Roots of Our Faith: Buddhism

Roots of Our Faith: Buddhism


This service begins a new series, “Roots of Our Faith”. Unitarian Universalism as a religion draws from many different sources, and this series serves to explore all the religions and philosophies that make Unitarian Universalism what it is.

We begin with Buddhism which dates from the teachings of Gautama, about 600 years BCE.


Buddhism is an enormous subject, and we can’t possibly even outline the whole sweep of its existence and internal workings. So I won’t be talking about the four Noble Truths, or the three jewels, or the Noble Eightfold Path, or Buddhism’s traditions, and schools of thought, and controversies. I will spare you employing the Sanskrit and Hindi and Chinese names for all these things. Nor will we hear much about its history, except, to say only that it is the second oldest religion on planet Earth, the oldest being Judaism. We will address Judaism next month, just after the High Holy Days have begun. 

In my view, rather than dive into the complexities, it’s better to be attracted to Buddhism by its peacefulness, for the loving kindness, and devotion that its practitioners display. Then, if the spirit moves, we can go deeper, and the deepness seems near-infinite, because we are talking about the human soul, and human nature, and more than 2500 years of development. 

 Given the 15 minutes we have, I have chosen to speak to only three Buddhist virtues, and not much else. Let us begin.


Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit him that evening. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.  “You must be so sad.” 

The farmer paused, and replied, “We’ll see.”

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed that evening. “Not only did your horse return, but you received three more. What great luck you have!”

“We’ll see,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, in an attempt to train it, and was thrown, and broke a leg. The neighbors came again, in the evening, to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Now your son cannot help you with your farming and harvest. What terrible luck you have!”

“We’ll see,” answered the farmer, again.

The following week, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they rejected him as unable to serve, and so he was not conscripted into the army and he was not sent off to fight. The neighbors congratulated the farmer that evening on how well things had turned out.

“We’ll see,” said the farmer. He said that each time, because he know you just never know anything for certain, but at most, only general and approximate probabilities of what might happen as a result of some accident.

From the Zen Buddhist tradition, collected in Buddhaimonia, and modified by Leland Bond-Upson

The wise farmer was practicing the Buddhist virtue of non-judgment. He understands the true nature of life, that you can’t judge any event as an “end” of anything ever. Our life doesn’t play out like a work of fiction. There aren’t definite breaks that separate one moment versus another, and there isn’t a perfectly formulated end which everything builds to. All the elements that create the future are in flux, like the little numbered balls in the lottery, all spinning, but on the scale of the universe. 

There’s always tomorrow. And whether the day was good or bad, there are an immensity of effects which can arise from one event. Good and bad are interconnected. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. If things seem perfect, they aren’t. If it seems like it’s Armageddon in your corner of the world, it’s not. Things can change in an instant, at all times. And they will at some point or another, change.  In the West we say, ‘in time, this too, shall pass,’ regardless of our wishes. 

This doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy. On the contrary, it means that we need to realize this great truth and live in a way that we’re constantly aware of it in order to find peace and happiness. Don’t let things change the way you live, too much, just yet. For now, let’s just think on it, observe our life through the lens of this infinitely co-arising and swirling universe. This act in itself, this recognition can bring us a great sense of peace. 

Letting Go

This next story is about the Buddhist virtue of letting go. This is a story from the West, illustrating a Buddhist virtue.

A man named Jack was walking along a steep cliff one day, when he accidentally got too close to the edge, stumbled, slipped, and fell. On the way down, before he picked up speed, he grabbed a branch, which was strong enough to at least temporarily stop his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet.

He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and so there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So, Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something.

“Help, help! Is anyone up there? Help!

He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice. “Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?”

“Yes, yes! I can hear you. I am down here.”

“I can see you, Jack. Are you alright?”

“Yes, but who are you, and where are you?”

“I am the Lord, Jack. I am everywhere. Above, below, beside you.”

“The Lord? You mean, God?”

“That’s Me.”

“Dear God, please help me! I promise if you’ll get me down from here, I’ll stop sinning. I’ll be a really good person. I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”

“Easy on the promises, Jack. Let’s get you off from there, then we can talk.”

“Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”

“I’ll do anything, God. Just tell me what to do.”

“I’ll do anything, God. Just tell me what to do.”

“Okay. Let go of the branch.”

“What?!” Jack said.

“I said, let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go.”

There was a long silence.

Finally, Jack yelled, “Help, help! Is anyone else up there?”

Source Unknown

It is hard to surrender oneself to uncertainty. Most of us prefer to cling to our little branches, to the familiar and not seizing liberating new ideas or habits. Jack had reason to take a chance – God had proved its existence. The Buddhists think it’s good to take the chance on something other than the familiar, and not the “safe” choices that keep us from growing more enlightened.

I remember the obstetrician Deborah and I used to deliver our children. As the contractions got more intense, and painful, and scary – the thought of pushing and thereby increasing the pain and fear seemed unthinkable – Dr. Boyce, when he judged the time was right, would in a calm, assured matter-of-fact voice and with a hint of a smile, suggest “take a chance.” And Deborah – and the other mothers – would, almost always, let go of the fear, enough to take that chance and push, push out a beautiful baby and a new soul.


The image you see on the screen now is that of a figurine of Guan-Yin. This figurine contains an internal hydraulic system – involving cohesion, adhesion, and capillary action – that causes water in a small space to seek more room to move, even if that way, as in this example, is up, defying gravity. If water is put into the mouth of the dragon at her feet, the water will rise, turn, and pour out the little tube she is holding, which refills the reservoir, and establishes a never-ending cycle. In Buddhism, the water that magically rises and pours out, symbolizes the tears of compassion.

Guan-Yin was a bodhisattva, a person on the path to Buddhahood. She eventually attained Buddhahood herself. She is often referred to as the “most widely beloved Buddhist Divinity.” In Buddhism, she is primarily a figure of compassion and mercy.

We heard from Krista’s reading today just how important compassion is to the Buddha, a child of the rich, and formerly known as Siddhartha Gautama. The young man escaped the palace, his gilded cage, and went out among the people. He was shocked and heartsick to see that most people out there were suffering, some of it needlessly – in that it was brought onto themselves by incorrect thinking – and he decided to do what he could to reduce and even end that suffering.

Well, who do we know who doesn’t suffer? One of the appeals of Buddhism is the hope that one can learn how to suffer less than one does at present. His Holiness the Dalai Lama agrees wholeheartedly and believes that compassion is the key. Listen again to his writings from The Art of Happiness: “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” And finally, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy yourself, practice compassion.”


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