Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

January 6, 2019: “Indra’s Net”

Call to Worship Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Today is Epiphany. The twelfth day after the twelfth night of Christmas, commemorating the arrival of the Magi, the wisemen, after the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
While many of us have put away Christmas, it’s a little premature.

Why does it matter?

Because it matters to billions of Christians around the world, some of whom are in this room right now. And what matters to one of us, matters to all of us, we are that connected.

And it is that connection, that interdependence with one another that we gather this morning to celebrate.
That interconnectedness is what gives our lives meaning, we know. It’s worthy of celebrating.

And that is what worship is: celebrating that which is worthy of giving shape and meaning to.

And so we worship, beginning with one of our most important, spiritual practices: sharing our abundance with those who are in need.

The words of Susan Manker-Seale:

We speak to the god, the goddess, the spirit of life, the eternal.
We speak to the mysterious thread that connects us one to the other and to the universe.
We speak to the deep wisdom at the center of our beings.
We embody the yearning of all people
to touch each other more deeply,
to hear each other more keenly,
to see each other’s joys and sorrows as our own
and know that we are not alone,
unless we create solitude for ourselves;
and even then, community awaits us.

Out of our yearning we have come
to this religious community.

May we help each other to proclaim the possibilities we see,
to create the community we desire,
to worship what is worthy in our lives,
to teach the truth as we know it,
and to serve with justice in all the ways that we can,
to the end that our yearning is assuaged
and our lives fulfilled in one another.


Reading Kaaren Biggen

The reading this morning is by Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director of Shalom Community Center, Bloomington, IN. It comes from a book called The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, edited by Ellen Brandenburg. We’ve been reading excerpts from this book in worship for the last several months as we’ve been exploring the ways in which our Seven Principles form our identity as Unitarian Universalists.

Here’s what Reverend Forrest has to say:

Our seventh Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, is a glorious statement. Yet we make a profound mistake when we limit it to merely an environmental idea. It is so much more. It is our response to the great dangers of both individualism and oppression. …

Our seventh Principle may be our Unitarian Universalist way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web—expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God—can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.

Sermon “Indra’s Web” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Thomas Cleary is a lawyer, teacher and author who has written a bunch of books and articles on religions that we in the United States frequently call “Eastern.” He wrote of a few of those “essential” religion books 20 or so years ago, published by HarperSanFrancisco: The Essential Tao, The Essential Confucius, and The Essential Koran.

He also wrote an English translation of the Sanskrit Avatamsaka Sutra,
which he translates as The Flower Ornament Scripture. He calls it “the most grandiose, the most comprehensive, and the most beautifully arrayed of the Buddhist scriptures.” He’s not kidding. It’s 1,658 pages of concepts that are ethereal and earthy, microscopic and expansive:

In all atoms of all lands
Buddha enters, each and every one,
Producing miracle displays for sentient beings:
Such is the way of Vairocana….
The techniques of the Buddhas are inconceivable,
All appearing in accord with beings’ minds….
In each atom the Buddhas of all times
Appear, according to inclinations;
While their essential nature neither comes nor goes,
By their vow power they pervade the worlds.(Cleary 1984–7: I, Bk 4)

The Avatamsaka Sutra’s goal is to lead the reader, the practitioner really, through the 10,000 Bodisattva levels to the ultimate goal of Buddhahood.
It’s within the pages of this Sutra that the idea of Indra’s Net first appears, explaining that everything is reflective of everything else. The Avatamsaka Sutra has been influential across Buddhism, but it’s been especially influential in Chinese Hua-yen Buddhism, where it further developed and passed along to Japan and Zen Buddhism.

Francis Cook explains the core philosophy of Hua-yen as follows:
Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it,
we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.

It really is an amazing image, isn’t it? So it’s not surprising that Indra’s Net has inspired theologians, philosophers, poets and ecologists across the West, who have spread their interest.

David Loy, a teacher in the San-bo Zen tradition, claims that all of the major milestones of post-modernism in the west borrow shamelessly from the idea of Indra’s Net: “Sigmund Freud’s approach in psychology, Ferdinand Saussure’s work in linguistics, Roland Barthes’s ideas in literary theory, and Jacques Derrida’s approaches to deconstruction.” The idea is so widespread, so pervasive among post-modern thinkers that the metaphor is used and often re-used without acknowledgment that it’s even Indra’s Net.
The good news is that the metaphor has changed the way we think. It’s completely different from the Judeo-Christian ideas of God, or even Gods and Goddesses, as separate, all-powerful beings controlling humanity from a distance. It deconstructs the self-existence of all things, and all beings, as isolated actors in space. It knocks down two very different ideas: one that all beings were created individually by one god, the other that all beings — especially human beings — essentially created themselves out of nothing, without influence from the environment or any god.

It’s profoundly democratizing, this idea of a net of connection, and it neutralizes our judgments, so we can see ourselves as connected to all. It’s humbling and empowering, a reminder that humility and strength are the same thing.

Indra’s Net dissolves the idea of duality. If everything is connected, and everything supports and reflects everything else as it is reflected and supported,
then how can anything be separate? How can I be one thing and you another if I am you and you are me?

This idea was spreading like wildfire across Europe and North America in the mid to late 20th Century, especially as people were tuning in and turning on.

Even here, in the 1970’s women in the still-new Unitarian Universalist Association were embarking on what were called “man-hunts,” seeking out and eliminated language that referred to all people in exclusively mascline terms. Into the 1980’s, they were seeking to reform the language of our documents. As they shared ideas and expanded their own consciousness, they sought more inclusion, not just for women, but for a diversity of understandings of how the divine works in the world.

The documents of our faith — our by-laws, policies, statements of faith and ethical issues, even our services at General and District Assemblies — were jam-packed with sexist and Christocentric language that was the norm at the time,
references to Father God, the son of God, the brotherhood of mankind and the primacy of man.

But if there’s one thing you can say about Unitarian Universalism, it’s that it’s constantly changing, a living tradition evolving along with humanity and popular philosophy.

Of course, there was tension between those who identified at Christians, Humanists and Atheists. There was tension between the women and men who wanted to see a change in language and those who wanted everything to remain the same.

There were people all over the world, especially our English Unitarian cousins, who deeply resented any proposed changes, including women who thought the reformers were over-reacting. General Assemblies for a few years were pretty hostile places as a powerful coalition of women demanded change immediately. They wanted all language in all documents, including our hymnals, to include men AND women.
Denise Davidoff, who would later go on to be the moderator of our Association of Congregations, suggested that rather than steam ahead with changes in plenary sessions, the whole UUA, led by the women, undergo a process of study, reflection and conversation.

It was a good thing they did.

What ended up coming into being were our Seven Principles.

Most of the ideas of our principles and purposes,
which you can find printed at the front of either of our hymnals, appeared in one form or another in our foundational documents written when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961.

The language may have been different from what it is now, but the concepts were the same for the first six principles. The only one that was new in 1985 was the seventh: the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part.

The late Walter Royal Jones, who played a role in getting the seven principles accepted by our association of congregations, once observed that when the process of writing them began, the seventh principle had not been anticipated, yet “its inclusion was overwhelmingly mandated in the responses received from churches and fellowships, and its current happy wording emerged from the floor of the General Assembly, where it was instantly recognized as just the right language.”

But it never would have happened without the conversation happening across the country, begun by the women who wanted more diversity and more inclusion.

So now, we have this seventh principle that, like all the principles, is open to individual interpretation and practice. The interconnected web could be a looked at in different ways. We can see it as a call to protect the environment, as a kind of food chain in which plant and animal life depend on one another to to create a balanced ecology.
When a predator or a major food source for non-predator is removed, the whole thing goes out of balance. When the climate is changed in one part of the world, the whole earth is affected.

That’s all true. But it’s only part of the story. Because ultimately, the seventh principle is exactly what my friend Forrest Gilmore said:

“Our seventh Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, is … our response to the great dangers of both individualism and oppression. … The interdependent web can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.”

The seventh principle keeps us from falling into the tyranny of the first principle taken to an extreme: Rampant individualism in which the needs of one person or identity group is in competition with and even negating the needs of another.

The Seventh Principle reminds us that we are all subjects of cause and effect on a cosmic scale; that we are supported as we support one another and all life and all being; that we are reflected as we reflect one another. We need each other to survive, and that need goes not just for you and me, but for all the other things connected in the web. The cheeseburger, the Empire State Building, the moon, butterflies…..all of it.

May we never forget who we are, and how we need and are needed. May it be so.

Offering of Gifts (Rev Denis)
Back in the olden days, when time still felt normal and people looked up when they walked down the sidewalk,
I worked in a street ministry where a couple times a year we’d go out into the streets for a whole week, with nothing but whatever we were willing to carry with us. We’d sleep outside, and eat whatever we could forage or beg. Or we’d just go stand in line with thousands of others and wait for a free meal at one of the really big soup kitchens in the city.

I got to spend a lot of time talking to people, hearing their stories. One guy was convinced that whenever anyone saw the bottoms of his shoes,
while he was wearing them, it would cause a hurricane somewhere in the world. Another was sure that he was the star of a reality tv show that everyone in the world watched, and his job was try to trip up all the people who were making wagers on his behavior.

One gal got two day old loaves from one of the kinder bakers in the city, and shared one with us. Everyday.

One woman knocked on our door at about 7 every single morning at for a week. She was completely naked, needing clothes. I never heard her story. We were both too embarrassed.

So many of the people I met came from really good homes, homes like my own. But they found themselves in terrible situations. Some lost their jobs and then their apartments. Some were left destitute after health crises. Some had emotional breakdowns, or lost control of their lives because of the illness of addiction. They all wanted fresh socks.

Every time I heard one of their stories I thought, “that could be me.”
That could be any one of us, reflected in one another.

This morning you heard me say that the children would be going to religious eduction to do the important work of assembling bags For Hands on Northeast Ohio, an organization in that will distribute the goods you’ve donated to some of the 4300 or so people sleeping outdoors on any given night in Cuyahoga County.

If you’ve already given goods to be distributed,
now is your chance to give a bit more. If you haven’t given anything yet…this is your chance to nurture the connections to a lot of people in the interconnected web, your chance to support a part of it as you are supported by its strength.

This morning’s offering will now be accepted. If you are visiting for the first time, please feel free to let the basket pass you as our guest.