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One Truth, Many Paths

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Ours is a time of what I call “deep ecumenism”: religious pluralism and discovery of one another’s spiritual traditions and practices. This development is especially welcome given the ignorance and even arrogance that sometimes drives fundamentalist adherents of one faith to denigrate, convert, or even kill followers of other spiritual paths. An armful of new books examining the contemplative practices of several major spiritual traditions shows us how those practices can help counter that ignorance and sectarian conflict and illuminate the era in which we live.


Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2003)—a collection of essays edited by Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan, and Linda Klepinger Keenan—provides vivid stories of Jews and Christians who have gone east for spiritual study and then returned to their respective faiths much richer for the experience. Norman Fischer, who codirects a Jewish meditation center in San Francisco, writes that Western seekers who look to the East often find that their newly acquired spiritual perspectives are still missing something that would make their spiritual lives whole. Indeed, the stories in the book reveal a pattern: the loss of an early religious dream, the finding of a new one, and a return to the childhood tradition with a reawakening of wonder and spiritual power. Alan Lew, who calls himself a Zen rabbi, believes that his Zen years taught him “the value of disciplined spiritual practice.” Lew has learned from ministering as a rabbi that many Jews feel “betrayed” by their religious faith because it so rarely gives them the direct spiritual experience they seek. From these and other insights in this probing, thoughtful collection, we discover that through the exploration of other practices, we can find a mirror to reflect the lost (or forgotten) elements of our own traditions.

Kim Boykin’s Zen for Christians: A Beginner’s Guide (Jossey-Bass, 2003) is an excellent introduction to Zen—clear and to the point, practical, respectful, and even humorous at times. However, the author, who converted to Roman Catholicism after practicing Zen for many years, seems to have received superficial instruction as a Catholic; the book fails in its ignorance of the Christian mystical tradition. Boykin compares the teachings on the Buddha nature with the Christian concept of salvation—not with any teachings about the Christ nature in us. She never mentions the Cosmic Christ (the equivalent of Buddha nature) or Original Blessing (the equivalent of original wisdom in Buddhism).

And she misses entirely the opportunity to compare the great medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart’s teachings on nondualism with those of Buddhism. “Even the Buddha had to awaken to his Buddha nature,” she reminds us. Yes, but so did Jesus and so do Christians—which she fails to note.

Boykin’s work supports the statement of the Dalai Lama that the principal obstacle to interfaith experience is a bad relationship with one’s own faith tradition. One is also reminded of that declaration while reading Christians Talk About Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk About Christian Prayer (Continuum, 2003), edited by Rita M. Gross and Terry C. Muck. In some ways, the book’s title is misleading, since the editors confess that very few Buddhists wanted to discuss Christian prayer at all. When you notice the utter ignorance of many of the Christian essayists about their own mystical tradition, you can see why the Buddhists fled the scene. The book contains only very light references to Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Thérèse of Lisieux, and nothing at all about Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Merton, or Bede Griffiths. The contributors don’t seem to know how meditation is different from prayer or how many diverse forms of meditation exist.

One author actually refers to Christianity as “a theistic religion.” Sorry, but there is a panentheistic—that is, mystical—dimension to Christianity that embraces the wisdom tradition that the historical Jesus knew and practiced. (This is the Cosmic Christ tradition.) Likewise, there is no grasp of the via negativa—the dark night of the soul—in these authors claiming to represent Christianity.

Reading the attempts at interfaith discussions in these latter two books is worse than comparing apples and oranges; it’s like comparing apples and the trucks that transport them. If the Christianity represented here were all there was to Christianity, my heart would have headed east a long, long time ago.

I’m reminded of a statement made by Griffiths (a Christian monk who truly did know his mystical tradition and practiced it in an ashram he directed for 40 years in Southern India): “If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should simply fold up and go out of business.”

The great irony is that the Christian tradition is replete with eloquent mystics who left abundant evidence of the transcendence they experienced within that religion and who demonstrate the universality of that transcendence, whether it emanates from the East or from the West. For example, Eckhart might have been penning a Vedanta meditation manual when
he wrote, “How should you love God? Love God mindlessly, that is, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities, for as long as your soul is operating like a mind so long does it have images and representations. Your soul should be bare of all mind and should stay there without mind. Love God as God is, a not-God, not-mind, not-person, not-image—even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

We could say much the same about these passages from Thomas Aquinas, whose mysticism is seldom acknowledged: “God exceeds all speech….The mind’s greatest achievement is to realize that God is far beyond anything we think. This is the ultimate in human knowledge: to know that we do not know God…. God surpasses all that the mind comprehends….Nothing is more like the Word of God than the unvoiced word that is conceived in a person’s heart….”

How to meditate? Aquinas instructs that first, “we should take complete possession of our minds before anything else does, so that we can fill the whole house with the contemplation of wisdom.” Then, “be fully present there….When our interior house is entirely emptied like this and we are fully present there in our intention,” what follows next is to “play there.'”

Of all the recently issued books I’ve seen that apply an interfaith perspective to meditation, the one I find the most creative and practical is a fascinating volume by Neil Douglas-Klotz, The Genesis Meditations: A Shared Practice of Peace for Christians, Jews, and Muslims (Quest, 2003). Douglas-Klotz’s previous books—including his exciting rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Prayers of the Cosmos (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993)—succeeded in upsetting theological apple carts, because Douglas-Klotz insisted on translating the historical Jesus’ words from the Aramaic instead of the Greek (much less the Latin). He carries on his linguistic reconstruction of the Bible in The Genesis Meditations with the express purpose of finding common ground between Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Douglas-Klotz proposes thinking in a premodern and Middle Eastern way—the way of the Biblical writers, who considered beginnings more important than endings. It is in our shared beginnings, after all, that the people of the Bible stand on common ground, he argues. Drawing on a wide variety of sources across the Abrahamic traditions—from Christianity (the Gospel of Thomas as much as the canonical Gospels and Eckhart); from Judaism (the Kabbalah and Aramaic versions of Genesis); from Islam (Rumi, other Sufi mystics, and the Koran)—he crafts an ecumenical vision of the mystical experience at the heart of the religious impulse.

Douglas-Klotz’s vision is comforting and challenging at the same time—comforting because it is familiar and challenging because it is freshly presented. But most intriguing are his invitations to meditation using primal breath sounds from the languages of these three Biblical faith traditions, thereby connecting practices of the great Western traditions with those of the East.

For example, he encourages us to “take a moment to breathe with the word adam….Inhale feeling the sound ‘ah’ as a breath from the Source of All Life. Exhale feeling the sound ‘dahm’ resonating in your heart, reminding you that your heart beats with the rhythm that began the cosmos.” Elsewhere, he urges us to breathe in our hearts a rhythmic repetition of the word kun (“be” in Arabic; pronounced “koon”) to center ourselves. After intoning the word and feeling it in our vocal cords, chests, hearts, and whole bodies, we are then invited to realize that “the Holy One is discovering itself” through us—an Eastern insight if ever there was one. This is “mirror mysticism,” the reflection of the Buddha nature or Christ nature in all of us. Douglas-Klotz’s ideas are fresh and practical and, given the ongoing strife among the Abrahamic faiths, altogether timely.

Matthew Fox is the author of many books; he is also founder and president of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California, which emphasizes “deep ecumenism” and rediscovery of Western mystical traditions along with Eastern and indigenous practices.