Imagine an international flight having to make a crash landing on a deserted island. Everyone survives but there is little chance of being rescued because the pilot had no time to radio their position, and the island is uncharted. What's more, as it turns out, the island's resources are quite limited. Now the passengers, who hail from widely different countries, have a decision to make: they can either band together into their traditional ethnic groups and do battle for control of the island, or they can try to form a pluralistic society in which everyone is accepted as an equal. Although admittedly oversimplified, this is not a bad analogy for the situation we humans face today on this island Earth. Is our basic approach to each other going to be one of domination or cooperation?

If we are to take the road of cooperation, the first thing we must do is to try to understand and honor each other's cultures. Unfortunately, however, this is not as easy as many of our modern "multiculturalists" think. It involves a lot more than learning to eat sushi, or bashing pinatas on Cinco de Mayo, or listening to Buddhist monks perform exotic chants. What it requires is that we come to grips with the fact that people from different cultures hold very different views about the fundamental nature of reality. And since these views are, for the vast majority of us, religious in nature,1 this means we must come to understand and honor each others' religions.

Now, the only way to accomplish this is to engage in an open and honest interfaith dialogue carried out among peers. And the only way to do that is to begin by acknowledging that the teachings of other religions may turn out to be just as valid as our own. But is this really possible? Many religious people (ordinary believers as well as fundamentalists) have grave doubts that it is. The problem as they see it is that, while all religions claim to be founded on Absolute Truth, different religions teach different and often contradictory truths. In such cases, to admit the truth of another religion would seem to call into question the truth of one's own.

And yet, as a matter of historical fact, mystics of different religions have been conducting (albeit "behind the scenes") just this kind of dialogue for centuries. To give but a few examples: Throughout the Middle Ages Jewish Kabbalists, Muslim Sufis, and Christians mystics shared esoteric doctrines and practices in places like Spain, Egypt, and the Mideast where their religions overlapped. Sufis also learned techniques of ecstasy from the shamans of North Africa and exchanged contemplative skills with Hindus in India. Similarly, in the Himalayas, Buddhist and Hindu tantrikas drew from the same indigenous meditative systems, while in China, Zen masters and Taoist sages borrowed from each other so freely that their teachings and methods often seem indistinguishable.

So let us look at some of the main objections ordinary contemporary believers have to the possibility of a genuine inter-religious dialogue and see how these mystics of the past might have answered them today. The first objection is:

1. How can we honor all religions when they hold such different ideas about the nature of Ultimate Reality? For instance, Jews and Muslims believe in a personal God whose unity is unqualified, but Christians insist that God has a triune nature. Hindus worship many gods, all of whom they regard as manifestations of an impersonal Brahman. Taoists call the Ultimate Reality the "Way," while Buddhists insist that It is "Empty" of any characteristics whatsoever. How can all these apparently contradictory views be reconciled?

To this the mystics answer that, although different traditions do, indeed, have different ideas about the nature of Ultimate Reality, in the final analysis, this Reality is a Mystery which lies beyond the reach of any thoughts, ideas, words, or concepts whatsoever. Thus, Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, opened his The Tao Te Ching with these famous lines:

The Way which can be verbalized is not the true Way.2

Similarly, the 6th century Christian mystic Dionysius the Areopagite wrote:

That One which is beyond all thought is inconceivable by all thought.3

The 10th century Sufi Al-Junayd put it this way:

Whatever may be imagined in thy heart, God is the opposite of it.4

And the ancient Upanishads declared:

The Spirit supreme is immeasurable, inapprehensible, beyond conception, never-born, beyond reasoning, beyond thought. His vastness is the vastness of space.5

Finally, the 2nd century Buddhist sage Nagarjuna insisted:

The ultimate truth which is indeterminate is the unutterable dharma. There the sphere of the speakable ceases, the activities of the mind come to an end.6

According to the mystics, then, while descriptions of Ultimate Reality can certainly be useful, if we seize on any of them as being the Ultimate Reality, Itself, we mistake what is relative for what is Absolute, and so fall into a kind of intellectual idolatry.

Another objection a contemporary believer may have to the possibility of inter-religious dialogue is:

2. Our descriptions of Ultimate Reality are not just products of human imagination. They are contained in our Holy Scriptures which are derived from the Ultimate Reality, Itself. Therefore, we must take what they say at face value, without any alteration or interpretation.

Mystics agree that Holy Scriptures are not strictly human inventions. They have their source in the Ultimate Reality—whether they come through the revelations of a Prophet, or the teachings of an Enlightened One. Nevertheless, precisely because Ultimate Reality transcends all words, even Scriptural descriptions of this Mystery are not meant to be taken literally. Rather, they are composed of symbols and metaphors which, while they need not be altered, can and, in fact, must be interpreted. To insist otherwise is to make a mockery of the Divine and render religion absurd to all but the most immature minds. This is why the 9th-century mystic John Scotus Eriugena wrote about the Christian Bible:

It is not to be believed as a book which always uses verbs and nouns in their proper sense when it teaches us about the Divine Nature, but it employs certain allegories and transfers in various ways the meanings of the verbs and nouns in condescension towards our weakness and to encourage by uncomplicated doctrine our senses which are still untrained and childish . . . For instance: when we hear that God wills and loves or desires, sees, hears, and other verbs which can be predicated of Him, we should simply understand that we are being told of His ineffable Essence and Power in terms which are adapted to our nature.7

So, too, the 10th-century Sufi Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi maintained:

The fact that we describe God as having all these attributes in no way bestows any attribute on Him: our description is merely our own attribution, an account we give of an attribute which exists through Him.8

And the Buddha said of his own teachings:

These teachings are only a finger pointing toward Noble Wisdom . . . They are intended for the consideration and guidance of the discriminating minds of all people, but they are not the Truth itself, which can only be self-realized within one's own deepest consciousness.9

Not only must descriptions of Ultimate Reality be interpreted, they require different levels of interpretation. This is because members of any religious community are always moving through different levels of spiritual development, and what is appropriate for one level may not be appropriate for another. Here, for instance, is how the 19th-century Tibetan master Jamgon Kongtrul explains why apparently contradictory descriptions of the cosmos are found within Buddhist texts:

One may wonder why this description of the universe [Wheel of Time Cosmology] does not accord with that of . . . other systems. The omniscient Victorious One [Buddha's] . . . teaching is not one that, based on a belief in a single view, sets forth a particular system as the only valid one. Instead, the Buddha spoke in response to the various levels and capabilities, interests, and dispositions of those to be guided.10

Moreover, the fact that Scriptures speak to us in symbols and metaphors is by no means a defect. On the contrary, this is what gives them their infinite power, richness, and depth. For, unlike literal descriptions, symbols and metaphors are open to multiple interpretations, each of which can be `true' from its own perspective. Thus, the 18th-century Hasidic master Menahem Nahum wrote of the diverse teachings of the Jewish sages:

Each person's opinion follows the root of his soul. That is why he understands Torah in a particular way. Another who says the very opposite, may be acting just as faithfully according with the root of his own soul. In their source, both are the words of the living God, since all is one . . . All the sages really mean the same thing, however, since all of them are drawing from the same well, from the same mind.11

And this applies not only to different interpretations within a particular tradition but across traditions, as well—which is why the great 13th-century Sufi shaykh Ibn `Arabi warned:

Beware lest you restrict yourself to a particular tenet [concerning the Reality] and so deny any other tenet [equally reflecting Him], for you would forfeit much good, indeed you would forfeit the true knowledge of what is [the Reality]. Therefore, be completely and utterly receptive to all doctrinal forms, for God Most High is too All-embracing and Great to be confined within one creed rather than another.12

A contemporary believer might also raise the following doubts about the possibility of genuine inter-religious dialogue:

3. The moral codes of different religions often conflict with each other. For example, it is permissible for Christians to drink alcohol, but a man can have only one wife. Muslims are forbidden alcohol, but men can have up to four wives. If we accept that all moral codes are equally valid, then making judgments about what's "right" and "wrong" boils down to a matter of pure subjective opinion, as secularists maintain. One of religion's most important functions, however, is precisely to protect us against the chaos of this kind of moral relativism into which these secularists have fallen.

The mystics' reply follows: Moral laws are given to a particular community at a particular time in a particular place, so they are not absolutes in themselves. For example, being a Muslim, Ibn `Arabi followed the moral laws revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the Qur'an. But, growing up in 13th-century Andalusia, he also lived among Christians and Jews who followed different laws, brought by different prophets.

For Ibn `Arabi, however, these discrepancies posed no problem, because as he explains:

The knowledge with which they [the prophets] have been sent is according to the needs of their communities, no more nor less, since communities vary, some needing more than others . . . Thus, what is forbidden in one Law is permitted in another, from the formal standpoint. This does not mean that it is always permitted, since the divine Command—that is, God's continuing self-disclosure—-is a new creation that is never repeated: so be alert.13

In other words, moral laws are to a certain extent relative, but this does not mean that mystics like Ibn `Arabi hold they are completely relative, as secularists do. Whatever differences exist in their specific formulations, all moral laws reflect a Cosmic Law that is Absolute. This is the Law of Selflessness, according to which selfish actions lead to suffering, while actions motivated by selfless love and compassion lead to happiness. Why? Because, as all traditions attest, the Ultimate Reality, Itself, always "acts" out of pure Selfless Love and Compassion. The real purpose of moral laws, then, is to teach us how to conform to Reality by curbing our selfish tendencies and cultivating selfless love and compassion, instead. Here is how the Jewish Midrash puts it:

As the All-present is called compassionate and gracious, so be you also compassionate and gracious and offer thy gifts freely to all.14

Likewise, the Christian Apostle John teaches:

He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love . . . and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.15

And Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet, writes:

Whether love is from this side or from that side, in the end it leads us to that side.16

So, too, the 20th century Hindu saint Anandamayi Ma says:

One of God's Names is Love. . . . [Therefore] the more kindly and friendly you can feel and behave towards everybody, the more will the way to the One who is goodness itself open out.17

Even Buddhists, who shun all concepts of a 'Creator God,' recognize that selfless love and compassion are not just human emotions, but inherent in the nature of Ultimate Reality, Itself. Contemporary Tibetan master Bokar Rinpoche explains:

Love and compassion are not qualities added to the mind. These qualities are part of the awakened state even if, for the moment, this state exists only as a potential for us . . . [Therefore] without love and compassion, every other practice, no matter how deep it may appear, is not a path to awakening.18

The Law of Selflessness, then, constitutes a universal moral standard by which we can judge actions to be right or wrong, good or bad. Selfish actions are bad and wrong, because they are unrealistic and so cause us suffering. Actions based on selfless love and compassion, on the other hand, are good and right, because they accord with Reality and so bring us happiness.

Notice that this is not a matter of individual, subjective opinion. Choosing to obey or disobey the Law of Selflessness has definite consequences which cannot be avoided whether we want to or not. In this sense, it is every bit as objective as, say, the laws of physics.19 And yet at the same time, the specific precepts which embody and articulate this Law are, as Ibn Arabi recognized, relative and flexible. Why? Because an action that is selfish for one person, in one culture, at one time, may be selfless for another person, in another culture, at another time.

This is true even when it comes to applying a precept within a particular culture to a particular situation. Take, for example, the precept not to lie. If we examine our motives, we find that in most cases we lie for selfish reasons, so the precept not to lie is generally applicable. But there will always be some cases where it is not. In Nazi Germany, those who lied to the Gestapo about the whereabouts of Jews behaved more morally than those who told the truth, because compassion prompted them to risk their own lives in order to save the lives of innocent people. In situations like this, then, we must allow love and compassion to override a particular precept and, as Jesus said, obey the spirit of the law rather than its letter.

A fourth objection a contemporary believer might raise to the possibility of genuine inter-religious dialogue is:

4. You say we should honor all religions, but what about Jim Jones-style sects, Satanic cults, and fanatics who preach hatred and violence? Are we to honor them as well? How can we tell authentic religions from spurious ones?

Granted, there are no generally agreed upon criteria for making such judgments at the present time. But this is no reason to refrain from interfaith dialogue. Quite the contrary, it is one of the most compelling reasons to deepen and intensify it. In this era of globalization, when traditional societies are being disrupted on an unprecedented scale, leaving masses of people spiritually adrift and hungry for Truth, establishing such criteria is becoming an increasingly urgent task. And the only way to reach consensus on this is through dialogue. The real question, then, is not whether we should talk to each other, but how we can proceed without immediately getting bogged down in sectarian disputes.

A good way to begin would be to look first at those religions which have served most of humanity for the last several millennia—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism/Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If we sift through these time-tested traditions for common denominators, a set of tentative criteria should start to emerge. In fact, in our discussion so far we have already glimpsed at least three points of convergence: 1) all the Great Traditions recognize an Ultimate Reality that transcends our ordinary thoughts and perceptions; 2) all teach that true happiness is attained by conforming ourselves to this Reality; 3) all teach that the way to conform ourselves to this Reality is to exercise self restraint and cultivate selfless love and compassion in our relationships with others.

Once agreement has been reached on what the Great Traditions have in common, we can broaden our dialogue to include lesser known religions to see how their teachings might enhance or alter our criteria. Next, we can take up the more difficult task of examining those doctrines, practices, and moral codes which do differ from one religion to another, asking questions such as: To what extent do these reflect core convictions and values, and to what extent do they stem from local customs and historical contingencies? Are they really meant to be applied universally or only to members of a particular community? And, if they are held to be universal, are they subject to more ecumenical explications or interpretations?

Finally, regarding those points on which no consensus can be reached, it should still be possible to agree to disagree without succumbing to acrimony and recriminations. Drawing a comparison between religions and marriage, the renowned religious scholar, Huston Smith, once remarked that just because I love my own wife above all other women doesn't mean I have to criticize your wife. In fact, it is precisely because I do love my wife so much that I can appreciate how deeply you feel about yours!

Needless to say, if a significant number of the worlds religious leaders arrived at this degree of mutual understanding and respect and were willing to preach it in their temples, churches, and mosques (as some already do), it would go a long way to fostering a more harmonious spiritual climate on our ever-shrinking planet. But improved social and political relations is not the only, nor perhaps even the most important benefit to be gained from engaging in interfaith dialogue. On a more personal level, studying other traditions can uncover heretofore hidden truths buried within ones own because, as the 20th-century Christian mystic Simone Weil noted:

Each religion is an original combination of explicit and implicit truth; what is explicit in one is implicit in another.20

This, in turn, can greatly speed the progress of anyone who wishes to attain for him or herself a direct Realization, Enlightenment, or Gnosis of that Ultimate Reality from which, mystics claim, all true religions derive and to which all true religions lead. Here, for example, is how the 7th-century Zen master Sengstan expressed his Realization of this Truth:

There is one Dharma, not many; distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.21

This is why the great 19th-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna insisted:

God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries. . . .Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion.22

And why Ibn Arabi wrote so beautifully after his own Gnosis:

My heart is capable of every form; A cloister for the monk, a temple for idols, A pasture for gazelles, the worshipers Kaba, The Tables of the Torah, the Quran. Love is the creed I hold; wherever turn His camels, Love is still my creed and faith.23

May all our hearts become this capable!

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Summer-Fall 2002. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.


1. In 1985, 79.7% of the worlds population belonged to some religion, according to The World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative study of churches and religions in the modern world A.D. 1900-2000, ed David B. Barrett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). Cited in Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the world order (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 65. Note: This figure is undoubtedly larger today, because most of the people who were categorized as nonreligious (16.9%) were Chinese living under a communist regime and, therefore, assumed to be without religion. However, the advent of the Falon Gong movement, which numbers in the millions, has shown this assumption to be false.
2. Tao Te Ching I:1. My rendition.
3. Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names, trans. eds. of The Shrine of Wisdom (Surrey, England: The Shrine of Wisdom, 1957), 10.
4. A.J. Arberry, The Doctrine of The Sufis (reprinted, Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1983), 146.
5. The Upanishads, Juan Mascaro, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), 101.
6. K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna's Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal, 1978), 141.
7. Eriugena, Periphyseon (Division of Nature), trans. John J. OMeara (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1987), 10, 116.
8. The Doctrine of the Sufis, 18.
9. A Buddhist Bible, ed. Dwight Goddard, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), 293.
10. Jamgn Kongtrul Ldro Tay, Myriad Worlds: Buddhist cosmology in the Abhidharma, Kalacakra and Dzog-chen, trans. and ed. the International Translation Committee founded by the V.V. Kalu Rinpoch (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995), 166.
11. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl: Upright Practices, The Light of the Eyes, trans. Arthus Green (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 208.
12. Ibn Al Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 137.
13. The Bezels of Wisdom, 165, 255.
14. The Talmud: Selected Writings, trans. Ben Zion Bokser (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 44.
15. I Jn 4:8, 16.
16. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1983), 205.
17. Sri Anandamayi Ma, Matri Vani: Vol 2, 2nd ed., trans Atmananda (Calcutta: Shree Shree Anandamayee Charitable Society, 1982), 85, 162.
18. Bokar Rinpoche, Chenrezig Lord of Love: Principles and Methods of Deity Meditation, French trans. Francois Jacquemart, English trans. Christiane Buchet, ed. Dan Jorgensen (San Francisco: ClearPoint Press, 1991), 14, 24.
19. The Law of Selflessness can be stated more formally as: Happiness is inversely proportional to selfishness, or H = 1/s.
20. Simone Weil, Waiting For God, trans. Emma Craufurd (1951; reprint, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 185.
21. Sengtsan, Third Zen Patriarch, Hsin Hsin Ming, trans. Richard B. Clarke (Buffalo, NY: White Pine Press, 1973).
22. Cited in Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (1959; reprint, New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 463.
23. Moulvi S.A.Q. Husaini, Ibn Al-Arabi: The Great Muslim Mystic and Thinker (1949; reprint, Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1977), 99. (I have altered a few words for the sake of clarity.)

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