“With sincerity and earnestness one can realize God through all religions. The Vaishnavas will realize God, and so will the Saktas, the Vedantists, and the Brahmos. The Muslims and the Christians will realize Him too. All will certainly realize God if they are earnest and sincere.”
Introduction: The Vacuum Effect and the Common Denominator of the Spiritual Path
People often ask me what my religion is. I usually answer that I don’t identify with a particular religion, but am merely seeking GOD. To me, God is an experience of Bliss, Joy and Perfect Love. And ultimately, as Christ taught, I and God are one. The outrageous and wonderful truth is that we are all God/Buddha/Krishna/etc. in different forms. To actually experience this is Bliss itself and, I believe, the goal of human life. Strangely though, the fact that I am seeking GOD, but do not exclusively identify with a traditional religion, does not compute with some people… As if it were not even possible to find God without choosing one religion; as if there WERE one correct religion; as if the infinite, indescribable Bliss of God could be contained in a single human system!
I call this the “vacuum effect,” an effect that has gutted the fiery essence of religion and replaced it with a goofy and spiritually limp version of modern traditionalism. We treat God as if we were buying a vacuum in the supermarket. Say I need a vacuum for my house… when I get to the store, there are usually at least 20 options I need to sift through to find the one I want. In a similar way, people often think, “To find God, I guess I need to choose whether to become a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, etc.” They act as if the One True God, the Infinite and Omnipresent Source of the majestic universe, was Himself a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu! This fragmented approach may work for buying vacuums, but God is not a vacuum! Religions are wonderful as long as they are considered paths to the Divine, but when people think that they must join a human institution to commune with the God within them, it shows there is a big problem with our mindset.
Don’t get me wrong, I think our major religions are beautiful and inspiring, and the power of spiritual community is profound. I myself have been inspired by many religious communities over the years. I spent years attending Christian churches of different denominations; I am a Jew by birth, and have a deep love for the Torah and the teachings of the great rabbi Jesus; I have been practicing Zen Buddhist meditation for years, and trained at a Zen monastery for 9 months. One of the most influential books in my life was the Bhagavad Gita, a seminal Hindu text on the philosophy and practice of yoga.
While I often participate in different religions and do various spiritual practices, they do not define the goal of my path. For at the end of the day, I am seeking GOD. He is the one who has led me by the hand to Zen, to this church, to that book, to this teacher, to that community. If I have any wisdom to share with this suffering world, it is this: that God-Realization is the goal of life. And when it truly becomes the goal of our heart, we will eventually find it by God’s grace if we don’t give up. The common denominator of the spiritual path is the inexpressible longing to experience God, the deathless Root of our being. And when you bow down to the Divine and ask It to reveal Itself to you with complete sincerity, know assuredly that It will lead you on a path to Itself.
As Christ put it, “knock, and the door will be opened. Seek, and you will find!” You may be led to become a yogi, a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, a Muslim, a Hindu etc. Your path won’t be the same as mine, and that is good, for we are all unique children of the Divine. But once you truly make God-Realization the goal of your heart, the vacuum effect ceases. It won’t matter whether people call the Bliss of God Allah, Jesus, Buddha-Mind, etc. You’ll stop caring about doctrinal disputes that go back centuries and whose continuance has no practical spiritual purpose. The Bliss you will find in the Divine will far surpass all lesser joys, and limiting this infinite Bliss to a single human tradition will seem as silly as attempting to to contain the galaxies in a baby’s bottle.
When Description Hijacks Experience
To me, learning to view the goal of religion as being universal is a necessary evolution is the collective mindset of our species. Every psychological evolution, however, is always fiercely resisted. It is astounding just how deeply rooted sectarianism can be, and recently I’ve begun to reflect more and more on both its destructive qualities and its intellectual absurdity.
A few nights ago I attended “Full Moon Metta (loving-kindness practice)” at Heart of Wisdom Zen Center in Portland where I attend weekly meditation sits. While there, I had an insight about the profoundly disturbing typical evangelical Christian view of hell. The idea of a loving God is theologically incompatible with the existence of an eternal hell, and hell is a perversion of true Christian teaching. However, this discussion is for another time, so back to my story: The meditation session was led by Hogen Bays, a Zen teacher and co-abbot of Great Vow Zen Monastery where I trained for 9 months. Hogen is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met, and has dedicated his life to helping others and deepening his own meditation practice. He is an inspiration to me, and his dedication to the spiritual path is a great example. He has been practicing for 40 years in the Zen tradition, and it has been a fortunate privilege to call him my Zen teacher.
As I was listening to him teach, it occurred to me that, back home in Oklahoma, many people I know think that Hogen will go to hell for eternity simply because he does not call the Divine by the name of Jesus. Hogen sometimes refers to the Source as the Way, the One Mind, Buddha-Mind, Great Mystery, etc. To think such a sincere man would be doomed to eternal torture in hell simply because he refers to the Source by the wrong name is, to me, the height of theological absurdity.
Many people similarly point out the fallacy of “Christian” hell by referencing Gandhi. Gandhi did more to help the world, and lived more Christ-like, than most people do in many lifetimes. If a man like Ghandi couldn’t get into heaven, no one can! The idea that a loving God would punish someone like Gandhi, or my Zen teacher Hogen, for not calling the Divine “Jesus” is a fundamentally absurd, horrifying, and theologically scandalous idea.
What occurred to me in my moment of insight is that this evangelical view of hell view is an extreme version of much of the world’s current spiritual mindset. Like these sectarian Christians, perhaps billions of people on Earth believe that, to find God, you must call God by a certain name, and perform an exclusive set of historical rituals. For much of the human race, description has hijacked experience. And for all its sanctimonious appearances, this reversal of importance undermines the very essence of the teachers it claims to honor. People like Jesus, and the founders of all our great religions, looked around them and within themselves, and experienced a Mystic Reality that they realized was the Source of everything.
Because they were also human, they used a spiritual vocabulary that people of their historical era could relate to. Jesus, a Jew, called It Jehovah and Avinu (Our Father), both names borrowed from the Old Testament that his audience were already familiar with. Krishna called It Brahman in the Bhagavad Gita, a pre-existing term in his time. The Buddha called It Buddha Nature, and some Zen masters called it One Mind, Tao, the Way, etc. Each founder was also born in a particular historical era, and some things they said were not meant for all time periods, but rather reflect their own cultural bias. This is also a complex discussion for another post.
Once these traditions were enshrined in sacred texts and ritualized systems, the essence of them declined. Instead of seeking the exact mystical experience of our great religious pioneers, we became mindless parrots endlessly repeating their particular vocabulary. We substituted their experience of the Divine for our own which, like the Buddha says in the Dhammapada, is a like a penniless farmer counting another famer’s cows. We ignorantly separated the human race into religions teams, instead of seeing that the diverse ways of describing the Divine are pointing to the same nameless and indescribable experience.
As a specifies, we spend far too much energy debating about the prophets and sages of our great religions, and less time doing what they did. Jesus and Buddha, for instance, did not come to Earth for people to merely worship them and tell their life stories. Their lives are indeed inspirational, but we all must see what they saw. Like Jesus, we ALL must be metaphorically crucified to our false identification with the body, and know the “resurrection” of experiencing our own Christ-Consciousness. Like the Buddha, we all must sit under the Bodhi Tree and see our own True Nature with the morning star. We must become Buddhas and Christs ourselves, or else the purpose of their prophetic missions will remain unfulfilled.
People everywhere are yearning to touch the deep truths that our religions hint at, and they are getting tired of the same old pathetic worldview that there is one correct path to God. They go to church and find that merely memorizing the Apostle’s Creed cannot satisfy their spiritual hunger. They perform elaborate rituals but feel they are not tasting the Indestructible and Nameless Reality that the rituals are symbolically expressing. They debate about subtle linguistic imperfections in their holy texts instead of meditating deeply and realizing the essence of the text itself. The dawn of collective religions in our civilization was a revolution that spiritualized mass portions of the human race. The next revolution is now upon us – a mass awakening to the One Eternal Consciousness that is the source and goal of every spiritual path.
The spiritual revolution taking place on Earth has a lot to learn from the traditions that emphasize meditation practice. Many yogic and Buddhist traditions that have their roots in India have, for thousands of years, understood that experience is more important than belief on the spiritual path. Just as we in the West began developing material technology to an astoundingly complex degree, so the sages of the East, for millennia, have been experimenting with the science of spirituality. One thing they discovered was that certain meditation techniques can help catalyze mystical experiences that otherwise remain inaccessible.
The fact that evangelical Christian soccer moms now practice yoga (yoga means “to yoke,” or to unify the soul with the Higher Self) points to a deeper trend in our society. It reveals a spiritual need that the traditions of the East have long since addressed. The rapid influx of meditation and yoga into the west demonstrates, among other things, that we are desperately looking for deeper experiences of Spirit. For many people, it is no longer enough to read books, to sing psalms with Baroque-era organ music, and to vocally pray to a God in heaven outside us.
In other posts I explore the role of meditation for in depth, but I briefly wanted to mention here that the non-sectarian techniques (following the breath in an upright posture, for instance) discovered by the sages of India will play a massive role in the way religion is re-conceived in the modern world. I personally practice Zen meditation each day, and believe in general that meditation is the single most important practice to cultivate on the path to God. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, the yogi that practices an actual meditation technique gets further than the mere scholar, theologian, or priest engaged in ritual performance: “Even one who inquires about the practice of meditation rises above those who simply perform rituals…Meditation is superior to severe asceticism and the path of knowledge. It is also superior to selfless service. May you attain the goal of Meditation, Arjuna!” (Eashwaran translation).
Meditation is the one of the most precious keys to the door that leads to God. May all beings know the peace of a mind calmed by meditation, and the Bliss of the Divine that will never be contained by texts, names, rituals, or paths!
Conclusion: Learning to Separate the Path from the Goal
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells his devotee Arjuna, “Just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.” A similar passage comes from the Blue Cliff Record, a collection of Zen koans. It relates that Te Shan spent his whole life studying sutras, but when he finally experienced his own True Nature, he burned them all. Then he said, “Even to plumb the full depths of all your knowledge, it would be no more than a piece of hair lost in the vastness of the great void; and however important your experience in things worldly, it is even less than a single drop of water cast into a vast valley.”
Both these passages, and countless thousands of others in many traditions, point to the experience of God/Enlightenment, an experience which all human beings are capable of realizing for themselves. Like rivers leading to the ocean, all religious paths and spiritual practices lead to the One God that can be confined by no religion, and that alone exists.
This re-interpretation of the goal of religion, to me, is the central turning point taking place on our Earth in the sphere of spirituality. We are shifting from dogmatism into mysticism. We are no longer satisfied with mere description, but are seeking That which the description points to. We are learning to distinguish the “branches” of poetic allegory from the “Root” of lived Reality. We are learning to see that the Divine is not separate form this very moment. We are learning to separate the path from the goal.
Yet there is nothing wrong with practicing in a particular tradition to the exclusion of others. Religious pluralism does not mean a “melting pot” where Christians are forced to bow to Mecca, where Jews recite the Qur’an, and where Hindus read the King James Version of the Bible. People can each practice their own native religion, yet view it as a path to God. Religious pluralism is not an abolishment of our historical traditions, but a radical re-interpretation of them. It means realizing that someone worshipping God with a different name is worshipping the same God, and on a deeper level is symbolically acknowledging their own Higher Self that is equally present in all beings.
To experience this God/Buddha-Nature for ourselves is the goal of the spiritual path, and the culmination of all rituals, meditations, prayers, etc. With that said, I end this post by repeating, as I often do, my deepest conviction – that nothing can satisfy us apart from God and the Bliss found in It’s realization. And we will go on suffering and suffering in this transient world until we finally realize this for ourselves.
However, we should rejoice in this good news: the door of Divine Grace is always open! When you bow down and pray from your heart to the Divine, “Lead me to the Highest Goal! Lead me to Thyself! Lead me to Enlightenment!” you can have total peace in knowing that your prayer will be answered if you never give up. I do not know what path will be given to you. I do not know what strange “yellow brick road” God will lead you down. But I do know that anyone who makes God the desire of their heart will never be turned away, and that God will reveal Itself to them in due time by Its unfathomable, infinite, and never-ending grace.
SHALOM and LOVE to you and to all beings! May you see for yourself that God Itself is seeing out of your own eyes, and that this stunningly beautiful universe is Its inexpressibly sacred Temple.
- Jungian Christianity – Thoughts on how Jungian psycology influenced my views on religion.
- Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion
- Mechizzawhaaaaaa? Melchizedek and the Source of Spiritual Authority
- Freedom from Worry Part II: Zen Meditation
- Some Thoughts on Zen Practice
- Thoughts on Why the Path to God Can Co-Exist With Modern Science
- Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective
- Remembering the Goal of Life