From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 12
© 1990 Far West Editions
A Talk by John Blofeld
July 13, 1978
In 1933, at
the age of twenty, John Blofeld left his native
Friends, this is
my very first trip to
All of this has been deeply
inspiring to me, all the more so as the reverse trend is taking place
Now this brings me to the question I have been
asked to talk about this evening: to what extent are the various religions and
sects compatible with one another? Here in
This is the question I put to myself yesterday when I was preparing this talk. I am not going to give you a definite answer to this question because I don’t think I have the wisdom to do that. What I am proposing to do this evening is to talk for a few minutes about the reasons I think there is a need for all of us to work together to combine the different paths, then to talk for another few minutes about the reasons why this is either difficult or quite impossible, and then finally to make some suggestions as to the extent to which we can work together.
Now I think not only our modern counter-culture, but maybe all the religious aspects of any kind of culture in this world since the beginning of time, all arise from one source. Throughout history and pre-history there have always been human beings who have felt that getting our daily bread and butter, producing our children, and dying do not represent the whole of life. If there is not more in life than that, then we might just as well be dead, because life viewed from that perspective involves so many difficulties, troubles, boring moments and tragic moments, that it simply isn’t worth living.
Though I speak to you in this way, I may assure you that I am a very happy man and I value my life, but it is because I see something that goes way beyond this eating and procreation and earning the money to do those two things. Today nobody seems to be very sure what this something is. In the past, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims felt very sure that they knew the answer. But now we don’t have that certainty. We just feel, “Well, yes, there is something there,” but we don’t know what it is. We don’t know if it is a God—a being who stands above the world—or a state of being.
You know, in Chinese Taoism there is no idea of God as a personal being, but there is a kind of worship or respect for the Tao, which is a state of being. And Buddhists, generally speaking, hold the same view.
They have many different names for that supreme state of being that might be called reality. It can be called one mind, or it can be called the womb of all created things, or it can be called nirvana, according to which aspect of that state you’re emphasizing, but there’s no thought of a personal divinity.
So the first question is, “Is there a God or anything over and above what we see in our rather shoddy little daily lives?” The second question is, “Is God a person, or a state of being, or different from both of these?” To answer the first question, I feel sure there is Something or Someone because otherwise why should people all through history be moved to believe quite passionately in the existence of that ultimate good? As to whether that ultimate good is a being or a state of being, I think it simply doesn’t matter. It is something so far beyond our human comprehension that anything we say about it is sure to be wrong or very limited. Let’s not waste time on futile arguments which cannot be resolved in that way. You will go to your grave convinced that God is a being and I will go to my grave convinced that God is a state of being, and neither of us will change, however much the other argues. The Buddha always refused to answer questions concerning the origin of the universe and so on. His attitude was that any question to which the answer is purely speculative is simply not worth dealing with, because all you get is speculation. Instead of spending your time and your energy speculating on how and why the world began you’d better use that time and energy to lead some kind of spiritual life aimed at the improvement of yourself, in order that you may be of more service to sentient beings. All the whys and wherefores and bows and whats should be forgotten.
Well then, let me repeat: I think that many of us are convinced that there is something over and above the world as reported to us by our senses. This something is quite wonderful and exercises a fascinating power that draws us to some form of spiritual practice, whether or not we belong to any particular religion. This is the basis on which we may, to some extent, work together. I think you will also agree with me that all religions, including whichever religion you personally happen to belong to, are only approximations of the truth.
It’s very hard to believe that any one religion in the world has got hold of the whole truth. All religions are reflections of man’s desire to get in touch with that Something or Someone, and we have tried to picture that Something or Someone in our minds. The picture we have built up may be quite a good reflection of the truth but it is only approximate, like the reflection of the moon or the sun in rather disturbed water. You can see there’s something bright there but you cannot see the form perfectly because the water is disturbed. And so our minds are disturbed by desires, longings and passions, and as long as the mind is like this we’ll never have a perfect reflection of what lies beyond. Incidentally, every time I use the word “beyond” I want to scold myself, because I don’t think that that something or being is “up there.” It’s here; it’s right in us and part of us. The whole world, what Buddhists call samsara, this world of suffering and misery, is nirvana. The world of plurality is the undifferentiated point. So we’re not merely trying to get from somewhere to somewhere else—as one would say, from samsara into nirvana, from the world into heaven—but we’re trying to create within ourselves a revolution of mind which will let us see the reality in front of us from a totally different point of view from that which results from relying on our senses, with all the false and imperfect data they report to us.
So then, religions are all
approximations of truth: they all contain concepts which are
approximations of a reality that is beyond our comprehension. Therefore,
the true religion must be a religion beyond all religions. To that extent we
may feel, “Well, why shouldn’t we all combine and be Buddhists and
Christians and Muslims and Shintoists all at the same time?” Before
going into the question of whether that’s possible let’s glance at some
points of history. We see that, on the whole, the Greeks and Romans
in ancient times had no difficulty in accepting many religions at
the same time. Those of you who know your Christian Bible will remember the reference to the
Greek who set up
an altar to the unknown god. We all know from history how the Greeks and Romans borrowed
Then we come to
Very recently, in
From what we have observed about the ancient Greeks, Romans, and East Asians, it seems that we could argue in favor of a kind of universal religion in which all the ways would be combined. On the other hand, the revealed religions, the religions of the book—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—would find it difficult to accept the idea of a universal religion because each conceives of truth as something that is expressed in a particular book—the Talmud, the Bible, or the Koran.
In the past, Buddhists were
very clever at dealing with this kind of thing. If you go to
different Buddhist countries, such as
The Catholics. to a very small extent, have done the same. In the South of Italy, for example, you can see statues of the Madonna with all the attributes of the goddess Diana. The Christians also kept up the old feast of Christmas, which goes back to the Druids and the pre-Christian religions. Protestants on the whole have been much less broad-minded and less willing to make any kind of compromise. You can’t imagine John Knox, Martin Luther, or Calvin making pleasant compromises with religions other than their own.
Now, what can be said further in favor of the idea of coming as close together as possible and accepting everybody else’s belief as a valid way of reaching the truth? First, all religions aim at the spiritual development of their followers, and nearly all of them preach a very similar ethical code: trying to be unselfish, trying to help and not hurt other people, trying to be honest and sincere. In addition, all these different religions aim at what might be called devotion to something lying beyond the world of our five senses; all recognize that Something, although they describe it very differently. In this way, also, all religious people are seeking the same goal: contact with, or union with, or knowledge of that Someone or Something. And all religions, or nearly all, have the same attitude toward materialism: that it is a deadly thing, limiting our lives in ways that make them hardly worth living.
Prayer is another practice
in common among different religions. Christians pray to God or to the Holy
Virgin and get results from their prayers. 1 pray to
the goddess Kwan Yin and get results from my prayers. Other people pray to
I am reminded here of a story told by a Chinese friend of mine who was born into a Buddhist family but who later converted to Catholicism. He got lost in the mountains and prayed ardently to the Holy Virgin to come and help him out. The Holy Virgin duly appeared in front of him, dressed in her traditional white and blue, and brought him to a nice cave where he slept very comfortably on a warm bed. In the morning when he woke up he found the cave was there but the niee bed wasn’t: he’d been sleeping on a bed of flints and stones. A few days after that he went to a Buddhist temple where he saw a picture that reminded him of his childhood and made him realize that the lady he had mistaken for the Holy Virgin was actually a Chinese goddess, an attendant of Kwan Yin. Then he thought, “Well, 1 prayed to the Holy Virgin but when Kwan Yin answered me she didn’t want to give me a shock so she sent her number two along because number two happens to favor the same kind of dress—white and blue—as the Holy Virgin. When I saw this number two in the white and blue I thought it was the Virgin to whom I prayed.”
We have talked about the pros. What about the cons? What do we have against the possibility of a universal religion? Although Buddhism and Taoism are quite remarkable among religions in that they have no dogma whatsoever, you could not persuade a Buddhist or a Taoist to believe in a personal deity like the Allah of Islam or the God of Christianity. That would be absolutely out for him. There’s no dogma to prevent it, but his whole faith has been based on the premise that there is no creator god, that the universe is a creation of mind and reflects a divine state of being, not a person. Conversely, you would rarely find Christians, Jews, or Muslims prepared to give up the idea of a creator god. If they did, they would be thrown out of their respective religions. I mean their co-religionists would not accept a Christian who did not believe in God or who did not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. He could go on calling himself a Christian, but his fellow Christians would say, “No, sorry, he’s not.”
Secondly, Buddhists, Taoists, and sonic others arc, to a certain extent, pantheists, accepting the idea that the world, the universe, is God. God is not standing up there, apart from his creation. The body of the universe is the body of God. The stuff of the universe is mind stuff.
The third major difference concerns the doctrine of rebirth. Hindus, Buddhists, and sonic others believe in a great long series of rebirths. On the other hand, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism teach that we have only one life in this world and only one more birth, which will go on forever, in Heaven or in Hell.
There’s really no way to reconcile these three differences. All we can do is accept that our fellow human beings are seeking the ultimate in their own way. And even if we think the others are wrong we don’t need to get upset. We can recognize that, although these other people seem to be wrong in sonic particulars, they too are following a path, are aiming at the same goals we are.
Another problem, perhaps a
more important one, even within each individual religion, is the question of
method. In early Chinese Taoism, we have a method I have called “agnostic nature mysticism.”
It would seem that Lao Tse, the author of the Tao
Te Ching, may not have been a thorough-going mystic
like Meister Eckhardt or
And there are other methods:
we have the high mysticism of the Buddha,
Then there is the Christian notion that if you have faith enough, this faith will be effective in helping you to develop spiritually. There is also the Christian doctrine of grace, which suggests that you don’t have to do anything except hope that you are one of the people on whom the grace of God will fall. On the other hand, the doctrine of good works affirms that if you spend a lot of your time helping other people, teaching them or saving their lives, you will build up merit, which will help you along the spiritual path. Then there is the doctrine of asceticism, found especially among Sephardic Jews, which asserts that the more you hurt your body, the better for you spiritually. The doctrine of devotion states that you should not be concerned with rewards: just love God or Lord Krishna and forget about the rewards, just love for the sake of love. In addition, you get combinations of all of these doctrines: faith together with good works, devotion together with good works, and so on.
Some of these methods and doctrines can be easily combined, but others cannot. If you believe, as Calvinists do, wholly in the doctrine of grace, then, whatever you do, you cannot save yourself. If you are lucky, God will choose you to be one of the elect; even if you misbehave you will still be one of the elect. But if He has not chosen you, even though you try to be the best man or woman who ever lived, you will not achieve Heaven. This doctrine is simply riot compatible with the doctrine of other Christians of the same period who taught that everything depends on good works: if you love your neighbor as you love yourself and devote your life to your community, you will win grace.
Within Buddhism we also
have two doctrines which are seemingly incompatible. First is the
main Buddhist doctrine that all spiritual life depends entirely on your own
effort, that no god, no goddess, no Buddha can help you along the road; they can show you the
path, but this
is a path you have to walk yourself. But also within the tradition of Buddhism are the Pure Land
Buddhists who say that if you have faith in Amitabha and repeat his name—”Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha” with one-pointed
mind, you can attain a state, known as entering the Pure Land,
which prepares you for nirvana. The
Well, then, we have seen some of the reasons for believing that we could have a perfectly unified religion and some of the reasons for thinking that this might be totally impossible. Now we come to the last point: having reviewed these two possibilities, what conclusions do we draw? As I said before, I don’t feel in a position to give you decisive judgments about this. What I am going to say now will simply take the form of my own suggestions; they are conclusions that satisfy me, but they may not be right conclusions.
I will put it this way. First, we have concepts: whether we conceive of God as a being or as a state, as apart from the universe or as identical with the universe. If you believe in God but I believe in no personal God, then you have to go on believing your way and I have to go on believing my way. I can try to persuade you to believe my way, or you can try to persuade me to believe your way, but our beliefs cannot go together. There is a deep conflict there which cannot be resolved.
On the other hand, we can realize that our spiritual development is bringing us closer and closer together and that concepts don’t matter too much, because any concept is far behind the reality which it represents: the unnameable, unthinkable reality lying beyond.
As for methods, I think it’s very good, at the beginning of our spiritual quest, when we first come to feel that life has a meaning and that we should embark on some kind of spiritual path, to experiment with many kinds of paths. Sooner or later we will find that one path suits us individually more than others. Then, let us take that one, but never in the spirit of “I am now on the right path and everybody else is on the wrong path.” No, we follow our own path, but we accept the validity of other people’s paths.
The further we go, the less
the different methods will matter. Ultimately, all methods
converge. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have either four lower ones involve all
kinds of rituals and the use of mantras, mudras, visualizations and
meditations. By the time you reach the highest level, you abandon all methods and all practices. So
when we start off we are following entirely
different paths; we have different practices, different beliefs, different
concepts. But the nearer we get to the truth, the less those differences will matter. I think of it
sometimes as a
Then we follow our own paths, but always with respect for other people’s paths and always with the notion that we cannot guarantee that our way is right and other people’s ways are wrong. If we are loving and helpful to others, if we truly desire to behold the face of truth, then whatever god may be out there or in here will surely forgive our ignorance and account us good men. Once an Episcopal priest, when my children were born, said, “Look here, John Blofeld, you are an Englishman, but you have become a Buddhist. I’m very sorry for that, although I like you as a man. Don’t condemn your children; let them be baptized, and they can ultimately decide if they want to become Buddhists.” I said to this priest, “Is your God so cruel that if I don’t have my children baptized he is going to punish them for the pig-headedness of their father?” And he saw the point at once. So if the Christian God is everything He is supposed to be, He is not going to send you and me to Hell because we have conceived of Him in some different way, providing we live our lives, not selfishly for our own aggrandizement, our own pleasure, but for the sake of all living beings. Then, however many mistakes we make in our concept of God, if He is a God worth having He will surely forgive us. If, on the other hand, there is no God, if God is an impersonal Tao which is not conscious of its own creativity, the Tao certainly doesn’t want any recognition from us. If we fail to give it recognition, that’s fine; if we give it recognition, that’s fine too.
So there really is no need for fear. In the past, so many religious people have been ruled by fear—unless we do this and this we are going to be condemned to Hell. No, this is impossible to believe. Would God, who is able to create this extraordinary universe with all its millions and millions of worlds, be so mean and petty as to burn you and me forever just because we made a mistake in our way of thinking of Him? Of course not. So fear can be banished.
We follow the religion of our own choice because it suits us best, and always with a view to doing what is good for others. This means daily reducing our egoism until we reach the point of recognizing the ego as a non-existent entity, as a ghost with no reality, and daily increasing our compassion, doing more and more for other sentient beings, whether they are humans, animals, or spirits, even those horrible fiery demons. If we meet them we should be friends with them, not want to destroy them. We should never want to destroy anybody or any kind of living being. In the long run, we find that we are a part of other living beings to such an extent that if I punch you on the nose, I’m hurting myself. If I punch you on the nose, I am punching every being in the world on the nose, including this one. No one -would be so stupid as to try and punch himself on the nose. So we should just give up hostility.
We have found in our modern world no way to happiness through materialism. This is only the outer aspect of life. There is some secret. If we could solve that, if we could find that secret, then we would see that this is a beautiful universe in which we live, that every stone of this universe, every grain of sand, is in itself nirvana. This is what we look for. We use our different ways. We don’t foolishly try to combine the uncombinable. But we go along in fellowship with one another. We cannot all belong to the same religion, but we can all unite in our struggle against the materialism that will otherwise rob our children and our grandchildren of their birthright as sentient beings.