Progress Not Perfection: Can We Learn from the Buddha’s Mistakes?

This morning I want to talk about overcoming perfectionism even though I am somewhat reluctant to do it. Whenever I try to talk about overcoming perfectionism I never seem to get it right. 

The King James Bible tells us, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” That sets a pretty high bar for human behavior.  Of course, the Greek word translated as “perfect” can also be translated as “whole” or “complete.”  In other words the translators of the King James Bible may have gotten it wrong. The King James Bible was translated by human beings and human beings often fall short of perfection. 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs they say our goal in life should be “progress not perfection.” The perfect is often the enemy of the good. Our ideas about perfection can be obstacles to our progress, (or they can even be obstacles to our wholeness and our completeness.)

When I was in college nearby at the University of Tennessee I took a course on Buddhism through the Religious Studies Department. One of the things that intrigued me about Buddhism as a young man was the idea we have more than one lifetime to get it right. If we don’t get things perfect in this lifetime then we can try again next time. The main attraction for me was not so much the idea of reincarnation as it was the idea of a religion that placed realistic expectations on people. 

In the Bible Belt we hear a lot about “Amazing Grace” but it sometimes feels more like “Amazing Expectations.” We often get the message that we have only one life to get it right. If we get it right in this lifetime we go to heaven for all eternity. If we get it wrong we go to hell for all eternity. So in my college class I was attracted to a religion that placed its emphasis on growth and progress rather than perfection and punishment. After all, who wants to be graded on the first draft of their term paper? Sometimes it takes multiple drafts to get a good grade. Maybe life’s like that, we need more than one lifetime to get it right. 

When I became a religious education director I discovered the Jataka Tales which are folktales about the Buddha’s many different lifetimes. The stories have the quality of magical realism complete with talking animals, gods and demi-gods. These are stories about Buddha’s previous incarnations as an elephant or a monkey or a deer or a goose or some other animal. His human incarnations include lifetimes as a bandit, a carpenter, a warrior, a merchant, a herdsman, a king and a monk. 

There are many good collections of the Jataka Tales. Many of these focus on the wisdom that Buddha taught in previous lifetimes by word and deed. However, I recently discovered this book Before Buddha Was Buddha by Rafe Martin and it includes several stories about Buddha’s previous incarnations where he blew it, where he got it wrong. Fortunately he also got many do-overs. 

In one of these Jataka tales the Buddha is reincarnated as a snake, but no ordinary snake. He becomes a naga, a snake king with untold power and wealth. However, this birth is  a demotion. In his previous life, he had been a poor human being who had been jealous of the wealth and power of the snake king. He wanted to be wealthy and powerful too so he was reborn as snake royalty. It is only after his rebirth as a snake that the Buddha remembers the value of being human because humans can reach enlightenment whereas snakes cannot. 

Apparently, in the quest for enlightenment it is better to be a low ranking human than a high ranking snake. In Buddhism there is a saying that “Feeding desire cannot lead to contentment any more than drinking salt water can assuage thirst.” So Buddha made a mistake in this lifetime by trying to drink salt water so to speak. What we learn from the Jataka Tales is that even the Buddha gets it wrong sometimes. Even the Buddha needs more than one lifetime to get it right. 

In another Jataka Tale the Buddha is the emperor of the world but he still isn’t happy. So he creates a vehicle that allows him to travel to heaven where all his desires will be met. Only once he gets to heaven he still isn’t happy.  Eventually he realizes it’s not the highest heaven and he thinks, “Why stay here when I do better.” So he travels up to the next heaven where he hopes to be content only to discover that it isn’t the highest heaven either. So over millions of years he keeps climbing upwards from one heaven to another until finally he reaches the highest heaven. When he gets to the highest heaven he is greeted by the god of that highest heaven who agrees to share power with him but this causes the Buddha to think, “I don’t want to share power. I want to rule the highest heaven all on my own,” and with that selfish thought he fell from the highest heaven. So not only did the Buddha get it wrong. He spent millions of years of effort getting it wrong. 

In yet another Jataka Tale the Buddha is a good friend to a prince. When the prince becomes a king the Buddha says, “My friend will offer me wealth and power and I have no need of these things so I will go away and meditate in a cave somewhere.” So the Buddha becomes a sage. However, his friend the king has a dream where he is told to get the Buddha to come back from his retreat and perform a ritual sacrifice of animals. If Buddha sacrifices these animals then the king will become even more powerful and become ruler of all India. So the king offers the Buddha wealth and power if he will only return to perform this sacrifice. The Buddha refuses because he does not want to harm any living thing. So the king decides to try another tactic. The king says, “You have been up on that mountain meditating in a cave for a long time now. You must be very lonely. I’ll tell you what. If you come back and help me then you can marry my very beautiful daughter.” What can I say, the Buddha is a man. He returns to do what the king asks. However, when he gets back and lifts the sword to sacrifice the animals he suddenly remembers his vows to be peaceful and nonviolent and lowers his sword and goes back to the mountain cave to renew his life of meditation. So in this lifetime the Buddha managed to both succumb to temptation and then resist it. Not bad. But not perfect either. 

One of the things that is wonderful about the Jataka tales is that you do not have to be Buddhist to appreciate them. Christians, Jews, Muslims, humanists and others can find the wisdom within the magical realism of these stories. Indeed, those in Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 Step programs may appreciate the emphasis on progress and not perfection. 

Those of us who are not in recovery from any addiction can still benefit from this perspective. As we work for racial justice and LGBTQIA rights and other large goals we can benefit from an approach that recognizes mistakes will be made. We may relapse into old patterns. We may need to make amends and start again. As we seek to build the Beloved Community by dismantling racism and other forms of systemic oppression we need to be sure that the perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good. 

One of my favorite translations of the Jataka tales was written by a Muslim woman, Noor Inayat Khan. She felt that these stories resonated with the values of her own Sufi Muslim tradition so she made a translation for children called Twenty Jataka Tales. Since she was a pacifist the stories she chose place special emphasis on peace and nonviolence. I discovered her book back in the early 1990’s when I was a religious education director and I would share her versions with the kids. It was not until this year that I learned more about the author. 

Noor wrote her translation of the Jataka tales when she was living in Paris, France. Shortly after the book was published the Nazis invaded and occupied the country. Many French citizens decided to collaborate and cooperate with the Nazis but Noor did not. She traveled to England where she trained to be a spy and then parachuted back into France to begin her mission. Her role was communications as a radio operator but these communications were in support of military actions that led to the Allied bombing of  bridges, airports, railroads and factories to stop the Nazi war machine. Her work was critical to the escape of 30 airmen shot down over France. She was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the D-Day invasion. She survived in her role as radio operator longer than anyone else who held the position. However, she was eventually arrested, tortured and killed in Dachau concentration camp. She had volunteered for this work even though she knew that this was her most likely fate. She received a posthumous medal from both the French and English governments, the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross. 

Noor began as an author of children’s books about peace and nonviolence but she also believed in practicing “mysticism with messy hands.” Spirituality means choosing sides when human dignity is at stake. Spiritual life is not about remaining aloof and removed when genocide is being carried out all around you. 

Later a friend of her family would comment, “Was it a contradiction to kill in order to stop violence?…In front of the extermination of millions of Jews, how can one preach spiritual morality without participating in preventative action?” Noor embodied spirituality in action. She remained committed to the goals of peace and nonviolence but when these were not possible she chose progress not perfection. 

Like Noor we are all challenged to overcome our own perfectionism. We might not ever have to make the same kinds of choices in the same kinds of dramatic circumstances but I am willing to bet that most of us have found ourselves in circumstances where life was messy and the choices available to us were imperfect. I bet every single person in this room has been in that spot. And I am willing to bet that when it comes to overcoming perfectionism none of us get it right all the time. So remember, when you leave this church today, even the Buddha made mistakes and we will too but even so we can take things one day at a time, one minute at a time, one step at a time, mindful of truth ever exceeding our knowledge and community ever exceeding our practice, mindful that the goal in life is progress not perfection.

(The Reverend Chris Buice delivered this sermon on Sunday, June 12, 2022 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.)


Anti-Apartheid Theology: Refusing a Racist and Homophobic Heaven

This morning I want to talk about the anti-apartheid theology of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, however, before I do I want to assure the young people in the room (or watching online) that this sermon will not be an exercise in nostalgia. While I did come of age participating in the Anti-Apartheid Coalition of East Tennessee in the 1980’s I know from my experience talking to Dr. Amadou Sall’s Africana Studies class at UT (University of Tennessee) that this subject is ancient history to the younger generation. 

So your ancient minister promises not to dwell too much on ancient history. I will do my best to ensure that this sermon will not be a retrospective but forward looking. Apartheid was a policy of keeping people apart, racial segregation, discrimination and oppression. However, I want us to reflect on ways we keep people apart today. So this morning I want to reflect on the fundamental spiritual values embodied in the life and ministry of Desmond Tutu that can guide us today and lead us toward a better future. 

When Demsond Tutu was a bishop (and later archbishop) he had a reputation for being an agitator and a trouble maker as he campaigned against apartheid in South Africa in the later part of the 20th century. So much so that a joke circulated about him to illustrate the point (and Desmond Tutu liked a good joke so he played a role in circulating this joke himself.) The joke goes – one day Bishop Tutu died and Saint Peter sent him straight to hell. A couple of weeks later Saint Peter heard ferocious beating  on the doors of heaven. He opened the door and there was the Devil. “What are you doing here?” asked Saint Peter and the Devil replied, “Well you sent Bishop Tutu to hell and now he is causing so much trouble I’ve come to heaven to ask for political asylum.” 

When Desmond Tutu told this joke (and others) he would always laugh. If you’ve ever watched an interview of Desmund Tutu then you know he had a very distinctive laugh. I once had dinner with Naomi Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It wasn’t planned. We just happen to sit next to each other at the same table at a conference. I heard her before I saw her. I was talking with someone to my left when all of a sudden I heard laughter to my right and I thought, “That laughter sounds very familiar.” I turned around to see someone who looked very much like her father and her laughter was even more like him. 

Maya Angelou once wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” I can’t remember much about my conversation with Naomi Tutu at that conference so many years ago but I do remember how she made me feel. She made me feel inspired, motivated and energized. She had the same effect on me as her father had on so many others during his lifetime. It wasn’t just about what he said or what he did, it was about how he made others feel. 

Many people know that Tutu campaigned against the racism of the apartheid system but not everyone knows that he also campaigned against homophobia. He once declared, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven… I would not worship a God who is homophobic…that is how deeply I feel about this.” Tutu spoke out for the worth and dignity of every person and went so far as to say that if God did not care for the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the abused and the despised then God would not be worthy of our worship. Tutu would not bow down to any oppressor human or divine. He  would rather do the right thing by the people in his life and end up in hell than do the wrong thing and end up in heaven. 

Apartheid in South Africa was not only a political policy but a state religion. Racial segregation and systematic oppression were a virtue in the eye of the dominant white churches. The constitution of South Africa used the language of the Bible to justify systemic racism. This is why Desmund Tutu condemned apartheid as heresy and racism as blasphemy. 

Desmond Tutu sometimes used humor to point out the hypocrisies of South African religion. He would say, “When the white man first came here (to Africa) he had the Bible and we had the land. Then the white man said to us, ‘Come let us kneel and pray together.’ So we knelt and closed our eyes and prayed and when we opened our eyes lo! – we had the Bible and he had the land.” Since the Bible had been used to commit gross injustices he felt a special responsibility to use the Bible on behalf of justice. 

Archbishop Tutu was heavily influenced by an ancient African idea that is the opposite of aparthied – ubuntu. The fundamental principle behind the word ubuntu is that human beings are not made for apartness. We are made for togetherness. We are interconnected and interdependent. We rise or fall together. None of us can reach our full potential until everyone reaches their full potential. None of us can be who we are meant to be until everyone is who they are meant to be. It is by seeking community that we find ourselves. It is by building community that we complete ourselves. A baby abandoned in the forest by her parents will never become a complete human being unless rescued and adopted by human beings. None of us can become human beings alone. We are human beings through other human beings. We become people through other people. It is through our relationships to others that we discover ourselves. We need others to know who we are. 

If you understand this African concept of ubuntu then you will also recognize the similarities it shares with the teachings of all the peace loving religions of the world  and you will understand why apartheid is blasphemy and heresy. To abuse another person is to abuse God. To show disrespect to another person is to disrespect God. To honor another person is to honor God. As Desmond Tutu said, “We cannot say that we believe in God if we hate each other.” 

The concept of ubuntu is applicable not only in South Africa but all over the world. Political commentator David Shipler once applied the concept of ubuntu to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He wrote, “Whatever happens in war or diplomacy, whatever territory is won or lost, whatever accommodations or compromises are finally made, the future guarantees that Arabs and Jews will remain close neighbors in this weary land, entangled in each other’s fears.” We could say the same thing about the Russians and the Ukrainians today or anywhere two races or religions or cultures are in conflict including the Red States and the Blue States here in America. 

To apply this principle of ubuntu broadly we must realize that we will never escape from each other. We cannot triumph over each other through acrimonious elections or military victories. Peace comes when we realize we are interrelated and interdependent and that when we harm another we harm ourselves. When we help one another we help ourselves. 

Today is Juneteenth, and tomorrow we will celebrate it as a national holiday for the first time. However, the shooting in the Buffalo supermarket and the terrorist attack on the Mother Emanuel Church and rampant voter suppression and mass incarceration show that the advocates for apartheid are alive and well and active in the United States today. As Cornel West once declared, “The Union won the Civil War but white supremacy won the peace.” We celebrate the end of slavery today but we also acknowledge the work of dismantling white supremacy still continues. Indeed much of the wealth we see in this country today launching rocket ships and buying social media companies is based in money made in South African mines during apartheid and accumulated through slave labor here. 

This week our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, will be having its national General Assembly in Portland, Oregon (I’m bringing it home now.)  Last month we saw how the United Methodist church split in two at their General Assembly over culture war issues, and the power of schism has been present in many other denominations as well. This will not happen to our faith (but it won’t be because some folks haven’t been trying.) 

We will have contested elections for leadership of our association at the General Assembly this year and one of the candidates, Beverely Seese, has actually proposed schism, separation, apartness.  Just so you’ll know that I am not making this up, I want to quote directly from her campaign website where she wrote, “I acknowledge the desire of many, especially younger and/or marginalized-identifying members, to take our religion in a profoundly different direction. I believe this is the wrong approach. I wholeheartedly support helping another branch of UUism to be formed that is more attractive to the aforementioned folks.” She goes on to suggest that this new group could be called  “21st Century UUs.” In other words she is suggesting that we need a new and separate organization for young people and marginalized groups – apartheid. 

It is true that young people and people of color and other marginalized groups are advocating for change in our association. These leaders can correctly be called 21rst Century UUs. However, if we separate, if we split in two, the old from the young, the dominant race from marginalized groups, won’t that leave older white people like me back in the 20th century while young people and people of color are moving ahead into the 21st century. Our young people are attending multiracial and multicultural schools and working in multiracial and multicultural workplaces so how long do you think they are going to stick with monocultural churches? Our salvation as a church and a nation and a world will never come through apartheid, apartness, seperation. Our salvation will come through togetherness, connectedness, interrelatedness. Therefore I propose that we move into the 21rst Century together. Who’s with me? 

Today is Father’s Day. Desmond Tutu was a minister in Anglican communion.  As a priest people called him Father Tutu. He lived long enough to see the end of apartheid in South Africa. He helped to preside over the initial days of the continuing healing of that nation after so many years of civil war through the Truth and Reconciliation process. As a minister of the church he could have lived a comfortable life of prosperity and privacy serving an affluent congregation in the suburbs. He made other choices. 

Archbishop Tutu refused to accept racism and oppression and homophobia on earth or in heaven. In his last days Desmond Tutu wrote a letter to his supporters where he said, “You would think that I as a person (of advanced years) could just die in peace, but here I go yet again in protest.” Hopefully wherever he is now he is still protesting, still agitating,  until the words of the Lord’s prayer are fulfilled, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”(The Reverend Chris Buice delivered this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday June 19, 2022.) 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Head of Hight-Level Fact-Finding Mission speaks during press conference at the Human Rights Council at the ninth session.