Two paths; A Life – The Lion’s Roar
Reverend Zenshin Florence Caplow is not half Buddhist and half Unitarian Universalist – she is completely both.
I am an ordained Zen priest and an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. I could give the Sunday sermon from the pulpit of an old stone UU church in central Illinois, wearing a robe and a colorful stole, and the next evening a talk on the online dharma for a Soto Zen center in Chicago or Santa Fe, wearing black koromo and Rakusu. Any day I could meet with a member of my UU congregation to talk about a thorny family dispute, and later I could sit down with a Zen student to discuss how to live the precepts.
I am a sixth-generation Unitarian, descended from a line of women from my great-great-great-grandmother in Iowan, Jane Potter, to myself. Jane Potter’s obituary, from 1901, reads: “Mrs. Potter became a charter member of the Unitarian Church of Cherokee when it was organized ten years ago. It was a rare moment of joy for her when, with her husband, children and older grandchildren by her side, all pledged their loyalty to the higher life of religious ideals and aspirations.The women in my family asked the most famous pastor to their time, the Reverend Mary Safford, to help found their church.
I find that people of all ages, and many creeds, yearn for ways of understanding that can provide support in these stormy times.
Oneness Universalism is almost unique among American denominations because it is “creedless,” meaning there is no obligation to a shared belief or theological understanding. A person can be an Atheist UU, a Christian UU, a Pagan UU, and yes, a Buddhist UU. I am a board member of the UU Buddhist Fellowship, and we estimate that at least one in ten UU congregations have a Buddhist group associated with the congregation.
What the UUs have in common are commitments to human dignity, to caring for each other and each other, and to addressing injustices in the world. Unitarian Universalists have always represented a tiny fraction of the American population, but have played an outsized role in many major progressive movements, from abolition and women’s suffrage in the 19th century to civil rights and gay rights movements. in the twentieth century.
I realized that I am not the only one to be “trans-religious”. Methodist Pagans, Catholic Zen students, Jewish Sufis, Vajrayana practitioners who also practice African Spirituality – there is almost every combination of traditions and practices imaginable. I am not talking here about people who have a dilettante interest in more than one tradition, but about people who are deeply involved and committed to different spiritual traditions. I think of the dharma teacher Jan Willis, who wrote the book Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhistor the time I visited a small, remote Catholic monastery in the mountains of Italy, where in the crypt below the chapel there were, mysteriously, zen cushions neatly lined up on the ancient marble floor.
As a UU minister and community leader, I find that people of all ages and many creeds yearn for ways of understanding that can provide support in these stormy times, whatever those ways are called and tradition from which they come. The Buddha himself said that dharma was medicine, and the Lotus Sutra teaches that through “skillful means” the dharma can heal and liberate in a thousand ways.
Sometimes I think Zen is about a different set of issues than the big theological issues of the West, especially the question of God versus no God. In the West, we divide people into those who believe in God in any form and call them theists, and those who don’t believe in God and call them atheists. I think Zen is neither theistic nor atheistic, but rather non-theistic. The issues Zen addresses are in a different realm than beliefs about God. So, at least for some Christian Zen practitioners, there is no conflict between Zen and Christianity.
I grew up in the 1970s, with the real and present dangers of nuclear war and environmental degradation. Reading about genocide and racism, the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, made me despair of humans and their actions. As UU, I knew I was supposed to roll up my sleeves and do my part to create a better world, but it was overwhelming for my young spirit.
For me, the faith and values of my mother’s sincere mid-century Unitarian universalism were not enough to sustain me. When, at eleven or twelve, I found Alan Watts’ books, I said to myself with relief: “Ah ha– here is someone who says it as if it were really the case! »
I might not have survived adolescence and early adulthood without the powerful teachings and practices of Buddhism. I learned meditation as a teenager, began practicing Vipassana in my early twenties, and discovered Soto Zen in my late twenties when I became a student of Zoketsu Norman Fischer ( a trans-religious Jewish Zen Buddhist). My gratitude for dharma is as vast as the ocean, and this gratitude has led me to ordination and teaching within Soto Zen.
However, the spirit of the Unitarian feminist women in my family made me painfully aware that the liberating teachings of Buddhism seemed to come from only one half of humanity – the male half – and that there was no way it was all the truth. In the monastery, we chanted the names of more than ninety generations of ancestors from the Buddha until today, and all of them were male. I started researching the teachings of Buddhist women, and out of that research came the book The Hidden Lamp: Stories of Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, a collection of powerful words and feminine practices that I edited with Reigetsu Susan Moon. I thank my Iowa female ancestors for giving me the clarity and courage to bring these stories out of hiding.
In my 40s, I entered a UU scholarship in Flagstaff, Arizona. Same-sex marriage was illegal everywhere but a few states, and longtime congregational gay couples traveled to California and married, then broke the news to their religious community to cheers and tears of joy. I cried too, moved to the bone by a religious tradition that affirms without hesitation “love is love”. At this time, I began to consider the UU ministry, although already ordained a Zen priest. I hoped that my decades of Dharma practice would be a gift I could bring to the people I served.
When I was training for the ministry, a seminary friend asked me what percentage I considered myself a Zen Buddhist compared to UU. “Sixty-forty? ” she asked. “Half half?” I laughed and immediately said, “One hundred hundred!” I meant that I saw my two practices and traditions as completely linked, interpenetrating and interdependent. Over time the image became more subtle and complex, but I would still respond the same way.