Can Universalism Save the World?
A Zen Buddhist meditation by James Ishmael Ford
I notice that today, the 11th of June, is among many other things the anniversary of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation on a road in Saigon. It’s now been fifty-six years. A photograph captured the horror of the moment and the world noticed.
The immediate cause was the persecution of Buddhists by the Catholic controlled dictatorship in what was then South Vietnam. It led to pressure and promises which were not kept. Other self-immolations followed. It was a major contributing factor to the overthrow of the dictator. Although not to any particularly meaningful reforms.
In our Western Buddhist circles this question of suicide as protest has been exhaustively debated. I think it fair to say the near consensus is that it is not a good thing. At the very least its a violation of the first precept, against killing.
But, what recalling this event sparked for me is something a little different. That protest was in favor of religious tolerance. And religious tolerance is itself something that begs investigation. It has within its heart some underlying assumptions. The most compelling for me is that no religion should be privileged beyond any other expressions of depth and meaning.
Of course there’s more. There is, of course, a “mere tolerance, where tolerance is a not uncommon plea for people until they assume the majority. But setting aside that biding of time, there are hints of possibility, and, frankly, a religious assertion that I find calling to my heart not only through my reading of the sacred texts of much of the world’s great religious traditions, but also in my understanding of the natural world and human beings’ place within this world.
Religion has many uses. The principal one, probably, at least as far as the state would be concerned, has always been reinforcing social order. It is profoundly conservative and it identifies closely with some specific clustering of peoples. Here the songs our parents sing to us at our cradles are those of conformity and love for country and obedience to lawful authority. Lawful being very loosely defined.
This is the religion that many of my fellow seeking in the Nineteen sixties and seventies and eighties pretty much completely rejected. And, it is the source, I’m confident, of the phrase “I’m spiritual but not religious.” I’m endlessly fascinated with what that “spiritual” would be.
I’m confident it addresses those questions so succinctly posited by the Unitarian Universalist divine Forrest Church when he observed that knowing we are alive and that we will die are the parents of all religion. Here we find the great questions of meaning and purpose. Here we find the cool winds of the spirit that becomes our spiritual lives.
It doesn’t take terribly wide reading to see that the world’s religions really are wildly different. Comparing the Gospel According to Mark, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Analects of Confucius does not immediately lead one to think they all have the same underlying message.
The most obvious connecting point to perhaps all religions is the so-called golden rule. This is essentially a moral call to harmony and fair dealing. I think it is wonderful and is worth exploring. And, it is not what I would call the heart of any true universal message.
Instead I think that possible universal message turns on our close examination of who we are as individuals and the relentless fact of our mortality.
However, even here there are obvious and wild differences. In the Abrahamic traditions it appears to be fairly straight forward. We are born created by the divine but somehow broken. The course of this period of time determines whether we will spend the balance of eternity in paradise or perdition. But. Closer examination shows that things are not quite so straightforward. The parental religion, Judaism, doesn’t come to eternal life for individuals until pretty late in the game, and it would seem is not generally assumed even today. And the rules for getting to heaven vary considerably among the subsets of Christian and Islamic adherents. And. And, throughout there is a current of universal salvation, a belief that in the end all are going to be brought back together.
In China still other views with vague possibilities of long life and differing kinds of possible afterlives. And in the Americas and Africa and Melanesia still other views.
There’s a popular secular polemic with the harsh title “God is Not One.” Hard to argue with that.
And, I will.
It is by belief, down to my bones and marrow that our human consciousness is an amazing thing. Human awareness is an astonishing gathering of conditions coalescing into some rare thing. We can see. We can know. It is that thing which knows we are alive and that we will die. It clearly exists on a continuum with something experienced by other creatures. To what degree we do not know. But with us, coupled with the gifts of language and out of that story telling and science, we can even know with very degrees of accuracy this world in which we live.
The problem is “reification,” our human inclination to make that which appears substantive into something permanent. The hurt for most of us arises when what is essentially delusive is proven to be so. Those many losses of our lives are painful. So, terribly painful.
But there is a way through to something. It is found in all the world’s religions, and without a religion. It is found when we allow ourselves simply to be present. At various points in this practice we are gifted with moments of clarity. It is a mysterious clarity that can just as easily be called not-knowing as knowing. In the Christian tradition one of the sages of that way spoke of the eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees the world.
We are that eye.
From one angle our purpose in life is to see. But, with that seeing words like purpose and, equally, meaninglessness vanish like the morning dew.
This is the great universal that I’ve found. And, I know from meeting with practitioners, people who give themselves fully to one mystical tradition or another also find, from Jews, to Sufis, to Christians, to Hindus, to Buddhists, to adherents of various aboriginal and earth based traditions.
We are joined in the great presence, in silence, in the moment before our stories.
And, this little reflection has a title about saving the world.
Here’s a harsh truth. In one very, very real sense there is no saving the world. All things made of parts will at some point come apart. And the phenomenal world is composed of parts. Me, I’m not all that impressed by claims of etherial worlds, of worlds beyond this one apprehendable through our six senses. And even if they exist, I’m pretty confident they’re going to be bound by the same laws of conditionality.
And, here’s a lovely truth. We can find a healing of our hearts pain. We can know what one spiritual tradition called a peace beyond all understanding. It is a grace, a gift. Although it comes most often to people who learn the arts of silence and full presence.
And with this I find myself coming back to that golden rule. It is predicated in a profound commonality. Whatever else is true about the rule it arises or at the very least co-arises with the great silence.
We touch the quiet place and we discover we are all related.
We put our hand in the wound of the Lord of song. We find the crack in the bell. And still let it ring. As it is. Just as it is.
And here’s the hope. As we can shake off the sense that we owe this harmony of relationship only with our kin group, our immediate community, our country, then, yes, there are ways of saving the planet. For the moment. In our little corner of time and space.
Here love births. Here we find all those images that flood through our lives of people who care, of our sisters and brothers, of our fathers, of our mothers. When we feel that love. And then let go of it as just for one, then magic births into this world.
And it would be enough. There is a sense, a true sense, in which it would even save Thich Quan Duc. All of us. All of us.
Okay, that’s what I have for an early Tuesday morning at the beginning of a Southern California summer.
Blessings on the day friends.
And strive hard to find your own way. Wake up.
Save the many beings…