Newcastle Baha'i seminar 2015

ONE GARDEN: ‘the changeless Faith of God’ &

‘interfaith as inter-spiritual living’ 


Presented at the Newcastle Baha’i Seminar June 19 2105


Roger Prentice:  onesummit AT gmail DOT com  


PART 1: THE FLOWERING OF THE ONE GARDEN

This presentation starts with an interim report about a project I have run over the past three years called One Garden: interfaith as inter-spiritual living.  The presentation also contains radical readings of important issues which I hope you will find shocking.


The genesis of the One Garden project lies in my wanting to feel more comfortable with teachings from other traditions.  This yearning was not particularly from an academic point of view but was practical for me, and I hoped for others.  I wanted to drink sweet water from a range of spiritual wells - on topics and themes dear to me from within my Baha’i faith. Those themes and topics are wide ranging but include, most importantly, Oneness.


I sought out people who, with entirely different life-journeys, came to similar conclusions about the Oneness behind the diversity of traditions.  We all wanted a safe space to celebrate and explore the Oneness beyond the paths of the great traditions and to be fed spiritually from the great traditions.


We have had more than 200 half-day sessions.  200+ people have wandered into the ‘One Garden’ - many stayed, many wandered out again.  I have written, or put together,  more than 300,000+ words - mainly handouts and short pieces.


The session methodology is very simple.  We start with a short silent meditation - the only activity in which all non-unity can be eliminated - at least audibly!  Toward the end of the silent meditation our ‘cantor’ chants or sings a piece.  We next  read a text and celebrate and explore via ‘spiritual dialogue’   We end with a short mantra.  As many as can, go for lunch or coffee together.  I prepare the text and facilitate the process.  The process has evolved via suggestions from participants.  We try to keep the dual and the nondual as happy dancing partners since we have come to see that they are the two wings of spiritual development, the dual being the means to developing consciousness, which is the means to realizing the Nondual as ultimate reality.

Only in retrospect can we see that the three years has been a ‘learning lab’ on ‘interfaith as inter-spiritual living’.  I say ‘living’ because every member serves the wider community in some way or  another including Victim Support, Citizen’s Advice, community development, art, theatre, social & political activism.  Their service to the wider community has nothing directly to do with the One Garden sessions except with Ken Wilber I add ‘service’ to the model of perennial spirituality, or as it has come to be called over the last two decades, inter-spirituality.


I concluded that the simplest way to express the core teaching held in common in the various traditions is that we should  awaken more, detach more & serve others more, or better.  These 3 work together & at any one time we can refresh our spiritual health by turning to any one of the 3, all of which are inter-dynamic with each other.  Feeling stale? - then put a bit more energy into awakening, detaching or serving.


One Garden as a model has a chance to solve a problem that is identifiable in both the wider community, and in the service activities of the Baha’i community.  The model can show how to do the interfaith work better and be more in line with what the House of Justice has asked for.  People are hungry for spiritual food.  The arts are meeting that demand to some extent.


How great might the demand for the inter-spiritual be?  The need for acceptable, (non-proselytising), spiritual food is massive.  Depending on the survey you use, a large number of people identify themselves as SBNR (spiritual but not religious) - very approximately 12 million in the UK, 50 million in the US.  The need for ‘spiritual food banks is far larger than for grocery food banks!


Working on this project over the last three years has has helped me in a number of ways.   I have learned, though I don’t claim to have mastered, that enlightenment is a matter of ‘seeing’ & knowing in a mystical sense - not a mental activity.  Mystical experience isn’t something you think about. The knowledge that flows from nondual experience can prompt us to create a commentary.


Some aha moments are small and incremental.  A few report cataclysmic transformation and personality change as in the case of the popular spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.  Some are in between.  Whatever their size and duration we see before us what was always there but which we hadn’t previously realized.  If you ‘get’ them magic eye pictures are the perfect analogy.  If you don’t ‘get’ them they are infuriating or depressing. Coincidentally one of our ‘members’ did her doctorate on the nature of the ‘aha’ moment.


I now ask five questions related to the project from a Baha’i perspective:


PART 2: IS CHANGE OR CHANGELESSNESS MOST IMPORTANT? - & IS ‘ETERNAL FAITH’ OR ‘PROGRESSIVE REVELATION’ MOST IMPORTANT?  Change and changelessness I take to be two dimensions, or wings, of human being.  Part of the secret of life is learning to try to not change things that are unchangeable and vv.  Buddhism is one of several paths that teaches that our self-inflicted suffering comes from resisting change that is inevitable.  In the Baha’i teachings progressive revelation correlates with change and the teaching around “This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.” - (Gleanings p136 ) correlates with changelessness. My concern is that we have not got the two in harmony, particularly because of neglect of the ‘eternal’, the changeless.


Given that we are in the ‘Oneness business it is useful to ask the question, ‘does Oneness rest more on changelessness than on change? `Abdu'l-Bahá’s teaching on this subject includes, as we will see, some astonishing statements.


Progressive Revelation is clear in the Writings but how it is thought about and used is another matter.  


`Abdu'l-Bahá makes the distinction between the social laws and the fundamentals - and is adamant about which is most important.


About the laws issued at the time of the Manifestation for that age as opposed to the reiteration of the fundamental verities he says;


these changing laws are not the essentials; they are the accidentals of religion.


About the fundamental basis, the essential ordinances, he says;


The essential ordinances established by a Manifestation of God are spiritual; they concern moralities, the ethical development of man and faith in God.


They are ideal and necessarily permanent; expressions of the one foundation and not amenable to change or transformation.


Therefore the fundamental basis of the revealed religion of God is immutable, unchanging throughout the centuries, not subject to the varying conditions of the human world.       


Source HERE


It is in these terms that he writes about reality itself,  and the truth that the religions are essentially one and the same.


In the light of `Abdu'l-Bahá’s teaching our unity with other religions therefore rests on essential ordinances that are primarily unchanging and not primarily on social laws that come and go.  This has a double benefit.  


Firstly we all will feel good if respect is shown through celebrating teachings from our own tradition.  Secondly we will gain the benefits that accrue from knowing more about our own tradition by celebrating the teachings of one or more others.  Why?  - because once we have read at least some of the Bhagavad Gita, the writing of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Tao de Ching and other teachings we can (potentially) read our own teachings in a more dynamic, insightful  way.   As the early orientalist Max Muller believed religion can only be understood through comparison. He famously put it this way, “He who knows (only) one (religion), knows none.”  


In making what I might call a functional, or practical, study of aspects of other religions, as opposed to the academic depths at which many of those at the Newcastle Baha’i seminar work, I reinforced something very important.  In addition to realizing that there is a ‘mystical core to all of the great traditions’ I saw truths in Baha’i teachings that previously passed me by - or more accurately I passed by because I didn’t have the eyes to see.  This in part is the ‘geddit factor’ (‘get it’) - this crude phrase includes what I take Christ to mean in Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not?

One example for me of how the ‘geddit factor appears in our lives’ is, for me, in the significance of  Bahá’u’lláh statement which places the Writings in third place in His three testimonies;


Say: The first and foremost testimony establishing His truth is His own Self.

Next to this testimony is His Revelation.

For whoso faileth to recognize either the one or the other He hath established the

words He hath revealed as proof of His reality and truth. - Gleanings LII / pp 104/107


Not only are the words in third place, the Revelation is something other than the words.  This is so even if you apply a ‘trinitarian reading’ to Bahá’u’lláh’s three testimonies.


The fact that you can mark up lines in a book and then ten years later re-open it and wonder why other sections weren’t marked is a small example of the geddit factor.  Another could be reading say the Bible as metaphorical truths about what it is to be human as opposed to a literalist reading can also give the same geddit or ‘aha’ experience.  The first example is a small, incremental step, toward enlightenment, the Bible example is a more substantial experience.  In all such examples we might well say ‘the scales fell from my eyes’.  The ultimate realization shows that our true Self lies not in body, or the mind’s thoughts, but in awareness - in the realization that we are awareness being aware of awareness.

 

In my three year journey developing the One Garden model it has also been pure joy to find so many examples that show the mystical core shared by all of the great traditions.  For example;


My heart has come to harbor every form:

A pasture for gazelles - hermitage for monks

Pagoda for idols - Kaaba for pilgrims

Tablets for Torah - codex for Koran.

I follow Love's religion, wherever

       its camels turn. Love is my faith and creed! -

Trans Franklin Lewis 2010 from Ibn Arabi & the erotic landscapes of mystic love NB  full version - HERE.


For me inter-spirituality (perennial spirituality) and the changeless faith of God are simply two sides of the same coin.


So should we be approaching others, for example in interfaith activities, primarily on the basis of the changeless or the changeable?  Does the Baha’i Faith have the answer to what we might call the hermetic (and hermeneutic?) prison interfaith finds itself in?  Unquestionably yes and it was reiterated by the Universal House of Justice in 2002.


PART 3: WHAT DID THE HOUSE OF JUSTICE SAY TO RELIGIOUS LEADERS?

In 2002 The Universal House of Justice called on the world’s religious leaders to truly recognize Oneness.  The House makes the point that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.


The House points to the hopes that were raised through the establishment of The Parliament of Religions which has just not borne fruit.  Long-term dedicated participants in interfaith have expressed a sense of hopelessness for lack of real progress.  


Have we been taking account of what has been happening in the wider community so as to have the best possible model for interfaith action?


PART 4: WHAT HAS BEEN HAPPENING IN THE WIDER COMMUNITY DURING THE LAST FEW DECADES?  Much has happened in recent decades in the wider community relevant to interfaith, & the allied themes in this article.  A new ‘territory’ has arisen that is brand new yet age-old.  Players in this territory come from a wide range of cultures & faith traditions including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, Sufism, and Taoism.  Possibly the largest group are roman Catholic priests, monks and excommunicated priests who have established long-term friendships and dialogues with (Zen) Buddhists. (I am writing a separate piece on the the contributions of outstanding women teachers to inter-spirituality.)


It seems that if you really want to know what’s going on in other religions check out those who are peripheralised or excommunicated - Matthew Fox is very interesting in talking about Ratzinger;


Ratzinger re-establishing the Inquisition, destroying and persecuting the Theology of Liberation movement in South America, the more (most?) Christ-like movement that has sprung up in the last 500 years. Ratzinger has persecuted the Liberation Theology movement in order to substitute it with fascist and fundamentalist movements such as Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione, the Legionaries of Christ. At the end of my book there is a list of 105 theologians who have been silenced by Ratzinger’s Inquisition


The priests in the group of which I speak are not the same as the Ratzinger list but there is an overlap - Matthew Fox being the best  known.


What I will call the inter-spiritual group of  work on behalf of Oneness is nothing short of glorious and is, so I argue, in response to the Lord of the age.  It is not a ‘New Religious Movement’ in the generally accepted sense - but these decades of work go a long way toward the realization of Oneness about which the House of Justice speaks in their letter to religious leaders.


A new ‘territory’ or more accurately a new state of being, has emerged, in which blessed souls have arisen from within their faith traditions and pointed to and explored the Oneness beyond, and the term applied to it is inter-spirituality.  I say ‘state of being’ because it is a matter of who we are and how we walk the talk rather than the belief tick-boxes we tick.


A ‘map’ of this new inter-spiritual territory is provided by Brother Wayne Teasdale in his seminal work The Mystic Heart: Discovering Universal Spirituality in the World's Religions.  Interspiritual dialogue is a very strong challenge in interfaith circles so my Sufi friend tells me - he is a leading light in interfaith in the South-East of England.  At the suggestion that there should be dialogue his interfaith colleagues said, “no!”  Beneath the sincerely friendly faces lurks the dis-ease of exclusivity - ‘my faith is superior’.


Teasdale coined the term ‘inter-spiritual’ but it has roots that run back through the centuries via a small number of outstanding individuals - as, so I suggest, ‘the changeless Faith of God eternal in the past, eternal in the future’.  These two I am suggesting are two sides of a single coin.  


HOW IS INTER-SPIRITUALITY SEEN BY TEASDALE & THE GLOBAL INTER-SPIRITUAL COMMUNITY?  Teasdale’s mentor Father Thomas Keating has held a yearly conference in Colorado for twenty-five years involving most of the the major religions, (not Baha’is ?).  The ‘Snowmass principles’, have evolved via the dialogue, and are seen as the core held in common by all the traditions;


1. All great religions connect us to Ultimate Reality.  The various names for Ultimate reality include Brahman, Allah, (the) Absolute, God, Great Spirit, the Whole, Mystery etc


2. No name or concept is sufficient to describe Ultimate Reality because it is unlimited.


3. Ultimate Reality is our being, all Being, the unlimited ground of our potential and its development.


4. Faith, experiences of opening up to Ultimate Reality, comes before all belief systems.


5. All are capable of enlightenment or salvation.


6. Ultimate Reality may be experienced not only through religious practices but also through nature, art, human relationships, and service of others.


7. As long as the human condition is experienced as separate from Ultimate Reality, it is subject to ignorance, illusion, weakness and suffering.


8. Disciplined practice is essential to the spiritual life; yet spiritual attainment is not the result of one’s own efforts, but the result of the experience of oneness (unity) with Ultimate Reality.-0-  NB Wayne Teasdale added ‘prayer’.


It is important to realize that each of us have ‘geddit’ challenges around all 8 or 9 of the ‘principles’.


For Teasdale inter-spirituality is focused on;


RECOVERY OF THE SHARED MYSTIC HEART:  “the recovery of the shared mystic heart beating in the center of the world’s deepest spiritual traditions.” - see Wayne Teasdale’s essay HERE  -   


via


SHARING: ‘...the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions.’  


DIALOGUE:  -"Interspiritual dialogue can underpin a new kind of inter-religious dialogue."  


TASTING THE  DEPTH OF INTERSPIRITUAL LIFE: "Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality or an overarching synthesis of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions.


ENCOUNTER: Interfaith encounter, interreligious dialogue, and the collaborations of the religions, whether through interfaith organizations or more directly in bilateral relationships, are becoming permanent features of a new global culture.


Except in mainstream interfaith.


Wayne Teasdale also says that interspirituality is essentially a way into;


“ a universal mysticism and integral spirituality. We often walk the interspiritual or intermystical path in an intuitive attempt to reach a more complete truth. That final integration, a deep convergence, is an integral spirituality. Bringing together all the great systems of spiritual wisdom, practice, insight, reflection, experience, and science provides a truly integral understanding of spirituality in its practical application in our lives, regardless of our tradition.”


Interspirituality is not a new form of spirituality or an overarching synthesis of what exists, but a willingness and determination to taste the depth of mystical life in other traditions. Interfaith encounter, interreligious dialogue, and the collaborations of the religions, whether through interfaith organizations or more directly in bilateral relationships, are becoming permanent features of a new global culture. Our knowledge of other religions and cultures is likewise increasing, opening the door to a universal understanding of religion, spirituality, and culture.  - A Monk in the World, Wayne Teasdale


"In a nutshell Interspirituality means that when you have entered the world of the Heart, the question of who is right or wrong with regard to belief or creed is pretty much irrelevant."   


In its traditional form the mystical core is presented as;


  • There's a reality beyond the material world:

    • Which is uncreated.

    • It pervades everything,

    • but remains beyond the reach

    • of human knowledge and understanding.

  • You approach that reality by:

    • Distinguishing ego from true self

    • Understanding the nature of desire

    • Becoming unattached

    • Forgetting about preferences

    • Not working for personal gain

    • Letting go of thoughts

    • Redirecting your attention

    • Being devoted

    • Being humble

    • Invoking that reality

    • Surrendering

  • That reality approaches you through:

    • Grace

    • The teacher

  • You're transformed so that you embody that reality by:

    • Dying and being reborn

    • Seeing the light

    • Experiencing union

    • Experiencing freedom


“Peerless is this Day,” Bahá’u’lláh says, “for it is as the eye to past ages and centuries, and as a light unto the darkness of the times.8  This is not just a matter of the astonishing discoveries concerning ice-age people - via carbon dating and other 21st century scientific methods.  It is also a  renaissance, and amplification, of the changeless foundation of reality - rendered by pure souls from other traditions, as well as by Baha’is.  They know it as ‘the mystical core of all of the great traditions - or perennial spirituality.  We know it as ‘the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future’.


Some religions have lost their way, after the Founder’s passing, or later admit elements of corruption.  What might be the reason, other than power struggles amongst those least worthy to be in power?


PART 5: HOW DO RELIGIONS COME TO DEGENERATE & HOW DO THEY GET RENEWED?

I suggest that the degeneration in religions comes when the mystical is peripheralised or persecuted. This of course is in addition to the seven deadly sins which in case you have not been working on them recently (I didn’t say in which direction) are  wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Each is a form of Idolatry-of-Self wherein the subjective reigns over the objective.


Healing and purifying religion requires that we restore to its central position mystical experience. We have a brilliant analysis of the corruption, and a view on how a sick religion can be made whole again by David Steindl-Rast in his paper The Mystical Core of Organized Religion.  It includes this diagram;    



For Steindl-Rast the healing comes when some pure souls reverse the corruption that has taken place.  We know the Baha’i answer, that is another Manifestation of God is raised up?


Is there a Baha’i perspective consonant with Stendl-Rast?   I suggest in these statements “ the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God. – Shoghi Effendi and The Bahá’í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers.  It is the soul of man which has first to be fed.  `Abdu'l-Bahá says; I beg of God to strengthen these spiritual bonds as day followeth day, and make this mystic oneness to shine ever more brightly...   `Abdu'l-Bahá


Mysticism has been ‘democratised’ in this age as Steindl-Rast suggests - it is no longer the sole preserve of special people.  I hear specialist scholars on this subject shuddering at the thought!  We have been brought into the realization that mystical experience, like the wonder of philosophising is part of being human - not just the preserve of saints.!  The mystical starts in Wonder, philosophy in wondering.


The mystical has political and human rights dimensions.  It enables in ‘mutual not-knowing’ - and makes space for everyone.


We don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to call ourselves a runner.  Even more to the point is the truth that the mystical is a matter of un-called for experience plus the (optional) commentary on that experience.  The commentary isn’t the experience, the Revelation isn’t the words (but it is the Word).  The best commentary any of us can provide is more walking the talk and less of talking the walk!  (May God forgive me.)  This is the case with each Manifestation, and potentially at a lower order, with every human being. The polishing of the mirror of the heart is simply learning to awaken more, detach more and serve others more or better. “No self, no problem’! I first realized this view of mysticism through John Hick who says:


'Mystical experience…..does not seem to me to be anything other than first-hand religious experience as such. This is, however, the core of religion.' - (1981 p.423)


In his Interreligious Dialogue and the Bahá'í Faith: - Some Preliminary Observations Seena Fazel suggests dialogue via ‘three bridges’, the ethical, the intellectual and the mystical-spiritual. This presentation clearly focuses on the third of Seena’s three bridges, the mystical-spiritual, and suggests a new approach to dialogue and to interfaith - via inter-spiritual groups. Perhaps In the past ‘the mystic feeling’, and reality and truth, didn’t stay long at the centre of mainstream traditions - it moved to the periphery.  Dialogue, ‘spiritualised dialogue, is at the centre of personal transformation and group transformation.                                        


The great impediment lies in ‘the disease of exclusivity’ and the failure of powerful individuals to rise to an understanding of the gnostic, or Erfan-ic level


The renewal, and amplification of the mystical is the healing of religion.  Clearly Brother Steindl-Rast sees the cleaning of the stable as being achieved by pure souls.  Baha’is though say that a new Manifestation of God was needed.  But it would pay great dividends if we studied more the blessed, inspired souls who are seeking to clean up existing religions.  


PART 6: SUMMARY & NON-CONCLUSION

To answer the call sent out by the House of Justice we, and all interfaith activists, need a new model for interfaith engagement & service to the wider community.  


‘One Garden: interfaith as inter-spiritual living’  is one way to make such provision - and to contribute to the transformation called for by the House in the letter to religious leaders.  However it  is a community-based process not just an academic one, vital though the academic is.  It’s work employs the two sides of the single coin ‘the changeless faith of God and ’the perennial spirituality’.  It is a way of service rather than conversion.


Done well ‘juxtaposing’, i.e. combining teachings from two or more traditions, together with ‘spiritual dialogue’ pumps sweet water for all, especially for the SBNR, ‘spiritual but not religious’.  The water is from several wells but Baha’is aren’t the only ones to accept that they all spring from the same Source. 

-0-


NB The One Garden: interfaith as inter-spiritual living project is a work in progress, constructive criticism and related links are most welcome.  Please support the project in any way you can.   I will gradually develop this presentation further on this page.


Roger Prentice:  onesummit AT gmail DOT com  






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