In the past ten years or so I have developed an interest in alternative religions and philosophies. After spending a good portion of the summer reading books on Zen Buddhism and other such systems of thought, I stumbled upon The Varieties of Religious Experience , by William James. A book first published by a New England academic, and brother of novelist, Henry James, in 1902, I thought this book would have little connection to what I had previously been reading, but it was cited so often in more modern books on spiritualism I took to the 500 page tome with not great enthusiasm, as I would required reading for a class.
Through my experiences over my life, I have gone from a devout Catholic as a boy, to an atheist as a young man, to now believing in a higher power or energy that exists in the universe that may be impossible to explain or name in inherently limited human language. I also believe that this higher power can be accessed personally by those seeking connection with it.
I think all religions come from human effort to put this divine force in us into terms people can understand through use of symbols and allegory. I was expecting this book to compare the value of the religions of the day, with the primary concerns over the different kinds of Christianity. To my surprise, James undertook the mission to look at individuals’ religious experiences of varied faith and tried to judge the impact of spirituality on people’s lives.
This approach interested me, but when James started to relate some of the religious experiences of his subjects, I was captivated. They all seemed very familiar to me. When describing their profound spiritual events, I found that many of James’s subjects express the same sentiments and use nearly the same words in description as many Zen Buddhists have telling about their enlightenment experiences.
There are many significant common threads that are seen in most authentic religious experiences regardless of what faith the person comes from. Among these include a sense of oneness, a state of bliss, love for all things, and immediate insight or understanding. There are several others, but I will take just these for the time being and give a few examples of how people speaking from different lands, eras, and spiritual backgrounds all seem to be talking about the same things.
Zen quotes, from people of the far past as well as contemporaries, from the Far East as well as from the West, will come from the books The Three Pillars of Zen by Phillip Kapleau and The Master, The Monks, and I by Gerta Ital. The Varieties of Religious Experience will provide quotes from people of different Christian denominations and more transcendental thinkers that abounded in New England in the 19th century (Another interesting thing I learned from this book: Ralph Waldo Emerson was James’s godfather).
The first of these links we find in great spiritual events is the feeling of oneness or union with the universe around you. A couple quotes from Zen practitioners who have attained kensho, or the first glimpse into enlightenment, will set the tone for this discussion. One says, “All that was left was Being as such, pure and unadulterated. I was one with Being itself, and thus with all existence.” Another tells us, “I was, but I was neither the subject nor the object of this consciousness. I WAS this consciousness, which alone existed. There were no objects. The world was not, neither the body nor the mind -- no thought, no motion; time also ceased to exist.”
Compare to the words of John Trevor, a Unitarian Minister working around the turn of the 20th Century: “It was in the most real seasons that the Real Presence came, and I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God.” The English poet J.A. Symonds adds, “At last nothing remained but a pure, absolute, abstract self. The universe became without form and void of content. But Self persisted.” A deep feeling of oneness and union with the universe or God seems to be indispensible to profound experiences witnessed by these people.
Bliss and a deep feeling of love usually accompany this oneness. One Zen adept describes it to us as, “This knowledge, ... was accompanied by indescribable bliss. ... it wasn't bliss about something, the unity itself was the bliss.” A master instructs us to, “Be a mountain, a river, a tree, a flower. Be one with all beings, then you will have the great all-embracing Love.”
James quotes Walt Whitman in a similar vein. The great poet tells us, “I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,/ And I know that all the men ever born are also my brothers and the women my sisters and lovers,/ And that a kelson of the creation is love.” The Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross calls his experiences ‘the union of love,’ and tells us that, “There, in this abyss of wisdom, the soul grows by what it drinks in from the well-springs of the comprehension of love.” It would make sense that the feeling of being one with all things would be accompanied by a love of all things, since the realization is that you are not separate from these other people and things as previously thought before.
Next, I will discuss instant insight or understanding. Now, I am not saying these things are a progression, or cause one another, they rather appear to happen all simultaneously with the experience, but they must be listed in some order. Sometimes the experience is brought on by the sudden understanding of a question or problem or the person emerges out of the experience with new knowledge. Martin Luther, one of the most reasonable and sober religious voices tells of one of his experiences saying, "I have it! I know! There is nothing, absolutely nothing. I am everything and everything is nothing!" Saint Teresa also tells us that during one of her ‘unions with God,’ God made her “understand how the three adorable persons form only one God.
This insight into reality comes from being connected to the infinite. Buddhist and Taoist traditions stress direct transmission of teaching from master to student. The true heart of the teaching can never be put into words, and the student can’t fully understand his teacher until he has reached the critical point on his own. The first line of The Tao Te Ching (which happens to be tattooed in Chinese on my back) says, “The Way that has a name is not the eternal Way.” Human words cannot express the divine, so only through direct experience can we understand it. One traditional expression used by a student who has received his first glimpse of kensho is to exclaim, “The Buddha and the Patriarchs have not lied to me!” This reflects this instant insight into a new reality. Whereas before he could only read the words of the Buddhas and take their words as an abstract truth, he now also has direct connection and knowledge of this truth.
So what does all this mean? To me, it means that there is a common source for all religious and spiritual feeling. Those who have climbed to the highest peaks of human experience have come down from the mountain all telling pretty much the exact same story. The differences between dogma and denominations come only from how these stories are interpreted and what symbols the prophet in question uses to try to explain it. Recent studies in neurology have shown that when we compare Tibetan Buddhist monks meditating to Franciscan monks praying to God the same areas of the brain are activated. If one is praying to the true lord and the others are heathens, wouldn't you think they’d be using a different part of the brain? Another noteworthy part of this on-going study shows that activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, which is the area of the brain which largely orients our body in space and time, is decreased from normal during prayer or meditation. From this we can deduce that this spiritual activity works only when our bond with time, or our body, or our so-called reality is weakened.
As James says near the close of his book,
"When we survey the whole field of religion, we find a great variety in the thought that have prevailed there; but the feelings on the one hand and the conduct on the other are almost always the same, for the Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives."
Indeed, the original feelings are the same for our saints, mystics, and sages, and the resultant behavior is also the same. The only difference between them is in the thoughts, or how the particular brain of each stylized the experience in presenting it to the people. There is a common root linking us to the spirit realm, either inside of our brain or outside of us, or is there really any difference? But religion is pretty much the opposite of science so what I am saying is impossible to prove to be true, right? WRONG!
The point is that the universe is much bigger than what we can see. This higher power, God, One, The ‘More,’ exists and our brains are actually wired to commune with it. The greatest teachers of men have tried, through the use of symbols, to point us to the infinite inside ourselves for all of human history. It is time for us to put aside our petty squabbles over beliefs and systems of beliefs, and realize whatever it is it can’t be described, but it can be experienced by anyone willing and determined enough to find it.