Water and Light Soaking into the Earth: Seeking a Common Ground for all Religions

Water and Light Soaking into the Earth: Seeking a Common Ground for all Religions June 13, 2021

Water and Light Soaking into the Earth

 Seeking a Common Ground for all Religions

James Ishmael Ford
Guiding teacher, Empty Moon Zen

Delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles

The Text

After ages of practice, the nun Chiyono went out on a full-moon night to draw some water from the well. The bottom of her old bucket, held together by bamboo strips, suddenly gave way, and the reflection of the moon vanished with the water. When she saw this Chiyono attained to the great awakening.

Slightly adapted from The Hidden Lamp.

Together with a comment from the Zen teacher Joan Sutherland

(S)he is at the stream with a lacquer bucket meant for flowers, only she fills it with water. She sees the moon’s reflection in the water: her grief radiant. Later still, she says, the bottom falls out of her bucket: water and light soaking into the earth. All that wet: the stream, the watery moon in a bucket, the deer’s moist eye, the woman weeping.

I am obsessed with religions. Actually, I originally wrote this sentence as “I am moderately obsessed with religions.” But that isn’t true. I am obsessed with religions. Wildly. Insanely. Which means my finding a way to make a living as a Unitarian Universalist minister was probably a good idea.

Now, with that obsession I’ve wondered deeply about definitions and boundaries, and within those bounds to explore how religion, or, if you prefer, how spirituality matters. And not only in the past and deep past, but today, and maybe well into the future.

As it turns out defining religion is a messy project. There are some very good reasons why the word “religion” can be off putting. And why in our time and place for some of us spirituality might be more useful.

It turns out dictionary definitions of religion aren’t very helpful. Mostly they turn on human relationships with various divinities. And, really, since the advent of modern religious studies in the Nineteenth century and the startling observation that some very significant religions are barely concerned with divinities makes that definition of religion about relationships to gods close to worthless.

We also have to factor in our contemporary usage. The phrase spiritual but not religious, puts a finger on a major issue with religions. Religions have always been tied up with the transmission of culture, reinforcing the various ways in which people identify themselves and, critically, separate themselves from others. That us and them thing has from ancient times been religiously reinforced. One could argue the primary project of religion is simply crowd control.

However, there is something beyond cultural definition and crowd control. Maybe not the largest thing, but something I find of enormous value. It is the thing to which I have given the bulk of my life. Me, when I think of religions and that cousin word spirituality, I think of ancient, ancient mountain trails used by our Neanderthal cousins as well as our direct ancestors. Trails that wind through mountains in ways that seem to include at some disadvantage to efficiency but allows enhanced views of distant beauty. That.

And. There is a cave in Spain with what appears to be a 40,000 years-old grave for a Neanderthal toddler. The grave site is surrounded by animal horns, including bison and red deer. Similar sites for homo sapiens with what appear to be intentional burials including grave goods and evidence of layers of flowers poured over the body that seem to range back at least fifty and maybe even a hundred thousand years. That.

Some find the word religion as implying folding back, pointing to some kind of return. Religion is most importantly, as I feel it, about wonder, and beauty, and love. Love that even challenges death. Sorting out the crowd control part, spiritual can stand for this part of religion that is about wonder. I love how the origin of the word spiritual means breath. Spirituality is about that which gives us life.

This said as far back as we know with any certainty, religion and spirituality and culture have been, and are profoundly entangled. In fact, any attempt at pulling specifically spiritual perspectives out of the cultural matrix seems to date no later than during the European Renaissance. And, the truth be told, with only limited success.

With all this let’s revisit definitions for religion. I’ve found the Twentieth century Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian Forrest Church’s observation one of the better definitions. “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and (knowing we will) die.” My own attempt at a definition is that “religions are that part of a culture concerned most with meaning and direction.”

But is there anything more? Is there a thread through them all, a tie that binds, some universal truth found in all religions? Within religious studies, the technical term for those who say “yes,” is perennialism. Perennialism is the belief that all religions share something in common. `

I passingly mentioned the first attempt to define this during the European Renaissance. The first person I can think of to assert this sense of a thread looks to be Marsillo Ficino, a fifteenth century Italian priest and an early Humanist philosopher. He saw a common thread running from the Corpus Hermeticum to Greek philosophy, and to Christianity. As everyone at the time believed the Corpus to have been composed around the time of Moses, it looked pretty obvious. The Corpus clearly showed at the very least a foreshadowing of Platonism and Christianity from centuries before they happened.

The problem was that Ficino got his dates wrong. The Corpus was not, as was believed during the Renaissance, written in the Thirteenth century before the common era. You know, when people believed Moses was alive and led the enslaved Jewish people out of Egypt to their promised land. Instead, it was compiled somewhere between the first and third centuries of our common era. And is actually a mash up of Platonism and Christianity, not a foreshadowing.

For me this demonstrates both the power of that sense all religions are connected, together with the harsh fact that actual evidence of this is at best tenuous. As the contemporary scholar Stephen Prothero titles his provocative book, as we look into the matter, it appears “God is not One.”

The good professor contends “the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking…” Actually, Prothero goes beyond condemning the unity of religions as fantasy. He asserts it is a willful ignorance that makes the world a more dangerous place. And he makes a compelling argument.

It isn’t so much a case of many paths up one mountain, but more likely many paths and many mountains. And. And, yet there is something which calls for hedging. Despite the tons of evidence about the differences, there are some threads. There are a couple of places where there are obvious commonalities.

For instance, 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.

I strongly suspect this is rooted in two fundamental aspects of human psychology, which probably even has a biological an evolutionary basis. We seek harmony, balance, and see it manifesting as “fairness.” And at the very same time we have an urge to cheat, to gain an advantage for ourselves and ours. The Golden Rule address both aspects of who we are.

But something more? Something about ultimacy and meaning and that love which defies death? I find it interesting that Professor Prothero actually sees 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.” In part it is probably tied up with that cheating part of who we are as humans. But it does take many colors.

The good professor goes on to list with what he acknowledges is an over simplistic schema of how religions see that “wrong” and their solutions. 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.” The list goes on. There is that fundamental noticing of some sort of problem in life. A lack, a wound, something missing.

And out of this sense of wrong, of lack, of lostness, of wound; sometimes something happens.

An example from my life. I tell this story often, because it is so important to me. If you’ve heard it before, or read it in one of my books, I apologize. But, it fits in here in this reflection in an important way.

In my mid-teenaged years, I discovered the 19th Century Hindu Saint Ramakrishna. Mainly through the writings of Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. They were deeply tangled up with a Hindu mission, the Vedanta Society. Isherwood in particular wrote a lot on the subject. In one of his books, I read an account about how Ramakrishna prayed constantly for a vision of his goddess, in his case Kali, the Divine Mother. He wanted to know her as she was. He wanted to see her with his own eyes, to be present to her with his full being.

And one day she came to him. In some form of waking vision as he watched, she arose out of a river and walked toward him. As she walked the goddess swelled out in pregnancy, gave birth – and then – ate her child. Witnessing all this he slipped into a fever of ecstasy. As a young man, really, still basically a boy, I was shocked that this would be a turning point in this revered saint’s life. And, I had no idea what to make of Kali. It all seemed so awful. And I filed this story away somewhere in the recesses of my heart, never completely forgetting it.

Years later, after I’d left the Buddhist monastery where I’d been living, I went to rural Oregon to visit my brother. While there, I took a walk where I found myself at the edge of a genuine wilderness. It was wonderful, if also, a bit eerie to a convinced city boy. I sat in the shade on a large flat rock beside a creek. All these years later I can still taste the air from that day, I can smell the warmth and the vegetation, the way light played across everything. At the very same time the place was deeply silent and abuzz with life.

Then in the midst of it all I noticed there was a sunny spot on a good-sized rock in the middle of the creek. I watched as a large fat toad hopped up, settled down, and sunned itself. All was right with the universe. What I didn’t notice until just as it struck was the snake.  My heart leapt into my throat. I was frozen to the spot as I witnessed it all happen. In a bloody moment snake and frog fell behind the rock out of sight. A small blessing. Then, minutes later the snake slithered up onto the rock in the same place, with a large swelling in its middle, and lazed in the same sunny spot.

Instantly, I recalled Kali and Ramakrishna and that horrific, and now somehow for me, personally, viscerally. In a moment where I surrendered analysis and just witnessed, everything, sorrow, absolutely sorrow, but with it joy, calmness and ecstasy, every feeling played across my heart. It was a moment that held the entire cosmos, excluding nothing.

I felt my heart grabbed like that snake grabbed the frog. And I realized while sitting there in the shade witnessing it all, that I, too, was swallowed by the world itself. And I realized in some deep, intimate way, I was the world itself. I met Kali, and she was me. No part of the great mess, frog, snake, the world, hurt or joy was alien to me. It was me.

And this is important. It was a complete disruption in my life.

In one moment, there was a world I’d carefully come to understand. And in the next it was gone. And a new world was taking shape. I found for myself a turning point. And, I believe, this possibility is as common as our humanity.

It is the secret of the spiritual within religions.

The disruptions we experience open gates for us. If we don’t close the gates too quickly, but try to remain open, there are things we can find. And this does appear in all the religions, sometimes in the front, sometimes deep in the heart. But it is there. Always. The religions each express this differently, but each offers a way to encounter the intimate.

Among my favorite Zen teachings is the story of the nun Chiyono. One day carrying a bucket filled with water, she noticed the moon reflecting in the water in the bucket. Then, suddenly, the bottom of the bucket gave way, and as the water and the moon vanished, she awakened into the intimate way.

Later, commenting on this moment, the Zen teacher Joan Sutherland sings into our hearts,  throwing in some details I find useful. “(S)he is at the stream with a lacquer bucket meant for flowers, only she fills it with water. She sees the moon’s reflection in the water: her grief radiant. Later still, she says, the bottom falls out of her bucket: water and light soaking into the earth. All that wet: the stream, the watery moon in a bucket, the deer’s moist eye, the woman weeping.”


The world’s joy and sorrow, she made it her own. Or, rather, she discovered her part in the great mess of it all.

Now, with that water and light, it turns out something dangerous appears. The unitive experience tells us how intimately connected we all and the world are. And often it leads people to act on behalf of others. When this leads to charity, all is pretty good. As the late bishop Dom Helder Camara noted, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.” One expression of intimacy. Absolutely. As wonderful as wonderful can be.

But it sometimes leads to a step further, yet. When people like the good bishop then ask why people are poor, well, then shit may hit the fan. That question, after all, violates a cardinal aspect of normative organized religion: supporting the status quo. The crowd control thing.

So, with this particular expression of intimacy, one that comes with challenges to the way things are, it becomes dangerous. The mystics, and we are talking about the heart of the mystic project, are always at the edge of their traditions. Always. And their teachings are often suppressed, and sometimes, if they’re too noisy, they may be dealt with. Often, harshly. Want common threads to the world’s religions? Well, this is one. Suppress the voices of the intimate way.

This unitive experience begins as a new way of seeing. It is the heart that sees the story of Ramakrishna and Kali as one’s own, of that frog and snake as one’s own.

My own. Your own.

And, I’m past pretty sure that this is in fact the common ground of all religions.

That place where we all touch.

And the lives that are called out of that disruption and that touching.

The intimate way.

Nothing less.


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