Today’s post was written by my friend Sumi Loundon Kim, who is the Buddhist Chaplain at Duke University and author of “Blue Jean Buddha.” Her exploration of the similarities and differences of the world’s religions took her on an interesting journey from one perspective to another and then back again, with a renewed appreciation for them all.
God is One – God is Not One – God is One
Sumi Loundon Kim
My dad was exactly typical of the spiritual seekers of his time – the 1960s and 70s – and as such, he taught me that all religions at heart teach the same profound truths. “Imagine a mountain, with many paths winding up the sides. The mountain is Truth, and the paths are the religions. Though the paths seem different, they all arrive at the same peak,” he would say. Indeed, when one looks at what the mystics of Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have to say about the nature of the divine, there are striking similarities, enough so that one can conclude there is an underlying ground of the Divine or Universe that acts as a wellspring for these insights. Moreover, this point of view gave me, at the time, a useful way to not only live in harmony with other religions but also come to respect them enough to try to learn something from each.
But my feelings changed around the time that President George W. Bush got elected. In the following eight years, I saw how some denominations of Christians fervently worked to ensure that their religious views were expressed politically and socially, views that were intolerant of those different from themselves. I was faced with the challenging question of how I, as a fairly tolerant person, would tolerate the intolerant. Now, living harmoniously with other religions required some parsing: I rejected fundamentalist or extremist Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. but I embraced advaita vedanta, St. John of the Cross, Kabbalah, and Sufism. Well, is the model now that some byways, the fundamentalist ones, of religious paths circle around the base of the mountain?
During these same years I got to know my own tradition, Buddhism, much better. I saw how the kind of modernized Buddhism I practice is distinctive from other religions: a vast and precise philosophical system not premised on God or a god that had highly refined practiced developed over twenty-five centuries. The more I knew about Buddhism, the more I resented it when other people of faith tried to claim that Buddhism, at heart, was the same as other religions. I began to see how this “all religions are the same” view is based on a willful blindness and at times sheer ignorance of the particularities of each religious tradition.
Thus, when I picked up Professor Stephen Prothero’s recent book God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter I felt a wave of appreciation. At last, someone was not trying to say that the Buddha and Christ are brothers! Prothero affirmed this uneasiness that I’ve intuited with the Perennialist view, showing how the facile conclusion leads to further misunderstanding among those of different religions and does not accord each religious respect for its unique qualities, among other problems. I was very enthusiastic about this book and read most of it. Several of us in the religious leadership here at Duke University gathered to discuss the chapters, as well: an imam, rabbi, Catholic priest, two Christian ministers, a knowledgeable Hindu elder, and I, the Buddhist. All of us appreciated being able to move past the “flattening” effect that comes with trying to see religions as essentially the same. As Prothero writes, “No one argues that different economic systems or political regimes are one and the same. Capitalism and socialism are so obviously at odds that their differences hardly bear mentioning.” Why do we do this with religion?
And yet, despite the initial excitement that at last we would be discussing our religions’ differences, I noticed something peculiar happening during our discussions. I saw that each of us “lit up” intellectually when another person described their religion in terms that another used for their own tradition. Once, the Catholic priest was talking about prayer and he mentioned “in the present moment.” Using that phrase, I suddenly understood how prayer worked and how it was not that far removed from meditation. In truth, each of us was able to appreciate and connect to the other tradition when we were able to see parallels and mirror images of certain parts in the other. Those aspects that were very different were not sources of disagreement so much as simple non-comprehension. Could it be that Perennialism is just an extension of how we, in reality, try to understand the other? And is that kind of effort to understand the other really all that bad? Toward the end of the book, I became disillusioned with the God-is-not-one view, feeling empty and lost. Okay, great, so we are not all the same. Now what? How am I supposed to love my Christian neighbor as I love my Buddhist self?
After a lot of reflection on my own journey in understanding religions, I decided the best model for interfaith dialogue could be drawn from the well-known Zen description of the spiritual journey that “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” First, all religions are one. We see truth and beauty in all of them, particularly as we find surprising parallels (Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs all have 108 beads on their malas). Then, as we come closer and inspect the particularities of religions, we see that all religions are not one. We may even see how lineages within our own religion are distinctive. Following this, we return to an appreciation for what religions share. For example, I am impressed that all the traditions make a big deal about reducing conceit and cultivating humility. To believe all religions are the same without knowledge and understanding leads to resentment and prejudice when differences suddenly take center stage. To believe that all religions are utterly different makes it impossible to relate to others, to share and grow together. But to see how religions are the same, while appreciating the differences, provides a balanced and meaningful way to live together respectfully and harmoniously.