COLLOQUIUM:  Spiritual Pluralism

Posted Jun 15, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version Bookmark and Share

FROM JEREMY HENZELL THOMAS - part of an original discussion on evil


I very much enjoyed your insights from Far Eastern Ways, and your gentle piece brought home to me how different perspectives contribute different “qualities”, which is but another way of affirming both the sanctity of the divinely ordained diversity of all wisdom traditions and the transcendent unity of all “religions”, including, of course, Taoism, “the religion of no religion”. This, as you say, reaches back to a primordial time when there was no need of “religion” per se because man existed in an expansive “space” in which the Great Spirit was directly perceived in all things (which is but another way of saying that consciousness of God - Arabic taqwa -  was the norm and not the exception) and every action constituted an act of worship. It is only in the kali yuga, the age of materialism, that “religion” has become more necessary as a “reminder” to reconnect forgetful human beings with the primordial “deen” (Way, and also “contract”, because that primordial consciousness is given to us in trust and to be fully human is to honour that “contract”).

It is very hard to describe these profundities in a single language, because every Way, every formulation, has its own terminology which carries a particular perspective and “flavour”. The tragedy in the Tower of Babel is that everybody is saying essentially the same thing but in different words.

There is a story from a classic of Islamic spirituality about four quarrelling travellers.  It goes like this:
Four travelers - a Persian, a Turk, an Arab, and a Greek - were arguing about how best to spend a single coin, which was the only piece of money they had between them.
“I want to buy angur,” said the Persian.
“I prefer zm,” said the Turk.
“I want ‘inab,” said the Arab.
“No!” said the Greek, “it is estafil that we should buy.”
At that moment another traveler passed by and said:  “If you give me the coin, I will do my best to satisfy the desires of all of you.”
At first they were suspicious of him, believing that he intended to take the coin for himself, but eventually they decided to entrust it to him. He went to a fruit seller’s shop and bought four small bunches of grapes.
“This is angur,” said the Persian.
“But this is also what I call 켼zm,” said the Turk.
“Thank you for bringing me inab,” said the Arab.
“This is none other than my estafil,” said the Greek.
The grapes were shared out amongst them, and it dawned on each of them that the disharmony between them was simply due to his poor understanding of the language of the others.

Everybody is in a state of yearning, because there is an inner need existing in all of us, a basic urge to remember our original state of unity, but we give it different names and have different ideas of what it may be. The traveler-linguist in the story represents the sage, the man or woman of spiritual insight, the one who is able to show the other travellers that what they all yearn for is actually the same thing, even though their word for it is different. Such a person is also the harmoniser and peacemaker, who is able to resolve the misunderstanding and strife that was developing between the travellers and fulfil all their needs with a single coin. The single coin is, of course, the divine unity (tawhid) which is the ground of all diversity. 

There is a deeper level of this story too, for it points to different capacities and levels of understanding. While some of the travellers may be content with the grapes, others may realise that they can be turned into wine.

Your contribution opens the discussion out into so many creative directions that I wish I had a whole week (or even better, a month, or a year) to explore them with you. One of the difficulties of our time is the way in which the accelerating march of a linear perception of time (which relates also to what you say about the dominance of alpha-numeric ways of thinking in Western culture) has made it more and more difficult for people to exist in that expansive “space” which is prerequisite for perception of a higher reality. There is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (a hadith qudsi, or divine speech in the Prophet’s mouth): “Neither my Heavens nor my Earth can encompass Me (God); but the Heart of my believing servant can encompass Me”. That “space” to encompass the Truth is only found in the timeless expanse of the Heart. The Traditionalists would say that the constriction of space (and hence the constriction of the Heart) is necessarily wrought by the dominance of time-centred consciousness, which is one of the chief features of the age in which we live and the cause of many ills.  Gnostics (in the sense of all those who seek to know God directly, through “tasting” (dhawq), and not in the sense of a particular sect) say that the one was has attained to this reality is no longer a “slave of time” but a “Master if it”. This means that he or she has reclaimed that Space and Spaciousness which is the original primordial condition and which entailed the perception of eternity in the here and now, in each timeless moment. One of the ways I try to reclaim it is to spend as much time as I can in Nature, walking, sitting and reflecting, and one of the most pressing needs for Muslims is to reclaim that theophany of the natural world which is so pervasive in the Qur’an but which has been all but lost by generations of urban Muslims.

Rene Guenon, in the “Reign of Quantity” (in the chapter on Cain and Abel) connects the difference between space- and time- centred consciousness to the types of human beings represented by the two brothers. “The agricultural peoples, just because they are sedentary, are naturally those who arrive sooner or later at the building of towns; indeed, it is said that the first town was founded by Cain himself; [the sedentary life is characterised by] “a degree of fixity and spatial ‘constriction’. It could be said in a general way that the works of sedentary peoples are works of time: these people are fixed in space within a strictly limited domain, and develop their activities in temporal continuityOn the other hand, nomadic and pastoral peoples build nothing durable, and do not work for a future that escapes them; but they have space before them, not facing them with any limitation, but on the contrary always offering them new possibilities. In this way i9s revealed the correspondence of the cosmic principles to which, in another order, the symbolism of Cain and Abel is related: the principle of compression, represented by time, and the principle of expansion, represented by space.”

Guenon further connects these two principles with different forms of perception, hearing and sight, which picks up your point about these two faculties, although Guenon’s point is quite different from your point about the faster comprehension of sight over hearing. He makes the fascinating point that “sedentary peoples tend to the making of visual symbols which relate back, in their essential significance, to the geometrical viewpoint, the origin and foundation of all spatial conception. Nomads, on the other hand셅.make sonorous symbols, the only symbols compatible with their state of continual migration. It is, however, remarkable that, among the sensible faculties, sight is directly related to space, and hearing to time” which suggests (if I may paraphrase Guenon’s lengthy explanation) that each type, the settled and the nomadic, ideally strives to give precedence to the opposite type of sensory faculty which would normally be associated with their mode of existence (i.e. the settled people give precedence to the visual symbol which is the chief symbol of the spatial life of nomads, and the nomads give precedence to sonorous symbols which are more typical of the time-bound existence of settled peoples.  In this way, each type seeks to restore equilibrium.

This idea confirms the need for settled people (who now constitute the vast majority of humankind, since few nomads remain) to enter “space” and the world of the “visual symbol” as a means of balancing the predominantly verbal world in which they live. And this confirms too what you have said about the closeness to nature of Chinese ideograms which are essentially pictorial, and therefore also connected to a primordial conception of language which retains the concrete, poetic and evocative dimension of communication, as opposed to the logical and abstract dimension which is made possible by written alphabetic languages and most especially by their most recent developments as mathematical languages. Such power of abstraction inherent in written language (referred to by the cognitive psychologist Vygotsky as a “technological amplifier” which has made possible all Western scientific “development”) has produced an unbalanced form of consciousness (Richard Tarnas in the Epilogue to his magnificent book, “The Passion of the Western Mind” connects this imbalance to the suppression of feminine and relational aspects of integrated consciousness (the “participation mystique”), which suppression, I suggest,  in its pathological manifestation, can be seen in pseudo-“objective” “masculine” derangements such as autism and other forms of non-relational (unilateral) behavior. This is also, to use your own imagery, the rigid pine branch which snaps. The wu-wei of the springy willow branch is also that curvy feminine mode which avoids the stricture and constriction of excessive “straightness” (these three words have the same root) which is also the source of fundamentalism and bigotry.

All mnemonists know that the way to improve memory exponentially is to convert verbal images or sounds into pictures. Any good teacher of study skills also understands the “dual-coding” nature of the human brain, by which processing is radically improved by using both verbal and visual pathways in the brain.

It is extraordinary that although only 15% of learners are “verbal” learners (i.e. learn by listening or reading words), our education system is still predominantly based on a verbal culture of teachers taking and learners listening. 40% of learners are “visual” learners, but what is more interesting is that 45% are kinaesthetic learners, who learn by doing.

The Tao Te Ching (which I first read when I was 18 and which had an profound influence on me at the time) refers to itself as the “timeless way”:

“When you gaze at something, but see nothing;
When you listen for a sound, but cannot hear it;
When you try to grasp it and find it has no substance;
Then these three things
That go beyond your mind
Are moulded together in One
If people could follow the ancient way,
then they would be masters of the moment.
And if you know this way
Then you have seen the timeless way of the Tao.”
(Translation by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay. Element Books, 1993).

I chose this extract not only because of its reference to the timeless and ancient way, and the need to go beyond the mind, but because it goes further even than the interesting distinction between the verbal and visual to suggest that the Tao is seeing nothing when you gaze upon it, and hearing nothing when you listen for a sound. That is, that the highest state goes beyond the senses altogether, whether seeing or hearing.

At the same time as I was studying the Tao Te Ching as a young man, I was deeply embedded in the Vedanta and in the practice of yoga, and studied the Vedanta with a swami in an ashram for six months. I am still profoundly drawn to the Vedanta, and find nothing in it which, in essence, contradicts Islam.  Three years ago my wife and I were in Hong Kong, having travelled from Kuala Lumpur where we had attended a conference on the “Contemporary Relevance of Al-Ghazali”, and we walked to the mosque. Sitting outside were two very forbidding Muslims whose demeanour did not encourage us to enter. Having just been to Cairo, where my wife had had a most unwelcoming experience at a mosque, we decided to give the Hong Kong mosque a miss. Instead we embarked on a ferry which took us to one of the many offshore islands, where there was a beautiful Buddhist temple. We spend the day in peaceful surroundings with gentle and compassionate people in harmony with nature.

I attach a photo I took of the temple where we listened to the monks chanting.


This is the next to the last class in this series, œCuring Fear and Anger.  IԒm sorry that each and every one of you couldnt come with me but maybe someday.  Buddhism offers the most practical approach to the same life challenges that all the major religions try to address.  None of us are exempt from them. 

Buddha says there are 4 Noble Truths: true suffering which is delusion, true origins (the cause), true cessation, and true paths.

There is no evil greater than anger.  There is no remedy greater than patience.

Our own anger is our real enemy.  It has no good qualities; no aspect of anger is justified or righteous.  A little anger is not okay.

Ordinary life cannot provide lasting happiness; only virtue can provide lasting happiness.

Unhappy, frustrated, pissed are merely synonyms for anger.

We are not in control of what happens to us; we can however control our response and when we do that, everything changes.

Buddha says, no situation is so bad that it canҒt be accepted.  Dont expect things to be other than they are.


  The teachings of the Buddha are found in the traditional wisdom of all world religions, including the Native American, because they are true.  But, Islam emphasizes that the Ultimate is active in its self-sufficiency. 

  The Qur’an emphasizes that arrogance is the most dangerous of all spiritual maladies. 

  Anger is a form of arrogance.  Anger can be avoided with proper awareness of reality, but arrogance justifies anger and blocks awareness.  Arrogance is not self-curable because it denies itself.

  Only total transformation can reduce the false identity of arrogance, and this is a gift from the Ultimate.  To deny this is arrogant and can lead to the polytheism of self-worship. 


Dr. Crane there are some Islamic scholars who believe that Buddha was one of the monotheist prophets sent to the East, and that his teachings became somewhat corrupted with superstitions, etc., pretty much in the same ways that Judiasm, Christinanity and Islam have become corrupted in some respects. It is interesting to me that the four truths Diana mentions are merely a different approach to your answer, which is the traditional Islamic approach to freeing ones self of ego. I agree with what you have said 100%, and I think Diana is saying the same thing differently. I often wonder if one of the reasons that God sent different prophets to different people is that people, depending upon our learning culture, and other differences that we may not now be aware of, learn differently. The four steps can be covered in one step in Islam, but it is one step that can take many, many years. It took the prophet 13 years to teach the basic concept of tawhid ( One God) to his original followers, that first community in Mecca before hijrah. Imagine thirteeen years. We now have people who pick up several books and read them like novels and claim to be scholars and clerics! It’s enriching in my view to surf the monotheist religions, they demonstarte different approaches to common, and also religious truths, and then finally we reach Islam where there are some unique approaches to old and new information that helps us to understand why God declared in the Qur’an that now, the monotheist doctrine has found perfection and completion. Good luck Diana, and May God guide your journey. There are many sabeel (paths) one Sirat (straight path) to God.


    Perhaps Diana has started another colloquium for the next issue of  I like Anisa ‘Abd al Fatah’s contribution. 

  Yusuf Ali in his original edition had a beautiful footnote to Surah al Tin, in which he said that the four references at the beginning refer to Buddhism (tin), Christianity (zeitun), Judaism (turi sineen), and Islam (baladi al amin), because tin, usually translated as “fig tree), means the Bo tree under which Lord Buddha received enlightenment from Allah. 

  The Saudis have issued four successive editions of the Yousef Ali translation over the past twenty years, each one perverting the Qur’an worse than the previous one.  The very first Saudi edition deleted the above footnote from the original, since the Wahhabis insist that all Buddhists, both those who understand the essential Buddhist message and those who have introduced supersitions, have always gone and always will go to hell. 

  Of course, Wahhabis believe that they are the only ones who can possibly go to heaven.  They are the equivalent of the “left behind” crowd of Christians, who are to rise to heaven in the “rapture” and enjoy the view from heaven so they can watch everyone else writhe in agony at the end of the world.


You mentioned Frithjof’s Schuoun writings on Buddhism in the context of the transcendent unity of all religions.

His statement in the chapter “The Universality of Monasticism” in his book “Light on Ancient Worlds” immediately springs to mind. In a paragraph on Buddhism in this chapter he points out that although there is no concept of “God” as such in the Semitic or Aryan sense in Buddhism, it “possesses completely the idea of a transcendent Absolute҅and the idea of a contact between this Absolute and man” and “it is in its own way just as conscious of the divine Reality” and of the “crucial ideas of absoluteness, of transcendence, of perfection, and, on the human side, of sacrifice and of sanctity.”

He points out also that the idea of a “personal God” appears notably in the mahayanic cult of the Buddha Amitabha - the Japanese Amidism - where it is combined with a perspective of redemptive Mercy.

In other words, a conception of Buddhism which characterizes it as “atheistic” because it appears to ignore the idea of “God” is totally absurd, because an “atheistic spirituality” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  A “non-theist” religion in the Semitic or Aryan sense is in no way “atheist”.

For my part, I could easily have been a Buddhist, a Vedantin or a Christian, and had I been born amongst a primordial people, I guess I would have needed no “religion” at all, since I would, like the whole community, have had constant awareness (i.e., taqwa) of the Great Spirit in all things - that is the “loving awareness and awe” to which you refer and which is the natural state of the human being. 

As a young man I followed the Vedanta, and even spent months at an ashram to find out if I had a vocation to be a monk in the Ramakrishna Order. I also spent time at a Franciscan monastery in the beauty of the Dorset countryside to see if I had a similar calling to the life of Christian contemplation (and right action emanating from spiritual contemplation, which is the only kind of action which is grounded in what is Real). I decided against it, because I loved women too much, and it was only when I discovered Islam when I was 49 that I discovered that there was a religion which did not separate the life of the body from the life of the soul and the spirit, even if, it obviously teaches us that the over-indulgence of the carnal appetites is a barrier to knowledge of God.

None of this is a criticism of the contemplative life, nor even of monasticism, whether Buddhist, Vedantin or Christian. I still revere all sacred spaces, and spent time in Buddhist temples, and in Gothic cathedrals, as well as in the sanctity of virgin nature. Near where we live in France there is a forest with a Carmelite monastery, and I often walk there and sit in the chapel for long periods. I am still strongly drawn to places of Christian monasticism. If I ever get to climb Mount Sinai, I hope to stay at St. Catherine’s Monastery, where there is a letter from the Prophet Muhammad granting protection to the Christian monks there. This is the true spirit of Islam, this protection of people of Faith, whatever their affiliation.

Schuon’s chapter on the Universality of Monasticism which I mention above is a masterpiece which transformed my understanding of the truly contemplative life. The dictum “No monasticism in Islam” can so easily be misunderstood. What it really means is that the true Muslim, like contemplatives of other traditions, is in a state of deep contemplation (that is, his or her faculties of “being” and deep seeing are developed) but that he or she maintains this state within daily life in the world according to the Christian dictum “Be in the world but not of it”. This state is in no way antithetical to “action”; on the contrary, all the actions of the Muslim ideally emanate from constant awareness of the divine.

Unfortunately, those worldly Muslims (whether secularised “progressives” or pseudo-religious militant fundamentalists) obsessed with “action” have misinterpreted the rejection of “monasticism” as a rejection of “contemplation” (i.e. the conscious remembrance of God) which is actually, according to the Qur’an, “the greatest act” of all. As a result, their actions are grounded not in knowledge of God, and the quality of “being” which this bestows, but in their egos and obsessions, and in the narrowed vision which limits action solely to social or political causes. Nothing of any permanent value can come from a sclerotic (i.e. constricted) mentality.

As for the validity of Buddhism as a path to God, of course it is a true and great path, which like all authentic paths, leads to the Centre.

The analogy I always draw is of the orchestra. Within the orchestra which plays the music of the Great Composer there are many instruments, each with its own timbre or specific quality. We learn one of them as well as we can in order to learn MUSIC. It might be the violin, the viola, the flute, the trumpet, the double bass, the kettle drums, or indeed the Alpine horn, the sitar, the lute, or the Turkish tanbur, or whatever reflects our special affinity and cultural background.  We don’t need to learn them all to master music. In fact, we couldn’t possibly do that, and if we tried we would never master one well enough to play in the orchestra.

Our objective in playing an instrument is to become masters of music, and we can do that by striving to achieve perfection in the instrument we have chosen. Once we have chosen, we need to persevere with that instrument, to practice it, to master its peculiarities, and as far as possible to achieve perfection in it. I know how challenging this is, because I am a pianist myself. 

In the same way, traditional communities practice crafts, and some communities master a particular craft, whether carpet-weaving, basket-making, canoe-making or whatever. Members of the community learn that craft and pass it down to their children. Canoe-makers make canoes and carpet weavers make carpets, and none of them are arrogant enough to believe that they can master every craft, even though they value them all, and respect those who have mastered a craft different from their own.

There is a story of a seeker who had spent years searching for a spiritual director and had visited many teachers, none of whom he could accept. One day, he saw a humble meat-ball cook serving his meatballs to travelers by the side of the road, and immediately recognised his teacher. He saw in the man and in the way he cooked and served his meatballs a complete mastery of his trade which, through that absolute dedication to it, had transformed the man himself.

The pseudo-universalists and syncretists try to play all the instruments at once, or cook every dish at once.  As a result they master none of them and produce only an amateurish cacophony, a sludge which destroys the singular qualities of each individual instrument. They try to graft one instrument onto another, producing grotesque hybrids which destroy the unique sonority of each separate instrument.  They try to concoct a featureless religion composed of elements they like from all and any religion they fancy, or they obscure all the beautiful differences between them by claiming that they are all really the same. They are not the “same” as separate manifestations of the One Transcendent Religion, any more than Indian curry and Italian ravioli are the same, and to mix them would be an abomination. They are necessarily diverse and different in the same way that “nations and tribes” are different (and created by God, according to the Qur’an, so that we may “know one another”).

But the source of that beautiful and meaningful diversity is of course the Transcendent Unity of the Great Composer and the Great Conductor (the Great Chef, too, if we want to pursue the cuisine analogy) who gives each of us in His infinite Mercy an instrument to play in keeping with the specific “note”, or a recipe in keeping with a specific “taste”, which corresponds to a particular community at a particular time.

All the instrumentalists face towards the Great Conductor in a semi-circle, and under his direction they create a harmonious sound drawing on the complementary qualities of all the instruments. And this is an international orchestra, not a parochial one. It includes Tibetan horns and Hindu tabla and a host of instruments from many traditions which I cannot name.  There is a Chorus, too, of those who favour the human voice, and I guess the Muslims are amongst them.

Anyone in the orchestra who objects to other instrumentalists because they play a different instrument from his cannot be a real musician, because the true musician is always aware of the balance within the orchestra and the sonorities of each instrument. He or she loves all music, so could never object to a musician. Can you think of anything more absurd than the ‘cellists rejecting the violinists, or the trumpet players turning on the oboists? What kind of symphony would that be?

Only by turning to the Centre, to the podium, and the discipline and inspiration offered to us by the Great Conductor, can we all play in harmony. Without that Central point of orientation (symbolised in all religions by the notion of a qibla, or sacred direction) we can only squabble amongst ourselves on the periphery where every diverse perspective is seen not as a divinely ordained and beautiful difference with its unique note or taste emanating from the Divine Unity, but as something defective, threatening or heretical - the source not of love but of bigotry and hostility.