Contemplative Eye:
What Buddhism Offers Unitarian Universalists
by Doug Kraft
Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, CA
October 22, 2000

Imagine you are six months old. Your dad places an attractive ball next to you. You try to grasp it. But just before you touch the toy, your dad slips it into a fold in the blanket. You turn away as if the ball never existed. All you have to do is reach under the blanket, but at this age, out of sight is literally out of mind. You do not have "object constancy." This is to say, you do not have the capacity to hold a mental representation of the ball. If you cannot see it, it might as well not exist. If the toy is then exposed, you might reach for it again. If it is covered a second time, you turn away. You are "perceptually seduced." Your responses to the world are reflexive and sense driven. Delight in playing "peek-a-boo" may come from seeing people vanish from the universe and magically re-materialize. (1)
When you are a little older, you develop object constancy. It is a thrilling discovery. You throw crackers and cups of juice off the high chair tray for the sheer joy of watching them disappear. Then, leaning over and looking at the floor, joy of joys, there they are just where you predicted! Parents are usually less enthusiastic about these young scientific experiments.

Now imagine that you are six years old. You can maintain an inner representation of the world around you. You even enjoy drawing pictures of what you've seen.
But the pictures in your mind are concrete and perceptually based. For example, imagine sitting in front of a model. It has trees, mountains and a little plastic rabbit. Your mom sits on the opposite side. She asks you to draw the scene as it looks to her. You can't do it. You draw what you see, not what she sees. If the rabbit is on your left but on her right, you draw it on the left because that is how it looks to you. Before the age of seven, we do not have the cognitive ability to picture things from a perspective different from our own. (2)

During the middle and late childhood years, we develop the capacity to take other people's points of view when dealing with concrete situations. We can draw a picture of what it might look like from another's perspective. We can mentally turn the model around in our head, if you will. But it is not until early adolescence that we can do this in less concrete situations.
As we reach the age of eleven or twelve, the capacity for formal abstract thinking starts to emerge. As adolescents, we can think about more than just the world we see. We can speculate about what could be. We become concerned not just with what is real, but with what is possible. We can lie awake at night and dream and philosophize with depth and breadth. In the proper setting, we delight in imagining a better world just as much as toddlers enjoy making their apple sauce disappear off the plate and reappear on the carpet.
Reason has always been very important to Unitarian Universalists. The use of reason in religion is one of the defining characteristics of our movement. But what exactly is it?
Reason is a complex ability that takes years to develop. I've described just a few of the many stages of maturation. But at it's core, reason is the capacity to take someone else's perspective. It is the ability to picture the world from different vantages. A reasonable person has to be able to consider views other than his own. A scientist, for example, has to be able to come up with several different models of some aspect of the world. Then he devises tests to see which model is accurate. A tribal chieftain may have to consider conflicting views of several people before arriving at a decision. This may require very sophisticated thinking.
If you can't tolerate opinions that differ from your own, you can't do this. You can't be reasonable. This is why we Unitarian Universalists feel so strongly about tolerance and diversity as well as reason.
When we look at the world today, we see an up-welling of pre-rational thinking. Fundamentalism is on the rise. Fundamentalist beliefs are often pre-logical superstition. Some aspects of the New Age lapses into pre-rational magical thinking. In government, politicians are less and less willing to consider views different from their own.
Our Unitarian Univeralist insistence on reason, tolerance and diversity is very important. Without them, religion becomes shallow, non-sensical and sometimes dangerous. It becomes the basis for ethnic cleansing, violence and indifference to the suffering around us.
Beyond Reason
But is reason enough? Is rational thought the best we can do? If we want greater depth, is formal scientific thinking as deep as it goes? Are there ways of using the mind/body/spirit that go beyond reason?
If we ask the contemplative traditions or if we look at the research on human potential, the answer is clear, unequivocal and emphatic. Reason is the mid-point, not the pinnacle of human development. Rational thought process is the foundation of genuine spirituality, but not the edifice. It is where real religion begins, not where it arrives. If we want depth in life, we have to appreciate both the importance of reason and its limitations. We must cultivate trans-rational thinking - that is, thinking that incorporates reason but goes beyond it.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Let's go back to our adolescence as we lie awake at night thinking about possible worlds to be. We are engaging full rational capacity.
If we continue to develop, (a big "if" by the way) sooner or later a question creeps in around the edges. As we envision many possible worlds, we think, "So what? We're all going to die. Relationships change. Nothing lasts." Given all the tens of hundreds of possible worlds, they all begin to look a little empty, a little devoid of meaning. We ask "So what?" of all of them.
This is a delicate moment. It is the existential question. A client framed it succinctly: "Given the absolute meaninglessness of my life, what would I choose to do next?"
It is a fierce question. Many people collapse in the face of it. It's too overwhelming. "There has to be meaning, so I'll just go a little faster." Or maybe we brush it off with, "He who dies with the most toys wins." We make a joke of it. But the existential question is "Wins what?" My family will grow old and die. The church I build, the job I develop, the organization I nurture will change and probably fade. A hundred years from now, will there be any evidence that I ever put a foot on earth? A thousand years from now, will my life have meant anything at all? Given the meaninglessness and emptiness of my life, what do I choose to do next?
If this question arises genuinely, perhaps we don't run from it. Perhaps we settle down and look at it quietly and deeply. We may despair for a while. But rather than run from the despair, we keep asking, "Given the meaninglessness of my life, what do I do next?"
Eventually something stirs inside. Eventually we do choose to do something next. Perhaps we have a cup of tea on the porch. Or go to visit a grand daughter. Or drop off a few cans at the local food pantry. On some deep level, we know logically these are empty gestures. It's all meaningless ultimately. But something deep inside moves us nevertheless. And out of this movement may arise a deeper sense of peace, even joy.
Whatever it is that moved us is trans-logical. It is beyond reason. It is not irrational. Our powers of rational discernment have not abandoned us. We are not doing anything unreasonable. Yet we are acting from a place that is deeper than reason. We are being motivated by what the Quakers call the "still small voice within."
In short, we have entered the contemplative realm. This is just a foot in the door. The existential question is one of the gateways into the contemplative.
Physical, Mental, Contemplative
To say this differently, we live in three realms: the physical, the mental and the contemplative. (3) These are not separate universes. They are different aspects of what we experience.
The physical realm is seen with the physical eye and perceived with other body senses. Everything here has "simple location": it can be located in time and space. This is the world of astronomy, food, medicine, physics and water polo.
The mental realm is what we see with the mind's eye. It is the world of thought, emotion, psychology and introspection. Anger and fear, for example, do not exist in the physical realm. They may have biological correlates in the physical. But the actual experiences of emotions arise only in our interior space. Thoughts are real, but can't be touched the same way you touch your shoe laces. Mental phenomena are just as real as physical phenomena, but we can view them only with the mind's eye. In surgery, you can physically touch a brain, but you cannot touch a mind. The brain is part of the physical realm. The mind is part of the mental realm.
Just as there are telescopes and vernial calibrators and particle accelerators for studying the material realm, there are tools for studying the mental realm. Free association, dream analysis and introspection are a few of the classical instruments for exploring this domain.
The third domain is the contemplative realm. With the third eye we see deeper wisdom. Higher spiritual truth does not exist in the material or mental realms. Take the simple statement, "We are all One." To the physical eye, this is nonsense. We aren't Siamese twins - give me a break. To the mental eye, this is gibberish as well. Anyone who has ever been to a talk-back after a Unitarian Univeralist service knows we don't all have the same thoughts and feelings. But to the contemplative eye, we are all one. If you have ever felt that, you have tasted the contemplative. Our seventh UU principal about respecting the interdependent web of existence is a peek into the contemplative.
The contemplative realm is not hidden or esoteric. It is right before us. Most of us have flashes of it from time to time. Watching a sunset from the top of a mountain or seeing your child sleeping after a hectic day, you may have gotten a whiff of life's okayness. Sitting on a rock by a pounding surf, you may have felt a wonder and a oneness. These are trans-rational peeks into the contemplative. They are a part of life at its best. Our most inspiring moments are often contemplative glimpses.
Just as there are telescopes for studying material and free association for studying mind, there are tools for studying spirit. There are a wealth of contemplative practices, yogas, meditation techniques and disciplines. They are not all equally valuable, but there are plenty of great value.
It is through the use of spiritual practices that the contemplative eye can be cultivated. Without them, glimpses of spiritual insight remain just that: glimpses. They are novel experiences. They may be wonderful to remember, but they fade. They do not have a lasting impact. They don't significantly affect the course of our life.
For those who say that rationality and the mental realm are the height of human experience, I would remind you of Galileo's inquisitors. They said, "The Bible says nothing about moons around Jupiter. Church doctrine says nothing about moons around Jupiter. Therefore, there are no moons around Jupiter and I know this with such confidence that I don't even have to look through your devilish telescope."
Likewise, to deny the power of contemplative sight without seriously engaging in spiritual practice is non-sense. In any other area of investigation, we don't expect truth to reveal itself without some effort. I wouldn't expect to walk off the street and be able to run a particle accelerator or do deep dream analysis. It takes years of training. Likewise, to give rise to stable, dependable spiritual perspective may take years of contemplative training. Maybe you don't want to take the time to learn how to adjust a telescope. But until you have, you are in no position to evaluate the truth it purports to reveal.
To deny the value of contemplative practice, to deny the existence of ways of knowing beyond reason, is not rational. The belief that rationality is the height of human ability is magical thinking.
Many of you know that I have practiced Buddhist meditation for the last two dozen years. You sometimes ask how Buddhism fits with to Unitarian Universalism. I think that one of its most valuable contribution is contemplative practice. Buddhist practice, particularly the simpler practices such as Zen and Theravadan meditation are especially appropriate for us for several reasons.
One, Buddhism has a healthy appreciation of reason and the mind. In fact, the Abhidharma (the Buddhist psychology) is in many areas much more sophisticated than what we have developed in the West.
Two, Buddhists believe in the importance of working out our own path. When asked how he became enlightened, the Buddha replied, "This is what I did, but it doesn't help you with your problem. You've got to work that out for yourself. Don't take anybody's word for it, even mine." This insistence on working things out in our own experience rather than through blind faith is something Unitarian Universalists share with Buddhists.
Three, Buddhism is the most peaceful of the five major religions. Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus have all started significant wars in the name of their faith. (4) Buddhism stands alone as the only major religion that has not engaged in organized slaughter in order to promote their faith. And in communities where Buddhism predominates, the poor and dispossessed have been treated very well. The peaceful, compassionate nature of Buddhism is a direct result of Buddhist practice. It can help our Unitarian Universalist values.
Four, Buddhists are not caught up in theology or god language. They see them as a distraction from what is practical. You don't have to buy a set of beliefs to enter into the practice.
Five, Buddhism has developed spiritual practices that help cultivate the contemplative eye. Unitarian Universalism has not. Their practices are developed with many of the same values we have and are easy for us to enter into.
Spiritual Maturity
If we had a few more hours, we could look at the specifics of one or several disciplines. Or we could talk about evolution. Several thousand years ago, human evolution moved out of the physical realm and into the mental. Our survival depended less on bigger teeth or biceps and more on how we used our minds. Somewhere in the last hundred years, our evolution left the mental realm and entered the contemplative. Our survival today is determined by our capacity to see the interconnected web of life, and know that we are all One. Without contemplative vision, we may well wipe ourselves off the face of the planet - and take a few innocent species with us.
But these are large topics and our time is short. Today, I just want to make a plea for the importance of contemplative practices.
I don't care if you wear Reeboks or Nikes, but in the winter I do care that you have a good pair of shoes. I don't care if you prefer apples over pears, but I do care that you have healthy food. I don't care if you engage in Buddhist, Christian or Sufi practices, but I do care that we engage in some serious spiritual discipline. If you've ever been gripped by the existential questions, spiritual practice is the way to go.
Reason is not the height of human maturity. It is our adolescence. Our culture is a massive case of arrested development where most people don't mature spiritually beyond a sixteen year old. We don't want to slip back into pre-rational superstition and magical thinking. We want to mature. We want to move forward into trans-logical contemplative sight.
Mature spirituality manifest across the board. Not just in bliss consciousness, not just in racial justice, not just in environmental awareness. It manifests in all realms: physical, mental and contemplative. Spirit manifests as a more caring community, more tranquil inner states, more humane treatment of disadvantaged, more acceptance of all people and all creatures.
We need meditators in politics and politicians who meditate. We need a more compassionate society to support contemplative vision. And we need more contemplative practice to develop the compassion to make a more caring world.
Our world has grown fragmented and a little crazy.
I fear that without contemplative practice, Unitarian Universalism may drift into obscurity. We aren't complete enough. With contemplative practice, the best of what we offer can come into fruition. If we are to remain relevant in the 21st century, if we truly want to help ourselves and our world, we need to cultivate the contemplative eye so we can develop a more integral vision for this world turned slightly crazy.

(1) The Swiss cognitive psychologist, Jean Piaget, has made extensive study of the development of intelligence. A good summary of his vast writings can be found in John H. Flavell, The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget, (D. Van Nostrand Company: Princeton, New Jersey. 1963). This behavior is typical of children around the age of seven months. See Flavell, p. 132.
(2) Flavell, p. 156
(3) Ken Wilber in A Brief History of Everything (Shambhala: Boston, 1996) gives a more detailed description of these realms.
(4) People who call themselves Buddhist have certainly killed. But no one has gone to war in the name of Buddhism.