Thu, 25 May 2000

Pursuing religion from a different perspective

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): During his last television appearance in 1973 Alan Watts, an Episcopalian minister and acclaimed interpreter of Oriental disciplines, was asked what it was he found lacking in modern Christianity that led him to examine Far Eastern philosophies, and he replied that it was an experiential basis.

Simply put, the knowledge of transcendental or mystical experience has been lost in the mythology of modern Western religions, and with it has disappeared the original source of spiritual authority.

He also criticized religious institutions in the West that function primarily as "societies of the saved", whose primary purpose is to distinguish its members from those of the "not saved."

He challenged Christian practitioners to abandon theological or intellectual idolatry -- in which dogma is favored over direct, personal experience of the transcendental -- and suggested, as one, maybe controversial, exercise for bringing about the abandonment of idolatry, that Christians consider a ceremonious and reverent burning of the Bible every Easter as an affirmation of true faith.

Indeed, when we talk about religion what immediately comes to mind is an organized institution complete with authoritarian doctrines, mythology, strict codes of alliance, exclusivity, rites, rituals, clergies and buildings of worship.

In these terms, religions are tremendously varied from one another, most typically the Semitic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- each claiming to be the sole and ultimate custodian of truth. This kind of self-righteousness, that has led to so much bloodshed and persecution in the history of mankind, has given religion a terribly bad name.

But many who fight the tyranny of prerational, dogmatic religion and band together with the liberalists, scientists and agnostics are guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater by lumping all spirituality together in one basket.

Ibn Warraq, author of the controversial Why I Am Not A Muslim, is such a person. He says in his book that all religions are sick men's dreams, demonstrably false and pernicious, without elaborating further if the religion he refers to also includes those spiritual traditions which do not in the least fit his bitter personal experience of religious fascism.

Ken Wilber put it that these people committed a classic "pre/trans fallacy": they believe spirituality is nothing but prerational myth, and thus toss out any and all transrational spirituality as well, which is absolutely catastrophic.

Essentially religion can be divided into exoteric and esoteric religions. Exoteric or outer religion is mythic religion, religion that is terribly concrete and literal, that truly believes in all the legend and myths purported; for example, that Moses parted the Red Sea, that Christ was born from a virgin, that the world was created in six days, that Khrisna made love to 4,000 cow maidens, that Muhammad rode on a bouraq (a mythical bird with a man's head) to heaven, and so on.

Needless to say, every religion has some element of this exoteric nature, though some are more literal and more totalitarian than others.

Each is so diametrically opposed to the others.

Exoteric religion is a series of belief structures that attempt to explain the mysteries of the world in mythic terms rather than experiential terms.

Most insist, if you believe all the myths without reserve, you must be saved; if not, hell will be your eternal hereafter -- no discussion.

This type of religion is what we mean by fundamentalism.

Esoteric, on the other hand, means inner or hidden. It is called hidden because it is concerned with substance rather than the literal adherence to scriptures.

One has to go deeper than the superficial mythic belief to get to the hidden treasure. Thus, it is a matter of direct experience and personal awareness.

Esoteric religion, therefore, does not see any relevance in belief, obedience or attachment to any dogma.

Wilber says that esoteric religion is a set of personal experiments that you conduct scientifically in the laboratory of your own awareness.

Like all good science, it is based on direct experience, not on mere belief or wish, and it is publicly checked or validated by a peer group of those who have also performed the experiment.

The experiment is meditation.

In this context the assertion that all religions lead to the same and one truth is incomplete. A more accurate interpretation is that all esoteric religions fundamentally teach and lead to the same and single truth since, according to Wilber, there are not only two camps here -- liberalism and mythic religion -- but three: mythic religion, rational liberalism and transrational spirituality which is known as mysticism.

Through the ages, mystics of every religious tradition from the Yaqui Indian in Mexico to the Sufis in the Middle East to the Lamas in the Himalayas -- a small minority they may be -- have spoken of and demonstrated amazing commonality, unity and an underlying connectedness among all parts of the universe: between men and women, between us and the other creatures and even inanimate matter as well, a fitting together according to an ordinarily invisible fabric underlying the cosmos.

Unique though they might be in their individual personhood, they have largely escaped or transcended those human differences that are merely cultural.

For this reason the renowned writer Aldous Huxley labeled mysticism the perennial philosophy.

The writer is director of the Satori Foundation (, a center for the study and development of human excellence through training in mind programming and meditation techniques.