(Transcript of a Sunday talk I delivered at the UU Church, Tallahassee, in 2005.)
One way by which to determine if you’ve found a church that is appropriate for you, is the extent to which you are free from the need to translate what the speaker is saying. You know what I mean by translating: Every time the speaker says, “God, Our Father, He…” you switch genders in your head—“Goddess, Our Mother, She…” or you render the phrase into non-theistic terms—“Our Cosmic Condition, It…” or humanistic terms—“Our human intellect, our communal efforts, we…” Without such translations, the words don’t ring true to your personal sensibility and philosophy.
I wonder what it would take for me to speak in your language—with perfect compatibility—so that you aren’t obliged to constantly translate my message?
Is there an Esperanto of spiritual experience to which we can all relate?
It seems highly unlikely—no, it seems impossible. Perhaps we can all relate to our animal experience—talking and joking about bodily functions—but we seem to have nothing in common above the navel. According to the triune model of the human brain, one could say that we share the reptilian and mammalian functions of the brain stem and limbic system—the crocodile that lives down in the basement and the ape that inhabits the ground floor—but once we rise to the human domain (the attic of the neo-cortex), we are no longer experiencing the same worldview. And to whatever degree our worldview diverges, to that degree we are not living in the same world.
Human beings are not clones; not even identical twins are identical subjectively. Many different human temperaments and constitutions exist; and within each psycho-physical category one can find people at very different stages of development: physical, psychological and spiritual. Therefore, spiritual practices that may be helpful for one person may be useless or even harmful for another person of a wholly different temperament or at a lower or higher stage of development.
Do “All roads lead to
Rome”? Maybe so—but only
if it is Rome, and not Amsterdam
or Tokyo, the wayfarer
wants to reach.
And yet we do call ourselves universalists; you, in your official church documents, and I, too, in my self-description. What does universalist mean?
If you know your church’s history, you’ll recall the word “universalist” originally referred to a theological doctrine in which everyone—even the worst sinner—is saved; there is no eternal damnation, all souls are embraced by the divine. That original definition of Universalism identified this church for a couple hundred years. Today, Universalist has come to mean a wide-open, liberal, rational, skeptical religion in which all are welcome—even those few who may actually believe in souls and heaven.
Now what do I mean when I say that I am a universalist? Allow me to explain in a roundabout way.
All of the following words have two related meanings in their respective languages; they each mean both “spirit” and “breath”.
- Spirutus (Latin)
- Pneuma (Greek)
- Ruach (Hebrew)
- Ruh (Arabic)
- Prana (Sanskrit)
- Chi (Chinese)
- Ki (Japanese)
- Ka (Egyptian)
Spirit and breath: It is no accident that these words are synonyms. Not only among the eight languages and their corresponding cultures just mentioned; one encounters this twin meaning again and again—from the Inuit of the Arctic Circle to the natives of Tierra del Fuego; from the Lakota Sioux of the American Plains, to the Dogon tribespeople of
Africa. Spirit and breath. Spirit as breath.
To breathe in is to inspire; just as we feel inspired by beauty and the movement of the spirit. To breathe out is to expire; just as when the animating spirit is withdrawn, the body dies.
Living Spirit, greater than the material bodily processes (and even the total cosmic process), is living us, breathing us—breathing all the worlds. In the Hindu scriptures, an epithet for this Living Energy is “Breath of the Eternal.”
This intimate kinship of transcendent spirit and bodily breath is a universal mystical experience—found throughout spiritual traditions diverging in place and time, culture and language.
Such congruent experiences have led some religious philosophers to propose that there exists a set of universal truths at the core of the world’s wisdom traditions. In the 1700s, Leibniz coined a title for this set of ever-recurring themes: Philosophia Perrenis or “Perennial Philosophy.”
That is the sense in which I am a universalist; I subscribe to the Perennial Philosophy, which has also been called Hagia Sophia (meaning “Sacred Wisdom”), Lex Aeternus (“Eternal Law”), Din al-Haqq (“Religion of Reality”), Sanatana Dharma (“The Eternal Way’), among other names.
Important thinkers have promoted the idea of such a universal religion: Emerson, Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Mircea Eliade, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, and Lex Hixon are among its more recent champions.
The most famous living advocates of this universal wisdom are Huston Smith and Ken Wilber. Smith, the author of The World's Religions—first published in 1958 and to this day the best textbook on comparative religion—is a practicing Christian in his nineties. Smith is a lens through which delicious light shines; I say “delicious,” because the spiritual brilliance he brings into focus has nourished many.
Ken Wilber is a middle-aged guy living in Boulder, Colorado, who happens to be one of the philosophical giants of the ages. His opus magnum, Sex,Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution is a masterpiece of what he calls “integral philosophy.”
That said; the talk that follows owes its biggest debt to Aldous Huxley, who compiled an excellent anthology titled The Perennial Philosophy: An Interpretation of the Great Mystics, East and West. Incidentally, it’s safe to listen to this presentation with an open mind. Be assured that if you do not agree with the Perennial Philosophy, you will not be dragged out to a ditch and shot in the back of the head. (If you balk at the much abused word “God,” try replacing it in your mind with “Totality of Life” or whatever can name for you that which transcends the limits of the encapsulated ego.)
* * *
About 30 centuries have passed since the spoken tradition of the Perennial Philosophy was first frozen in writing. Over the millennia it has sung hymns to itself in nearly every language of the world and has fitted to itself the garbs and modes of every world religion. But beneath this Babel of tongues and tomes, of parochial histories and narrow doctrines, there can be analyzed a Highest Common Factor, which is the Perennial Philosophy in what Huxley calls its “chemically pure state.” This purity can never, of course, be expressed in mere words—no matter how un-dogmatic or deliberately syncretistic such a statement may strive to be. Only those who practice a contemplative way of life that ultimately transcends words and even personality can actually grok the Perennial Philosophy. Yet the words left by those sages who have understood this profound way, whether Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, point to the same essential structure of consciousness or reality.
At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we can discern at least six fundamentals:
· First: A self-existing, self-luminous Divine Identity, Intelligence and Power is the Source or Ground within which all appearances have their moment, and apart from which they could not arise, change and pass away. (In shorthand, this first perennial truth could be summed: God IS.)
· Second: The phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness—the cosmos of galaxies, stars and planets; and the earth of mountains, rivers, trees, people, buildings, cars and flat-screen TVs—is the ongoing revelation, manifestation and evolution of the Divine Identity. (God LIVES.)
· Third: There is directionality or purpose to the entire process of Kosmos. The great and total event is evolutionary: matter becomes life, life becomes mind, mind becomes self-aware mind, and self-aware mind awakens to its condition and identity in and of and as the Divine. In some views, such as that of Jewish mysticism, God is working out some evolutionary purpose through the ordeal of God’s own Self-submission to the phenomena of space-time-energy-matter. (God EVOLVES.)
· Fourth: Human beings are capable not merely of inferring about the Divine Ground; they can actually realize its existence by direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning (or the thinking-talking faculty of awareness). This immediate knowledge dissolves the knower into that which is known. Such annihilating union is the root and path and goal of the perennial philosophy—and the defining emblem of all mysticism. (In Sanskrit: Ayam Atman Brahman: “This self IS God.”)
· Fifth: Human beings possess a double nature, a temporal and mortal ego—the born personality—and a transcendental and timeless spirit. It is possible for each of us, through devotion and trust and insight, to identify with our eternal spirit which is of the same (or like) nature as the Divine Identity. (Love God, become God.)
· Sixth: To identify with our eternal spirit and so to actualize unitive knowledge of the Divine is the very point of our lives on earth. (This is IT; this is as God as it gets.)
In the Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, perhaps more clearly than in any other scripture, these doctrines are stated explicitly. The Divine Identity is Brahman—the inconceivable mystery at the Ground of cosmic power. This creative, sustaining and transforming power is manifested as the so-called Hindu Trinity. A hierarchy of manifestations links inanimate matter with plants, animals, humans, godlings, High Gods, and the undifferentiated Godhead beyond.
Similarly, in Mahayana Buddhism, the Divine Identity is called the Clear Light of Space, and the place of the High Gods of Hinduism is taken by the Dhyani Buddhas. A remarkably similar theology was set forth by Plotinus and later by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the American Transcendentalists, in which the High God is replaced by the World Soul (or Oversoul) and beyond that is the irreducible mystery of “The Alone.” Plotinus described the spiritual path as the “journey of the alone to the Alone.”
Similar conceptions are compatible with Jewish, Christian and Islamic mysticism. Thus, in Kabbalah, Ein Sof is the Divine Mystery/Ground underlying the personal aspects of Adonai. In Christian mysticism the absolute singularity of Godhead underlies the Trinity. Within the Islamic Sufi tradition, there is Al-Haqq, “the Real” (also called the “Abode of Essence”), which transcends Al-Haay, “the Living” (or “Abode of Power”), which is the active, personal aspect of Allah. In Black Elk’s Lakota Sioux religion, Wakan Tonka is the Great Mystery and below that is the Great Mother and below her are the divine children of the Earth and the Moon and the Sun.
I could go on for the next hour drawing connections between the worldviews of mystics from all the wisdom traditions. The congruency of their reports is evidence that these seers have gained direct insight into the same reality: God IS and God LIVES.
The third doctrine of the Perennial Philosophy is called, in Greek, telos—or “directionality”—the idea that there is directional growth toward a wonderful destiny, not just for individuals, but for cultures, for all of humankind, even for all of the biosphere and all the planets and the Cosmos itself. Indeed, according to the Kabbalistic view, God is evolving!—co-evolving, in unqualified relationship with us!
The fourth doctrine—that it is only possible to know the Divine Ground via a trans-rational intuition that is deeper than logic—is proclaimed in every mystical tradition. One who is content merely to know about the ultimate Reality—theoretically and by hearsay—is compared by Muhammad to an ass bearing a load of books. Christian, Hindu and Taoist teachers wrote no less emphatically about the pretensions of mere book learning and analytic reasoning.
True gnosis is not discursive, but of the heart: an implicit, tacit and timeless apperception. It has been described as “Knowledge through Identity.” Or, in the words of the Tantraloka from
“Only Shiva can realize Shiva.” (It takes one to know one!) The Zen tradition
describes such mystical awakening as directly
transmitted, “outside the scriptures,” from Buddha-mind to Buddha-mind.
The fourth recurring doctrine of the Perennial Philosophy affirms the multi-dimensional nature of human beings. The unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground has, as its prerequisite, self-transcending surrender and what is variously called compassion or loving-kindness or charity. By means of profound surrender and kindness we can cut through the narcissistic folly of mistaking the bodily personality to be our ultimate nature and self. We can discover that our identity is actually an Irreducible Totality—which includes the ever-evolving whole pattern of relationships best described as unqualified mutuality: Everything is everything!
Nisargadatta Maharaj, a great mystic of modern
put it this way: “Love says, ‘I am everything.’ Wisdom says, ‘I am nothing.’
Between these two, my whole life flows.”
Incidentally, the Bhakti Yoga of Hinduism—the path of union with the Divine through devotional love—offers a full range of relational moods in which to love God, including the disposition of loving God as Parent to Child and the mood of loving God as lover to lover. Erotic union with the divine is not really so scandalous; it exists in Western spirituality, as well—in the so-called bridal mysticism of Jews and Christians, and in the emotion of aishq (longing for union) celebrated by the Sufi poets. Their religious poems and songs gave birth to the troubadour and courtly-love tradition of the Renaissance in
The fifth doctrine of the perennial philosophy states that the fulfillment of our lives is to bring awareness of the Divine into everyday relationships; or as the Lakota Sioux would put it, to walk in a sacred manner. The mystics of India, China, classical Greece, Moorish Spain, and Christian Europe, regarded this as an obvious tenet of their respective faiths—not public, weekend worship of a god beyond the sky, but living the vision of divine communion here on Earth, in this moment, with this breath—and now, with this breath.
This set of doctrines constitutes the Perennial Philosophy in its minimal form. Some mystics ask for nothing more; these working hypotheses are enough for their intensely personal investigation and practice. They are the Soul-Magellans ready to set sail on voyages of exploration upon the inner seas. But people who can begin their spiritual practice at the very core of mysticism are exceedingly rare. It is very difficult at the outset to probe these truths, and just about impossible to live them daily. That is why religious paths have been institutionalized around the teachings of one or more human realizers (some would say “incarnations”) of the Divine Ground. By their mediation (some would say “grace”) the lover of the divine is prepared and helped to achieve her goal—unitive gnosis of the Godhead, which is eternal life and beatitude. Such “incarnations” or enlightened sages are simply human beings who are awake to their own nature and condition—they understand WHAT they are—and can therefore effectively remind us of what we have allowed ourselves to forget: namely, that we too are always, already united with the Divine Ground.
Because the Perennial Philosophy constitutes a Highest Common Factor, present in all the major religions of the world, it is possible for people to remain good Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, or Moslems and yet to fully agree on the basic doctrines of the Perennial Philosophy. Humanity would take a giant stride toward world peace if religious practitioners could understand and confess that, at heart, the major religions are not at war. Mutual religious tolerance, respect and cooperation would go a long way toward increasing the safety of the world.
I know that some of you would argue that the best project for bringing peace and improving human destiny would be to do away with religions altogether—mystics and mysticism included. As John Lennon sang, “Imagine no religions.” But aside from the fact that it is impossible to abolish religions (Karen Armstrong names our species homo religiosis), I would add that if we did away with mystical personalities, we would have to erase Buddha and Lao Tzu, Bach and Brahms, Bohr and Einstein, Thoreau and Emerson, Whitman and Rumi, and most of the shining stars of our species!
Then where would we be? Stuck with the idolatries of scientific materialism, which cannot see past the limits of stuff; with logical positivism, which cannot get over the limits of language; with humanism, which cannot feel beyond the limits of the grave; and with the flattened landscape of post-modernism, which is so discomfited by hierarchies and absolutes that it insists on placing the word “reality” within quotes!
Niels Bohr Ramana Maharshi
In short, we would be sealed in a coffin with seven billion other Earthlings, without a view that opens onto what is prior to and greater than each human lifetime. At best, we might spend our days studying psychology, biology, physics, and the glories and terrors of Nature, while “progressing” toward a techno-utopia—but we would not be consciously participating in communion with our Inexhaustibly Living Source, and thus, we would have closed the only doorway to self-transcendence.
(Jean Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” But I must confess, “Hell is my lonely, limited self, when alienated from the Wholeness that includes and transcends me.”)
In any case, given that we are NOT going to do away with religions in this or any proximate century, a worldwide political groundswell of folks having a working understanding of the Perennial Philosophy might make a pleasant alternative to a bloody, planet-wide clash of religious fanatics. I invite you to join me in considering the ancient perennial wisdom at the tap root of the branching tree of the world’s religions.