Saturday, June 13, 2009


In his 'Song of the Mahamudra,' the late wandering yogi Tilopa (988–1069 CE) exclaims:

Although sages report
the nature of awareness to be luminosity,
this limitless radiance cannot be contained
within any language or sacramental system.

I consider Tilopa's words to be a powerful articulation of the need for pluralism. He carefully navigates between an absolute relativist position (all systems are created equal) and one of imperious exclusivism (only one system reigns supreme), advocating instead for a humble recognition of God's overflowing presence beyond-all-graspness (Rahner). HDS Professor Diana Eck expresses a similar sentiment: "The challenge for the pluralist is commitment without dogmatism and community without communalism" ('Encountering God' 195). Standing independently but relationally allows us to re-construct the Holy using disparate pieces of faith.

Both Unitarian Universalism and Sikhism understand this. As for the former, Chworowsky and Raible poignantly observe: "Unitarian Universalists believe that no religion - including their own - has exclusive possession of all truth. All ought to be honored and respected for the truths in them" ('What is a Unitarian Universalist?' 272). The diversity of theology and background in our congregations reflects our belief that people must decide about God for themselves. Similarly, Sikhism encourages its followers to take seriously the 'many paths' approach. In a moving passage, Guru ji advises: "Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false" (Sri Guru Granth Sahib, 1350). In fact, Guru Nanak relied on the companionship and wisdom of Mardana (Muslim) and Bala (Hindu) during his extensive travels, as recorded in the janamsakhis.

For the Indian spiritual teacher Chinmoy Kumar Ghose, "tolerance is a secret and sacred way to enrich our human life." In this spirit, may we all delight in the overflowing.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Building A House - Joke

Harvard students from the different schools have been tasked to construct a livable house:

1) Education - recruits local students and teaches them building techniques using a hybrid instructional model that combines theory and hands-on experience.

2) Business - pays off the Education School's students using hidden off-shore accounts.

3) Kennedy - not too concerned about finishing first, as the judgment call ultimately rests in the hands of those evaluating the process; thus, starts building coalitions among judges, promising cabinet positions for votes.

4) Law - studies the initial entry form for loopholes, so that in the event of a loss, they always have a way out of the contract.

5) Undergraduate - has already pulled two all-nighters to begin the project ahead of schedule.

6) Divinity - four possible responses:
i) prays that God will provide wisdom and perseverance;
ii) creates and inhabits an imaginary house in meditation;
iii) establishes a church committee to evaluate the long-term strategic benefit of beginning the project;
iv) studies the intersection between shelter, the body and a theology of homelessness.

Just a little early morning laugh.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sikh Unitarian Universalism

In 1858, the Unitarian magazine and review 'Christian Reformer' ran a section on the religious aspects of India, in which the author introduces Guru Nanak amidst a belligerently unapologetic justification of colonial rule. As far as I can tell, this brief confluence of the two traditions exhausts their degree of interaction for years to come. Primarily due to cultural and linguistic barriers (I suspect), Sikhism has remained largely unintelligible to and unexplored by Unitarian / Universalists.

This need not be. In a hastily inchoate fashion, I have outlined certain central tenets of Sikh spirituality below:

i) Simran: Meditation on and remembrance of the divine through prayer and introspection (naam japna), in an effort to overcome the temptations of the ego (lust, anger, attachment, greed, pride) and live in awareness of the Holy. The disposition should be cultivated individually and collectively - singing hymns of praise (kirtan) in fellowship (sangat). The scripture says: "Meditating, meditating, meditating in remembrance, I have found peace" [202].

ii) Human Equality: Among caste, gender, religion and ethnicity, as symbolized by the ritual of community kitchen (langar). The scripture advises: "Look upon all with the single eye of equality; in each and every heart, the Divine Light is contained" [599].

iii) Thoughtful Worship: Self-reflective practices of spiritual value (for baptized Sikhs, the five articles of faith or kakkars) that discipline the religious subject, as opposed to empty ritualism (e.g. sacrifice and penance), superstition and idolatry. Rejecting the Brahmin priest's sacrificial cotton thread, Guru Nanak opined: "Make compassion the cotton, contentment the thread, modesty the knot and truth the twist. This is the sacred thread of the soul; if you have it, then go ahead and put it on me" [461].

iv) Anti-Asceticism: Religion must encourage its followers to achieve union with God while engaged in worldly affairs (familial duties, relationships, occupation and education), by guiding them in the way of an honest and respectable livelihood (kirat karni). The scripture reads: "Those who understand the Lord’s Court, never suffer separation from him. The True Guru has imparted this understanding. They practice truth, self-restraint and good deeds" [1234].

v) Seva: Selfless service in the gurdwara and community at large, including sharing the fruits of one's labor with others in need (vand ke chakna) so as to work towards the common good of all (sarbat da bhalla). Rendered through physical (taan), mental (maan) and material (dhan) means. The scriptures explains: "One who performs selfless service, without thought of reward, shall attain his Lord and Master" [286].

vi) Gurprasad: Earning God's grace through good and righteous deeds, which attunes the individual to the will of the divine. The scriptures recount: "Having created the creation, He watches over it. By His Glance of Grace, He bestows happiness" [6].

vii) Waheguru: Neither male nor female, God exists both transcendently (nirankar) and immanently (sagun), filling darkness with light (gu-ru) - the Beloved, the teacher, the merciful and wise. The Mool Mantar reads: "One Universal Creator God. The Name Is Truth. Creative Being Personified. No Fear. No Hatred. Image Of The Undying, Beyond Birth, Self-Existent. By Guru's Grace."

Even this truncated description should make clear that similarities between Sikh theology and Unitarian Universalism abound. Resonances include:

i) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning within the self and among the community through reason, meditation and prayer.

ii) Affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

iii) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic principle in adjudicating meaningful worship and appropriate congregational activity.

iv) The call to social transformation through pragmatic involvement in the daily struggles of the disenfranchised, with the goal of building world community based on peace, liberty and justice for all.

v) Cultivating an appreciation and reverence for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

So why encourage these two conversation partners? In my experience, Sikhism offers Unitarian Universalism a wealth of spiritual resources - including prayers (bani), hymns (kirtan) and stories (janamsakhis) - and a rich history of proclaiming the goodness of God and humanity in the face of brutality and oppression. Further, the Sikh concept of God deepens unitarian gestures towards a non-anthropomorphic monotheism that attends to human limitations and the power of language to write into being. Conversely, Unitarian Universalism presents Sikhism with a progressively inclusive venue for human flourishing that takes change seriously - ever refining the community's dedication to freedom, reason and tolerance. And it is precisely this latter element that bridges the two traditions: "Troubles are removed, when one meets with the Holy ... Adopting an attitude of tolerance, and gathering truth, partake of the Ambrosial Nectar of the Name." [261].

I hope to further explore this terrain in the future with mind, heart and soul alike.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

Over Ego Into God

In the recent UU World article entitled 'The Human Condition,' Kenneth Collier draws the distinction between ego and spirit as two modes of existence. The former, he maintains, centers on individual autonomy - our separation from others. The latter, in contrast, deals with connectedness and relatedness. He is careful to characterize this dualism not in terms of metaphysical ontology but rather in terms of perception (i.e. less theological anthropology, more spiritual attitude and awareness):

Notice that I am not suggesting that either the ego or the spirit is in any way a disembodied being temporarily trapped in our flesh. They are but ways of conceiving of ourselves and of relating both to ourselves and to the world. They are both essential to our understanding of how it is that we exist: We are separate and we are connected. After all, it takes binocular vision to see depth.

Indeed, in religion we seek to bind together (lit. religare) - to infuse the ego with that which is more and beyond. However, where Collier takes the turn towards gnosis (i.e. knowledge), I am more inclined to tend towards the affective - to view the binding-together as a dispositional afficere, or 'acting-on' in compassionate connection. By attuning us to the spirit, religion cultivates a holistic orientation that fully saturates our being-in-the-world. Such newfound emotional awareness kindles the heart and soul. The Sri Guru Granth Sahib opines:

ਨਾਨਕ ਹਉਮੈ ਮਾਰਿ ਮਿਲਾਇਆ
O Nanak, conquering egoism, we are absorbed into the Divine. [153]

On the one hand, this image of being drawn out of the self and into the collective speaks to Rev. Forrest Church's definition of God as the "power that is greater than all and yet present in each"; I consider this an appropriate addendum to Collier's call for human interconnection - we must also strive for connection with the more-than-human. On the other hand, this Sikh description of being engrossed in the Holy plays with my suggestion that religion works towards an affective transformation of the whole. In short, 'genuine religion' (I might prefer 'life-affirming religion') re-shapes our way-of-being by connecting us to and through humanity with God.

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