Monday, August 8, 2016

A Celebration of Spiritual Pluralism

"In the world there are many different roads,
But the destination is the same."

-- I Ching, appended remarks

My wife joked with me recently about my "salad bar spirituality" -- a little of this, a little of that. I guess the observation is true to an extent, in that I love to study world religions, learn how other people access the Divine, and maybe end up seeing how a newly discovered spiritual tenet might mesh with my worldview. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. But at least I've learned something about my fellow human beings in the process. Maybe I've even done my part to engender a little more religious tolerance in the world.

But in the end, I always try to bear in mind a quote that's long resonated with me: "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Frequently attributed to Aristotle, though probably in error.) The end result for me is a hodgepodge of personal views that sometimes shift with new information. But I don't know if the whole big mess looks so much like a religious salad as a kind of melting pot. Because it's not as if I feel like a Buddhist one day and a Quaker the next and a Taoist the next. I sort of feel as if all those things exist simultaneously and constantly inform each other.

Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-tzu.
Source: Tumblr.
To followers of the monotheistic traditions, this approach surely smacks of heresy. But in the East, religious views are much more fluid than they are in the West. Many Chinese are at once Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist. Many Japanese observe Shinto in tandem with the Buddha-dharma. And as someone who's been immersed in Eastern spirituality for the better part of 15 years, I see the exploration and mixing of multiple religious/spiritual paths as simply expanding my horizons. Why does religion have to be either/or? Why can't it be both/and?

That's not to say you should necessarily treat religion like a trip to the grocery store, pulling whatever looks good off the shelf and tossing it in your cart. Read the labels. Get to know what it is you're "buying." Consider how one item might mesh with the other ones you're wheeling to the checkout.

People take their religions very seriously, and I'd argue that it's disrespectful to cruise on by someone else's religion, decide a few of the views are to your liking, and adopt them for your own without any deeper reflection, while those immersed in the fullness of that religious path have probably devoted a good deal of their lives and resources to living out those beliefs that are highly sacred to them.

Read. Then read some more. Talk to people involved in that religion. Ask if you can attend a service. And keep reading. Regard the new beliefs you're interested in as a devout follower of that religion might. Meditate on them. Ask yourself why you want to blend a new belief into your personal practice. Will it benefit you? Will it benefit those around you? These are all important considerations.

The topic has been on my mind lately because I've been encountering lots of religious/spiritual paths that I've found intriguing for one reason or another. One path in particular struck me so hard that I ended up carving out an altar space in my little meditation nook that would allow me to properly observe the daily prayer rituals of the tradition. It's a highly syncretic tradition called Caodaism, named after Cao Dai, the supreme being that its founders are said to have communicated with in a seance.

Sun Yat-Sen, Victor Hugo,
and Nguyen Binh Khiem.
Source: Wikipedia.
Caodaism: Vietnam's faith of unity
Caodaism emerged in the 1920s in Vietnam, when Spiritism -- communicating with the Other Side through mediums, divination tools, and the like -- was in vogue. Through these methods, the founders of Caodaism determined that they were to establish a new religion that would usher in a wave of worldwide religious unity. Subsequent seances established a wildly diverse pantheon of Caodai saints, following communication with their spirits. Among them: Descartes, Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur, Joan of Arc, and Victor Hugo. The author of Les Miserables is held in especially high regard, depicted in a painting in the main Caodai temple in Tay Ninh along with Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen and Vietnamese sage Nguyen Binh Khiem. The trio is shown writing out the covenant of Caodaism in French: "Dieu et Humanite, Amour et Justice." God and humanity, love and justice.

If that isn't audacious enough, the statuary at the Tay Ninh temple includes everyone from the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao-tzu to Jesus, Kuan-yin, and the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva -- visible evidence that the Caodaists are serious in their stated goal of creating a world of religious synthesis. It's their belief that the world has seen three great religious ages -- the first being the age that gave rise to some of our most ancient existing traditions, including Judaism and Hinduism; and the second being the era that saw Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity take hold. We now live in the third age, Caodiasts say, an era that will usher in a unity of all religious paths and give rise to a peaceful universal brotherhood.

Jesus shares space in a Caodai temple with the likes of
Kuan-Yin and the Buddha. Source: Wikipedia.
The overarching goal, much as in Buddhism, is to free oneself from the cycle of birth and death. Getting there requires living a life imbued with love, kindness, and respect for all, helping to lay the groundwork for a harmonious world in which we view all religions as originating from the same sacred grain of truth and leading to the same ultimate destination. 

The structure of Caodaism reflects the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, complete with priests, bishops, cardinals, a pope, and even a Holy See -- located at the Tay Ninh temple. One striking difference between the Catholics and the Caodaists, however, is that women can hold all clerical positions, aside from pope. Equality is a central tenet of the faith.

High-ranking temple officials wear robes of either red, blue, or yellow -- representing the three core faiths of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, respectively -- while laypeople dress all in white. Services are held four times a day, every six hours, in an elaborate ceremony of singing and chanting. Overlooking the congregation, at the main altar, is the all-seeing eye of the supreme being, peering down from a globe that remains eternally lit.

That Caodaism took on a form resembling Catholicism was surely not by accident. The French controlled Vietnam at the time the religion took hold. Building a new religious faith that emphasized the traditional East Asian teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, along with Vietnamese folk traditions, and wrapping them all in the framework of the religion of their occupiers, was a masterful way of taking back control over something that belonged to the Vietnamese but that the French officials would at least tolerate.

To that end, the prominence of Victor Hugo in the Caodaist pantheon of saints was no doubt also a calculated move. By the time of Caodaism's founding, Hugo was regarded as a French hero, yet during his life he was highly critical of the Catholic Church, was sent into exile by Napoleon III for his political views, and was known to practice Spiritism himself. Little wonder, then, that the Caodaist founders were able to communicate with Hugo's spirit through seance! The Caodaists clearly saw Hugo as someone who would have been on their side against the French officials. His veneration among the Caodaists, then, can be viewed as a deliciously subversive move on the part of the religion's founders.

The inclusion of Joan of Arc can be seen in much the same way: A French heroine who fought with a liberation army would have been regarded as sympathetic to the cause of Vietnamese independence from its invading oppressors. Her spirit, in seance, was also said to have remarked on Caodaism's ecclesiastical equality for women.

The all-seeing eye.
Not surprisingly, Caodaism became wildly popular among the Vietnamese in short order. It counted millions of followers within a decade of its founding. But it's not had an easy history. In the 1940s, the movement had grown so large that the French had become wary of its growing power and influence. They began shutting down temples and arrested the pope. The Caodaists, in response, organized an army to stand their ground. That army ended up siding with the Japanese against the French during World War II. In the aftermath of Japan's loss, the French arrested more Caodaists, but eventually the occupiers' focus shifted to fighting the Communists, and the French ultimately offered peace to the Caodaists. 

The religion again began to grow, until the fall of Saigon. Starting in 1975, the Communists sent Caodaist dignitaries off to re-education camps and sold off temple properties. Practice of Caodaism was essentially banned throughout the country, though it continued underground. The religion was legalized again in 1997 and continues to be openly practiced, but under the watch of the Communist government, it is not the organization it once was. Divination has been banned, the papacy has remained vacant for decades, and all Caodaist beliefs and practices have to be approved by the government. 

Now Caodaism appears to be treated as something like a religious commodity. The Tay Ninh temple is widely marketed as a tourist destination today, with Western vacationers snapping photos from the balconies during the services, treating the solemnities like an exotic spectacle. Caodaism has, in essence, become a government-controlled source of revenue, allowed to practice with restrictions so long as it can earn money for the state.      

It's difficult to say how many Vietnamese follow Caodaism today, but estimates put the number between 2 million and 6 million. It's reported to be the third largest religion in the nation, behind Buddhism and Catholicism.

But it also exists overseas, thanks to the efforts of those who fled Vietnam and began their lives anew. Estimates say there are around 30,000 practitioners outside Vietnam, from Europe to Australia to the USA and Canada. In America, there are temples in California and Texas, whose architecture mimics those of the temples in Vietnam. There are also smaller groups scattered around the country, some of which meet in what amount to converted living spaces.

Seattle has once such congregation, and after learning about Caodaism, I went to visit it one Sunday a few weeks back. One elderly lady was outside sweeping the concrete entry, and I asked her where I should enter. She said something in Vietnamese and pointed toward a pair of sliding glass doors ahead of me.

I peeked my head in and saw a group of women, all dressed in white, talking and eating. The service was obviously over. Along the far wall was a variety of food on plates, in pans and bowls, and heating in Crock-Pots. As one woman approached, I said I was looking for some information on Caodaism that I could take home with me, and I quickly realized that almost no one there spoke English. With a smile, the woman gestured for me to wait while she went, presumably, to look for someone who could help.

Meanwhile, a kindly old lady was pulling me over to the food on display, putting a plate in my hand, and offering me generous portions of everything. I thanked her as she led me to a table, where another elderly lady was busy packing a plastic bag full of mangoes for me to take home.

What a welcome! I'd read that many diasporic Caodaists viewed the arrival of non-Vietnamese at their temples as a divine sign that their religion might spread to those outside the Vietnamese community. Whether that was the reason for how everyone greeted me or they were just displaying the type of kindness their religion expected of them, I wasn't sure. But either way, it didn't really matter.

A moment later, a woman who spoke English greeted me warmly. Reaching for some books on a shelf near the door, she handed me all the information the Seattle worship group had available in English. We spoke a bit longer, talking about our lives, backgrounds, and families. When I mentioned that I'm the father of a 4-year-old, she smiled, said she was a mom, and opined that the way we feel about our children is how God feels about all of us. "He's our daddy and wants us to be happy," she said. I thought that was a pleasant way to look at it.      

She pointed me to some websites and gave me her e-mail address in case I had any questions. Thanks to her, I was able to study Caodaism much more deeply and find some prayers in English online.

The truth, though, is that not much about Caodaism has been translated out of Vietnamese, and what has been translated is not in graceful English. I've recited the daily prayers in my meditation space -- and so far I'm not connecting with the teachings as I thought I might.

I'm not giving up yet. I still want to go to a Caodai service, as I've been invited but just haven't had the time yet, although I'm afraid I'm going to feel terribly out of place. Heck, I feel out of place in the Shingon temple, even when part of the Shingon service, including the dharma talk, is in English, and the congregants are a mixture of Japanese-American and Caucasian. I'm aware that this is my hang-up. I know the Caodaists want outsiders to test and embrace their faith -- that's sort of a central point of Caodaism.

So we'll see. I doubt that I'll actually become a full-fledged Caodaist. I still feel most at home in Buddhism, and in particular in the Shingon temple. But it's nice to think I might be able to integrate something into my home practice that will allow me to pay my respects to three other spiritual paths that have had a lasting influence on me -- Taoism, Confucianism, and Christianity.

The left (meaning yang, meaning male) eye
of Caodai's supreme being.
I admit that I'm also not completely comfortable with the notion of the supreme being in Caodaism. One reason Buddhism feels comfortable to me is that it doesn't speculate on the existence of such beings -- it's irrelevant to the pursuit of enlightenment. I'm agnostic on the matter, and the Caodaists clearly are not, with their central symbol of the all-seeing eye making it quite obvious that they believe that while our "daddy" may love us and want the best for us, he's also eternally watching us.

And finally, I do have some reservations about the notion that Caodaism promotes equality yet embraces the idea of a patriarchal divinity. Caodaists do also recognize a celestial Holy Mother, but they believe that she is subordinate to Cao Dai, and that she was created out of his essence -- much as Eve was created from Adam's rib -- to rule over the yin energy of the universe while Cao Dai governed the yang. (I'll have more to say about the sacred feminine in a future post.)

In the end, maybe I'll just find a way to observe Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism without adding on a religion to do so.

Baha'i: one human family
Meanwhile, my curiosity has led me to study some other religious paths as well. I visited our local Baha'i center, and since there was no one around at the time, I later sent an e-mail requesting information. I was intrigued to find out that Baha'is, like Quakers, have no clergy -- but they also have no established worship services. I love their commitment to fostering world peace, furthering social justice, and eliminating prejudice to see humanity as a global family. Like the Caodaists, they believe in religious unity.

But also like the Caodaists, the Baha'is seem to take the existence of a male monotheistic god as a given. And they also don't appear to have the most enlightened attitudes toward the LGBT community, holding that marriage can only be between a man and a woman and that the only proper expression of sexuality is within marriage.

Source: Wikipedia.
Konkokyo: the peaceful, joyous heart
Onward, then, to Konkokyo. I came across Seattle's Konko Church completely by accident, as I was driving around to find a place to park so I could see the Bon Odori celebration at Seattle's Pure Land Buddhist temple. Konkokyo, I found, began in 19th-century Japan, after its founder, Ikigami Konko Daijin, began receiving messages from Tenchi Kane No Kami, a divine being who is said to be synonymous with the universe -- similar to how Shingon Buddhists view Dainichi Nyorai.

Since Kami is omnipresent, including within ourselves, we simply reunite with his spirit when we die -- there is no belief in reincarnation. Instead, the focus is on expressing gratitude for what we have in life, in this very moment, by cultivating a "peaceful, joyous heart," as one of the ministers expressed it at the service I attended.

All followers are also urged to pray daily to Kami. Central to the faith is a "Divine Reminder" -- a simple recitation that temples and many followers keep framed and displayed. It reads as follows:

Through Ikigami Konko Daijin,
To Tenchi Kane No Kami,
Pray with a single heart.
The divine favor depends
Upon one's own heart.
On this very day pray.

The Divine Reminder originated in the midst of the Meiji-era purge, when Konkokyo and other religions were being persecuted in Japan. The founder would write the reminder on slips of paper and hand them to his followers.

But the most striking feature of Konkokyo is surely its practice of mediation. This tradition also began with the faith's founder. In essence, practitioners come to a Konko priest with a question or concern, similar to a Catholic confessional. But instead of being given penance, the Konko priest communicates with Kami and delivers the divine message to the practitioner. 

That's quite a hotline to the divine, but if it's understood that Kami resides everywhere, even within us, then it stands to reason that followers could in theory get the same answers they do in mediation by simply listening to their own hearts. But that's just the observation of one person who's been to one service and done a little bit of reading on the faith. I have nothing against it and actually quite like its philosophy. 

And the people I met at the church could not have been nicer -- they certainly were living out their faith on the day I was there, approaching me with a joyous, peaceful heart. They knew I was coming because of some e-mail communication I'd had before the day of the service, and you'd think they'd never greeted a visitor before. People were shaking my hand, asking about my life, what interested me in Konkokyo, making sure I took home plenty of reading materials, and on and on. I happened to show up on the day of the church's annual barbecue, and I had a chance to speak with one of the ministers while we ate. He was very kind and informative and hoped to see me again. 

My encounter with the head priest was brief. He's been a Konko minister for well over half a century, as I understand it, and is now in his 90s and very frail. The day I attended, he was present for the ceremony, but his three assistants -- two Caucasians and one fellow who I'm guessing was Japanese-American -- carried out most of the proceedings. The head priest did ask for my name and the names of my family members after the service. I wrote them down for him and thanked him, assuming he was going to pray for us. His English was quite limited, so communication wasn't easy. If I'd wanted a mediation, I'm guessing I would have needed a translator.

Shinto, Theosophy, and pagan ponderings
Going from one Kami to many kami, I recently decided to visit the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, about an hour north of Seattle. It's one of only two Shinto shrines on the American mainland, and it's a beautiful place, nestled in the woods along a winding, rocky river. Shinto, of course, is the native Japanese religion, and the Shinto notion of the supernatural is much different from how we're conditioned to think of it in the West. In essence, there is no separation between our world and the world of the kami, as their spirits can imbue anything, from rivers to trees to rocks. But some kami are also personified, including Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess, who is one of six kami enshrined at Tsubaki. 

Thinking about Amaterasu and her role as the "head" kami (more or less) got me thinking even more about the role of the female in divine mythologies, and how modern religious/spiritual society seems to have shunned the female in favor of the male. That thought in turn got me reading about paganism and Wicca, which both have a strong veneration of the female -- but that's something I'm still in the early stages of exploring. 

Symbol of the Theosophical Society.
A trip to Quest Books, a Theosophical bookstore in Seattle, led me to some good resources on paganism, and it also sort of brought my recent spiritual excursions full circle, as the Spiritist influence on Caodaism owed much to the esoteric realms of spirituality that the Theosophists were exploring at the time. The Theosophical Society once groomed Jiddu Krishnamurti to be a World Teacher, and it never fully recovered when Krishnamurti broke away and distanced himself from the group. But its teachings live on -- and as reflected in the tenets of the Caodiasts and the Baha'is alike, the Theosophists believe strongly in a universal brotherhood that transcends race, sex, religion, or social standing.  

For now, I can say I've taken a liking to Amaterasu, and I purchased an Amaterasu ofuda at the Shinto shrine to place in my meditation nook. An ofuda is a symbol of a particular kami, blessed by a Shinto priest and intended to be a focal point for prayers in the home. By its side is a little statue of Benzaiten, one of the Japanese Seven Lucky Gods, and the goddess of all that flows -- water, music, speech, writing, eloquence in general. She's not part of the Shinto pantheon, but for now she takes her spot among the growing influence of the divine feminine on my meditation refuge. 

I'm also interested to see where my interest in Shinto will go, if anywhere. I get the sense that it's hard for non-Japanese to relate fully to the Shinto experience, though its focus on the natural world puts me in the mind of Taoism. Both are nature-based -- as are the pagan traditions that are based more on the ancient religions of Northern and Western Europe.

Could I build a pagan-ish practice around Eastern nature-based religions like Shinto? At this point I have no idea. But as always, I'm looking forward to learning more -- and I won't hesitate to entertain a thought without accepting it, if that's what my heart calls me to do. I love studying world religions, but that doesn't mean I'm going to find a way to fit in every single one that I examine. 

Sometimes the personal enrichment that comes from the process of examining is enough in itself. I heartily recommend this approach for anyone looking to expand his or her horizons on the world. Having a deeper understanding of how our neighbors access the Divine can only create a more tolerant world. And that is a good thing indeed.

Source: Pinterest.

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