In past blog posts I've disagreed with the idea that all religions are just different paths up the same mountain. Now I'm going to be contrary.
You may have heard of John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal priest who has spoken out strongly against fundamentalism. The Rev. Spong writes at the Washington Post website,
I walk the Christ path, but I could never say it is the only path. I walk it faithfully because I know that it leads me beyond all human limits, even the limits of Christianity, into the experience of the divine. That has also been the experience of those who walk the Jewish path, the Islamic path, the Hindu path and the Buddhist path.
I like what the Rev. Spong said about going beyond human and doctrinal limits. The way to work with Buddhist doctrines is not to "believe in" them, but to go beyond conceptual interpretations to directly experience what the Pali texts call "suchness," although to call it "suchness" may be saying too much.
Buddhism is a means to realize something, but Buddhism doesn't have a patent on what it is that is realized. As we Zennies say, it's a hand pointing to the moon, not the moon itself. Some of the great mystics of the world's other religions have at least glimpsed this same moon, I believe. I once heard my first Zen teacher, the late John Daido Loori, call Saint Teresa of Ávila one of his spiritual ancestors.
The problem I have with "all religions are different paths up the same mountain" is that it is often used as an excuse to blur the distinctions of the religious traditions, as if those distinctions don't matter. I encounter people -- people who consider themselves to be "spiritual" -- who not only refuse to respect the distinctions, but who also are hostile to anyone attempting to maintain the integrity of a particular tradition.
The progression of "reasoning" seems to be that if all religions are different paths up the same mountain, then all religions really are alike, and any apparent difference between them is just "dogmatism." And why not just pick and mix whatever one finds appealing from all of them?
Many of us have gone through a process of spiritual exploration, and a "pick and mix" phase may have been part of that. But I have observed that the "picking and mixing" approach doesn't provide much of a path. It's more like a cocoon; people wrap themselves in beliefs and concepts they find appealing and comforting. "Appealing and comforting" doesn't push you to go beyond.
The Rev. Spong writes that "religion emerged in human history as a coping device to bank the fires of anxiety born in self-consciousness." I agree. But the way most people use religion as a coping device is to cling to its doctrines and beliefs, and clinging always is a dead end. It's not a path up any mountain. However, the mystic who follows teachings without clinging goes beyond the limits of doctrine and belief.
"Going beyond" is not rejection of doctrine, but a kind of transcendence of doctrine. But you have to penetrate a doctrine in order to go beyond it. If you assume all doctrines are bunk, you can't go beyond them. Thus, over the centuries the several schools of Buddhism have developed quite a diversity of practices and doctrines, many of which take you through a kind of spiritual progression. If you go through the progression correctly, eventually you go beyond it. But "going beyond" requires "going through."
To stick to our "paths up the mountain" analogy, it may be that all paths lead to the top. But I sincerely believe that if you want to go up the mountain, you have to pick one path and follow it up. Mixing paths together is not journeying; it's landscaping.
Anyway, I think the mountain analogy is flawed; I think it's closer to say that the many religions are different paths up different mountains, but from the tops of all the mountains there's a great view.