Recently I have been reading about different world religions, some of which I had virtually no knowledge, mainly: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taosim and Shintoism. These are the main religions of the Far East (India, China, Japan). As is obvious from the countries, the number of adherents to these faiths is well over two billion. My readings on these have only be superficial, but what I have gleaned up till now is the very different approach to God and The Divine that these Eastern religions have from traditional Western religions. As someone from the West, I have been completely inured to a relationship with God based on Judeo-Christian theology: sin, redemption, heaven vs. hell, good vs. evil, God as personal agent in history revealed through prophets and historical events such as the life of Christ, etc. God is one and only one, all powerful, an agent of history, a God of ethical morality and justice, the creator of the universe, a numinous power beyond all our comprehension and to whom we are completely indebted for everything. With Christianity he is also a God of personal love and devotion.
At present I don’t have much to say on this in depth, except that what impresses me about the Eastern religions is the emphasis on mysticism and personal connection with the Divine, as opposed to the often legalistic dogmatism of much of Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular), a dogmatism which is often propagated and enforced by a clerical elite. The religions of the East seems less linear than Western religion, which emphasize the historical role of God in personal and social redemption. Hinduism, which is the world’s oldest continuous religion, perhaps as old as 4000 years (the oldest religious texts, the Vedas, were written around 1500 BC), is replete with a myriad of gods, divinities, and sects. The rigid dualism of good vs. evil which is such a part of Western religion seems less so in these Eastern approaches. There also seems to be less strife among the different faiths. The Eastern religions often mingle and coexists peacefully, and it is not uncommon to see elements different religions practiced by one individual. For instance, Buddhism and Taoism are often overlapped. No major war has ever been waged in the name of Buddhism, unlike with Christianity or Islam. There almost seems to be a sense of a greater personal freedom for the individual to find his own path to God. Recently I have become disillusioned with the stern dogmatism of much of contempory Christianity, not to the point of abandoning it all together, but to the point of questioning many of the fundamental elements of the religion which give rise to such a dogmatism. The internet is especially replete with heresy hunters.
Now, as far the spiritual goals of Eastern religions, and especially through the powerful influence of Buddhism, one of the main ideas seems to be the need to detach yourself from the world in order to gain enlightenment, and therefore a kind of union with the Divine. There does not seem to be a notion of the inherent sinfulness of man, something which we need to be cleansed from, as in Western religions, but rather the idea that we need to strive through prayer and meditation to overcome our baser natures, so that we can be open to the Divine. There is also the notion of reincarnation and freeing oneself from the endless cycles of birth and rebirth through spiritual practice. Again, my knowledge of this is sketchy, so these are only rudimentary thoughts. Taoism and Shintoism, the religions of China and Japan, also seem to have a particular sensitivity to the beauties and rhythms of nature as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment and union with the God. This sensitivity to nature is familiar to some movements in the West. As Ninian Smart states in The Religious Experience of Mankind, in describing Chinese Buddhism tinted with Taoism, “This nature-mysticism has its analogies in other cultures, in Wordsworth, for instance.”
Now I do not plan on converting to these religions, but learning about them has given me a deeper insight into the ways in which people around the world have been searching for God and the The Divine for thousands of years. I can respect their traditions and approaches. It makes me realize how all of us are somehow seeking a spiritual truth, and that there are different paths to that Truth. That only increases my own faith in God.
Also, there is more openness to sex and sexual pleasure as a legitimate means of spiritual union with others, and the dark, almost sinister sexual pessimism of much of Christian thought is lacking, but that is a topic for another post.
As far as the love and spiritual appreciation of nature inherent in Eastern religions, I found it interesting that Smart should make an analogy between the nature mysticism of Eastern religions and the English Romantics. Wordsworth is a good example of English Romanticism’s love of nature, but perhaps an even better example would be Coleridge’s great poem, Kubla Khan. Although Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote this tiny masterpiece while high on opium, it nevertheless expresses in a haunting way the strangeness and surreal beauty that is often found in Eastern religions.
I decided to post the poem in its entirety here. It is one of my favorites. I don’t think there is poem in English which better expresses a kind of Eastern mysticism.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:
And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.