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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Meet Ed Hardy, an atheist, Buddhist and minister

September 29, 2008

The State Journal-Register - Springfield, IL, USA
Sep 28, 2008

In many ways, Ed Hardy is a typical minister.

He performs weddings and funerals. He preaches on Sundays. He rejoices
with his congregants at the birth of babies and sits with them in the
hospital as loved ones are dying.

But Hardy, the pastor at the First Parish Unitarian-Universalist Church
in Bridgewater, Mass., also is a Buddhist who recently returned from a
pilgrimage to meet the Dalai Lama. He’s a retired bookstore owner,
record shop owner and nightclub owner. And he’s an atheist.

“There’s nothing you have to believe to belong,” Hardy said of
Unitarian-Universalism. “In fact, we encourage you to develop your own
theology, whether it’s Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jain,
Sikh, Pagan or Wiccan, whatever binds you to your life.”

As to atheism, Hardy said, “That’s OK, too. Non-believing is a belief.”

In July, Hardy went on a pilgrimage to Madison, Wis., to participate in
group meditations with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader.

Hardy, who recently completed his first year at First Parish, which is
in Bridgewater, Mass., said he was moved by the Dalai Lama’s message of

The Dalai Lama is amazingly down-to-earth, humane and relaxed, even
playful, Hardy said. Still, he has an extraordinary presence. It was
palpable when he walked into the stadium even before he spoke, Hardy said.

“A silence would sweep the coliseum,” Hardy said.

Hardy was struck by an exchange between a woman in the audience and the
Dalai Lama, who each day answered several questions that had been
submitted in writing.

The woman said her mother and two sisters had died of breast cancer, she
has no health insurance and she’d just found a lump in her breast. She
said she didn’t want her husband to worry and asked if she should tell him.

“He said, ‘This is very sad.’ He let everybody there take a moment to be
with the sadness of it. Then he said, ‘I don’t know what you should tell
your husband. You need to think that through. I can’t tell you what to
do,’ ” Hardy said.

But that wasn’t the end of it. He turned to the head abbot and said if
the abbot helped her financially, he would as well. He also offered her
the services of his own physicians.

“He offered everything he could. He did pastoral care. He touched all of
the realities,” Hardy said.

Hardy, who grew up in Natick, Mass., was raised an Episcopalian. He has
two grown daughters and two grandchildren and lives in Abington, Mass.,
with his partner, Kelly Gunz, who traveled with him to meet the Dalai Lama.

“My kids call me irreverend,” Hardy said with a chuckle.

In his previous professional life, Hardy, 64, owned 10 book and record
shops from Boston to Florida and Pufferbellies, a nightclub in Hyannis,
Mass., in a funky, old building once used to steam clean railroad engines.

He began practicing Buddhism more than 20 years ago, shortly after he
joined Adult Children of Alcoholics, a support group for people who grew
up with an alcoholic parent. In Hardy’s case, it was his father, who
died of cirrhosis of the liver in his early 50s.

The problem was that many of the 12-step program’s principles mention
God. Hardy thought he would have to drop out until he realized Buddhism
would fit the bill without compromising his integrity as an atheist.

Hardy describes Buddhism as “a roadmap to train the mind for happiness.”

That means accepting that everything is always changing, rather than
fighting change. Buddhists remind themselves of the impermanence of
everything, not to wallow in sorrow, just the opposite, to disarm it.

Hardy said the Dalai Lama sometimes creates huge sand mandalas in the
stadiums where he teaches only to sweep them up to illustrate impermanence.

“Buddhism says, as long as you’re trapped in not accepting things as
they are, you’ll suffer,” Hardy said.

As to God, “Buddhists don’t want to talk about the next life or a
heaven. It’s just a waste of time,” he said.

That suits Hardy’s own take on life.

“I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in a supreme being. I most assuredly
don’t believe in an individual God, a God who’ll help me find my car
keys or hit a home run.

“Woody Allen hit that God on the head when he said, ‘if there’s a God,
he’s an underachiever.’ ”

That doesn’t mean Hardy’s not spiritual. Spirituality is how you live
out the values you believe, Hardy said.

“Do you go to church on Sunday and then act like a jerk the rest of the
week? My teacher says don’t be a Buddhist, be a Buddha.”

It was through his Buddhist friends that Hardy began attending a
Unitarian-Universalist church on Cape Cod in the late 1980s and
ultimately went on to attend Andover-Newton Theological School, from
which he graduated in 1993.

“After one of my businesses failed and I was sitting there like a bird
blown in from the ocean, I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with the
rest of my life?’ ” he said.

Hardy says he uses the word “God” often in his sermons, but he tells the
congregation, “I’ll use ‘God,’ but you do the translation.”

“I’m inviting people to be in contact with their ultimate concern. For
me, it might be compassion,” Hardy said.

He shares that concern with the Dalai Lama. He said he’s never forgotten
a comment the exiled spiritual leader made in Boston more than a decade ago.

The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness,” Hardy recalled.

“What more do we need?” Hardy said. “All of the philosophy and theology
drops away.”
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