these opening lines on a day widely celebrated throughout Christendom as
World-Wide Communion Sunday. The sermon in the service I attended this
morning dwelt on Christianity as a world phenomenon. From mud huts in
Africa to the Canadian tundra, Christians are kneeling today to receive
the elements of the Holy Eucharist. It is an impressive picture.
|Still, as I listened with half my mind, the other half wandered to the
wider company of God-seekers. I thought of the Yemenite Jews I watched six
months ago in their synagogue in Jerusalem: dark-skinned men sitting
shoeless and cross-legged on the floor, wrapped in the prayer shawls their
ancestors wore in the desert. They are there today, at least a quorum of
ten, morning and evening, swaying backwards and forwards like camel riders
as they recite their Torah, following a form they inherit unconsciously
from the centuries when their fathers were forbidden to ride the desert
horse and developed this pretense in compensation. Yalcin, the Muslim
architect who guided me through the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, has completed
his month’s Ramadan fast, which was beginning while we were together; but
he too is praying today, five times as he prostrates himself toward Mecca.
Swami Ramakrishna, in his tiny house by the Ganges at the foot of the
Himalayas, will not speak today. He will continue the devotional silence
that, with the exception of three days each year, he has kept for five
years. By this hour U Nu is probably facing the delegations, crises, and
cabinet meetings that are the lot of a prime minister, but from four to
six this morning, before the world broke over him, he too was alone with
the eternal in the privacy of the Buddhist shrine that adjoins his home in
Rangoon. Dai Jo and Lai San, Zen monks in Kyoto, were ahead of him by an
hour. They have been up since three this morning, and until eleven tonight
will spend most of the day sitting immovable in the lotus position as they
seek with intense absorption to plumb the Buddha-nature that lies at the
center of their being.
|All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each
voice in turn as it addresses the divine. Such listening defines the
purpose of this book. It may be wondered if the purpose is not too broad.
The religions we propose to consider belt the world. Their histories
stretch back thousands of years, and they are motivating more people today
than ever before. Is it possible to listen seriously to them within the
compass of a single book?
|1. This is not a textbook in the history of religions. This explains the
scarcity of names, dates, and social influences in what follows.
Historical facts are limited here to the minimum that is needed to locate
in space and time the ideas the book focuses on.
2. Even in the realm of meanings the book does not attempt to give a
rounded view of the religions considered, for each hosts differences that
are too numerous to be delineated in a single chapter.
3. This book is not a balanced account of its subject. The warning is
important. A balanced view of religion would include human sacrifice
and scapegoating, fanaticism and persecution, the Christian Crusades and
the holy wars of Islam. It would include witch hunts in Massachusetts,
monkey trials in Tennessee, and snake worship in the Ozarks. The list
would have no end.
4. Finally, this is not a book on comparative religions in the sense of
seeking to compare their worth. Comparisons always tend to be odious,
those among religions the most odious of all. So there is no assumption
here that one religion is, or for that matter is not, superior to others .
“There is no one alive today,” Arnold Toynbee observed, “who knows enough
to say with confidence whether one religion has been greater than all
saying what this book is not, I have already started to say what it
is, but let me be explicit.
1. It is a book that seeks to embrace the world. The book is incorrigibly
Western in being targeted for the contemporary Western mind. Twenty-five
hundred years ago it took an exceptional man like Diogenes to exclaim,
not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.”
Today we must all be struggling to make those words our own.
2. It is a book that takes religion seriously. It is not a tourist guide.
There will be no pandering to curiosity seekers, no riffling through
peoples’ faiths to light on what has shock value; no ascetics on beds of
nails, no crucifixions among Penitentes in Mexico, no Parsi Towers of
Silence that expose the dead for vultures’ consumption, no erotic
sculpture or excursions into Tantric sex . The great religions house such
material, but to focus on it is the crudest kind of vulgarization.
Science makes major contributions to minor needs, Justice Holmes was fond
of saying, adding that religion, however small its successes, is at least
at work on the things that matter most.
“Who are …the greatest benefactors of the living generation of mankind?”
Toynbee asked . “I should say: ‘Confucius and Laotze, the Buddha, the
Prophets of Israel and Judah, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed and
3. Finally, this book makes a real effort to communicate. I think of it as
a work of translation, one that tries not only to penetrate the worlds of
the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, but to throw bridges from those worlds
to the reader’s world.
We are about to begin a voyage in space and time and eternity. The places
will often be distant, the times remote, the themes beyond space and time
altogether. We shall have to use words that are foreign— Sanskrit,
Chinese, and Arabic. We shall try to describe states of consciousness that
words can only hint at. We shall use logic to try to corner insights that
laugh at our attempt. And ultimately, we shall fail; being ourselves of a
different cast of mind, we shall never quite understand the religions that
are not our own. But if we take those religions seriously, we need not