Friday, April 12, 2013

Zen Priest Goes to Seminary

A Buddha in New Mexico

The spiral above the main doorway to Starr King School for the Ministry. Photo by Jim Lewis

Over the last year my life has made a dramatic – and for some people, somewhat mysterious – turn. I am, for the first time in twenty-five years, back in school, in the Master of Divinity program at a Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California: Starr King School for the Ministry, which is part of the nine-seminary Graduate Theological Union.

People ask me, with some concern, “Does this mean that you aren’t a Buddhist any more? What about your path as a Zen priest?”

The short answer is: “I am as much of a Buddhist as ever, and this is an integral part of my path as a Zen priest and my path as a human being.” This post is a deeper exploration of what I mean.


First, a bit about Unitarian Universalism, or "UU," as it’s known to its friends. (If you already know this history, feel free to scroll down).

UU is a merging of two American liberal denominations, with separate histories until the 1960s:  Unitarianism and Universalism. American Unitarianism was born in Massachusetts just before and during a time of cultural flowering in the first half of the 1800s. This was the time and place of fabulous thinkers and writers like Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, the young Whitman, and a host of others.

Massachusetts had been dominated by a particularly rigid and vicious form of American Calvinism since the 1600s. Only a few were the “elect” and destined for heaven, and the rest of us poor shlubs were headed for eternal damnation by a judging and unforgiving God. Those who suggested alternative views, like the Quakers, were publicly executed. By the early 1800s this system was beginning to crack at the seams. The water inside these cracks were some radical ministers, and one of them was a brilliant preacher who drew crowds of hundreds, William Ellery Channing.

Channing was convinced of the perfectibility, rationality, and innate goodness of all people, believed in a loving God, and questioned the divinity of Jesus. Ironically, a “Unitarian” was one of the worst things you could be called at the time. The “Unitarian heresy,” rejected and punished by Catholics and Protestants alike since the 4th century, denied the theological concept of the Trinity in favor of a whole-hearted commitment to the unity of God. This might seem like a small theological difference, but believers in Unitarianism were martyred with a passion in Europe for hundreds of years.

Unitarians, both in Europe and America, were also believers in the tremendous importance of religious freedom, freedom of thought, and the absolute separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin held many of the views of Unitarians, and these ideas found their way into the documents that formed the U.S. Constitution.

Had Channing been preaching a hundred years before, he probably would have ended up a martyr himself, but by the early 1800s, even Massachusetts had to grudgingly support religious freedom. They could, however, try to deny him, and other liberal ministers, the right to speak from their pulpits.

Unfortunately for the old guard, Channing and others were speaking to the spirit of the times, and the structure of the churches in New England were such that a congregation could vote on their minister and the teachings. Congregation after congregation voted in favor of the liberal ministers, with the losing minority forced to leave the church. Eventually, Channing and others embraced the slur that had been thrown at them, and even now, “Unitarians” occupy many of the oldest and most beautiful churches in New England, preaching social justice, activism, and freedom of thought from pulpits that once taught near-universal damnation.

First Parish Church (Unitarian Univeralist) of Ashby, MA
I learned some of this history as a child, because my mother came from a long line of liberals, knew her Unitarian history well, and even spent part of her young adulthood as a Unitarian minister’s wife. I went to Sunday School at the UU Fellowship in my home town in Indiana, and can say, “Oh yes, I was raised by one of those liberal feminist secular humanists that the Moral Majority worries so much about!”

Unitarianism and liberalism runs deep in my family. My mother’s family came from a small town in northwestern Iowa, called Cherokee. In 1890 my great-great-great grandfather John Potter, great-great grandmother Julia Cowles, and great-grandmother Hattie Allison, along with other liberals in Cherokee, formed a Unitarian church and invited two of the leading woman ministers in Iowa, Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon, to be the first ministers of the church. This was at a time where virtually no denomination in America allowed women ministers. Over the next few decades, the church had other women ministers too. I feel proud of my family and their commitment to both a radical form of religious practice and to women’s rights and freedoms while living in rural, Midwestern America. It feels like the ideals of Unitarianism are in my blood.

I knew less, growing up, about Universalism, which merged with Unitarianism in the early 1960s. Universalism was also largely an American denomination, dedicated to the belief in another heresy (still considered a heresy by most Christian churches): the universal salvation of all people. In other words, no one goes to Hell. Universalists say, quite reasonably (I think): “How could a loving creator God commit so many of his/her creations to damnation?” This American Life did a beautiful radio show about a contemporary evangelical minister who had a deep insight into his own universalism, and what happened to him because of it:
So these two radical “heresies,” with Protestant roots, both dedicated to freedom and social justice, came together in about 1961 to form an even more radical form of religion, one which embraces absolute freedom of religious belief, up to and including atheism. UU has become a place where gays and lesbians, transgender people, pagans, atheists, Christians, humanists, agnostics, and yes, Buddhists, can all be part of religious community with one another. In fact, that’s the point.

In a way, I see UU as an ongoing exploration of a deep koan: is it possible to create a loving community which genuinely embraces difference of all kinds, and works together for a better and more just world?

There are many gay and lesbian UU ministers. There are atheist and agnostic UU ministers. There are pagan UU ministers. And yes, there are Buddhist UU ministers. The most well-known is James Ishmael Ford, who is also a writer and Zen Buddhist priest and teacher (and has been a generous resource for me on this path). James Ford works as a minister but is also an active Zen teacher, with a large community of students throughout the Northeast. To read more from James Ford, click here:

To read more about my own exploration of the mutual history and issues of UU and American Buddhism, click here:


So this brings us back to the original question: why am I, a Soto Zen priest and field botanist, attending a Unitarian Universalist seminary? Well, the beginnings are probably back there in the 1890s in Cherokee, but more personally, I think it starts just south of the Grand Canyon...

I was living in Flagstaff, Arizona, about five years ago. A chronic illness flared up, and I found myself in pain and in bed much of the time. I gravitated toward the small UU church in town, where the lesbian minister read beautiful poetry from the pulpit. The first time I went, I sat in the back row and cried. I often cry in UU services, and I think it’s because I grew up in such a conservative part of the country. It’s still amazing and moving to me to encounter a "church" so determined to love and care for the world and each other.

California had just legalized gay marriage (briefly) and every week there were members of the congregation coming back from California wreathed in smiles, and getting up during the “joys and sorrows” part of the service to announce that after 10 or 20 or 30 years of loving one another, they were married. The whole congregation would break into cheers and clapping.

A sweet woman, who is still a friend, heard that I was ill and immediately offered the help of the church “caring circle.” I didn’t need physical caring, exactly, but I did need community, so I joined the caring circle myself, and felt like I had a place and something I could do, even while sick myself. I started a gratitude circle, and joined the weekly meditation group. And I started thinking about ministry, and had my first conversations with James Ford, whom I knew through the Buddhist community.

I began to have the feeling, stronger over the years, that as much as I love botanical work, something else wanted to happen in my work life. It was a strange feeling, as if something was growing in me, without my will, and something else was going dormant, ready to be quiet and underground. I’ve taught myself to pay attention to these things, and so I was paying attention, wondering what it was that needed to happen.

Then, last spring, suddenly, almost overnight, it was completely clear. And as soon as it was clear, everything fell into place, and it’s been like that ever since. Doors and opportunities opening, people around me affirming this path, and a deep sense of “this is where I need to be.”

When asked why I am in seminary, what I say is, “This world needs people who are dedicated and trained to be of service to the tender spirits of others, especially as we enter a frightening and uncertain time globally. I want to bring my years of dharma practice and marry that deep bodily steadiness with skills that will help me be more present with others. I want to keep growing up, and I think this is a way.”
Symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
That doesn’t mean that it isn’t scary, at times, to be doing something so far from what I’ve known, or such a big commitment. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wonder, at times, if and how I will integrate my Buddhist practice and commitment with practice as a minister in a Judeo-Christian tradition, however radical. I trust that I will know, as I walk along.

What I do know is that being in seminary is tremendous. I’m in classes at the Graduate Theological Union with brilliant, deep-thinking teachers and the most diverse group of people I’ve ever experienced: a Mexican Catholic nun, an ex-Marine studying for military chaplaincy, a Latina transgender woman, a Chinese Buddhist monk, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister, a woman working with homeless people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an Episcopal priest, a young Muslim, a young gay Filipino man….each person unique, wise, and extraordinary. This makes me very happy. I’m learning how to be present with another’s pain, about my own ageism, about how I might respond to the climate change crisis in a soulful way, about how to best companion a grieving person, and many other things.

I can feel myself stretching and growing, intellectually and spiritually. I can see possibilities of integrating many parts of who I am: the writer, the environmental advocate, the pagan, the radical, Zen priest, the Unitarian liberal, the compassionate listener, the believer in the equality and dignity of each person.

During the orientation and entering ceremony for seminary, the group of us who were beginning spent one afternoon with the president of the school, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, and the dean of faculty, Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini. They did a ritual with us, where each one of us went forward and the two of them washed and dried our hands, then held our hands in their own and blessed our hands to ”do the work of love.”

I’m traveling from San Francisco to Baltimore, with a stop in Dallas overnight, on my way to a convocation of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. I rode a shuttle last night to the hotel. When I can, I like to talk to shuttle drivers, to catch a glimpse of their world, which is almost a world of immigrants. Last night the van driver was a young Hispanic man. My assumption, based on past conversations with shuttle drivers, was that he would be working three jobs, struggling to survive and take care of a family. But no. He is in his first year of a seven-year architecture and interior design degree at the University of Texas, after graduating from high school with a 4.0 GPA. So much for assumptions.

On the way back to the airport this morning by taxi, the driver was an African man, with a beautiful lilting African accent. I asked him where he was from originally, and he said, “Nigeria.” We talked for a quite a while after the taxi arrived at the airport, the meter off. He had left Nigeria ten years before, with his wife and child, after twice being attacked by rebels and finding himself on the ground with a gun to his head. He is a trained pilot, and a Christian. He told me about the politics of Nigeria, the role of the British in creating a divided country, the Muslim north, and his desire to go back someday and help bring something better to his country.

When I think of ministry, or the pastoral vocation, these conversations seem like a piece of it. To meet whoever is in front of me, to learn from them, to see through my own assumptions and prejudices, and to love. Most of all, to love, to do the work of love.

A Buddha of Aynak, an imperiled ancient Buddhist site in Afghanistan