Buddhism has its origins some 2500 years ago, in what can be seen as a reformation of and a breaking away from Hinduism. Both faiths share the notion that life is suffering and salvation comes by removal from its round of suffering; craving and suffering repeats and repeats and so time is thus circular or spiral-like. This is quite different from the origins of near Eastern faith in which time has a clear beginning, that revelation pierces linear time, e.g. faith in Christ as the final revelation or in the Unitarian notion of progressive revelation, and near Eastern faith says that time will have an end. In Eastern faith, time is ever changing, and myth is circular too, allowed to grow and become richer and richer, where words no longer hove primacy or in one case serve the Word (with a capital W).

The relevance of Buddhism today in the West has probably got something to do with the change in view we have about time and about language. Science now understands that time is not linear but is observer relative; the green movement and a pagan revival observes the changing, repeating seasons, and with the relativity of language all the optimistic theologies and ideologies have hoken down. Thus is opened the way for a huge revision in belief as well as ideology, and here Buddhism makes its mark, in a number of ways.

1) It offers the West in its time of self doubt and ideological decay a new set of stories and myth, yet at the same time its programme of the four truths and eightfold path is practical, even simple to tell.

2) It is not an orthodoxy but an orthopraxy - you practice first and see if it does any good in gaining a sense of awareness. In this way Buddhism rejects the old metaphysics in favour of method and has no need for constructions of the supernatural.

3) It is highly individualist, even within a supporting community. It is your mind that is to be changed, your awareness, your sense of compassion to be developed.

4) Buddhism relates well to modern science and the reasoning behind postmodern philosophy. At the very deepest level, as the sutras say, nirvana or enlightenment, is no-nirvana; and the way of doing Buddhism, the dharma, must be no-dharma. The Buddha gets reported as saying that when this raft is no longer of use, when you have crossed the river, then give up the raft. The aim is to end craving, to end that construct of self. Once done you gain a practical enlightenment.

 5) Historically, Buddhism has allowed both rational interpretation and superstitious development. If you want plenty of colour, devas, bodhissatvas and so on, then there are rich traditions available. If you want simplicity and Western rationality, so this is available. The people and their folk-needs and the monasteries have historically interacted in this faith development, with late and continual developments in rich and thoughtful traditions and highly philosophical literature.

6) And, of course, it does not believe at all in a creator God, any overarching kind of God or a God within. There is no piece called God within its jigsaw puzzle.

In my view Unitarianism is still attached to the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic-Bahai stream of the historical, realist, objective, language of God, including the use of progressive revelation. The notion that God has more light and truth to break forth from his word is clapped out. Attempts to revive such notions come against all that the culture and thought has gone through and learnt. Non-realism, which rejects all revelation and historicism, is happening because the intellectual tradition of Judaeo-Christianity is collapsing. In any reconstruction of Western faith (including Unitarianism), Buddhism has a central and dynamic role to play, able to both attach itself to our culture and to transform it. The religious task of our culture is to move on from its craving for materialism to a detached mutual compassion and a heightened awareness of the value of all life. This is a far reaching and radical programme of faith.

For Hull Unitarian Discussion Group


This comes from the mid-nineties and was presented to the Hull Unitarian Church discussion group. In 2002 I find I like it as a summary of Buddhism.

The piece is of course a failure because since then the General Assembly has passed a clause which upholds the liberal Christian tradition. It says it is not a creed but leading members have produced pieces on this for worship in statements for congregations and an attempt at a hymn.

In my view the Unitarian view of Christianity is a kind of worst of all worlds, having acquired a sort of religious sentimentality to a fixed point of Christian reference that was actually a point of transition. So it has become very conservative, as indeed its liberal Christians are often far more conservative in their agendas than their equivalent believing Christian colleagues in credal churches. Its practice is often badly informed within the almost DIY congregational movement devoid of intellectual reference. People preach as if something is true when it may have been decades ago but is now challenged by theological enquiry.

Yet this is what is being revived in a desperate drive for identity at a point where the structures of the denomination are facing implosion. It denies the unique potential for open and even plurality and a risky but new future.