The Zen priest considers Tradition and a Naturalistic Perennialism

The Zen priest considers Tradition and a Naturalistic Perennialism September 23, 2021



I’ve been thinking a lot about Traditionalism in religion.

Traditionalism is a word with many definitions. It usually speaks to some form of conservativism. It sometimes is associated with right wing political perspectives, and probably always is marked with a privileging of revelation over reason.

There is also a spiritual Traditionalist school which is a subset of Perennialism. My first brush with Traditionalism arose when I read Huston Smith’s magnum opus, the Religions of Man, still in print as the World’s Religions. This book was first published in 1958 and has stood several tests of time to remain the most likely book an English-speaking reader will turn to in order to learn about the world’s great faiths.

One can discern a Perennialist sense in reading Smith’s books. And, I hope I’ve shown my complicated relationship with Perennialism. On the one hand I think it points in the right direction, at least broadly speaking, when it suggests there are common truths that each religion touch.

This insight is a big reason I would eventually found myself a Unitarian Universalist. Unitarian Universalism is the great magpie spiritual tradition, open to the possibility of many truths, and of the possibility of a common truth. On the other hand, as someone who has actually engaged in some depth several of the world’s major spiritualities, it seems pretty obvious to me that there is not in fact a single mountain we’re all following separate paths up to its summit.

As I’ve noted it is to me pretty straight forward. There are lots of different mountains.

And with that I’ve come to some other hard conclusions. Some are more useful than others. Which is probably why Zen Buddhism and its disciplines remains the core of my actual interior life. I love the magpie quality of Unitarian Universalism. But, I’ve found I also need a tap root in order to grow deep. For me that has been that spare Zen Buddhism. I suggest with equal attention to the Zen Buddhism and the “spare.”

For me the best example of the problems with Perennialism is Huston Smith’s World’s Religions. For many years those of us interested in the World’s Religions found it offered our first glimpses into the richness that are the world spiritualities. For good reason it has continued in print for years, and has all together sold over two million copies. It was a great help to me. I cannot say how grateful I am for Professor Smith’s book.

And. What he doesn’t reveal in the book is that he is a full-on Traditionalist, a form of Perennialism that, frankly, I find very attractive, but which also has some serious problems.

Chief among those problems comes from trying to crowbar all the world’s religions together into one lovely jewel of many facets. As I said pretty much up front, this is not so. And so, his book, which is admirable in so many ways, and, again, for which I remain endlessly grateful, when it comes to Buddhism just has a terrible time.

Professor Smith believed, I’m quite sure, right down to the soles of his feet that there is a true religion under all religions. I can even go with that, up to a point. But for him that universal thing is a mystical theism. And what he doesn’t say as a Traditionalist is that this theism comes to us through revelation. Because of that the chapter on Buddhism is deeply marred by his, it feels desperate reach for theistic elements in Buddhism. Which exist, but which cannot by any stretch be considered normative.

At this point in my life the issue is this. I do believe a form of religious perennialism, what I’m calling a naturalistic perennialism. I believe there are currents of religion that are rooted in our biology, and as something natural, also something that people can find within all religions, and actually at the heart of the birthing of all religions. And I hope it would therefore be obvious, this deep current should be available without any religion at all.

There are a number of these currents, some go toward ethics – what I see as an innate sense of the “fair,” a sense that things should be harmonious, what is good for the goose is good for the gander kind of photo-morality confusingly coupled with a deeply held desire to get one up, and with that an inclination to cheat. I believe pretty much all religious ethics arise out of these two things existing in tension.

Rather more important is what is it at the root of the mystical, and by mystical, I mean quite narrowly an apprehension of a root to all our individual consciousnesses. For most of the world’s religions this root is seen as God, and as profoundly personal. Hence Professor Smith’s theistic perennialism and more specifically his traditionalism and its esoteric wisdoms.

Buddhism shows this does not have to be experienced that way. And, for me, points again to our biology. We seem to have within the structures of our brains an ability to see at the same time that we are different and distinct and acting in our own interests, that there is a common place we exist within, an intimacy so profound it is fair, if ultimately misleading, to call it one.

As to Traditionalism, while I don’t believe at all in some single current of truth revealed over the ages, actually offers some very important perspectives. Perspectives I believe need to be considered by anyone following the intimate way. Especially for anyone confronted, as we are, with a wealth of spiritual options, many contradictory either internally or with other traditions, and all cutting several ways.

Traditionalists assert one needs to align with a specific religion, and they believe one needs to seek initiation into that tradition. And then to live within it. I find wisdom here.

Where they go wrong, in my estimation, is their radical rejection of modernity and reason. This later part has led them down some very dark alleys.

Again, I find the first part speak to some genuine truths about us.

I suspect it starts with the fact that the universal is only ever encountered within the specific. There is no enlightenment, there is only ever some personal encounter with openness. And beyond that we are constantly endanger of following our own appetites. By consciously binding ourselves to a tradition we are instead constantly challenged about our own views about any given thing.

The magic happens when we take the tradition seriously. So, while I see awakening happening without any particular tradition being at the heart of it, and awakening itself, does just happen; living into it, growing deeper, making a life with our discovery of our intimate boundlessness, usually calls for an alignment with a tradition.

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