At the Festival of Peace, in Florianopolis, South Brazil, the journalist and philosopher Lia Diskin related a beautiful and touching story of a tribe in Africa she called Ubuntu.
She explained how an anthropologist had been studying the habits and customs of this tribe, and when he finished his work, had to wait for transportation that would take him to the airport to return home. He’d always been surrounded by the children of the tribe, so to help pass the time before he left, he proposed a game for the children to play.
He’d bought lots of candy and sweets in the city, so he put everything in a basket with a beautiful ribbon attached. He placed it under a solitary tree, and then he called the kids together. He drew a line on the ground and explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal. And that when he said “Go!” they should rush over to the basket, and the first to arrive there would win all the candies.
When he said “Go!” they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply shared the candy with each other and happily ate it.
The anthropologist was very surprised. He asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to arrive at the tree could have won everything in the basket – all the sweets.
A young girl simply replied: “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”
The anthropologist was dumbfounded! For months and months he’d been studying the tribe, yet it was only now that he really understood their true essence…
(Source: “This is the Age of Ubuntu” from harisingh.com.)
In a small town in the Northeast, there was series of fires at local churches. First, a Catholic church burned down. The priest was seen running out of the fiery edifice carrying a large crucifix. Soon after a Jewish synagogue burned down, and the Rabbi dashed out in time with the scroll of the Torah in his arms. Then the Unitarian Universalist church burned down and the minister was seen running out of the building with a coffee pot.
This was a joke that was popular when I first joined Unitarian Universalism. I have been thinking about this joke and wondering what it said about Unitarian Universalists years ago, and if it is still relevant for Unitarian Universalists today.
When I joined Unitarian Universalism in 1979, the question of spirituality which included accountability and action were focused primarily on the individual. What do I believe? What/who am I accountable to? Who needs me? Whose life is altered by my choices? Back then, I and most Unitarian Universalists, thought almost exclusively about our personal searching for meaning, purpose, and truth. Our social justice actions were centered in ourselves; the person would ask themselves how he/she/they could make a difference, help someone. Sometimes, the typical Unitarian Universalist, in so far as one could use the term “typical”, may occasionally wonder how could they could get other people to join them in social justice work. But mostly, social justice works was the work of individuals, not the congregational body.
This emphasis on individuality was foundational to Unitarianism at its formation. In the 19th century, Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson when speaking to graduating ministers at Harvard Divinity School said: “Historic Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, and the ritual…the remedy for this deformity is first, soul, second, soul, and evermore, soul…[thus you are called to] speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach…” He was encouraging those ministers to preach, not from the Bible, or really from any religious text, but from what was true for them, from their individual souls, and he exhorted them to encourage others to seek answers from within themselves.
This emphasis on individualism almost resulted in the death of Unitarianism as a formal, recognized religion. When Unitarian Reverend William Ellery Channing and many other prominent Unitarians got together in the early 19th century to discuss forming a new faith, there was great debate. Many were concerned that given the diversity of beliefs within the many churches, there would be some individuals who would be negatively affected by forming a Unitarian religion; thus the proposition to formalize Unitarianism was voted down with an agreement to consider further discussion of the proposition at some later date. We do love our discussions. We wouldn’t be the Unitarian Universalist Association today if it were not for some young whippersnapper Unitarian ministers the following year. They presented a proposal to organize into a formalized group of Unitarians at the Berry Street lecture, the oldest lecture series in North America, and those who gathered decided to become the American Unitarian Association.
Joining and belonging to a Unitarian Universalist fellowship, congregation, or church back in the 80’s and 90’s was about finding a home where we could be ourselves, where individually we were free to search for truth, meaning, and purpose, with a community supporting us in our individual searches. While this was freeing in some ways, it had some negative side-effects. Some people felt that being free to be themselves meant that they could be hurtful in their language and/or behavior without consequence. And those who didn’t like it, well they could just leave the congregation.
Today, Unitarian Universalism is moving toward communal spirituality, accountability and action, changing the focus from “I” to “we”. Now the questions lean toward: What do we believe? Who needs us? To whom do we answer? Whose life is altered by our choices? And many congregations are considering what does “this congregation” believe? Some Unitarian Universalists churches are communally choosing to be spiritually pluralistic, others choose to be Christian, while other congregations have chosen to be primarily Earth-Centered, and others choosing to be Humanistic. Many congregations are still in active communal discernment, asking what is our corporate meaning and purpose? How do we as a congregation make a difference in the world. And very often, after a period of measurable, intentional discernment Unitarian Universalists congregations select a social justice initiative that has been communally identified.
Communal decisions can create some challenges. What about the people who want to honor the diversity of belief that is the hallmark of Unitarian Universalism; is that diversity of belief threatened when a congregation decides to focus on one particular religious/spiritual or ethical belief system? What about the people who want to work on a particular social justice initiative that is different than the one that the congregation has decided on? If a congregation decides on a style of worship that involves more ritual, meditation, prayer, singing and with less preaching; what is the compromise for the people who want more preaching and less ritual?
Unitarian Universalist churches have what is called congregational polity. This means that each congregation decides on how it will be governed, what groups it will support, what minister they will call, and how they will worship. So the decision about whether a Unitarian Universalist or a Unitarian Universalist congregation focuses on “I” or “we” or both is up to them.
As many of you know, I am presently teaching a Buddhism class and bringing in Buddhist teachers from around Miami. So I have been spending more time exploring some of the writings of the Buddha. But here’s the thing: Buddhism, like Unitarian Universalism, is not a static faith. You see Buddha loved options. And thus as more centuries have passed between the life of the Buddha and present day, more options have evolved. Even by the time Buddhism made its way to Tibet, centuries ago, there was a veritable smorgasbord of ways to call oneself a Buddhist and get away with it.Buddhism over time has also reflected upon how spiritual wisdom can be gained. Let me share this sutra of three life-intentions from Lama Willa Miller which describes these intentions.
“The first type of life-intention is called the king-like intention. The seeker with this kind of spiritual intention follows the spiritual path like a leader or an individualist. She sees herself as a pioneer, focusing on self-improvement for the sake of the betterment of humankind. Her driving force is ambition, and she sees herself as responsible for others. Like a king, this kind of person develops wisdom and then—on the basis of attaining that powerful place—takes steps to help others.
The second intention is called the boatman-like intention. The seeker with this kind of spiritual intention follows a spiritual path in the role of a guide. He imagines spiritual life as a communal endeavor. His slogan for enlightenment is ‘All or none’. Although he is a team leader, he wants to attain the fruits of the path only if his buddies do also. His driving force is the cooperative spirit. Everyone is in the same boat, so to speak.
The third intention is the shepherd-like intention. Like a shepherd, this kind of seeker is not very self-involved. As a shepherd’s eyes are rarely drawn from her sheep, a seeker with a shepherd’s intention cannot take her mind’s eye off others. Only after their needs are met does she look after her own. She lives only for the welfare of others and makes sure that whatever resources she obtains go to others first. This kind of person’s driving force is love and empathy.
Sages commit to different styles of awakening, but in all cases their focus is on a huge group, the very biggest group, the family of humanity. A sage with king-like intention wishes to awaken first and then lead the family of humanity to awakening. A sage with a boatman’s style wants to attain awakening together with the family of humanity. The shepherd-like sage [through example, good deeds, and inspiration] wants to attain awakening only after everyone else has awakened.”
Which, if any, of the sages do you consider yourself? Are you best described as “sage-fluid”? What sages are encouraged in this congregation? What wisdom might Unitarian Universalists gain from looking at these three different driving forces—ambition, cooperation, and empathy? Which model of awakening or gaining spiritual wisdom do you prefer to emphasize in your life? To be emphasized in this congregation?
In my spiritual journey, I have tried all three of these intentions. And to be truthful, I don’t think any single one offers a path that works all the time. Foundational to all these intentions is sincerity. Even if intentions may not look the same from one day to the next—and they probably won’t—it’s your sincere willingness to be open to new ways of experiencing greater truths that is crucial, that keeps your evolving search for truth and meaning from becoming mere dabbling.
It is my own belief that all Unitarian Universalist congregations respond to the driving force to be king-like in our intentions, with affirming and promoting each person’s ambition to find spiritual wisdom through a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, developing wisdom that equips each of us to help others in the world. And I believe that our Unitarian Universalist congregations are also developing a more boatman-like intention, by balancing the right of conscience with the use of the democratic process, focusing on the cooperation within the community to help the world. What about the shepherd-like intention? The wisdom gained through love and empathy.
Remember the story of the African children and the candy? Can you imagine what your life would be like if you affirmed and promoted Ubuntu as a spiritual focus for your life? How do we, Unitarian Universalists, put others’ needs and feelings before our corporate self-interest? Our individual self-interest? How do we encourage others to spiritual growth in a way that de-centralizes their spiritual growth from our own individual journeys? That turns “me” into “we”? Is empathy a spiritual discipline in our lives?
One spiritual discipline that has helped me bring a shepherd-like intention into my life is the Platinum Rule. You probably know the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” The problem with that rule, at least for me, is that is based on ambition and the cooperative spirit, in other words my wisdom, which is always limited, and the wisdom of my community, again limited, to figure out how to help others. The Platinum Rule offers something more: empathy and perspective. The Platinum Rule is: “Treat others the way they would like to be treated.” If people don’t want to be encouraged to spiritual growth, that’s okay. You may believe that encouragement to spiritual growth is the most important part of being a Unitarian Universalist. This difference doesn’t invalidate your present truth or their present truth. That’s really the essence of Unitarian Universalism, isn’t it. The platinum rule is based on a continual and ongoing process of empathy and understanding, putting yourself in the other’s shoes, by letting them tell you about what their shoes are like. Letting them tell you how they want to be treated so that they don’t feel hurt. Does this remind you of any relationship you might be in?
I always think of my marriage. I think it is successful because I realize that I am always changing and my wife is always changing. We are responsible for understanding each other, in order for us to love each other the way we want to be loved. If we don’t ask what the other person needs or what the other person feels, and if we don’t show the other person how important it is for both of us to understand each other, we are not living the Platinum Rule. By the way I asked my wife how she felt about my sharing this with you.
Unitarian Universalism is a both/and religion. Rarely is it either/or. Sometimes it can be an individualist faith, sometimes it can be a cooperative faith, sometimes it can be a loving and empathetic faith. Which driving force is emphasized might be related to where you are on your faith journey, or where we are on our congregational journey. Which driving force is emphasized might also be related to which social need calls to you, or which social need calls to our faith community? Whichever driving force you or we choose, you or we should do so with intention and reflection, with an awareness that it probably will change as you, and as we journey.
May I, you, and we embrace life’s journey as a spiritual adventure, befriending a sage’s intention, and becoming a servant to, a helper of humanity. Through cultivation of ambition, cooperation, love and empathy, may I, you, and we be a force for peace and balance in the world. May my, your, and our aspirations and those of all beings come into fruition.