Most people are probably somewhat aware of the oneness principle of Buddhism. For Buddhists, oneness means there is no separation between one person and another, no separation between people and the substance of the universe, and no separation between the physical and the spiritual parts of one’s being. But it turns out even non-Buddhists can benefit from incorporating some oneness wisdom into their lives.
Let’s start by considering the opposite of oneness—divisiveness. Unfortunately, there is a lot of divisiveness in our world. We see divisiveness a lot on the political scene –especially in an election year. And we hear divisiveness on talk radio that promote hate against against people who don’t agree with their religious beliefs, against people with certain lifestyles and against people from certain political parties. Those who rail against certain behaviors and certain ideologies are seeing themselves as separate from those they condemn. They are divisive and they practice the opposite of oneness.
Several of what I will call “theorists” have studied the ways in which people mature spiritually. There are at least twelve spiritual development theorists, and they come from all different fields of study, different parts of the world, and even different centuries. None, however, are Buddhist. All the works of all these theorists point to the same general spiritual development trajectory: people—no matter what their religious background, race or nationality—mature spiritually by moving away from divisiveness and toward unity—or oneness. They come to see themselves as part of a broader and broader entity. They include more and more of the universe within their circle of concern. So divisiveness—the judgmental decrees against this or that group—is actually immature. Buddhist or not, our goal is inclusiveness-unity-oneness.
So how do we get to oneness, how do we mature spiritually? The theorists have described that process as well. It turns out there are specific steps on the road to unity. The first thing a person must do is to develop a sense of personal authority. He or she was probably born into a family with a certain belief set or religion. The family would have expected this person to just go along, and adopt those beliefs without too many questions.
But it turns out this is not the way to grow. In fact, just accepting the dictates of outer authority keeps a person mired in spiritual immaturity; it restricts them from developing a personal, inner authority. To gain personal authority a person must be willing to honestly face the important questions that are likely to arise as the family or birth religion beliefs rub up against those of the rest of the world. If that questioning leads the person to different answers than those held by her tribe, she must be willing to undergo the pain of not thinking like everybody else. She must be willing to disagree with tribal opinion for the sake of truth. She must have a strong enough personal identity to be willing to distance herself from her tribe.
Often the family or tribal system that must be questioned is religion—and it often begins with a suspicion that some of the religious tenets do not make sense. Here the person must be willing to openly question those tenets and to allow the logic to take him wherever it may lead. His personal sense of superiority must supersede that of the tribe. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur—one of our theorists—called this step the Critical Distance. The person must distance himself critically from the tribal beliefs. This does not mean we all need to reject our birth religion. It does mean we need to reflect on it critically, and be ready to allow the reasoning process to lead us wherever it may.
While this reasoning step may sound like the opposite of unity, since it may lead us away from our particular group, it is actually a step toward identifying with a larger group, a broader type of group belonging. Those still in the throes of the tribe hold a sense of identity largely dependent upon that tribe. They tend to view those outside the tribe as “other.” Everyone outside the group somehow “counts” less than those inside. Sometimes they even gloat over the ways in which they consider themselves better than those outside the group. They think their group is better, or more right, or more saved than others. We call that mentality triumphalist. Triumphalism is divisive; it is spiritually immature.
The more we consider ourselves a part of, the spiritual development theorists tell us, the more spiritually mature we are. The person who has become self-directed beyond the tribe of origin has matured past those still in it. But how does that tie into unity? Well, the next step on the spiritual development path is to keep on expanding that part of the universe the person feels a part of. If that self-directed person who grew beyond her group keeps on growing, she begins to notice more commonalities with those in other religions, other parts of the world. She comes to identify with a larger segment of the universe—probably the group that includes all humans at least. She may also begin to feel commonality with animals, and with the world of nature. This sets her on the path toward oneness with everyone and everything in the universe.
Continuing on this path she may eventually come to feel at one with the material world and the spirit world at the same time. She may at times feel no separation between herself and others, and no separation between people and the substance of the universe. She may she begin to enjoy a sense of oneness similar to the one the Buddhists state as their explicit goal.
Why is it not known that oneness is the goal of any spiritual journey—not just for Buddhists? It turns out many of our regular religious leaders have yet to incorporate the findings of the spiritual development theorists into their beliefs; they have no notion of the spiritual development trajectory that leads to unity. Preachers in certain types of churches actually preach a form of divisiveness, using the Bible or Jesus or whatever holy book they follow as the excuse. Perhaps because they have not studied spiritual development, and perhaps out of a need to prove their own beliefs right, they keep their followers mired in spiritual immaturity.
It may be that we need to heed our church leaders less literally. Until all religious leaders come to realize what the spiritual development theorists have shown us, they may be leading us down the wrong trail. Oneness does not allow triumphalism where specific literal religious beliefs separate us one from another. Instead it seeks commonalities that unite us. This can only be arrived at when we come to recognize the specifics of our own religious tradition as symbolic of a larger truth—a broader truth that includes all beings, a truth that leads us to oneness.