached somewhere. As she was reading I would see her nod her head and say, "Yes, I remember that!" Or, "It really was just like that. Um huh." Sometimes tears would well up in her eyes and she would just nod. But every once in a while she would say, "I don't remember that," or, "I had no idea that was going on." Or, "We never knew anything about that. No one ever mentioned that." Or again, "I had no idea." Historical accounts can show us a bigger picture.

I think that if I were a church historian looking back from 2050 to the year 2000 at River Road Unitarian Church and the Unitarian Universalist movement I would see a significant moment in the life of Unitarian Universalism. There is something happening here of significance, real significance. Diana Eck called it "one of the most important spiritual movements of today." Most of us are not paying much attention to this happening. There is an interaction with Buddhist mindfulness meditation which is more prevalent, more continuous and more requested than any UU multi-religious interaction or dialogue I have ever observed.

Every Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. 125 to 250 people, who call themselves the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, gather in our sanctuary on cushions, mats or the floor and sit in Buddhist mindfulness meditation -- a style called Vipassana. We have offered them in our Adult Enrichment brochure for seven years. They used to meet in the fireside room and their numbers finally outgrew the space. I've been saying "they" as if they are strangers. Carl who led our meditation this morning and who often teaches in our Sunday school and Lynn Kelly, a past-chair of the RRUC board, choir member and leader of several of our pledge campaigns are board members of IMCW. Other members of RRUC, Sunday school teachers, past board members, members from our congregation with cancer, members with family upheaval, members and friends looking for jobs and people who are exhausted in their jobs, retired people and UU leaders from around the Washington area are also members of this group. Tara Brach, the leader of IMCW, is the daughter of William Brach, a UU member from New Jersey, I think, who at General Assembly was awarded the UUSC Social Justice Award of the Year for his commitment and work in child advocacy. Clearly participation in IMCW is an important religious practice for many members of our congregation. And clearly it is not an alternative to Unitarian Universalism, but an augmentation of their religious experience. They remain actively involved at RRUC as they participate in IMCW.

Mindfulness meditation comes out of Buddhist tradition. It doesn't come out of the Jewish or Christian backgrounds which originally shaped Unitarianism and Universalism. We know that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and the Transcendentalists studied eastern religions and were influenced by them. But let's be honest. Buddhism has been thought of as a world religion or an "other religion." Our purposes and principles say "The living tradition we share draws from many sources".... including "Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life." We have several Buddhist readings in our hymnal and the text to several of our hymns are from the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism is non-theistic and non-creedal and that may very well be a major factor in its attraction to Unitarian Universalists. Like humanism, Buddhism doesn't require a belief in God to be spiritual or religious.

I grew up in a culture in which religious exclusivism was prominent. I grew up in a culture that thought the way to be was Christian. Certainly, the best way to be was Christian. "Other religions" existed, but Christianity was thought to be better. It was what God wanted and the god we were talking about was "Our God." As a child, in this culture, I thought world religions were very different, mysterious and strange. And as the culture I grew up in (or at least my experience in that culture) broadened and grew it attempted to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The teachers who introduced me to what we called "world religions" often emphasized the similarities between these religions and my own faith. They all love children, want peace and help people. I learned some of their difference -- their doctrine and practices, but I hung on to the similarities because it helped me value them. I valued what I liked, which was like me, and I often didn't understand what I didn't like. It was a modernist way of universalizing the world-of looking for how we are the same.

And then as I thought of myself as different, and even valued being different, (I remember being so fond of a line from the musical "The Fantastics" in which the young girl says, "Please God, don't let me be ordinary." ) I wanted to be recognized and valued for being different. And I began to recognize and value people and religions, not just for how they were like me, but for how they were different.

In my anti-racism training, again and again, I have heard African Americans say, "you can't see me until you see my differences." And of course what an ethnocentric example is the use of the word "differences." It's like the word, "other." The implication is that I am normal and you are different.

Appreciating our difference again changed our way of understanding and being. And what I saw was that exclusivism which had evolved often into inclusivism was evolving into pluralism. It was a movement from setting apart, to blending together with ethnocentric control, to walking side by side. It was a post-modern approach which recognized the importance of pieces and parts -- that deconstructionist tendency. People began talking about "multi-faith" interaction and cooperation rather than "interfaith" cooperation.

And so more and more often the conversation is about religious pluralism. What is this "pluralism?" Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion at Harvard University and the author of the pluralism project which sent Harvard graduate students throughout the United States for several years identifying the active presence of world religions in neighborhoods all over the continent., says, "Pluralism is one of several responses to diversity and to modernity... It is an evaluation of religious and cultural diversity. It is the ability to make a home for oneself and one's neighbors in that multifaceted reality."

Eck says the aim of pluralism is "to find ways to be distinctively ourselves and yet be in relation to one another."

In Unitarian Universalist religious education curricula used over the years at River Road, you see an evolution from our "Church Across the Street" of the 1950s (a curriculum which assumed that "other" religions were those different Christian denominations and a synagogue or two) to our "World Religion" of the 1970s to the curriculum we are using this Fall, which is called "Neighboring Faiths" and is about faiths which may have originated in the Middle East or Africa, Asia or India, but which are now a part of our local communities.

And throughout my training we were constantly cautioned about the danger of appropriating another's culture or religious rituals. Certainly some in Eastern Buddhism have serious concerns about what "Western" Buddhism (mindfulness meditation falling into this category) is doing to Buddhism. It is one thing to study traditions and rituals. It is another thing to actually try to do them -- to act them out. Is it disrespectfully stealing a Native American tradition to do smudging in a ceremony or to use an Eagle feather or to hold a pipe? Is it disrespectful to wear a cross as a piece of jewelry, if you aren't a practicing Christian? Is it appropriate to enact a Passover seder if you aren't Jewish? Is it appropriate to act out a communion service to show children what it is? Can you really "show" non-believers what it is? Is it appropriate to light Kwanzaa candles? Is it appropriate to use a Tibetan chime, a prayer wheel, or a Buddhist singing bowl?

With all those questions in mind, what is going on when I can go to the web and discover that there are UU Buddhist Practice Groups meeting on Wednesday at River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda and on Sunday evenings at Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church in Alexandria and on Monday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, and on Mondays at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, and on Fridays at the UU Church of Lancaster, PA, and a whole everyday-center exists at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax. This is happening all across the country. Several prominent UU ministers describe themselves as Buddhist UUs. There is even a UU Buddhist web site. Both our local UU ministers group and the religious educators group have had mindfulness meditation retreats.

Eric Law in a book called The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed, says, "The primary purpose of dialogue is for each person to learn from the other so that he or she can change and grow." I think we may be changing and growing as a result of our interaction with mindfulness meditation.

This doesn't just happen. There is a working together that continues to need attention. I told you the meditation group moved from the Fireside Room to the sanctuary. That was when they met here on Tuesday nights. But when we had our Chalice Tuesday adult enrichment programs, we made enough noise in the Fellowship Room, where we had been eating, to disturb the beginning of their meditation. So some of us were feeling a bit irritated that we were being "shushed" in our own space and some in the meditation group were feeling a bit irritated that we were not more considerate. I asked them to change their meeting day to Wednesday evening, and they were happy to do so.

But one day, I came to a meeting on Wednesday evening and for the first time in six years someone was parked in my parking space. I found myself saying, "Ah ha! It has to be somebody from the meditation group, nobody at the church would park in my space." And you will hear people say they don't want their committee meetings to be scheduled for Wednesday night because the parking lot is so full. Or they will suggest that their Wednesday meeting begin at 7:00, before the meditation group arrives, so again they can find a parking space. And sometimes you may see a car parked in a space no one at River Road has ever thought was a parking space. IMCW has included instructions about parking in the brochure they hand out to participants to keep people conscious of parking issues.

And when people get frustrated often I hear the question, "What do they pay us to use our space? They are paying something aren't they?" The answer is that 25% of donations received during their weekly meetings is given to the church. But hear the language "us" and "our space"; "them" and "paying." It takes constant attention to address language like that.

All of these frustrations are very minor when you see people walk out of the mediation session, or talk with people who participate, you realize it is a changing and growing experience -- a transforming experience for many and well worth working out the cohabitation details.

Last year our religious education program invited Anh-Huong, the niece of Thich Nhat Hahn and one of the directors of the Mindfulness Practice Center at the UU Congregation of Fairfax, to lead meditation sessions for our elementary students and their parents. She explained mindfulness meditation and led meditations from 9:15 a.m. til 12:30. Many of the parents were so pleased with the experience, that they asked if we could do it regularly as a child-parent activity. Several RRUC members who are also active with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, the group which meets here on Wednesday nights, have offered to lead monthly family mindfulness meditations between services on Sunday. They will begin this Fall.

So the community is coming. Many of our church members are participating. We are offering this practice to our families as a way of being religiously together. Our people are asking for it. What does this all mean? Let me assure you that that is a Unitarian Universalist question, not a Buddhist one. What does it mean? This is "crossing over into the spiritual life of another tradition" in the words of Diana Eck. She says,

...it opens the possibility, for some people the risk, of real change and transformation. It is not a journey on which one embarks for quick answers or spiritual souvenirs. There will be no souvenirs, and one will not return unchanged... One cannot know at the outset just what one will find or how one may be changed. When a stone is dropped in a pool there are rings of repercussions. Some are felt immediately and others will gradually make their presence felt on the shore.

What I think is that people who are attracted to mindfulness mediation become more aware of the world. They move more sensitively in it. They experience it more fully. Those of us who live in that world with them also benefit from their awareness of us and the rest of the world.

And if that is true, then how will those of us who do not participate feel? Will we become "outsiders" in our own home? Do you feel like an outsider because you don't teach Sunday school, or sing in the choir or participate on the social justice council, or attend Chalice Tuesdays? Ours is a multifaceted religious community with many different opportunities to be in the world. I think we will continue to change and grow. I don't know if our sixth principle about the "interconnected web of all existence" came out of Buddhist influence; it certainly could have. I do expect that mindfulness language and practice could be more present in our writing and in our worship.

It may become more and more a part of our social justice activism. Eck says,

Spirituality has an outward dimension too, so much so that the phrase "spirituality for combat" has come into use in liberation discourse to speak of discipleship in the struggle for human liberation. But Thomas Merton, a Trappist contemplative monk, made clear, the outward dimension is integrally related to the inward. All spirituality requires a journey inward. Without it, action or "combat" leads quickly to burnout.

Now, I don't think that the inward journey has to be via mindfulness meditation, but I think it is one way. It is one way that requires no creeds or dogma or theistic definition of the world in order to participate on a journey to more awareness -- more wholeness. I have never participated in one of the Wednesday night meditation group sessions. I have participated in a professional retreat which introduced us to mindfulness meditation and I have watched our children be introduced to mindfulness meditation. But the phenomenon I am talking about this morning is not a one time thing. It is a practice-a discipline -- a commitment -- a long journey which some of us are choosing. And I have appreciated the opportunity to be more intentional about its presence in our midst. I look forward to more dialogue. I expect its presence in our community will change me and create growing experiences.

Eck says,

Religious traditions are far more like rivers than stones. Like the Ganges (of India) or the Gallatin (of Montana), they are flowing and changing. Sometimes they dry up in arid land; sometimes they radically change course and move out to water new territory. All of us contribute to the rivers of our traditions. We do not know how we will change the river or be changed as we experience its currents.

I want us to be able to look back in 50 years and say, "I remember that."

My sermon this morning has been an attempt to, using words so familiar in the Buddhist tradition, to "pay attention" "be aware"- to "notice" that we are not only walking along with, but some of us are crossing over or maybe stretching out to a form of Buddhism which may change us all.

We have moved from exclusiveness to inclusiveness to pluralism to a crossing over. (And I realize we move back and forth on this continuum.) This evolution is of course what the exclusivists were afraid of. We will be changed by this experience. We will be changed by the people and world in which we live. I invite you to be aware as this change occurs. Some may call it transformation.

I would like to close with words from a letter from Thomas Merton to Diana Eck when she was a senior at Smith College:

And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanation.

And so I say to you this morning, mindfulness meditation may be able to introduce us to that stranger within us, that part of ourselves, which can BE without explanation.

May it be so.


Eck, Diana L. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, Boston, Beacon Press, 1993.

Law Eric H.F.. The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed. St. Louis, Missouri, Chalice Press, 1996.

Shannon, William H. ed., The Hidden Ground of Love: The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns. New York. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 1985.