One Truth, Many Paths: Vision, Purpose, and Approach
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What is praised is one, so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.
All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.
Sunlight looks slightly different
on this wall than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one, but
it is still one light…
In a world in which some voices in public continue to generate headlines by exclusively emphasizing the differences between religions, thus reinforcing dualistic attitudes and fostering a sense of separation between cultures, countries, and people, it is essential to be reminded of the common heritage we ultimately share as one human family. Despite differences in belief systems, scripture interpretation and ritual, the wisdom traditions of the world are – on the deepest level – essentially guided by the same ethical principles and oriented toward the same one Truth from which they originate. This Truth has, obviously, multiple manifestations and paths.
Throughout time and history, great saints and mystics have talked about a universal and inclusive God of love, compassion, and forgiveness, suggesting that all expressions of life and nature are inherently sacred. They have emphasized the interdependence and interrelatedness of all phenomena in this great web. Consequently, representatives of all the major wisdom traditions have – in their own ways – taught the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”
Truth exists in all of the wisdom traditions. At the heart of each are common ethical values and precepts such as compassion, truthfulness, humility, and charity. The interfaith orientation of One Truth, Many Paths recognizes that these universal values constitute the core of each tradition. It supports the basic beliefs and tenets of religious pluralism that promote the harmonious coexistence between adherents of different religious denominations based on mutual respect and dignity as envisioned by the Founding Fathers of the United States more than two hundred years ago. The Parliament of World Religions is probably today’s best-known forum for ongoing interfaith dialogue and outreach based on the principles of religious pluralism. It is in this spirit of “unity-within-diversity” that One Truth, Many Paths explores the world’s religions. Moreover, this book series is informed by the new discipline of Integral theory, founded by philosopher Ken Wilber. The theoretical framework and approach of Integral Spirituality in particular offers a most helpful and valuable tool when we strive to gain a deeper understanding of the wisdom traditions. It also proves helpful when analyzing specific aspects such as the different perceptions of Jesus Christ – the “ethnocentric Christ” versus the “worldcentric Christ” – by people who all call themselves Christians. Similarly, the integral framework allows for a deeper understanding of the two distinct voices of God in the Torah and the evolving notions of the Divine in the Judaic tradition.
Moreover, it is essential to be aware of the primary distinction between the “exoteric” (external) and the “esoteric-mystical” (internal) dimension present in all religious traditions. While the differences between the traditions are considerable at the exoteric level and, to a certain extent, even appear to be incompatible and mutually exclusive, at its mystical-esoteric core, however, each great religion points to a single Supreme Truth that lies beyond all divisions and differences in ritual and belief systems.
In addition, One Truth, Many Paths explores mythological themes and symbols (e.g., the World Tree). This book series takes the reader on a cross-cultural comparative journey beyond the boundaries of institutions, doctrine, and belief systems into this shared legacy of symbols and mythic narratives that represents a rich tapestry of interwoven threads and serves as a timeless mirror in which we modern and postmodern humans still see ourselves. Archetypes – a term borrowed from Jungian psychology referring to universal “patterns, forms, and images” that originate from the “collective unconscious” – are present in all wisdom traditions. An important example is the archetype of the “savior-hero” as it finds its expression in the life of major savior figures such as Jesus Christ, Krishna, or the Buddha in the Mahayana tradition. The “Father” archetype and the “Mother” archetype are equally essential, for they lie at the core of the evolving notions and conceptions of the Divine. The Supreme Truth, or God, can be experienced as both form and formless. When experienced in its anthropomorphic form, God is commonly perceived as an archetypal “Father,” sometimes as an archetypal “Mother,” or both. As the formless Absolute, the Divine is beyond gender and concepts altogether. In this context, it is also helpful to consider Ken Wilber’s three primary perspectives that are possible in the encounter of a subject with an object. These three perspectives can be applied to the human experience of the Divine. For example, God or Spirit can be experienced as Self or the “Great I” (first person or subjective), as the “Great Thou” or the “Holy Other” (second person or relational), and as the “Great It,” the “Ground of Being” or the “Great Web of Life” (third person or objective). According to Wilber, all three perspectives or faces of the Divine need to be embraced and integrated to bring about a complete spiritual awakening. In addition, gaining a full understanding of a religious tradition requires analyzing its teachings from these three points of view.
While One Truth, Many Paths reveals how the one Truth underlying the many paths to the Divine actually manifests in three distinct pillars of unity – universality of ethical-moral tenets, the common mystic-esoteric core, and the shared legacy of symbols and mythological themes – it also examines the unique features and differing approaches in each tradition, acknowledging that religions are not the same. Moreover, it takes external factors into consideration that vary greatly from culture to culture such as the historical-cultural context of a particular religious tradition, its rituals and celebrations, its laws and rules that serve as guidance for daily practices, and its doctrinal claims if they constitute an integral part of the tradition.
Finally, there are several additional dimensions to this book series: First, it builds more trust and fosters a deeper understanding among cultures and religions by providing much needed in-depth clarification on some of the most widespread and serious distortions and misconceptions affecting each tradition. This includes, for example, the notion of “Chosen-ness” and the concept of “holy war” in the Abrahamic traditions, the perception of Hinduism as an exclusively “polytheistic” religion, or the one-sided view of Buddhism as an overly “pessimistic” religion because the First Noble Truth talks about the human condition as an expression of suffering. Second, One Truth, Many Paths acknowledges and honors indigenous traditions as well as the Sacred Feminine in its myriad of manifestations across the cultures – a feature that has been practically absent in most books on comparative religion. To simply dismiss an expression of the Divine that in its most ancient roots can be traced to the period of prehistory and still continues to play an essential role in India’s vibrant Shakta tradition, among others, is to tell only half of the story. Finally, One Truth, Many Paths demonstrates how personal inspiration and truth can be equally found in all wisdom traditions.
Writing this book series on the world’s religions, I consider it to be absolutely essential to examine each of the traditions with the same deep respect and appreciation. I do fully believe and acknowledge that there is equally truth in all of the religious traditions if we dare to delve deeply enough. Consequently, it is my conviction that, in the end, all paths can lead to salvation, if based on a profound and consistent practice. In addition, I have refrained from taking a position on the legitimacy or veracity of all claims of superiority and so-called doctrinal truths in regards to certain religious figures. Of course, many Christians believe that Jesus Christ is absolutely original and absolutely unique. But Buddhists, to mention another example, equally believe that the Buddha is unique because he attained Supreme Enlightenment. Basically, all religions contain such fundamentalist tendencies, at least to a certain extent. Yet how could such claims possibly ever be resolved? World-renowned Buddhist monk, author, and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who acknowledges that truth exists in all wisdom traditions, comments on the claim of uniqueness as follows: “Of course Christ is unique. But who is not unique? Socrates, Mohammad, the Buddha, you, and I are all unique.” Ultimately, readers will have to decide such claims for themselves.
To conclude, I believe that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to come to the realization that truth exists in all wisdom traditions without at least some fundamental knowledge of other religions. And, of course, the exploration of other traditions has to be done with an open-minded, non-biased attitude. I argue that this will be an indispensable prerequisite for a harmonious coexistence of adherents of different religious traditions living in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. But this is not a naïve hope or an unrealistic vision of the future, as some may argue. It is the kind of hope that will employ all of our efforts in creating a mature vision of what is possible in this time of great transition, in which humankind faces fundamental challenges and in which, according to Native American belief, the four directions will come together again. Change is happening on all levels; it is the only constant. As the manifest world of form is evolving and changing, so are we humans. Today, we know that even our genetic make-up is not fixed; we are not set at birth. Our times are calling us to move beyond divisive and static belief systems, allowing for more inclusive and vibrant forms of spirituality to arise. These newly emerging forms of spirituality – which may or may not arise within the framework of existing religious systems – will have to take this evolutionary process into account if they are to catalyze a mature and truly viable vision for the future.
Change is also Spirit-in-action. And Spirit manifests with us and through us. The kabbalist metaphor of God as the Tree of Life exemplifies this point beautifully: In descending order, the Divine is ever-unfolding through successive emanations from the infinite to the incarnate of our manifest world, and, in ascending order, from the incarnate back to the infinite.