Moons, Minds, Fingers and Rafts


As a student of human transformation, I'm interested not just in the science of how we grow into and discover our humanity, but also in the spiritual and wisdom traditions that help us navigate our paths through life. Interestingly, these traditions - no matter when and where they're from - contain common elements that transcend language, culture, space and time. Admittedly, I could go into why they share these elements (a worthy subject for a future post) but, having spent the last few years reviewing the various contemplative flavours of Christianity (my own tradition), Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam and even some Canadian indigenous teachings, I've found among them a shared tendency toward self-transcendence. In other words, it is in the nature of mature wisdom traditions to point beyond themselves toward a common vision of what it means to be fully and wholly human.

If you're skeptical, consider the following from a 2008 interview with Andrew Newberg (neuroscientist):

[Religion] also happens to be pretty good at providing a system by which we transcend ourselves. When you look at most religions, there are a number of points along the way, as you go from birth to adolescence and marriage and ultimately old age, there are approaches and processes in place that enable you to transcend yourself from one moment to the next. (source)

Andrew's right - and not just about "approaches and processes"! In fact, the ideas of transformation and transcendence seem baked into the core of the world's most prominent wisdom traditions. For example, while in the book of Romans (12:2ff) Paul is concerned with the "renewing of [our] mind" and spends the rest of the chapter discussing what that looks like in service, the Bhagavad Gita (Vedic-Hindu scripture) talks about charity (11:55), humility (12:13-14) and meekness (12:15-19) as qualities befitting those who have communion with God. Interestingly, both these texts comment on the state of those whose minds aren't renewed and how this impacts their relationship with the divine.

Meanwhile, the Abhidhamma Pitaka (an early Pali commentary on Buddhism) compares Buddhist teachings and practices to a raft "for the purpose of crossing over [a river], not for the purpose of holding onto." And again, Zen refers to itself as a "finger pointing to the moon" with emphasis on the fact that it is a self-reflective way rather than an end in itself. These examples strongly parallel Jesus' claim to being "the Way" to the Father (John 14:6) as even he seemed to consider his teachings (and even himself!) as a means to an end.

Now, while it would be unfair for us to lump all of the world's traditions under one banner (ouch!), it would be an equal disservice to those for whom inclusivity and openness are core values to ignore these similarities. Theological and interpretive particularities aside, it is the case that a thorough and holistic look at comparative traditions will find these deep connections by virtue of their being necessarily human and developmental. Religions are not all alike, but their deeper, mystical/contemplative paths share a perennial quality that keeps popping up throughout history that warrants mindful attention from anyone paying attention to spiritual growth.

Years ago I'd have been scandalized at the suggestion that my evangelical tradition was just one among many promising a path of transformation (we used to call this kind of thing "holiness"). However, with the wisdom of a few more years behind me, the process of becoming aware of a much broader cast of traditions, scriptures and prominent figures (not to mention scientific literacy!) has helped me appreciate how the exclusive narratives of early faith stages are less designed to be an end in themselves as they are to set us up for transformation characterized by movement toward openness and inclusivity.