By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
The current events in the Middle East, and especially in the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, should be kept in mind as we reflect on the importance of cultural transformation in the 21st century, and the pressures associated with conflicts that have their basis in religious differences that can spillover in troubling ways for us removed from the realities of a particular region.
We now face a new challenge and opportunity: the end of isolation all around the planet as previously remote cultures and societies open up to one another. The world’s religions have been for centuries separate cultures, but now their boundaries are giving way as we find new relationships with other traditions and enter into conversation after a very long silence. Since the Second Vatican Council, along with extensive ecumenical and interfaith encounters in Europe, India, and America, the religions have been coming out of their self-imposed isolation, and through encounters with one another, have discovered common ground. This common ground is primarily a matter of those serious, practical issues we all face: injustice, abuse of human rights, economic exploitation and inequity, the pursuit of peace, spreading ecological responsibility, promoting educational and employment opportunities, and the desperate plight of refugees, women and children in certain areas of the world. This loss of isolation has also created deep resentments in many conservative practitioners who cling to the closed primacy of their beliefs. We are witness to this as we experience the violent expressions of Islamic fundamentalism, or narrow minded and culturally isolated pockets of Christian fundamental extremist interpretation of the Gospel’s message. Even in Buddhism we find some traditions isolating themselves from other Buddhists over the issues of how to interpret some of the basic principals of the Buddhist doctrine. But as the world’s spiritual traditions continue to learn from one another, the small segments responsible for so much turmoil will slowly fade in their influence, if we only continue our universal dialogue with each other.
Through interfaith organizations like the Parliament of the World’s Religions, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the Temple of Understanding, the World Congress of Faiths, among others, the followers of various traditions are discovering bonds of community. Our own Engaged Dharma Insight Group is a member of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington for example. This profound and growing sense of community is the basis of the new relationship between the leadership of these various traditions. There are exceptions of course.
This experience of community among the traditions leads to an openness to the spirituality present in each one of them and an eagerness to explore spiritual life and practice across traditions, a unique phenomenon of our time that we can call interspirituality. A term first used by the Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale more then a decade ago. Now, I will agree that this degree of openness is often limited to the leadership and not surprisingly the “more liberal” clergy. The laity, in many cases, are ahead of their own leadership, especially in the more orthodox traditions, including the more “orthodox” Buddhist teachers. Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality, or an overarching syntheses of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of what it means to be human and to seek the spirit and wonder of this world. Our knowledge of other religions and cultures is likewise increasing, opening the door to a universal understanding of religion, spirituality and world culture.
This is a scenario for the beginning of this new millennium, a movement to open doors and forging relationships leading us to a new universal civilized culture. In this new world culture we would be welcoming to all religions, achieving a genuine universal spaciousness that allows for diversity. A civilized social structure governed by considerations of kindness, mercy, compassion, selflessness, and nonviolence; a civilization in which political, economic, and military power have given way to the power of compassion as we see it portrayed so irresistibly in both the Gospel’s message, as well as in Buddhist teachings found throughout the Pali Cannon.
The different traditions would no longer see members of other faiths as outsiders. They would promote the study of these traditions, seek common ground and parallel insights, and encourage celebration of what we have that binds us, not what separates us.
Once the great traditions have a permanent structure in which to communicate their concerns, insights, and methods, they will collectively become a potent force to check the often irresponsible actions of governments. It requires acceptance of a universal responsibility we can all find in the practice of our individual traditions. It will also require the reform of some of our social systems, especially those of education, economic, moral, and the special needs of those less fortunate than ourselves.
Our Western civilization has been based on three great institutions, the family, educational structures, and the Church (I use the term with a universal meaning). It was the way our moral and ethical standards were transmitted between generations. And what does our experience till us today about these pillars of cultural stability? I see the system as broken. When I was growing up I went to church with my family, we had a morning prayer in home room class in all my grades in public school, the church was were I had most of my social interactions when I was young. My youth and scout groups were church based. I know we live in a causal universe, nothing remains the same for long. Change happens. I like change, my life is about change. And I many be reminiscing like someone my age might. But my point is that we need to consider how to get back to basics. How to restore the best intentions that can drive a pluralistic worldview between the different world cultures in order to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. How do we re-energize the national dialogue? For us to do so we will need to shed some of our old rhetoric and actions. We will need to become far more inclusive and less judgmental of other’s beliefs and traditions. Such a miraculous change is possible and maybe even inevitable.