Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Universal Religion: Part 1

To bring an understanding of Zen to Europe, Master Deshimaru talked as much in terms of 'God' as he talked about 'Buddha'. Yet, this wasn't a belief in a literal creator being or personal God - he was using the concept as a metaphor for 'the universal' or the fundamental principle of reality, not unlike the way that scientists like Einstein and Stephen Hawking use the concept.

Zazen is the same thing as God or Buddha. Dogen, the master of transmission, said, "Zazen itself is God." By that he meant that during zazen you are in harmony with the cosmos. In hishiryo consciousness there is no more anything. It is satori consciousness. The self has dropped away and dissolved. It is the consciousness of God. It is God. People have a personal God. We are not separate. There is no duality between God, Buddha, and ourselves.
- Master Deshimaru

According to many sources (for example the scholar Richard Gombrich) the Buddha adapted his teaching to whatever beliefs his audience had, whether they were Tantrics, Vedic fire-worshippers, Naga-worshippers, Yogins, rationalists or skeptics. And in the same way, Deshimaru was adapting his message to the language and concepts of Europe.

During a mondo, I asked Godo Mokuho Guy Mercier what the difference was between practicing Zen and practicing Zen as a Buddhist. Godo Guy responded by saying that we are all Buddhists, that is, all religions are essentially about the same thing, that Buddhism is about the universal, rather than some sectarian dogma. He also argued that the teachings of Jesus really had the same meaning as the teachings of Buddha. He's not the first to say something like this and of course I wonder how far it can be stretched - are the violent, judgemental teachings of the Old Testament the same as Buddhism and what about non-religions?


In many ways each religion is quite different - they have mythologies, divine laws and metaphysical schemas that contradict one another. Yet at another level, they seem to intersect at a point that might be called 'mystical experience'. At this point all the major religions seem to be talking about one thing - the transcendence of the individual sense of self. This common ground is so well documented by students of comparative religion that it is almost a cliche. This is known as Universalism and Perennial Philosophy are about . But it's easy to make glib comments about all religions being the same, glossing over the differences - we need to understand the similarities and the differences. And we also need to consider whether its right to give religion a special status and exclude the secular activities in life.

Not all religions include the concept of God of course or even any kind of transcendent absolute. The common ground of religious experience, I would say, is the opening up of the ego to the whole of reality.

The following quotations should give a hint of this.


As a lump of salt, cast in water would dissolve right into the
water...Arising out of these elements (bhuta), into them also one vanishes

When his soul is in peace he is in peace, and then his soul is in
God...The Yogi who, lord of his mind, ever prays in this harmony of soul,
attains the peace of Nirvana, the peace supreme that is in me...Thus joy supreme
comes to the Yogi whose heart is still, whose passions are peace, who is pure
from sin, who is one with Brahman, with God.

- Bhagavad Gita


The individual shell in which my personality is so solidly encased explodes at
the moment of individuality...melts away into something
indescribable, something which is of quite a different order from what I am
accustomed to.

- Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience


It was granted to me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevetheless, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul... This view was so subtle and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it.
- Terisa of Avil

Teresa's most famous book The Interior Castle describes a person's soul as a multi-chambered castle. Going deeper and deeper into your soul and facing your own fears, self-interests, ego and temptations gradually leads you into a deeper relationship with God. At the very central chamber the soul is at complete peace and complete union with God. This reminds me of the lyrics to Terrible Canyons of Static by God Speed You! Black Emperor.

That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou has sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
- Jesus, John 17: 21 -23


Adorn me with Thy Unity
Clothe me with thy selfhood
And raise me up to thy Oneness,
So that when Thy creatures see me
They will say we have seen Thee
And thou art That

- Abu Yazid
Fools laud and magnify the mosque, While they strive to oppress holy men of
heart. But the former is mere form, the latter spirit and truth. The only true
mosque is that in the heart of saints. The mosque that is built in the hearts of
the saints Is the place of worship for all, for God dwells there.
- Masnavi, Book 2 Story 13
I pray God the Omnipotent to place us in the ranks of His chosen, among the
number of those He directs to the path of safety; in whom He inspires
fervour lest they forget Him; whom He cleanses from all defilement, that
nothing remain in them except Himself; yea, of those whom He indwells
completely, that they may adore none beside Him.
- Al Ghazzali

Mystical Experiences

According authors such as William Stace, all mystical experiences share the same characteristics:

  • unity
  • time- spacelessness
  • sense of reality = knowledge not subjective
  • peace/happiness
  • sacredness paradox/logic defied
  • ineffability
  • loss of sense of self

Only the packaging varies - the framework of ideas, culture, language and mythology in which they are conceived and described. As I see it, to the mystic, God or Brahma or Buddha is everywhere - it's only when a strong attachment is made to the philosophical, theological or mythological framework - the means of communication - that this self-transcendence descends into dogmatism, self-righteousness, bigotry, intolerance and potentially violence. The experience of satori and samadhi are the equivalent of union with God, Brahma etc. Only the metaphysics or dogma varies.

Every major religion has it's mystics and it's universalists, but every religion has its dogmatists and fundamentalists too - just as every polical party has a left wing and a right wing. Perhaps more than any other faith, Bahá'í puts a great deal of emphasis of religious universality. Bahai is a branch of Islam which teaches that all religion is an expression or appreciation of God.


  1. I'd like to commend your effort to expound the perennial theme that "all religions are one". I think part of this practice, or perhaps complementary to it, is an effort to see how religions differ and why new religions emerge. It's like understanding language: we need to see what all human languages have in common, or at least the family resemblances between them, but we also need to understand their diversity and why they tend to diverge.

    Religious traditions stay alive by renewing themselves in every generation -- indeed in every moment. Otherwise they degenerate into the "dry bones" of repetition and routine. Zen achieves this by constituting itself as a special transmission outside the scriptures, passed on buddha to buddha, each one "going beyond Buddha" and passing it on in turn. But for religions which constitute themselves as revelations embodied in Scripture --"People of the Book", as they are called in Islam -- renewal amounts to reinterpretation of the Scriptures, embodied as a shift in practice. Sometimes a reform movement is necessary in order to refresh interpretation and practice within a community. And sometimes reform just isn't enough: renewal demands a break with the old religion and formation of a new one.

    I think the Baha'i faith is a case in point. You describe it as "a branch of Islam" -- which is equivalent to describing Christianity as a branch of Judaism, or Buddhism as a branch of Hindu religion. The Buddha carried forward and renewed the old Vedic religion by making a clean break with some aspects of it -- for instance rejecting the doctrine of Atman and proclaiming anatta instead. Likewise, the Baha'i faith began with a prophetic figure known as The Bab who reinterpreted the Qur'an and the traditions of Shiah Islam in Iran. The religious establishment reacted violently by having him executed in 1850, but the movement continued, becoming the Baha'i faith of today. And the violent reaction continues as well, in the form of persecution of Baha'is in Iran and other Muslim states. They consider the Baha'is to be heretics, while Baha'is insist on the independence of their revelation. And paradoxically, one sign of the divergence between the two is that "Bahá'í puts a great deal of emphasis of religious universality," as you said. Universality is certainly an element of Islam, but it doesn't get much emphasis from the loudest voices within Islam today.

    As a Baha'i myself, i'd say that our key slogan is "Unity in diversity". Neither unity nor diversity would mean anything without the other, and i think universalists need to recognize the spiritual impulse implicit in both.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful response. It seems that Baha'i don't consider themselves a branch of Islam (someone else made the same comment on Flapping Mouths where I also posted this). So, I'll take that onboard and apologise if I offended anyone.

    In the next part of my post I'll be talking about the danger of glibly saying that all religions are the same and I'll be be looking for common ground with non-religious practices.