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One Path, Many Paths

A Dialogue on the Role of Religion in Modern Times

Adam Bucko and Zachary Markwith

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Dear Zachary,

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.

With Gratitude,

by Br. Robert Lentz
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Dear Adam,

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

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Zachary Markwith is a doctoral student and adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union who specializes in early Islamic spirituality and comparative religious studies. He earned an M.A. 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 for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Food Not Bombs, and the International Peace Project on issues that include Islamophobia, poverty, nonviolence, and interfaith relations. Zachary has studied Islamic spirituality with traditional teachers from West Africa, Iran, and North America.

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. and

Read more about Adam Bucko

7 May 2013

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