ARE ALL RELIGIONS ONE?
A Zen Perspective
James Ishmael Ford
Here’s the question. Are all religions one? Are all those paths winding up the same mountain?
For me, this is more than an abstract question. The greater part of my life has been dedicated to the spiritual quest. For me sorting through the many differentpossibilities, separating any possible dross from any potential gold has been and remains enormously important. To me.
And, one other factor. I came of age in the late 1960s in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You put those two things together, my lifelong commitment to the great spiritual questions and where and when I came of age, and you know I had a lot of sorting to do. In my late adolescence when I began, and in my early adulthood as I embarked deeply into my investigations I encountered, well, let’s call it an astonishing spiritual marketplace. It was a grand bazaar of religious possibility. This was something possibly unparalleled in human history. I would say some Medieval ports of call along the Silk Road. Maybe. But, even those not near the scale, not with the astonishing range on offer at that magical time and place of my youth and young adulthood.
For me having lost my childhood faith in a poor people’s version of fundamentalist Christianity, a version of that tradition near as I can tell now really only alive in the Black Church, I tasted many of the offerings at that astonishing spiritual smorgasbord. I heard Stephen Gaskin explain the spirituality of psychedelics at his Monday Night Classes. I heard Yogi Bajan explain the powers of Kundalini. I heard swamis at the Vedanta Society elaborate on their teaching that all religions are one. I heard Tarthang Tulku explain the use of a prayer wheel. And I swear, I remember, although I’ve been told it is in fact unlikely, I heard Chogyam Trungpa elaborate on the intricacies of Vajrayana Buddhism while sitting on a stage drinking one beer after another. The list goes on.
At some point I learned how to meditate in the Zen tradition from students of the Japanese missionary Shunryu Suzuki. Gradually I found that practice becoming the touchstone of my life. I would eventually fall in with a Zen teacher who was both powerful and more than a little cult-like. I was a Zen monk, then a priest. There was some further searching. I danced with Sufis and attended first a Liberal Catholic, that’s a small Western gnostic church, then an Episcopal church, each for a while.
Then finally I settled onto the path that has nourished and formed me for, what now, pushing on forty years. My life is a blending of regular Zen practice, rooted in the disciplines of presence, further informed by decades of koan introspection, grounded in numerous retreats – and at the same time serious living into the Unitarian Universalist church. I ordained a UU minister and served in parish ministry for more than a quarter of a century.
Me. And, of course, if you’re discerning in these matters, you might pick up some assumptions I might hold.
Now, an article of faith in my youthful searching was that all religions were in some essential way, one. I’d read Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy early on. And about the same time, Huston Smith’s Religions of Man. (In 1991 it would be expanded and retitled the World’s Religions.) These books and a host of similar titles, I think of the entirety of Alan Watts’ writings, captured the zeitgeist of that era, all of them assuming a current of wisdom running through all religions.
For me personally after Christianity and before Buddhism I was most interested in Vedanta, and they’re very much all about that “all religions are one.” Finding one’s religious community and spiritual guides was more about finding a right “fit,” than a one true way. Maybe, I came to feel at some point, each of us needed to find our own “one true way.” That is, you have a better chance of finding water with a single deep well than many shallow ones. But that didn’t mean any of the other ways were somehow “less.” Certainly not flat out wrong.
But is that true?
In 2010 Stephen Prothero a Professor of Religion at Boston University hit the best seller lists with a book titled, God is Not One. The subtitle digs a bit further into that, “The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter.” He contends how “the Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking…” Actually, he goes beyond condemning the unity of religions as mere fantasy, he asserts it is a willful ignorance that makes the world a more dangerous place. And perhaps he’s right.
It is important to know your neighbor. And to have an honest insight into the religions of the world is probably a very good idea in an era like ours, where the clash of civilizations seems to have shifted from Capitalism and Communism to Christianity and Islam. Okay. Perhaps an over-reach. But not by much. Today, many of the world’s conflicts have religious overtones. Christianity and Islam principal among these. As Muslims count for slightly less than a quarter of the world’s population and Christians for slightly more than a quarter, if you’re a liberal arts major that’s half of the world. Their conflicts become everyone’s. On smaller scales we can see the pattern repeat, Hindu and Muslim, Muslim and Buddhist, Buddhist and Hindu are examples that easily comes to mind. Tensions and outright conflict. People die.
All right, with that, my provisional answer to the question about the unity of religions. In life there are very few things where we get anything flat out absolutely so. Provisional. Subject to new information. All that said, the answer to the question, are the world’s religions really one, is probably no.
And yet there is something which calls for that hedging.
Is there any place for that idea that there is a current or currents that extend across religions? That seems to be a yes. There is the obvious ethical connection among the religions. It’s hard to have missed one of those lists of the Golden Rule and how that rule is articulated within pretty much all religions. They all believe in equity and treating your neighbor fairly. It may feature more strongly with one tradition than another, but it’s there. In fact, it’s probably the deeper connection driving much of today’s interfaith dialogue. Reminding us of our particular religion’s rule to not harm others. The idea is to feel a little closer, to at the least see each other’s humanity, and from that to be a bit less dangerous to each other.
But something more? Something about ultimacy and meaning? I find it interesting that Professor Prothero actually does see one thing that all the world’s religions, at least the ones he has studied, have in common. He observes “What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.”
Now the good professor goes on to list with what he acknowledges is an over simplistic schema of how religions see that “wrong” and their solution. For Judaism the problem is “exile,” while the solution is “returning home,” for Christians the problem is “sin,” and the solution is “salvation,” for Islam the problem is “pride,” and the solution is “submission,”
For Confucianism the problem is “chaos” and the solution is “social order.” Professor Prothero seems to enjoy juxtapositioning this with the other Chinese religion Daoism, which has “lifelessness” as the problem and “flourishing” or “spontaneity” as the solution. Clearly religions mirroring each other, not all that unlike the Chinese symbol of the Taichi, the Grand Ultimate, two tadpoles, one black with a white eye and one white with a black eye, joined in a circle. And his summaries for Hinduism with the problem being “samsara” or delusion and the solution “moksha” or liberation and Buddhism’s problem of “suffering” and solution in “enlightenment” or “awakening,” if not further unpacked would seem to be basically the same thing.
Actually, I really, really liked God is Not One. In some ways it’s a welcome corrective to Huston Smith’s aging classic the World’s Religions. It paints respectful pictures of the uniqueness of each of the traditions he addresses. His clarity of lines between the religions is important. But there is an enormous lacuna to the text. Lacuna is a delicious two-dollar word meaning gap. And I think for this gap, respect calls for lacuna. Mysticism is mentioned only six times in this 388 page (counting front and end matter) book. Nonduality isn’t mentioned once.
And, I suspect, if we’re looking for any genuine overarching connection binding the world’s religions together, instead of merely as some aspect of each of the world’s cultures largely unique to its own place and history, I strongly believe, it will be found within the mystical traditions of these many religions so different in so many ways.
Of course, a word of caution. Gilbert Chesterton once quipped how mysticism starts “in mist, ending in schism, with an “I” in the middle.” Mysticism is itself a bit of a garbage word containing too many definitions. A magician bending spoons is a mystic, a fortuneteller peering into a crystal ball is a mystic, as are certain types of saints and ecstatics in every religion.
It is those saints sand ecstatics in every religion that I find compelling. Once you can assert “every religion,” then there is probably something that needs our attention. So far here in this meditation, I’ve only noted two things that fit that bill. One is the Golden Rule. The other is that every religion notices there is something wrong with or in the world. If we look at Professor Prothero’s list, we see certain resonances as they attempt to identify that “wrong.” Chaos, social disorder, lifelessness, more ambiguous terms like sin and suffering. They’re not so contradictory. Each can be seen as an angle on some ancient sense of dissatisfaction.
And, then, within all this, at some point in most, maybe all religions, there is a call to some mysterious intimacy that cures the hurt. Sometimes a distinction is drawn between the exoteric, the plain statements of the religion and the esoteric, the hidden jewel of the religion. Here I feel we’re approaching something worthy. What is that jewel, the pearl of great price? Some speak of a drawing near. Others say it is becoming one. And still others speak of stepping beyond one or two. Some call it God. And others appeal to a collapsing or burning away of any terminologies, and call us to simply let it be a silence.
Each of these ways is at the very least clothed in the tradition within which it exists. And, I suspect there’s more to this than a flavor. The universal appears only ever to manifest in the particular. And there’s something to that. What precisely I can’t say. We each are the products of our time and place. Although here there is a hint to something more, or at least something richer.
I personally experience profound connections to my childhood Christianity, the wealth of the stories, the images of that burning bush, and the voice out of the whirlwind that is also a still small voice, and Jesus holding up a bit of bread and declaring it is his body. And, in my adult years, I cannot say how deeply moved I am by the story of Exodus, of exile and returning. Even knowing probably not a word of Egypt is true in the historical sense. It is almost certainly a projection back from a different captivity, that one by the waters of Babylon. I think of those relentless cries of the prophets to stand with the poor and to blend justice and mercy. These are parts of me. All of them. I am a part of them. All of them. So. How can I deny Christianity? How can I deny Judaism?
I am also heir to the naturalist theologies of liberal religion. I believe reason is a great gift. If anything is the image of God, I have little doubt it is reason. I think of the constantly renewed epic of the cosmos, of the big bang and the great arc of evolution, and the miracle that we human beings can witness it all. I consider all this and my heart leaps in response like a flock of ducks rising in the morning mist.
And. And. The wisdom of the Zen way informs everything I think and do. It is the discipline of my heart and has been the touchstone of my walking in this world for fifty and more years. My understanding of the world is found in Zen’s great leap beyond attachment to the phenomenal world or to an emptiness inherent within all things. Neither one, nor two. Zen’s allowing the ten thousand things to pass through my senses to my heart, showing me the ordinary is the sacred, and the sacred is the ordinary. And, most of all, reminding me that there is no other place.
And what is revealed in this place? Chaos. Hurt. Longing. The agony of passingness. And, love. Love. An embrace. An intimacy. Totally beyond any common sense. Rising and dancing and calling us together to connections, to intimacies so close that words, any words, fail.
I find myself called back to my grand teacher on the Zen way, Robert Aitken. Poet, social justice activist, and Zen master. “I have heard it said,” wrote the old teacher in the Morning Star, which I think might have been his last book. “(T)hat all paths lead to the top of the same mountain. I doubt it. I think that one mountain may seem a small hill from the top of another. Let one hundred mountains rise! Meanwhile you must find your own path, and your own mountain.”
Mountains. Mist. And each of us called to take our own step. And yet, somehow we do it together. The sun and the moon and the stars. You and me.
So. Are all religions one? No, not by most conventional standards of judgement.
And yet, there is something calling. And the world’s spiritual traditions do appear to approach it. Each in their own way, filled with contradiction, ugliness, and beauty.
As the great Japanese poet Kobaysahi Issa sang on the death of his daughter.
This world of dew
is a world of dew,
and yet, and yet.
The religions of this world are not one.
And yet. And yet.