A Talk by John Blofeld
From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 12
© 1990 Far West Editions
July 13, 1978
In 1933, at the age of twenty, John Blofeld left his native England to begin a lifelong sojourn and study in Asia. In China, he studied with numerous sages of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, becoming one of the leading scholars and translators in the Western movement of these religions. His work includes a translation of the I Ching, two explorations of Tantric philosophy (The Bodhisattva of Compassion, and The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet), and a spiritual autobiography (The Wheel of Life). Blofeld was also one of the first writers in the West to speak of the practical application of Buddhism in life. In addition, during the early 1970’s, he assisted Far West Institute in the translation of The Life of Milarepa. At his death in 1987 in Thailand (where he had retreated after the Communist revolution in China), he was concluding his first work to be written entirely in Chinese. The following lecture was given at Far West Institute in San Francisco at the beginning of an extensive tour of spiritual groups and sites throughout the United States.
Friends, this is my very first trip to America. So far, I haven’t been anywhere in America except California, and what I’ve seen here has impressed me very much. I’ve been quite amazed at how far the interest in Asian religions and philosophy has gone here and that people are outwardly practicing different arts: Japanese Zen, Tibetan Nyingma, and so on. I see they’re doing this with great sincerity. I used to think that the counter-culture was a kind of fad, an amusing thing to do for a year or two, and that this would pass away like so many other fads. But I’ve found that I was quite wrong. This is a living thing. It expresses a very real desire on the part of people like you to find something to make life really have a meaning and be worth living. At Tassajara I saw people who sit for hours a day in Zen-style meditation, slightly Americanized to suit the local scene. In Ukiah I saw American monks dressed up in Chinese robes reciting long texts in very rapid Chinese. They had learned enough Chinese to communicate with their master quite easily, and they’re doing valuable translation work. These places are just two out of many communities dedicated to the teachings of China, India, and of Asia generally. They are perhaps, as some of us like to use the phrase, “dedicated to the ancient wisdom,” a kind of wisdom which may have existed much more universally in the distant past than it does today.
All of this has been deeply inspiring to me, all the more so as the reverse trend is taking place in Asia now. More and more Asians are being swallowed up by the pure, gross materialism which you people have been through, found wanting, and have abandoned. It may be another twenty to fifty years before the Asians, in their turn, go through that gross materialism and come up again with something worthwhile. By that time, in many Asian countries, especially the Communist ones, the old traditions will be dead: books will be burned, monks will be dead, teachers will be dead, and there will be no young ones to follow them because Communism does riot allow it. So it may very well be that fifty years from now Chinese, Tibetans and others will be coming here to California. It’s not a joke; it’s true; it can really happen—especially if some of you really give your lives to the terribly hard work of translating those texts from Sanskrit and Pali and Chinese and Tibetan into English so that they can be preserved. Because without the translated texts there’s no hope: some master will come over—a Zen Roshi, a Chinese master, or whatever—and he will teach his American disciples something valuable. They will learn it in all sincerity, but in passing it on to their disciples they will get it just a little bit wrong, their disciples will get it just a little more wrong, and within three or four generations the whole teaching will be altered. The only way to prevent this is to have good, correct translations of the ancient texts. If those are there, then nothing can go wrong.
Now this brings me to the question I have been asked to talk about this evening: to what extent are the various religions and sects compatible with one another? Here in California I suppose we have as many as a hundred different religions and sects, all teaching somewhat different ways, and some teaching fundamentally opposed ways, or so it appears to us. Should we simply accept this and say, “Well, good, this man follows the Indian path, that man follows the Sufi path, I follow the Zen path, and you follow the Tibetan path,” and so on? Are we all contributing to the same spiritual development of human beings? Or is there too much diversity? Should we keep the paths separate, as they have sometimes been in the past? Or should we try to unite all of them, including the religions of the book—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—on one hand, and the non-book religions—Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism—on the other? Is it possible to reconcile them or is it not?
This is the question I put to myself yesterday when I was preparing this talk. I am not going to give you a definite answer to this question because I don’t think I have the wisdom to do that. What I am proposing to do this evening is to talk for a few minutes about the reasons I think there is a need for all of us to work together to combine the different paths, then to talk for another few minutes about the reasons why this is either difficult or quite impossible, and then finally to make some suggestions as to the extent to which we can work together.
Now I think not only our modern counter-culture, but maybe all the religious aspects of any kind of culture in this world since the beginning of time, all arise from one source. Throughout history and pre-history there have always been human beings who have felt that getting our daily bread and butter, producing our children, and dying do not represent the whole of life. If there is not more in life than that, then we might just as well be dead, because life viewed from that perspective involves so many difficulties, troubles, boring moments and tragic moments, that it simply isn’t worth living.
Though I speak to you in this way, I may assure you that I am a very happy man and I value my life, but it is because I see something that goes way beyond this eating and procreation and earning the money to do those two things. Today nobody seems to be very sure what this something is. In the past, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims felt very sure that they knew the answer. But now we don’t have that certainty. We just feel, “Well, yes, there is something there,” but we don’t know what it is. We don’t know if it is a God—a being who stands above the world—or a state of being.
You know, in Chinese Taoism there is no idea of God as a personal being, but there is a kind of worship or respect for the Tao, which is a state of being. And Buddhists, generally speaking, hold the same view.
They have many different names for that supreme state of being that might be called reality. It can be called one mind, or it can be called the womb of all created things, or it can be called nirvana, according to which aspect of that state you’re emphasizing, but there’s no thought of a personal divinity.
So the first question is, “Is there a God or anything over and above what we see in our rather shoddy little daily lives?” The second question is, “Is God a person, or a state of being, or different from both of these?” To answer the first question, I feel sure there is Something or Someone because otherwise why should people all through history be moved to believe quite passionately in the existence of that ultimate good? As to whether that ultimate good is a being or a state of being, I think it simply doesn’t matter. It is something so far beyond our human comprehension that anything we say about it is sure to be wrong or very limited.
Let’s not waste time on futile arguments which cannot be resolved in that way. You will go to your grave convinced that God is a being and I will go to my grave convinced that God is a state of being, and neither of us will change, however much the other argues. The Buddha always refused to answer questions concerning the origin of the universe and so on. His attitude was that any question to which the answer is purely speculative is simply not worth dealing with, because all you get is speculation. Instead of spending your time and your energy speculating on how and why the world began you’d better use that time and energy to lead some kind of spiritual life aimed at the improvement of yourself, in order that you may be of more service to sentient beings. All the whys and wherefores and hows and whats should be forgotten.
Well then, let me repeat: I think that many of us are convinced that there is something over and above the world as reported to us by our senses. This something is quite wonderful and exercises a fascinating power that draws us to some form of spiritual practice, whether or not we belong to any particular religion. This is the basis on which we may, to some extent, work together. I think you will also agree with me that all religions, including whichever religion you personally happen to belong to, are only approximations of the truth.
It’s very hard to believe that any one religion in the world has got hold of the whole truth. All religions are reflections of man’s desire to get in touch with that Something or Someone, and we have tried to picture that Something or Someone in our minds. The picture we have built up may be quite a good reflection of the truth but it is only approximate, like the reflection of the moon or the sun in rather disturbed water. You can see there’s something bright there but you cannot see the form perfectly because the water is disturbed. And so our minds are disturbed by desires, longings and passions, and as long as the mind is like this we’ll never have a perfect reflection of what lies beyond. Incidentally, every time I use the word “beyond” I want to scold myself, because I don’t think that that something or being is “up there.” It’s here; it’s right in us and part of us. The whole world, what Buddhists call samsara, this world of suffering and misery, is nirvana. The world of plurality is the undifferentiated point. So we’re not merely trying to get from somewhere to somewhere else—as one would say, from samsara into nirvana, from the world into heaven—but we’re trying to create within ourselves a revolution of mind which will let us see the reality in front of us from a totally different point of view from that which results from relying on our senses, with all the false and imperfect data they report to us.
So then, religions are all approximations of truth: they all contain concepts which are approximations of a reality that is beyond our comprehension. Therefore, the true religion must be a religion beyond all religions. To that extent we may feel, “Well, why shouldn’t we all combine and be Buddhists and Christians and Muslims and Shintoists all at the same time?” Before going into the question of whether that’s possible let’s glance at some points of history. We see that, on the whole, the Greeks and Romans in ancient times had no difficulty in accepting many religions at the same time. Those of you who know your Christian Bible will remember the reference to the Greeks who set up an altar to the unknown god. We all know from history how the Greeks and Romans borrowed deities from Egypt and all over the Near East, and incorporated those deities into their own religions. Those people did not have the narrow-mindedness—if I may be allowed to call it that—of the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each of whom thinks that they have the whole truth, that their God is the only God, and all other gods are false.
Then we come to East Asia. Thailand, where I live now, is something like eighty-five percent Buddhist. The rest are Muslims of Malay ancestry. Most Thais are Buddhists, and yet they also worship Hindu gods. So they are Buddhists and Hindus at the same time. The Buddha does not provide you with any information about what number is going to win the next lottery or how your current business deal is going to turn out or how to find a pretty girl to marry; Buddha is not going to be concerned with that. So the Thais turn to Hindu gods for this sort of purpose, without in any way losing their understanding of the Buddhist doctrine for more important things. Then you go to China, and I mean the China I knew, which was a little bit before Mao Tse-tung’s time. In those days every Chinese was a Confucian, and most were also Taoists, Buddhists, ancestor worshipers and followers of the folk religions simultaneously. No problem.
Very recently, in Thailand, I was talking to my Thai housekeeper who is an ardent Buddhist. She was talking about a couple of her sisters who married Muslims. I said, “What do you think of that? Are you sorry that your sisters married Muslims?” She said, “No, I don’t see what there is to be sorry about. I am sure that Lord Mohammad and Lord Allah teach the same kind of good things that Lord Buddha teaches.” She went on to say that no doubt Lord Jesus also teaches the same kind of good things, so what’s the problem, what does it matter? Well, of course, if she had been a more educated woman she would have discovered that there are some very fundamental differences between Christianity and Islam on the one hand and Buddhism on the other, but of this she was unaware. I think she truly imagines a heaven in which Lord Buddha sits here, and Lord Mohammad sits here, and Lord Jesus sits there. So we can say that in China, Thailand, and in many other Far Eastern countries it is possible to follow several religions at the same time, though normally these would not include Islam, Christianity, or Judaism because those three religions are so exclusive that they would not wish themselves to be included in such a mixture.
From what we have observed about the ancient Greeks, Romans, and East Asians, it seems that we could argue in favor of a kind of universal religion in which all the ways would be combined. On the other hand, the revealed religions, the religions of the book—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—would find it difficult to accept the idea of a universal religion because each conceives of truth as something that is expressed in a particular book—the Talmud, the Bible, or the Koran.
In the past, Buddhists were very clever at dealing with this kind of thing. If you go to different Buddhist countries, such as Tibet, Japan, or China, you find that in each one Buddhism has taken on a very different form, especially as regards iconography. Wherever Buddhism went, in the days when it was moving out from India, it never opposed local religions. It just took over the deities of those religions and reinterpreted them in Buddhist terms. In Tibet it took over some quite ferocious Tibetan mountain deities and didn’t tell people to stop worshiping them but instead explained to people, “These ferocious-looking beings are representations of the tremendous power you need in order to combat all the passions, desires and egoism in yourself.”
The Catholics, to a very small extent, have done the same. In the South of Italy, for example, you can see statues of the Madonna with all the attributes of the goddess Diana. The Christians also kept up the old feast of Christmas, which goes back to the Druids and the pre-Christian religions. Protestants on the whole have been much less broad-minded and less willing to make any kind of compromise. You can’t imagine John Knox, Martin Luther, or Calvin making pleasant compromises with religions other than their own.
Now, what can be said further in favor of the idea of coming as close together as possible and accepting everybody else’s belief as a valid way of reaching the truth? First, all religions aim at the spiritual development of their followers, and nearly all of them preach a very similar ethical code: trying to be unselfish, trying to help and not hurt other people, trying to be honest and sincere. In addition, all these different religions aim at what might be called devotion to something lying beyond the world of our five senses; all recognize that Something, although they describe it very differently. In this way, also, all religious people are seeking the same goal: contact with, or union with, or knowledge of that Someone or Something. And all religions, or nearly all, have the same attitude toward materialism: that it is a deadly thing, limiting our lives in ways that make them hardly worth living.
Prayer is another practice in common among different religions. Christians pray to God or to the Holy Virgin and get results from their prayers. I pray to the Goddess Kwan Yin and get results from my prayers. Other people pray to Krishna or whomever and they, too, get results. I don’t mean the kind of result where you pray, “Dear God, please let no rain fall on my wedding day.” That is a gross kind of prayer where you want God to alter the world for your pleasure, regardless of how that would affect the farmers and so on. I don’t mean this sort of prayer. If you get an answer to that kind of prayer, it is just coincidence. There’s another kind of prayer which doesn’t even have to be spoken. It can be wordless prayer or meditation. You put yourself, you put your mind, in tune with the Infinite. And that Something, whether it’s visualized as the body of Christ, the Holy Virgin, or Kwan Yin, responds. When we pray to these individual deities or put our minds in tune with these individual deities we are in fact putting our minds in tune with the same unnameable Something.
I am reminded here of a story told by a Chinese friend of mine who was born into a Buddhist family but who later converted to Catholicism. He got lost in the mountains and prayed ardently to the Holy Virgin to come and help him out. The Holy Virgin duly appeared in front of him, dressed in her traditional white and blue, and brought him to a nice cave where he slept very comfortably on a warm bed. In the morning when he woke up he found the cave was there but the nice bed wasn’t: he’d been sleeping on a bed of flints and stones. A few days after that he went to a Buddhist temple where he saw a picture that reminded him of his childhood and made him realize that the lady he had mistaken for the Holy Virgin was actually a Chinese goddess, an attendant of Kwan Yin. Then he thought, “Well, I prayed to the Holy Virgin but when Kwan Yin answered me she didn’t want to give me a shock so she sent her number two along because number two happens to favor the same kind of dress—white and blue—as the Holy Virgin. When I saw this number two in the white and blue I thought it was the Virgin to whom I prayed.”
We have talked about the pros. What about the cons? What do we have against the possibility of a universal religion? Although Buddhism and Taoism are quite remarkable among religions in that they have no dogma whatsoever, you could not persuade a Buddhist or a Taoist to believe in a personal deity like the Allah of Islam or the God of Christianity. That would be absolutely out for him. There’s no dogma to prevent it, but his whole faith has been based on the premise that there is no creator god, that the universe is a creation of mind and reflects a divine state of being, not a person. Conversely, you would rarely find Christians, Jews, or Muslims prepared to give up the idea of a creator god. If they did, they would be thrown out of their respective religions. I mean their co-religionists would not accept a Christian who did not believe in God or who did not believe that Jesus Christ was the son of God. He could go on calling himself a Christian, but his fellow Christians would say, “No, sorry, he’s not.”
Secondly, Buddhists, Taoists, and some others are, to a certain extent, pantheists, accepting the idea that the world, the universe, is God. God is not standing up there, apart from his creation. The body of the universe is the body of God. The stuff of the universe is mind stuff.
The third major difference concerns the doctrine of rebirth. Hindus, Buddhists, and some others believe in a great long series of rebirths. On the other hand, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism teach that we have only one life in this world and only one more birth, which will go on forever, in Heaven or in Hell.
There’s really no way to reconcile these three differences. All we can do is accept that our fellow human beings are seeking the ultimate in their own way. And even if we think the others are wrong we don’t need to get upset. We can recognize that, although these other people seem to be wrong in some particulars, they too are following a path, are aiming at the same goals we are.
Another problem, perhaps a more important one, even within each individual religion, is the question of method. In early Chinese Taoism, we have a method I have called “agnostic nature mysticism.” It would seem that Lao Tse, the author of the Tao Te Ching, may not have been a thorough-going mystic like Meister Eckhart or St. John of the Cross or the Buddha, but simply a man who wanted to live in tune with nature and was not much interested in the question of a future life. He said, “Let us learn to live with nature now, to flow with the flow of nature, and then if there’s another life after this, well, that’s good; if there isn’t we shall have lived this one very beautifully and well.” So his method, if we are right—and we may be wrong in interpreting Lao Tse in this way—was to do nothing, just go along with the flow of nature.
And there are other methods: we have the high mysticism of the Buddha, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and the Sufi mystics, people who are seeking to attain, or realize, total union with that thing which we have provisionally called Someone or Something. Then we have the method of the Indian sage, Nagarjuna, who felt that, at least at the early stages of religious progress, we need to use logic in order to realize the unity of samsara and nirvana—the unity of us, as individuals, with the eternal mind. We have to use logic to destroy such concepts as “I” and “other.” The concept of the ego must be destroyed logically before we can attack it at a higher-than-logical level. In Tibet, most lamas teach that you have to alternate the meditation method of going beyond thought with the Nagarjuna type of meditation, in which you use logical thought to overcome the idea of the ego.
Then there is the Christian notion that if you have faith enough, this faith will be effective in helping you to develop spiritually. There is also the Christian doctrine of grace, which suggests that you don’t have to do anything except hope that you are one of the people on whom the grace of God will fall. On the other hand, the doctrine of good works affirms that if you spend a lot of your time helping other people, teaching them or saving their lives, you will build up merit, which will help you along the spiritual path. Then there is the doctrine of asceticism, found especially among Sephardic Jews, which asserts that the more you hurt your body, the better for you spiritually. The doctrine of devotion states that you should not be concerned with rewards: just love God or Lord Krishna and forget about the rewards, just love for the sake of love. In addition, you get combinations of all of these doctrines: faith together with good works, devotion together with good works, and so on.
Some of these methods and doctrines can be easily combined, but others cannot. If you believe, as Calvinists do, wholly in the doctrine of grace, then, whatever you do, you cannot save yourself. If you are lucky, God will choose you to be one of the elect; even if you misbehave you will still be one of the elect. But if He has not chosen you, even though you try to be the best man or woman who ever lived, you will not achieve Heaven. This doctrine is simply not compatible with the doctrine of other Christians of the same period who taught that everything depends on good works: if you love your neighbor as you love yourself and devote your life to your community, you will win grace.
Within Buddhism we also have two doctrines which are seemingly incompatible. First is the main Buddhist doctrine that all spiritual life depends entirely on your own effort, that no god, no goddess, no Buddha can help you along the road; they can show you the path, but this is a path you have to walk yourself. But also within the tradition of Buddhism are the Pure Land Buddhists who say that if you have faith in Amitabha and repeat his name—“Namo Amitabha, Namo Amitabha” with one-pointed mind, you can attain a state, known as entering the Pure Land, which prepares you for nirvana. The Pure Land, when you reach it, is discovered to be your own mind or universal Mind, freed of all the ego-like accretions.
In Japan and China, the Zen method of enlightenment through a particular kind of meditation is called “self power”; belief in the doctrine of salvation through Amitabha is called “outer power.” But the teachers of those two schools should never quarrel with one another because they are both talking about mind.
According to this doctrine, the only reality is mind. Mind is not subject to spatial law: you cannot draw a circle around your mind and say that everything inside is mind and everything outside is not. So when we are talking of mind as the only reality, there is no distinction between inside and outside, between self and other. When you meditate or use some other method for attaining that high state of mind we call enlightenment, whether you conceive of the power you generate as coming from out there or from in here, it’s the same power; it makes no difference. So these two doctrines can be reconciled. But as I said before, other doctrines are incompatible. The Zen people say that study is a waste of time: you simply do your Zen meditation. Other Buddhists would say that study is essential: unless you alternate your meditation with a logical attack upon the illusion of ego, you will not achieve the goal.
Well, then, we have seen some of the reasons for believing that we could have a perfectly unified religion and some of the reasons for thinking that this might be totally impossible. Now we come to the last point: having reviewed these two possibilities, what conclusions do we draw? As I said before, I don’t feel in a position to give you decisive judgments about this. What I am going to say now will simply take the form of my own suggestions; they are conclusions that satisfy me, but they may not be right conclusions.
I will put it this way. First, we have concepts: whether we conceive of God as a being or as a state, as apart from the universe or as identical with the universe. If you believe in God but I believe in no personal God, then you have to go on believing your way and I have to go on believing my way. I can try to persuade you to believe my way, or you can try to persuade me to believe your way, but our beliefs cannot go together. There is a deep conflict there which cannot be resolved.
On the other hand, we can realize that our spiritual development is bringing us closer and closer together and that concepts don’t matter too much, because any concept is far behind the reality which it represents: the unnameable, unthinkable reality lying beyond.
As for methods, I think it’s very good, at the beginning of our spiritual quest, when we first come to feel that life has a meaning and that we should embark on some kind of spiritual path, to experiment with many kinds of paths. Sooner or later we will find that one path suits us individually more than others. Then, let us take that one, but never in the spirit of “I am now on the right path and everybody else is on the wrong path.” No, we follow our own path, but we accept the validity of other people’s paths.
The further we go, the less the different methods will matter. Ultimately, all methods converge. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have either four lower ones that involve all kinds of rituals and the use of mantras, mudras, visualizations and meditations. By the time you reach the highest level, you abandon all methods and all practices. So when we start off we are following entirely different paths; we have different practices, different beliefs, different concepts. But the nearer we get to the truth, the less those differences will matter. I think of it sometimes as a Sugarloaf Mountain. You start from this side, I start from that side. We all want to get to the top of the mountain. You go straight up, Zen style, to the top—if you can. I, being a poor mountaineer, climb round and round the mountain. But when we reach the top we are all in the same place. So we followed very different paths. You went straight up like a rocket, I went round and round like a snake. But ultimately we arrived at the truth, and there can only be one truth. There can be many levels of truth, but ultimate truth is only one. We can find it.
Then we follow our own paths, but always with respect for other people’s paths and always with the notion that we cannot guarantee that our way is right and other people’s ways are wrong. If we are loving and helpful to others, if we truly desire to behold the face of truth, then whatever God may be out there or in here will surely forgive our ignorance and account us good men. Once an Episcopal priest, when my children were born, said, “Look here, John Blofeld, you are an Englishman, but you have become a Buddhist. I’m very sorry for that, although I like you as a man. Don’t condemn your children; let them be baptized, and they can ultimately decide if they want to become Buddhists.” I said to this priest, “Is your God so cruel that if I don’t have my children baptized He is going to punish them for the pig-headedness of their father?” And he saw the point at once. So if the Christian God is everything He is supposed to be, He is not going to send you and me to Hell because we have conceived of Him in some different way, providing we live our lives, not selfishly for our own aggrandizement, our own pleasure, but for the sake of all living beings. Then, however many mistakes we make in our concept of God, if He is a God worth having He will surely forgive us. If, on the other hand, there is no God, if God is an impersonal Tao which is not conscious of its own creativity, the Tao certainly doesn’t want any recognition from us. If we fail to give it recognition, that’s fine; if we give it recognition, that’s fine too.
So there really is no need for fear. In the past, so many religious people have been ruled by fear—unless we do this and this we are going to be condemned to Hell. No, this is impossible to believe. Would God, who is able to create this extraordinary universe with all its millions and millions of worlds, be so mean and petty as to burn you and me forever just because we made a mistake in our way of thinking of Him? Of course not. So fear can be banished.
We follow the religion of our own choice because it suits us best, and always with a view to doing what is good for others. This means daily reducing our egoism until we reach the point of recognizing the ego as a non-existent entity, as a ghost with no reality, and daily increasing our compassion, doing more and more for other sentient beings, whether they are humans, animals, or spirits, even those horrible fiery demons. If we meet them we should be friends with them, not want to destroy them. We should never want to destroy anybody or any kind of living being. In the long run, we find that we are a part of other living beings to such an extent that if I punch you on the nose, I’m hurting myself. If I punch you on the nose, I am punching every being in the world on the nose, including this one. No one would be so stupid as to try and punch himself on the nose. So we should just give up hostility.
We have found in our modern world no way to happiness through materialism. This is only the outer aspect of life. There is some secret. If we could solve that, if we could find that secret, then we would see that this is a beautiful universe in which we live, that every stone of this universe, every grain of sand, is in itself nirvana. This is what we look for. We use our different ways. We don’t foolishly try to combine the uncombinable. But we go along in fellowship with one another. We cannot all belong to the same religion, but we can all unite in our struggle against the materialism that will otherwise rob our children and our grandchildren of their birthright as sentient beings.