Seven Pillars’ founder and board member, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, recently sent a letter to Adam Bucko and Zachary Markwith, two individuals with “a deep sense of the sacred, but…quite different approaches to religion and tradition,” inviting them to participate in a dialogue about the relationship between religion and spirituality. Pir Zia was inspired to send the invitation after reading the recently published manifesto, “New Monasticism,” written by Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko. Both Adam and Zachary embraced the opportunity to discuss this question and the first installment of their correspondence is published herein.
The growing recognition that possession of Divine Truth cannot be exclusively claimed by any single sacred tradition is an important sign of the broadening of religious thinking in our time. The “Perennialism” of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon and the “Interspirituality” of Fr. Bede Griffiths and Br. Wayne Teasdale are two major conduits of universalist thought in the last century. Among the emerging generation of teachers and activists, Zachary Markwith (right) and Adam Bucko (left) stand out as notable representatives of these respective schools of thought.
After Seven Pillars’ founder, Pir Zia, read Adam Bucko’s recent manifesto (co-authored with Rory McEntee), “New Monasticism” (excerpt here), he was inspired to invite Adam and Zachary to engage in a dialogue about the relationship between religion and spirituality. Adam and Zachary happily agreed, and the first installment of their correspondence is published here, preceded by Pir Zia’s invitation. A second installment will follow soon.
Dear Adam Bucko and Zachary Markwith,
The Belgian classicist Franz Cumont wrote in 1906:
“Let us suppose that in modern Europe the faithful had deserted the Christian churches to worship Allah or Brahma, to follow the precepts of Confucius or Buddha, or to adopt the maxims of the Shinto; let us imagine a great confusion of all the races of the world in which Arabian mullahs, Chinese scholars, Japanese bonzes, Tibetan lamas and Hindu pundits would be preaching fatalism and predestination, ancestor-worship and devotion to a deified sovereign, pessimism and deliverance through annihilation—a confusion in which all those priests would erect temples of exotic architecture in our cities and celebrate their disparate rites therein. Such a dream, which the future may perhaps realize, would offer a pretty accurate picture of the religious chaos in which the ancient world was struggling before the reign of Constantine.”
Just over a century later, it is clear that the state of affairs that Cumont could only conceive as a distant possibility has been realized as an undeniable reality. We live today in a world in which almost all of the great spiritual traditions of the world are within reach of the modern seeker in some form.
This plethora of choices creates new questions. Should the seeker remain committed to the traditions and institutions of her ancestors? Should she, instead, study the various available traditions, and choose the one that speaks most meaningfully to her? Should she try to ascertain commonalities between the various traditions, and follow the principles and practices of more than one faith? Or should she abandon traditional forms and institutions altogether, and create her own worldview and practice? These, I believe, are questions that many young people are grappling with today.
I am writing to you because I know that you have both deeply reflected on these questions. Zachary Markwith has an advanced degree in Islamic Studies, and has written a superb book on traditionalist universalism entitled One God, Many Prophets (forthcoming from Fons Vitae). Adam Bucko has been working for years to bring spiritual and material renewal to disadvantaged and homeless urban youth, and is an heir to the interspiritual legacy of Br. Wayne Teasdale.
You clearly have in common a deep sense of the sacred, but it seems to me that you have quite different approaches to religion and tradition. I feel that a conversation between you could be very fruitful. It could help, I think, bring into focus the questions, problems, and opportunities that confront the modern seeker. Exchanging thoughts with each other might offer you both the opportunity to hone your own messages.
I could imagine the dialogue beginning with a response from Zachary Markwith to Adam Bucko’s recent New Monasticism manifesto (with Rory McEntee).
Key questions in the discussion might include:
Tradition and change: How is “tradition” defined? What kinds of adaptations are legitimate? Who decides?
Esotericism and exotericism: Is orthodox exoteric observance a requirement for authentic access to the esoteric dimensions of a tradition? Is it possible to successfully practice multiple exoteric and/or esoteric traditions simultaneously? What is the relationship between the inner and outer layers of a faith?
And, individuality and community: Is an authentic sense of community, shared vision, and responsibility possible without tradition? Does tradition impose unacceptable limits on individual experience and discovery?
Of course, if you accept to undertake this dialogue, what is most important is that you pursue the issues that are most interesting and relevant to you.
I send with this my very best wishes.
I share your inclusive vision of the revealed religions, humanity and the world. It seems to me that we can and in some cases must take cognizance of and learn from all of the great traditions, East and West, and those who embody their highest ideals in the past and present. You have mapped out some of the different paths a spiritual seeker might take, including adopting a single religion, creating a synthesis between two, and even forging one’s own path not bound by any one. It seems to me that each revealed religion is a unique path that leads to the same Summit, to paraphrase Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Many in the West are wary of taking a single path because of our history of religious exclusivism and chauvinism, but one can be a sincere Buddhist, Christian, or Muslim, for example, while also taking inspiration from other religions and those who practice them. I think many have lost confidence in the efficacy of the religious rites and spiritual path of a single tradition because the dedication to one tradition is so often accompanied by intolerance and the abuse of power.
What is most important to me is what works and the evidence suggests that the surest way to enlightenment or sanctity is through one of the great living traditions, be it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. It is true that inspired syntheses exist and continue to create men and women of virtue and even sanctity. Sometimes particular individuals and entire communities may be forced down this road by circumstance and providence. However, I wonder how helpful it is for most people to explore these possibilities when spiritual disciplines and guidance remain accessible in Buddhism, Orthodox Christianity, and Islamic Sufism, for example? I recognize that there are always exceptions and even great saints such as Sri Ramakrishna who practiced multiple forms. In his case, it seems that he reached the end of the path before embarking on others.
There are many who find doctrinal and aesthetic supports from other religions—their sacred texts, saints, and art—but in my view it is most helpful to be rooted in the practical aspects (i.e. rites, spiritual disciplines, etc.) of a single tradition. My own understanding and even practice of Islam and Sufism has been profoundly enriched through exposure to Advaita Vedanta, Zen, Taoism, Hesychasm, and the Kabbalah. While I firmly believe that all of these paths lead to Self-realization, it seems to me that it is sufficient and in most cases necessary to focus on the Divine through one. A single revealed Name of God or apophatic meditation contains all of the power and grace to deliver us. It also requires all of our concentration. There is always the temptation to mistake the path for the Goal, but it seems that there are a growing number of religious people who recognize that other paths also lead to God or the Unity of Being in the language of the Sufis. I think we have a challenge to preserve religious diversity precisely so that we can perceive our spiritual unity with all that is. The revealed religions remain so many pathways to that realization.
I am of course open to other possibilities and welcome your own views on the matter. I am intentionally trying to tease out some of the questions and issues that Pir Zia encouraged us to look at. However, I recognize through him and others such as Huston Smith that my own approach is not the only one that works. We do live in a unique time and place, and I will leave it in your capable hands to present the other side of things. I also hope that we can look at related points you made in “New Monasticism,” including the wedding between the paths of action and contemplation that your articulated with great insight.
I send this with my very best wishes and respect.
Thank you for your thoughts on our manifesto. I am grateful for your perspective and for your openness of spirit and heart.
I would like to open my response by saying that I too think that following one single path is often the best way to pursue the journey into God. In my own life, I often desired that kind of straight path and guidance. However, as my life unfolded, I realized that while I related everything in my journey to the “Christ Archetype” present in my soul, much of my path was directed and inspired by mentors from traditions other than Christianity. In many ways, I feel it is because of those mentors and their willingness to share the “heart” of their experience of God with me that I am able to have a sense of Christ in my life. Reconciliation of those experiences with mentors has not always been easy. It is because of that that I looked for guidance in people like Br. Wayne Teasdale and other students of Fr. Bede Griffiths. I believed that the Hindu-Christian tradition that they lived and articulated could provide a framework and home for the journey that my soul was on.
In addition to my own “interspiritual path”, which through difficulty and praxis has shown itself to me to be an authentic mystical path to God, I have also worked with young people for over a decade, and have learned that most young people these days don’t start or end their search in a single tradition. In a recent article in the LA Times Philip Clayton, the Dean of Faculty at Claremont School of Theology, talked about the fastest-growing religious group in the United States; sometimes called “the nones”, “non affiliated” or “spiritual but not religious.” As he pointed out, 75% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Young people are not necessarily rejecting God, they just feel that “religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.” It is for this reason that many of us feel that the rise of “spiritual but not religious” is not a sign of spiritual decline but can be “a new kind of spiritual awakening” if it can be shepherded in a mature way.
For me, the burning questions then become, what does it mean to have a deep spiritual and contemplative life in this new framework? How does one enter and commit in a mature way to this path? Is it possible for this interspiritual path to deliver the type of transformation that all of the more traditional paths promise? These are valid questions that our times demand that we pay attention to. Like Rilke’s advice to the young poet, however, the answer to those questions lies less in trying to find articulations that satisfy the mind than in the wholehearted living out of them in the praxis of one’s life and in proper discernment of the results.
Reflecting on your letter and being present to the questions that arose for you, I want to try to speak from the sense of unfolding that my friend Rory McEntee and I spoke from when we put into words our inspirations on what a deeply committed contemplative and universal spirituality for young people in the 21st century could look like. Our perspective has been informed by our experiences of the contemplative journey and by our wonderful teachers and mentors from varying traditions (also in my case by my friendships with friends from Pir Zia’s order). We feel that the manifesto is an expression of a specific lineage that has been lived by people like Raimindo Pannikar, Swami Abishiktananda, Fr. Bede Griffiths, and most recently Brother Wayne Teasdale, who was a close, personal friend and mentor for Rory. In it we are attempting to name an impulse that we feel arising in our world and to articulate a framework that can begin to guide young seekers into a genuine contemplative path. Our feeling is that “Interspirituality” can offer youth in particular an avenue to access the deep contemplative wisdom of our traditions, as well as lead to a greater “mutual irradiation” of the traditions and a more universal framework that incorporates their insights. This all, of course, has to be done in a very careful, patient, and mature way that is led by and infused at all stages by the Spirit of God.
As you mentioned in your letter, in the manifesto we talk about three different ways of being interspiritual:
(1) When one has a solid grounding in one tradition, and from this foundational point reaches out to experience and understand the wisdom of other traditions. This has been the way of many of the founders of the Interspiritual movement, such as Father Bede Griffiths and Brother Wayne Teasdale.
(2) When one goes the way of “multiple belonging” by fully immersing oneself in multiple traditions, such as Lex Hixon, also known as Shaykh Nur al-Jerrahi, did.
(3) When one follows one’s inner guidance, what George Fox, founder of the Quakers, called one’s “inner teacher”, and what Christians have often referred to as the “guidance of the Holy Spirit” as a primary methodology for one’s spiritual path.
In your letter you refer to this third path as “forging one’s own path not bound by any [tradition]”. When people talk about this third way of being interspiritual, they often assume that one is creating their own path by following “whatever one wants” (relying on self with a small “s” vs. the guidance of the tradition). I would like to, however, distinguish following “what ever one wants” from “following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Especially in my own experience of the Christian tradition, there is a tradition of saints whose primary way into God was following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Its emphasis lies on the relationship aspect of the Ultimate Mystery. It is my intuition that while in the past most examples of this particular path happened within the framework of a specific order within the “church”, in our age this way may not lead to being embedded in a particular tradition (without eliminating this possibility), but instead to taking on, in a mature and disciplined way, differing teachers, practices and service roles throughout one’s lifetime, under the guidance of the Spirit.
It is this distinction between self and Holy Spirit that I believe allows us to really explore what it means to have an authentic spirituality that can serve young people, many of whom don’t necessarily feel called to start or end their journey in one specific tradition. It is also important to recognize that we make pains to assert that this journey doesn’t occur on one’s own, but requires the discernment of a “sangha”, one’s spiritual community, as well as deep and intimate relationships with “elders.” It is how our journeys have unfolded and we can’t imagine a path to spiritual maturity that doesn’t include this important feedback, spiritual direction, and shadow work. While there are many examples of people who simply “shop around” and use their quest and lack of commitment as a way to bypass important issues of the path, it is important to make a distinction between that and what we are talking about here. Too often this third way has been described as being selfish, flaky, a spiritual “Esperanto”, or arising out of an inability to commit. In fact of matter, it is all about commitment. As Philip Goldberg points out in his recent article called “Spiritual But Not Religious: Misunderstood and Here to Stay”, many people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” don’t necessarily practice less when compared to typical church/temple/mosque-goers, many of them actually practice more. The commitment however is not to the tradition or even a specific teacher but rather to one’s own path, to the inner impulse that arises within us, and the courage to commit to it with all of one’s being, allowing ourselves the freedom of movement that it demands.
In my experience, most young people (especially those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious”) start with this third way of being interspiritual. The longing of their hearts and the guidance of the Holy Spirit brings them into contact with a set of principles and practices (like yoga or meditation). While this leads to some insight and in some cases helps people to fully commit themselves to a spiritual path, it rarely gives them a framework and guidance that can produce spiritual maturity. One only needs to look at many yoga studios and other institutions to realize that most spiritual training that is available to young people is available by “workshop mode”, where young people tend to take disconnected workshops that address different aspects of of spiritual life but don’t necessarily produce an integrated practical path, theoretical framework or dedicated mentorship. As a result, one can spend years taking workshops and never really get a sense of depth and direction. The guidance of the Holy Spirit also becomes very difficult to recognize, unless one can work with a seasoned spiritual director or guide who can help one recognize the unfolding of God in one’s heart.
It is for this reason, that Rory and I feel that it is not so much whether young people will choose a specific tradition, but rather will have access to proper training and formation that can speak to their hearts and teach them to humbly empty themselves so they can welcome the “whisperings and light of the Holy Spirit.” To this end, we are currently collaborating with elders like Fr. Thomas Keating on developing modes of training for the young generation who are drawn to this interspiritual path, where one could go through a 7 year long formation process that will include personal guidance with a spiritual director, a theoretical framework, deep contemplative practice, small group work, silent solitary retreats, immersive dialogical dialogue and forms of heartful celebration and community. Much of our thought process along these lines has been inspired by friends from Pir Zia’s Sufi Order and their experience of Suluk, which in our view is one of the most effective training processes that we know of.
If spiritual training is what will determine the depth of spirituality of the new generation, how does one offer training in an interspiritual context? In few words, it is our view that training may start with a universal framework like the one articulated by Br. Wayne Teasdale. Once some work in done gaining an understanding of the framework, and once one works with a spiritual director for an extended period of time (focusing on learning how to recognize God’s unfolding and guidance in one’s heart), one can be encouraged to enter a tradition (in some cases more than one if the spirit demands that) and receive extended training within that tradition, working with a guide from the tradition and fully respecting the integrity of that practice and tradition. So, naturally one may move from a type 3 of interspirituality to a type 1 or 2. This brings us closely to what you suggested in your letter, namely that there are benefits to being faithful to a specific set of teachings and guidance. In the end, one may still go back to type 3 of interspirituality. It may be that very few people are called to exist outside of traditions, we believe that remains to be seen, but we do feel that those who are called to do so can serve in such a way that their insights may benefit the building of new frameworks, ones that may be necessary for our future.
It seems to me that you are indeed speaking to a particular impulse and serving many spiritual seekers, which I can only commend. The Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, “There are as many paths to God as there are children of Adam.” The human response to the Divine is characterized by diversity, despite attempts by some to impose uniformity. Spirituality itself is innate. In Islam, in a manner similar to the Greek, Indian, and other Abrahamic traditions, each person is envisaged as essentially tripartite, consisting of a body (jism), soul (nafs), and Spirit (ruh). Jesus is also honored in the Quran as the “Spirit of God” (ruh Allah). Each person thus already has a Christ-like Spirit, Prophetic light, or Buddha nature within the heart. The only question is how to reside in and act from that spiritual center, as opposed to our baser aspects?
I don’t make a sharp distinction between religion and spirituality, even if there are many who practice religion more or less without spirituality and others spirituality without religion. The Traditionalists or Perennialists maintain that spirituality is in fact the inner or esoteric dimension of religion that awakens or actualizes the inner aspect of the human being, eventually leading to the alchemical wedding of the Spirit with both the soul and the body. This is the function of Hesychasm within Orthodox Christianity, the Kabbalah in Judaism, and Sufism in Islam, for example.
It seems to me that being rooted in a particular tradition has many advantages for a spiritual seeker. In the life of Muslims, the five Islamic prayers punctuate our days and orient us towards the Sacred with a rhythm and grace that is difficult to come by on our own. My sense is that Jewish and Christian believers feel the same way when they observe the Sabbath in their own ways. I am not entirely against borrowing certain elements from other traditions and learning as much as we can from them, but the central rites and spiritual dimensions of each religion seem to have certain conditions that require regular and even exclusive observance to be fully efficacious. To return to the exceptional Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna, when he practiced different forms of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam—each with the permission of his celestial guide Kali—he did so exclusively.
As I said, I do believe that the Spirit or spirituality is innate and also works outside of or across the established boundaries of the religions. One can sense this in serious interfaith initiatives such as “A Common Word,” peace and environmental groups, the inspiration behind Alcoholics Anonymous, and great works of fiction such as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Even though many of these remain influenced by religious or spiritual people, they speak to the needs and aspirations of so many in our time. For me, such manifestations are signs of Divine Mercy and prove that “the Spirit bloweth where it listeth.” (John 3:8)
While recognizing that flashes of inspiration illuminate all souls and societies, including our increasingly secular ones, it seems to me that many spiritual seekers are looking for more stable and lasting nourishment from the Spirit. Decadent and truncated versions of religion have failed so many in this regard, but I not sure we can say that experiments have led to anything better. The abuses of power that we sometimes find in religion are often more prevalent among New Age teachers and groups, as well as those who are against or actively oppose religion and religious believers. Given the potential failings of human nature inside or outside of religion, one has to search for authentic teachers and rely on one’s own discernment.
I would suggest that the millennial religions remain our best options because what directly descends from Heaven can best ensure a felicitous return. Manmade experiments have been going on for some time, but they rarely produce a Saint Francis of Assisi, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, or Sri Ramana Maharshi, as well as great works of art such as Chartres Cathedral, the Dome of the Rock, or the Taj Mahal. It is precisely our loss of tradition as something living and not only a relic of the past that has created so much confusion and disequilibrium in the modern world, including alienation, the loss of meaning and spiritual orientation, destructive forms of technology, the environmental crisis, as well as religious and secular fundamentalism.
This spiritual crisis began in the West, which now imposes its norms globally. Historically, Western Christianity was largely intolerant of its own mystics, as well as rival Christian denominations and other religions. These factors, along with the rise of secularism, have left many in the West with a negative impression of religion. It seems natural that some will cling to their Christian roots and secular attitudes, while looking East for spiritual nourishment. I would contend that Christianity still has active spiritual paths, especially in Orthodoxy, but also in certain mystical currents of Catholicism and Protestantism. My own understanding of spirituality was deepened when I read The Way of a Pilgrim, which is essentially a commentary on the words of St. Paul to, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thes 5:17)
Many also turn to Buddhism or Islam, for example, which are wonderful possibilities and compensations for those searching for a contemplative way. My advice for the person who is spiritual but not religious is that one can find tried and tested methods or spiritual paths in the living religions. Authentic teachers may be more rare today, but the path of the Buddha, Bodhisattva and enlightenment remains accessible through Buddhist teachers; the way of Christ, the Virgin and deification through Christian teachers; and the way of the Quran, the Prophet and Sufi through Muslim teachers. One simply has to have the discernment and courage to dismiss those who use religion for their own questionable motives. Then one can truly benefit from what a Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Seyyed Hossein Nasr have to teach us about religion and spirituality, not to mention those who have dedicated themselves specifically to the path of service, such as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Ahmadu Bamba.
Some blessed souls have taken from more than one tradition. A few even traverse the path in a somewhat solitary manner, although generally within the matrix of a revealed form. I recognize and honor these possibilities. However, I am not sure how far a path entirely outside of a given religion can lead. Some of these specific questions and possibilities seem rather nuanced, complex, and contextual. It is difficult to say anything absolute or definitive about particular individuals and their unique circumstances. With that said, one can see the proof of a tree from the fruit it produces. If one can find an enlightened or sanctified soul from a given path, then one can have a measure of confidence that it produces such results.
No one should be compelled to accept a given faith, which is against the spirit and very letter of the Quran, which reminds us that, “There is no compulsion in religion.” (2:256) While it is now imperative to recognize all revealed religions as authentic paths to God and Divine realization here on earth—and the freedom of religion in general—the practical commitment to a single religion and spiritual path offer us sustained contact with the Spirit and That which is beyond all limitations, secular, religious and even spiritual. Some will no doubt get there through a more circuitous route, even though we maintain that the way of a given Prophet, Avatar, the Buddha or Christ is most direct. And God knows best.
With warm regards & Peace,
March 1, 2013
- New Monasticism: An Interspiritual Manifesto for Contemplative Life in the 21st Century by Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee
- My God Lives on the Streets by Adam Bucko
- Reciprocity Foundation Image Gallery
A Dialogue on the Role of Religion in Modern Times
Adam Bucko and Zachary Markwith
One Path, Many Paths