Zen Buddhism and Unitarian/Universalism

by Todd Ellis 12/23/2017 


In the book Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism the UU Buddhist Jeff Wilson, who is also a scholar in religious and East Asian studies, argues that most, if not all, Modern American Zen Buddhism has been deeply influenced by Unitarian Universalism. While Christian Missionaries were forbidden and even punished in Japan in the 19th century, the UU’s were invited there. The UU movement has had a complex interrelationship with and at times even entwinement with Zen and other forms of Buddhism for centuries. The UU movement in turn has been increasingly influenced by Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism as can be seen by the popularity of groups like the UU Buddhist Fellowship and many others.

Zazen and kinhin (sitting and walking meditation), the main practices of the Soto Zen tradition, are practices that surpass words, letters and concepts. They are ways to make the pure experience of the dynamic reality of the present moment into a transforming practice based on the dual cultivation of calm abiding and clear seeing. Here at Red River Grassroots Zen we train in what to do with our body, breath and mind in meditation. We then relate these to the ethics of our actions in the world.

In contemporary America the word “Zen” has been so used and abused by the consumption machine of modern culture that at this point it can mean almost anything; a socio/cultural habit that tends to eviscerate its depth of meaning and turns it into yet another stereotype, commodity or personality trait.

“Grassroots Zen” implies an influence by the book Grassroots Zen written by Manfred Steger and Perle Besserman in 2001. The book is about structuring a non-patriarchal, non-hierarchal, non-authoritarian form of Zen while maintaining a traditional practice. It is a reformation of Zen and is based on the reputed final words of Siddhartha Gautama to “Be lamps unto yourselves, seek your own salvation with diligence.”

If you have an interest in Zen as a topic, a practice or both, please come and practice sitting and walking meditation with us for 55 minutes followed by discussion centered on discovering what Zen really means as it evolves into a drastically changing, globalized world characterized by what some have called “the long emergency.”

Topics; What is meditation? How do you do Zazen and why? What is Zen? Buddhist history, Zen History, Engaged Buddhism, Critical Buddhism, Grassroots Zen, Social/environmental Justice.


Todd Ellis holds a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Bicultural/Bilingual Studies. He has studied and practiced for 15 years in the Dzogchen tradition and 20 years in the Zen tradition. He has studied at centers in India, Nepal, Guam, Salt Lake City, San Diego, Dallas and Denton, TX. He has been a bicycle commuter for over 30 years and he has done extensive wilderness retreats in Micronesia, Baja, and Utah.

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