Difference and Center

There is something very fascinating about the differences found in the various religious/mystical traditions of the world. Each and every tradition has built up a whole package of its own symbols, myths, rituals, doctrines, scriptures, practices, etc. I suppose one can develop quite an academic career in studying their differences(and similarities), and indeed this is a very interesting and helpful endeavor. However, and this is a big however, each tradition also has at its core, at its center, that which alone renders all that other stuff meaningful and properly used AND which no scholarly enterprise can touch: an experience of transcendent and absolute simplicity, an experience of Unspeakable Mystery, an Ultimate Reality beyond all language, beyond all concepts, beyond all symbols, and fundamentally transforming the whole person. No one, whether it be a learned scholar or an ordinary adherent of some given tradition, can speak with any authority about its real meaning without recourse to that central reality and its experience.

Speaking of differences consider the following: the Russian Orthodox and the Quakers. These are two “sub-traditions” as it were within the grand tradition of Christianity. Now even though both are under this one umbrella, in many ways they push difference to the extreme. A certain external look at them and you could hardly believe they are even the same religion. However, for both that central reality is named: the living Presence of the Risen Christ in the heart of the believer, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the immediacy of the Reality of God—all different ways of articulating that central reality. It is only from that standpoint that one can make the deeper kind of connections between these two “sub-traditions” and locate them on the map of Christianity in a true and deep way.

Consider now another pair: Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Two very different manifestations of Buddhism arising from a core central experience of Buddha himself. And then even within Tibetan Buddhism and within Zen there are also several variants with all kinds of differences of serious significance. One can get lost among the differences if one loses sight of that utterly simple, unspeakable, central reality which is the foundation of all Buddhism. What each variant presents is another kind of journey to that realization. Tibetan Buddhism is noted for an incredible complexity of analysis of consciousness and the human mind. For some this is too intimidating as a spiritual path; for others, just what the doctor ordered! They have a veritable technology of elaborate analysis and meditational practices that gradually lead one to that fundamental experience. Now Zen appears to be utterly simple, stark, extremely direct, without any metaphysics—yet actually it does have quite a lot of writing around it, but in comparison to Tibetan Buddhism it is utterly without elaboration or system. Zen developed in China, so the story goes, when Indian Buddhism came with all its metaphysical and analytical baggage. The Chinese spirit and Taoism took care of that! It has been said that Zen had as its father, Buddhism, and as its mother, Taoism; and the Child resembles more the mother!

Now when we get to comparing the Great Traditions things get more dicey—like Christianity and Buddhism. Here we are less able to say that both aim at the same central reality. We should be humble about our claims. Only the one who has reached those peaks can speak with authority that the Christian “there” and the Buddhist “there” are really the same thing in different language, expressed in different symbols. Even to speak that way shows a great distance from that Absolute Reality of absolute simplicity. And speaking of “simplicity” does not mean that the path is easy, short, uncomplicated, without troubles, straight, etc. Quite the contrary, this is where we do find a lot of common ground between the various traditions—they all indicate a long, arduous, difficult path that needs an awful lot of determination, commitment, “one’s whole life, mind, body, heart.” Here we can do a lot of comparing and sharing! Let me point out a few examples.

When Merton visited the Tibetan Buddhists just a month or so before his death, he met and really hit it off with one of the lamas—Chatral Rinpoche. At the time Merton met him Chatral was about 55 years old—about the same age as Merton—and he was already considered one of the great living masters of Dzogchen (“Great Perfection”)—this is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s “prize jewels,” a very direct rigorous intense path to the Great Realization(the Dalai Lama warned Merton not to be fooled by its utter simplicity and that it would behoove him to get a good grounding in the Buddhist metaphysics of Madhayamika). What was really touching about this encounter is that both men acknowledged that they had not “reached” the Great Realization of each of their traditions, but both recognized in each other that they were “very close.” What is amazing about this is that Chatral had been at it for over 30 years and was a teacher and hermit of great renown among the Tibetan Buddhists.

Another example: I recently watched a taped lecture by the Dalai Lama. It was a series of talks he gave to American Tibetan Buddhists in New York a few years ago. Marvelous stuff and truly an amazing person. What I think startled a few people is that he very simply and humbly stated that he had not “reached” the ultimate experience, that he had no
“special powers,” that he had no “special realizations” of any kind. He was simply a person “on that journey.” In a sense this is what one would expect him to say, and anyone who did claim “special realization” should be held suspect. But in this case his manner was very simple and direct and if he wished to avoid saying anything about his state of awareness it was readily available to him.

And just to throw in somebody else from another tradition: Shaikh al-‘Alawi, the great 20th Century Sufi Master from North Africa, says somewhere that only one in 10,000 of those who come to him for instruction and guidance “reach the peak.” But, and this is important, he also underscores the goodness and rightness of that journey. So one of the first things to be liberated from in this process is the notion of “achievement”—as if you were going to “achieve” this realization. Yes, the journey is very long and hard, but it is also the only thing really worth doing with our lives. And where we start and where we end up might be in two radically different places. Never mind how far we get, or even if we get lost and then have to make our way back to the path….never mind, the journey is all that matters and to realize that is already in some measure to be at the Center. The Buddhists call it “enlightenment,” but I prefer —“awakening.”

Even if we cannot make any direct conceptual comparisons between the core realizations of these various and different spiritual traditions, nevertheless we can observe something about them indirectly as it were. As an analogy let us use the example of Black Holes in the universe. Scientists are fairly certain that there is a massive Black Hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. We can’t see anything because by its very nature a Black Hole prevents any information from flowing out. It’s gravitational field is so strong that not even a ray of light can escape its grasp. So all we see is an empty place there—thus the name, Black Hole. However, the space around it is severely affected and distorted by that same gravitational field. Thus scientists are able to calculate, from these effects, a lot about at least the external nature of the Black Hole.

So it is with that mysterious center that each tradition seeks out. In a sense our only conceptual knowledge pertains more to the “effects” and “consequences” of that core realization, or as one gets closer and closer to that realization its effects become more apparent. And here there is something somewhat surprising in store: these “effects” are very similar no matter which tradition we look at. And here I will use Buddhist language because it is so succinct to designate what I am speaking about: limitless freedom, endless clarity, infinite compassion, and No-self. More about this in the next posting.

Of course a Christianity of conventional piety and a Buddhism of conventional piety have very little chance of meeting and having a fruitful dialogue. Well, they can be “nice” to each other! True spiritual seekers in both traditions have a much better chance of having a dialogue in depth about their various differences, and more importantly about what it truly is they are seeking—not just some words/concepts. But, and this would be the big thing, what if a Milarepa met a Francis of Asissi? I will venture a guess—there would be a profound smile on each person’s face and a profound silence as they bowed toward each other. No words can enter that circle. So frustrating to a scholar!

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

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