Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

Archive for May 2012

Varieties of religious pluralism

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Do you work gladly with other religious groups in the pursuit of common goals? While remaining faithful to Quaker insights, try to enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith, creating together the bonds of friendship. (Advices and Queries, paragraph 6.)

The late Prof. Willard Oxtoby of the Center for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto said that religious pluralism is not merely the acceptance of the fact that there are different beliefs and practices among human beings, but the celebration of that fact. If one has the conviction that the world would be impoverished if there were fewer ways of being religious, then one is a religious pluralist. That said, there are many ways of being a pluralist. (How much sense would it make if there were only one way of being pluralistic?) In what follows, I shall talk about some of the approaches I have followed, with more or less success. Please forgive me for describing them using culinary analogies. Prof. Harvey Cox, among others, has used the metaphor of the cafeteria or the food mall to talk about an approach to religiosity. One can imagine a person going to a food mall in a modern shopping center in which there are cuisines from many countries available. There are several ways of dealing with the wide array of choices. Let me mention three.

  • The spiritual mixer. A person might feel like having a little bit of everything at the same meal. So he might order sushi at the Japanese stand, a feta cheese salad at the Greek booth, a side dish of refried beans at the Mexican American stall and a gulab jamun for dessert at the Indian food vendor. Not everyone would find that combination a satisfactory meal, but the beauty of a food mall is that one can find almost anything one likes and put it all together in whatever combination strikes one’s fancy. A person pursuing a religious practice in a similar spirit to our imaginary diner might don his tefillin, light some candles and incense at a home altar on which a crucifix, an Amitābha Buddha image and a statue of Ganesh are all enshrined and earnestly chant some verses from the Navajo Yei bichai. If the person in question finds aspects of Judaism, Christianity, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Hinduism and Navajo chanting all personally meaningful in some way, this mixture of elements, which might seem odd to some, might be uplifting and transformative.
  • The serial taster. Another person might go to the same food court, look around and conclude that all offerings look appetizing. But instead of having a little of everything at the same meal, this diner make a resolve to have an Italian meal today, a South Indian course tomorrow, a Chinese feast the day after tomorrow and a combination of Thai foods the day after that. This person might recognize that the elements of any given tradition of cuisine complement each other nicely and that combinations of taste have been put together over the course of centuries of culinary experimentation. While not wanting to restrict herself to one kind of food forever, she nevertheless sees an advantage in savoring each tradition separately and spreading her experience of variety over the course of a week or perhaps over the course of a month or longer. The spiritual counterpart of the serial taster might be someone who goes to Quaker meeting for worship on Sunday, vipassanā meditation on Monday, Hindu bhajans on Tuesday, a Greek orthodox mass on Wednesday, a Course in Miracles discussion group on Thursday, a mosque on Friday and a synagogue on Saturday. She might fully relish each religious event during the week but feel incorporating elements of all of them in a single hour of practice might lead to spiritual indigestion.
  • The consistent diner. Some people find that they get the greatest satisfaction from eating the same type of food, perhaps even exactly the same dish, every day. Personal satisfaction for this diner might come in consistency, but while having a preference for maintaining habitual consistency, he may derive vicarious satisfaction by being in the company other others who have different diets. So this person might seek out friends who have different tastes from his own. He goes predictably every time to the organic fruit vendor and comes back with a fresh fruit du jour salad topped with yogurt and granola, which he enjoys as his friends enjoy their lasagna, enchiladas, kota riganati or shawarma. He eats the same thing not because of a disdain or fear of other diets, but because he has found a diet that works well and need not be tampered with. The spiritual counterpart of this diner might be the observant Jew who has plenty of Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim and secular friends whom he admires precisely because they are who they are.

At various times in my life I have tried each one of these approaches. In the 1980s I was part of a Zen community in which we were encouraged to be informed about other forms of Buddhism and about religions other than Buddhism and to attend the interfaith events that were fashionable in those days. While I thoroughly enjoyed the company of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism or Catholicism or cabalistic Judaism or Wicca and approved of them wholeheartedly for following practices that they found meaningful, my own path was Zen, and I was reluctant, because I saw no need, to mix it with anything else—until I eventually discovered that the culture of Zen did not suit my temperament at all and left me deeply unfulfilled.

My dissatisfaction with “pure” Zen left me for a while with a suspicion of all claims of purity, real or imagined. (Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I came to feel for a while that all claims to purity were the product of imagination and that real purity simply does not exist.) Despite the fact that no religion other than Buddhism appealed to me very much at all on a personal level, I still rejoiced that there was a varied menu of religious practices for people to choose from and that if a person sought long enough she could surely find something meaningful and uplifting. As for me, what I found fulfilling was a sort of generic Buddhism that contained elements of Theravāda, bits and pieces of Mahāyāna, a smidgeon of Vajrayāna; the mixture could perhaps be characterized as ABZ (Anything But Zen) Buddhism. That phase eventually gave way to a succession of other phases.

The teachings and contemplative practices of Buddhism have appealed to me for my entire adult life, but I never really found a Buddhist community with a structure in which I felt fully at home. My childhood upbringing left me with an unshakable conviction in the fundamental equality of all people, as a result of which I found the hierarchical, and mostly patriarchal, structure of all the Buddhist communities I encountered off-putting. Equally off-putting was a subtle smugness among many Buddhists—admittedly mostly among converts—whereby Buddhism was assumed to be the standard against which all things spiritual were to be measured. I remember getting into several rather heated discussions with fellow Buddhists who insisted that to be a truly committed Buddhist was to wish that eventually everyone would be a Buddhist. Their reasoning was that to be a Buddhist is to strive to be compassionate, and to be compassionate entails wishing the very best for everyone, and since Buddhism is the very best, one naturally wishes it for everyone. Such people often seemed shocked that I wished for everyone to find whatever form of Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, humanism, tribalism or atheism that suited their needs the best. Such people were puzzled that I assumed most people will find different things suitable to them at different stages of their life, for to be alive is to change.

The only communal structure that ever felt like home to me was that of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Making me feel profoundly at home were the Quaker manner of tending to communal concerns, the fact that they had no distinction between clergy and laity but considered everyone clergy, the conviction that everyone is a seeker and everyone has something to learn from everyone else and the conviction that no authority is unimpeachable and no attempt to articulate the truth is absolute.

My project for many years has been to learn how to be part of a community of Quakers while drawing most of my nourishment from the teachings of the Buddha and their associated practices. It did not take very long at all to discover that a Quaker meeting for worship is no place to try to do my Buddhist meditation. A Quaker meeting for worship, I came to be convinced through experience, is a Quaker meeting for worship and is most fulfilling to me when I enter fully into that almost indefinable and indescribable mode of worship that occasionally gives rise to what Quakers call a covered meeting—a gathering at which everyone is fully centered and attendant upon something that feels very much as if it participates in divinity—whatever that may mean. To be the only one in the meeting doing vipassanā is to rupture the unity of the gathered meeting. So eventually I abandoned the practice of the spiritual mixer and took up something more like the practice of the serial taster. In the course of a week, or even a day, I am likely to read an epistle of George Fox, a lecture by Swami Vivekananda, a chapter of a book by Paul Tillich, an essay by Dōgen, a few pages of Carl Jung, and a writing by Karl Marx or Leon Trotsky. I have given up trying to arrive at an intellectual synthesis of all these diverse thinkers, but I never fail to learn from them and be inspired by them, each being motivational in its own way. If someone were to demand that I give one of them up, I would have to say “Please give me another commandment, for I cannot follow the one thee has given me.”

Needless to say, at any given moment it would be nearly impossible for me to say whether I was acting out of my Quaker habits or my Buddhist habits. In 99% of daily life, the habits of one are fully compatible with the habits of the other. The differences are, to me at least, trivial. When among Buddhists I use a different vocabulary than when among Quakers, because speaking to the natives in their own language slightly raises the odds of being superficially understood. To be understood more deeply, however, kindness will suffice. And kindness is most likely to emerge when all one’s labels have slipped off.

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Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, May 28, 2012 at 20:20