The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
February 2014 – Vol. 16 Issue 12
World Religion Day takes place on the third Sunday in January. Its aim “is to foster the establishment of interfaith understanding and harmony by emphasizing the common denominators underlying all religions. Mankind, which has stemmed from one origin, must now strive towards the reconciliation of that which has been split up. Human unity and true equality depend not on past origins, but on future goals, on what we are becoming and whither we are going. The prime cause of age-old conflict between man and man has been the absence of one ethical belief, a single spiritual standard – one moral code. . . . through various events, dedicated towards encouraging the leaders and followers of every religion to acknowledge the similarities in each of our sacred Faiths, a unified approach to the changes that confront humanity can be agreed upon and then applied on an ever-expanding scale to permeate the very psyche of mankind, so that it can be made to see the whole earth as a single country and humanity its citizenry.” Religion, the organizers believe, must be the cause of unity, rather than of conflict, because people everywhere are one human family.
On January 19th Branch members attended the World Religion Day celebration sponsored by the Baha’is of Sammamish, WA, at Sammamish City Hall. It featured speakers from Islam, Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism who shared their faith traditions, and also music, including fine performances from the large Sammamish 1st Ward Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints as well as from David Walker. Some highlights:
Matt and Nancy Mihlon shared insights on “Awakening the Heart and Mind through Buddhist Practice” from the perspective of the American Zen tradition. While a person in sitting meditation may look disconnected from the world, this practice has a profound effect on how we are in the world. Acting as a mirror, it helps clarify life and so changes our re-actions to day-to-day situations, from human relationships to traffic jams. At the same time, Buddhism consists of moral practices. Among these are the Three Jewels, taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma or teachings, and the Sangha or community. In this context refuge can mean “throwing your-self wholeheartedly into something,” and the community can expand to include all sentient beings. There are also three pure precepts, vows to do no harm, to do good, and to actualize good for others. All these precepts remind us that we are not separate from others and in fact have no separate selfhood. Mindfulness or meditative practices help us notice in every moment when we are not abiding by the precepts and encourage us to gently change our direction so that we wish to become, and gradually do become, less self-centered and more at one with all.
The Rev. Tom Kidd of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Bellevue spoke on “Christ and Christianity are Not the Same Thing.” He likened Christ to a wind, and each of us to sails. The objective is not institutions, but to catch the wind and sail. Christ doesn’t need Christianity, as God will do his work in the world irrespective. He noted four standards of righteousness in Christian scriptures: sacrifice in the earliest times; holiness or purity, in the laws of the Hebrew Bible; justice, in the prophets; and grace, revealed through Jesus as God taking human form. He raised the question: If God can put on flesh once, can he do it more than once? Some Christians find this question disturbing. Mystics from all traditions, he noted, seem to understand each other and get along; with theologians, it is quite the opposite. He ended with an episode from Matthew. After the Sermon on the Mount, a leper walked through the crowd toward Jesus. In those days lepers had to cry out a warning so others could avoid them because they were considered ritually impure. The punishment for lepers not crying out was to be stoned to death. The leper came up to Jesus and said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Saying, “I am willing; be cleansed,” Jesus healed him. In this story the distinction between pure and impure persons no longer exists. Rev. Kidd ended by asking us to be sails that catch the wind that Jesus represents.
The Vedic Cultural Center representative stressed that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness pro-motes a personal god with a form, rather than the impersonal, formless concept of the divine that some Hindus embrace. He said that God has taken form many times, as Krishna, Christ, Buddha and other great spiritual beings. Turning to the Bhagavad-Gita, he analyzed it as divided into three parts. The first six chapters deal with various paths of discipline or yoga, while the last six deal with the three qualities or gunas (ignorance, passion, and goodness). All beings partake of these three qualities, with one quality dominating, but these gunas keep the soul trapped in material world. The middle section of the Gita tells how to transcend material conceptions and the three qualities and how to go beyond the feeling of me/mine. This is the goal of Hinduism.
As the sponsors hoped, those attending experienced “religion as the cause of love and agreement, creating a moment of joy in each one of us. … We look to this bond of goodwill as the dynamic force for World Unity and for the peaceful contentment of all.”
It seemed that the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago might usher in a freer and more tolerant era. Still, some scholars predicted that Islam would take Communism’s place in the “clash of civilizations” as the West’s Public Enemy #1. Dr. Don Holsinger of Seattle Pacific University addressed the issue of Islam and the West in a January 16 lecture at the University of Washington sponsored by the Interfaith Forum and the Acacia Foundation titled “The 14th Century Travels of Ibn Battuta: Exploring the Divergent Paths of Islam and the West.” He suggested that America’s hostile focus on Islam today may be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy built on ignorance about both the Islamic world and history.
Islam is not the monolithic structure that many Westerners imagine. Having researched North Africa and the Middle East since 1969, Dr. Holsinger is struck by Islam’s tremendous diversity. Few Americans realize that almost half the world’s Muslims live in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, all in southern and southeast Asia. Of the next countries with the most Muslims – Egypt, Nigeria, Turkey, and Iran – only the first is culturally Arabic. At the same time, the monotheistic religions that emerged from the Mideast have much more in common than many adherents realize.
Then as now, Islam is not only a religion but also a way of life and a civilization. Its unity-in-diversity is long standing, reported by Ibh Battuta, who was born in 1304 in Tangiers, Morocco. After studying law and Sufism, he began the pilgrimage to Mecca in his early twenties. While passing through Egypt, he met a Sufi who saw his potential and charged him to give greetings to three Sufis in India and China. After touring through Syria and Palestine, he went by boat to Mecca. The diversity of people and culture there led him to begin 30 years of travel, covering over 72,000 miles (the map shows highlights of his journeys).
After exploring Arabia and the Mideast he went by boat down the east coast of Africa as far as what is now Tanzania. His memoirs are our only written source for the Swahili cities of that time. He traveled through Turkey and Central Asia to India, where he served as a judge for eight years in the court of the Sultan of Delhi. Going to China by boat via Southeast Asia, he found the country safe, well ordered and prosperous but did not care for it. Dr. Holsinger wondered if his negativity was caused by China’s challenge to his cultural chauvinism. Everywhere else he had traveled had been in the Islamic world and he could equate civilization with the coming of Islam, but China was advanced without aid from Islamic culture. As he journeyed back to Morocco the Black Death had just begun to decimate Asia, North Africa and Europe. Once home in 1349, he went north to Islamic Spain and then south across the Sahara. He is our only written source for the culture of that time in Mali and the Niger River region. He died in 1369 in Morocco after dictating his travels. The diversity he found in the Muslim world led some contemporaries to disbelieve his account; its commonality let him communicate, find work, and meet the educated elite all over Asia and North Africa.
Dr. Holsinger pointed to seven streams that contributed to the range of Islamic civilization: Arabia, with the Quran and early Muslim community; Judaic and Christian elements; Persia, with its literature and administrative style; the Classical world, through rediscovery of the Greek and Roman writers; India, particularly its mathematics, decimal numbers and the concept of zero; China, with such technologies as paper, gunpowder, and the compass; and finally, the Turks and the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic genius was in its willingness and ability to borrow and synthesize from others, which resulted a golden age of knowledge and discovery beginning in the 8th century.
An honest study of the past, Dr. Holsinger concluded, can lighten the loads of our negative stereotypes. It provides a stabilizing factor that helps us arrive at a balanced view when evaluating ourselves and other cultures, particularly those groups being promoted as our rivals or enemies.