Sermon Criticism

A Critique of a written sermon given to the National Unitarian Fellowship in October 1964 by Rev. Bruce Findlow then Minister of St. Mark's Unitarian Church, Edinburgh, in which he compared the expanded ethic of Jesus and similar stances on Buddhism.

This sermon using Buddhism to say something afresh along the lines of Jesus' moral code needs some finer examination, otherwise there is a danger of misunderstanding Buddhism as a religion of forgetting an act whereas it is a religion of open eyed awareness. It is through awareness and deep understanding that Buddhism communicates something else to the person who makes a hateful gesture.

The sermon begins with the age old comparison with Hebrew Bible morality. In so doing it makes the common mistake of raising the harshness of Jewish morality in order to make Jesus' view even more revolutionary:

When did you last hear somebody seriously claim an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth? When were you last smitten on your right cheek by some evil person?

The argument about taking an eye for eye and tooth for a tooth was only an eye for an eye and only a tooth for a tooth. It was a statement of application of justice, at a time when retribution was haphazard and cruel, and not a statement of compulsion as it has become interpreted. It was minimising punishment to appropriate levels.

The sermon then tackles metaphors as if literalisms. This is a weak technique. Metaphors should be tackled as situational metaphors, not as:

When did someone last compel you to walk a mile with him in these days of the wheel?

Nevertheless the point is made that a different religion is likely to have a different stress:

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me" – in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease; for hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love….."

This is not what Jesus said, however (quoted above this), and there is a greater distance between the two than suggested. Jesus is advising practical action: Buddhism is stating the means to being capable to making that practical action. As ever within Buddhism this is mind centred and even psychological: that if you go over and over the event of what someone did to you, you cannot move on.

This is why:

[The] ...teaching of Buddhism rests upon a diagnosis of the human condition and a prescription for dealing with it.

and that...

those who dwell upon their sufferings at the hands of others, hatred will never cease.

There needs to be more care to state that the technique is not forgetting anything:

hatred will cease if we forget the hurt, if we can put away the resentful thoughts we have towards that other person, whoever he is and whatever he has done. ...In those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease – for hatred ceases by love.

Nor is the Buddhist method shutting out:

But how hard to shut out those thoughts...

Buddhism is rather about developing wisdom and understanding. The requirement for awareness is against a strategy of forgetting and shutting out. We remember, but come to understand.

It is correct that it is ultimately about understanding not the event but through the event to people. is not so much thinking about him is it, as thinking about me – this is how I feel, this is what I think, this is what has happened to me. ...The alternative is to think and feel about him – in a word to put out of our thoughts our own suffering - to turn our thoughts and feelings towards that other person – thoughts and feelings of love.

Directing thoughts to him is a means and not the end. The end is actually the transitional self of the me. The reason for training in messages of love for the near and the far, is so that the me is, to repeat but now isolate:

how I feel, this is what I think, this is what has [actually] happened to me.

The whole point about detachment is so that the person on the receiving end is fully aware, fully understands and yet is detached. Metta Bhavana is the chanting of messages of love to near and far, but the mind being trained is not theirs but ones own.

So believing the words is not enough:

But only a man, be he Buddhist or Christian, who really believes the words, who has made them the core of his own life, can prove them with his life in such a compelling way.

Rather, it is training. The mind needs training. It is trained by doing meditation and learning: the Buddhist trained to be aware and detached will turn the other cheek when hit, and will do it almost automatically because it has become deeply known to see the attack for what it is, the motivation of hate in that person which needs to be overcome by the demonstration of something other. Perhaps the Buddhist will speak, however, because they do not fail to face up to the truth. "It is wrong for you to want to hit someone, but here is my other cheek.". This is buddhahood. With eyes wide open the reaction is to turn the other cheek.

So when Jesus says this, he says what should be done. The Buddhist says this will be done once the method is carried through to completion. Both Christian and Buddhist must really believe in their bones, and when they do they will turn the other cheek. This is what the sermon is suggesting.


Adrian Worsfold