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One Path, Many Paths

A Dialogue on the Role of Religion in Modern Times

Adam Bucko and Zachary Markwith

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.

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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.
 
                                                Sincerely yours,
                                                                  Zia Inayat-Khan

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Dear Adam,
 

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.
 

Sincerely,
Zachary

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Continue reading…

Zachary Markwith is a doctoral student and instructor at the Graduate Theological Union who specializes in early Islamic spirituality and the perennial philosophy. He earned an M.A. (cum laude) in Hinduism and Islam at the George Washington University and a B.A. in Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has also worked as a research assistant for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the International Peace Project on subjects that include Islamophobia, non-violence in Islam, and interfaith dialogue. He has contributed articles to leading traditionalist journals, including Sophia and Sacred Web, and is the author of the forthcoming work One God, Many Prophets: the Universal Wisdom of Islam (Fons Vitae, 2013). In addition to his academic training, Zachary has studied with Sufi teachers from West Africa, Iran, and North America, and currently lives in Berkeley, California with his wife Sarah.

Read more about Zachary Markwith

Adam Bucko is an activist and spiritual director to New York City’s homeless youth. He grew up in Poland during the totalitarian regime, where he explored the anarchist youth movement as a force for social and political change. Adam emigrated to the US at 17, but his desire to lead a meaningful life sent him to monasteries in the US and India. His life-defining experience took place in India, where a brief encounter with a homeless child led him to the “Ashram of the Poor” where he began his work with homeless youth. Upon returning to the US, Adam worked with homeless youth in cities around the country. He co-founded The Reciprocity Foundation, an award winning nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of New York City's homeless youth. Additionally, Adam established HAB, an ecumenical and inter-spiritual contemplative fellowship for young people which offers formation in radical spirituality and sacred activism. Adam is a recipient of several awards and his work has been featured by ABC News, CBS, NBC, New York Daily News, National Catholic Reporter, Ode Magazine, Yoga International Magazine and Sojourner Magazine. www.reciprocityfoundation.org and www.adambucko.com

Read more about Adam Bucko

Comments (4)
  • Greetings Dear Friends:
    Having read through this discussion, with respect and appreciation for both points of view, I would like to add a few observations to the dialogue. Following on Adam’s “three different ways of being interspiritual,” I would add a fourth and perhaps a fifth way. I call this fourth way the “call of inspiration” when an individual discovers, through a transformative encounter, a recognition of depth and fullness that opens into the Infinite. I do not mean a psychic encounter that stimulates awareness of alternative modes of perception, nor an affirmation of paranormal interactions in the subtle worlds. What I mean is a direct, heart-centered, authentic opening into Being that leaves a soul shaken by the intensity and fullness of the experience. Such a call of inspiration, a deep breathing in of sentient depth, does not in my experience flow through any particular necessary channel, but more commonly overflows the constraints of belief and established mental attitudes. The fullness of Being is not, it seems to me, amenable to containment in any variety of form, however sacred that form may be.

     

    The forms of tradition, their value and significance, arise through their worth as a means for transformation, through the training and discipline inculcated by genuine practice and based in mature guidance and soul direction. However valuable such direction and world construction may be to real and actual souls, the reality of encounter very often overflows the vessel that is truly prepared to receive utmost guidance and inspiration from the ground of Being Itself. As such, my metaphor of choice is that when the path reaches the Ocean, the Ocean cannot be contained in the path. No path, in this direct sense, can contain the full abundance of that which is Uncontainable. Thus the fourth way is a kind of Awakening that may flow through the cut channels of tradition, arise in the interplay and overflow between traditions, legitimize inner guidance, or illumine a dedicated soul through direct encounter (even unsought), and yet, in no one instance, can it be said to be containable. The Infinite is not containable, though, by grace and love, it is knowable. Thus the fourth way is that moment of knowing, of authentic gnosis, in which belief is transmuted into the malleable gold of luminous experience, offering a new wealth of insights for the purpose of fostering understanding.

     

    The fifth way is perhaps even more profound and harder to describe. For me, the fifth way is not didactic or a matter of choice based on beliefs, creeds or doctrines. It requires choice but is mediated by a realization of one’s personal limitations. It is a renunciation of authority as a primary guide to spiritual life. By authority I do not mean to question the legitimacy of tradition nor the gifts that traditions may offer a seeking soul. What I refer to is deep recognition of human limitations in the face of the Infinite. The prophetic soul, the soul in search of immersion in divine life, the soul crying out from a heartfelt longing for presence and authentic Beingness, understands the limitations of its own capacity to comprehend. We do not truly understand the nature of revelation; what we comprehend is the human response to such a cry and the formalisms that arises around the cry to protect and nurture that core desire for spiritual truth. Even a taste of the Infinite is enough to make one realize the poverty of his or her beliefs; full immersion only confirms that lack.

     

    This does not mean that the strictures and principles of tradition are not valuable—they are valuable, necessary, in so far as human beings need guidance and direction. Every revelation is the beginning of a tradition or a confirmation of tradition, or the discovery of the impulse to formalize for the purpose of preservation. And yet, the medium of the revelation, the human soul aflame with presence, is like a moth attracted to the Flame, fluttering about that which might consume it, simply because the Flame cannot be contained or reduced to such a fragile, ephemeral life. The fifth way is an acknowledgement of this truth, that no account is sufficient and no inner guidance adequate to unveil what requires the entire human species, through a hundred thousand generations, to barely comprehend. I celebrate the reality of revelation, its mystical depths, but I am constantly aware that no particular account can do more than touch the hem of the garment what appears as divine life. The actual body of that garment is a soul so vast, profound, holy, illumined and transcendent in to its immanent cosmology that I can only bow my head and be thankful for the embodied opportunity to acknowledge how far surpassing the greatness is in contrast to my own limited understanding.

     

    Praise be to That which always calls us beyond what we are and what we think we know. Selah.

     

    Sirr al-Basir
    May 7, 2013

    — Lee Irwin on May 8, 2013

  • I very much enjoyed this dialogue between Adam and Zachary, and express appreciation to Pir Zia for providing the opportunity and encouragement for this inspiring interchange. What really prompts me to write, however, is my special gratitude for Sirr al-Basir’s insightful comment beautifully elucidating the possibility of additional ways of being interspiritual.

    In particular, his fourth way hits the mark for me, and is eloquently summed up in his quote: “...when the path reaches the Ocean, the Ocean cannot be contained in the path.” His words are lovely, and strike me as true.

    — Alan Zulch on May 15, 2013

  • Thank you Pir Zia for initiating a discussion on this topic, and thank you to Adam and Zachary for your thoughtful and sincere contributions. It has certainly been a very living question for me all of my life, and it has been on my mind very strongly as of late. I believe the questions of meaning related to religion and spirituality are crucial issues of our time, as the structures that have supported humanity for so long are changing and breaking down, and yet there is no consensus yet on a a new structure.

     

    I wanted to share some thoughts relating to the idea that one can choose to enter into a religion. People of my generation have grown up in the age of the internet and easy access to information and perspectives on all the world’s religions as well as a mind boggling array of contemporary spiritual ideas and practices. Having this context, where it is a common understanding that religions are all different pathways to an experience of meaning and truth, we simply cannot engage with religion in the same way. Even if I wanted to, I cannot be a “true believer.” I might choose to commit to a particular religion because I feel it will do me good, or because I want some structure and order in my life, but this choice feels a bit like choosing to change the interior decoration of my house. It is a rational decision, rather than a deep calling or revelation. It is a sad fact, but I think that people of my age and culture have already lost religion, whether we like it or not.

     

    Religions have not lasted as long as they have because of people making a rational decision to enter into them. The people who have formed the blood and beating heart of a religion were either born into that religion and compelled by their culture, or had an inner conversion experience, a deep calling and utter faith that becomes the core of one’s life. Conviction in religious beliefs has been a fierce shaping force in human history. There has never been a collective idea such as “your religion is as good as mine, it’s just different.” This tolerant, inclusive approach is a very recent idea. If religions do survive, it would have to be in a radically different way, where we can appreciate all the particulars of the tradition but not have the whole-hearted conviction in its story. I suppose an alternative would be to revise or re-interpret the tradition from the standpoint of contemporary or mystical awareness . But again, it does not seem like religions have survived because of a small subset of people honing in on the mystical and universal truths hidden in the scriptures. Without the conviction that one’s religion is THE truth, I don’t understand how one can really inhabit the religion fully? And I don’t see how religions will really survive in the context of this soft, pluralistic approach. Either the religion has blood and a beating heart or it doesn’t. Otherwise, the whole religious impulse seems to shrink to the level of a self-improvement program, a personality preference or the taste for a particular flavour.

     

    One important point that Zachary made was that religions are “revealed,”  streams of wisdom which are given to humanity as a gift, and thus more trustworthy sources of guidance. I would like to believe this is true, but that is just it—it is a matter of belief. Even seeing religions in this way requires blind belief, since I cannot experience the truth of this idea in any other way (other than a mystical insight, which is still subjective). To non-religious people, the idea of religions being “revealed” to humanity is incomprehensible. It may indeed be true, but it requires the kind of belief that many are unable or unwilling to muster.

     

    Because of this perspective, in general I resonate with Adam’s approach to helping young people navigate different approaches to an authentic spiritual life. I would just add that perhaps the uncertainty of young people right now is exactly as it should be, and that it cannot be otherwise. I believe we may have already lost the capacity to use religions to give meaning and structure to life, because of the evolution in our awareness. Perhaps our job is to struggle and search until truth reveals itself in new ways. This may not happen in our lifetime but perhaps several generations into the future, a new shared understanding of human life will dawn, one that will make our current religions seem archaic.

    — Siddiqi Heather Ferraro on May 18, 2013

  • Thanks to Lee Irwin, Alan Zulch, and Siddiqi Heather Ferraro for joining this conversation and adding important insights and questions.

     

    In particular, I appreciate Lee Irwin’s emphasis on what has been termed ma’rifah (gnosis) and hayrah (bewilderment) in Islamic-Sufi spirituality. These seem to me to be universal fruits of the spiritual path in all traditions and might even be described as trans-personal stations of Divine realization Itself. There is much to ponder in Lee Irwin’s words and to discover on our own paths, God willing.


    With Siddiqi Heather Ferraro, I also find myself grappling with questions related to meaning and religion in our increasingly global, postmodern, and technological age. You discuss some of the serious challenges and opportunities that are raised in this context, where a particular religion is championed as the only truth or dismissed precisely because others seem to be just as true. I tend to take a middle path wherein one can accept that all of the revealed religions are true, but not the whole Truth, which is an attribute of God as such. It seems to me that any one of these partial disclosures or revelations lead us to the One, wherein we discover all Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Frithjof Schuon has written about this perspective with remarkable clarity in his book The Transcendent Unity of Religions, which contains a helpful introduction by Huston Smith.


    You also touched upon the question of epistemology and in particular how we know whether or not a particular teaching is revealed, inspired, or simply invented. I tend to take revelation and mystical insight as seriously as logic, empirical observation, doubt or anything other way of knowing that has been advanced by modern and postmodern scientists and philosophers. All methods of knowing can be tested and verified through direct experience; otherwise we are simply accepting the claims of the philosopher or physicist based upon what amounts to faith or an appeal to authority. Christian mystics, Jewish kabbalists, Muslim sufis, Hindu yogis, Buddhist bodhisattvas, etc., also invite us to employ their revealed and inspired methods to approach the Source of all being, consciousness and bliss within ourselves. This is certainly subjective, but beneath the layers of the body, mind, soul and even Spirit is the non-dual Self, which is simultaneously pure Subject and Object from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta. I don’t think we can ignore the sense of certainty or Truth that consciousness alone or the Supreme “I” within us contains. And if one is uncertain, how can one be certain about that very uncertainty?


    All Divine revelations have certain proofs that purely human ideologies do not. First, they embody or disclose the Transcendent Reality here on earth through their forms and essence. They also form the basis for all traditional civilizations. The Incarnation of Christ, the Holy Quran, or the Enlightenment of the Buddha have shaped the lives, devotion, ethics, learning, arts, sciences and institutions of millions of souls in ways that no purely human person, book or temporal experience have until the modern period when the West broke from its revelation and tradition in the name of secular science, philosophy, art, and institutions. As Peter Kingsley reminds us in his groundbreaking studies, including his book Reality, Greek philosophy was also originally based upon a kind of revelation and disclosures to the great sages through spiritual praxis. From all Divine revelations also issue a sacred art, such as Christian iconography, Quranic recitation and calligraphy, or images and statues of the Buddha. Not only are these aesthetically poles apart from modern painting, literature, or music—not to speak of most forms of popular entertainment and advertising—but they have been known to miraculously heal people and even save us through their very forms. Among the greatest proofs of revelation are the presence of saints who have been transfigured through the Divine descent. Such as encounter, and we have had two or three, leaves one with the impression that God is still at the very center of our world. It also puts one in touch with the center of our own being given the macrocosmic-microcosmic symbiosis. This was Jalal al-Din Rumi’s experience when he met his companion Shams al-Din Tabrizi. In my experience, good people are everywhere, but only a revealed religion can produce a saint of the first magnitude. The Divine Presence itself seems to me to be the best proof, but this is always accompanied by knowledge, virtue and piety.


    I think one does have to be careful about conflating Divine revelation with inspiration and especially purely human endeavors. Someone claiming to forge an entirely new religion is essentially claiming to be a prophet sent by God. I think we can question and challenge all of the injustices that exist in modernist and fundamentalist versions of religion, while honoring the sacred and unique function of the prophets, avatars, Christ, the Buddha, and others God has chosen to establish both religion and spirituality here on earth.


    Ultimately, there is something mysterious about how we know and what teaching resonates the most with us. There is a reciprocity between knowing, knowledge and that which is known, which is not that different from love. It is unfortunate, however, that both knowledge and love in the traditional sense are usually dismissed in our time as something entirely personal and meaningless. In any case, these questions are very important and deserve more consideration and space. I would recommend Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s Knowledge and the Sacred for those who are interested in the relation between knowledge, religion and spirituality.


    I certainly welcome other points of view and appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon the diverse experiences and knowledge of others here.


    With all best wishes and thanks,

    — Zachary Markwith on June 18, 2013

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7 May 2013

Tagged Under
mysticism, revelation, religion, spirituality, interfaith, Buddhism, community, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Interspiritual, faith, Our Sacred Heritage, God, The Great Mystery,
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