1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

To the Top of the Mountain

By July 10, 2010

Follow me on:

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.

July 11, 2010 at 10:45 am
(1) Yasei Kaige says:

I agree! Without the exercise of opening mind – what I call spirituality – religions are just Ministries of Silly Walks (a reference to Monty Python’s Flying Circus).

Religions and religious ritual observances can either be cocoons, as you have mentioned – places to cultivate complacence and dread of the beyond; or, they can be tuning forks for aligning one’s authentic self, or true nature, with all that is presenting itself at the moment, in the way that it presents!

Thank you!

July 11, 2010 at 12:56 pm
(2) won says:

My problem with this is that while I align myself with Buddhism, I’d like to be a Zen or Theravadin Buddhist, but neither school has representation where I live. There is a Kadampa tradition here, however, but much of their “dogma” (or so it seems to me) feels unpleasant to / doesn’t resonate with me.

Yet, when my life feels like a waking nightmare, I go there to participate in a guided meditation or speak to the resident nun. Is this following different paths up the mountain?

For example, when Buddhists in general say “take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha”, which sangha do they refer to? In the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition), sangha refers to all like-minded individuals in the NKT community, but Theravadins specify that it’s only the ordained monks and nuns of an order that represent the sangha.

So I have both been and not been part of a sangha. I have strained relationships with friends who think I’m being a judgmental fundamentalist by choosing a particular religious path, even though I don’t verbally decry any other path (except perhaps Scientology :-) . I know people who are VERY judgmental to the point of refusing to associate with those on a different path and I don’t want to be that way.

Long story short, don’t you lose some essential perspective on other people’s experience or the whole truth by regarding all other paths as in some way inferior?

To quote Stephen Roberts “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

I can understand why many people are hesitant to choose a specific path.

July 11, 2010 at 2:41 pm
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

won — First off — and this is not something I say often, about any school of Buddhism — but listen to what your instincts are telling you and stay away from NKT. The leaders of that organization have an agenda that doesn’t have anything to do with your spiritual well-being. Very briefly, NKT came into existence because of a power struggle within the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. When the leaders of the sect failed to threaten and intimidate the rest of Gelugpa into practicing their way — mostly because the Dalai Lama wouldn’t let them — they took off in a huff and have waged a propaganda war against His Holiness ever since. People who join NKT get caught up in the war eventually, usually as unwitting tools. Just stay away from them.

Regarding the word sangha — the older schools of Buddhism in Asia, which were and are primarily monastic, tend to use the word to refer only to the monastic sangha. It’s far more common in the West in most schools to use “sangha” in much the same say Christians use “church.” It can refer to membership of one dharma center or temple, or it can refer to all Buddhists throughout space and time, or to other assortments of Buddhists in between. And all of that at once.

I have strained relationships with friends who think I’m being a judgmental fundamentalist by choosing a particular religious path, even though I don’t verbally decry any other path (except perhaps Scientology :-) .

Such friends are what I call “reverse fundamentalists.” They’re just as biased and judgmental as standard fundies, and also just as obnoxious. And you can tell them I said so. :-) Both standard and reverse fundies are utterly intolerant of anyone who understands religion differently from the way they understand it. The difference is that standard fundies want to force you to follow their religion, while reverse fundies want to stop you from following your religion. I say both versions of fundamentalism are two sides of the same closed-minded coin.

Long story short, don’t you lose some essential perspective on other people’s experience or the whole truth by regarding all other paths as in some way inferior?

It is possible to follow one path without feeling the others are inferior. Different strokes for different folks, etc. All teachings of all religions are relative and provisional, although I realize not everyone sees them that way. But if you understand that the teachings that are guiding you are not absolute truth, but rather guides to a truth that cannot be contained in words and doctrines, you get less bothered by people who pick up another set of teachings entirely.

I heartily recommend that you read the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism by Thich Nhat Hanh. The first one is,

1. Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

Read the whole thing, and consider making copies for your reverse fundie friends. The important point is that in order to be guided by the guiding means you have to put some trust in them and let them take you where they’re going to take you. With Zen in particular much of it makes no sense whatsoever at first. You have to work with it awhile even to understand what it is. And working with it requires a certain degree of exclusivity. You don’t have to shun non-zennies, of course, but to really understand Zen you have to just go with it for a while, until you begin to gain some insight and the haze clears a bit.

But just because Zen works for you (assuming it would) doesn’t mean it would work for everybody. Other people do better in other schools. It’s a very individual thing. And I don’t think Buddhism works for everybody. It bothers me not at all that other people I know are Christian, Jewish, or atheist. It’s simply not an issue with me, and I don’t really understand why it has to be an issue for anybody.

July 13, 2010 at 10:06 am
(4) won says:

Thank you, Barbara for your insightful response.

Thanks especially for the Thich Nhat Hanh piece. Words to live by indeed.

I’ll have more to say after I’ve had time to do some research :-)

July 14, 2010 at 8:34 am
(5) Dave O'Neal says:

Great post, Barbara. The “mountains” analogy is helpful, like most of those things, if not clung to too closely. In present-day America, when the various “mountains” are right next door to each other it makes things interesting. The problem with understanding someone else’s spiritual tradition relates to the fact that you can’t really have understanding of a practice/tradition until you enter into it yourself. Everything’s different from the inside. And one’s view of the practice is often turned on its head as you proceed up the mountain. The ignorance of this basic fact is what makes so much of the “interfaith dialogue” I’ve encountered to be so insufferably inane.
I just want to add one more point from my experience: The spiritual alternative to finding one’s own “mountain” and committing to that journey isn’t necessarily “pick and mix.” I don’t think it’s practical or desirable to explore a multitude of paths seriously enough to get a true feel for each, but some of us have gone up a couple different mountains pretty seriously, and it was maybe inevitable. I came out of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which is, historically at least, a path of profound truth. I always chafed at things in it, but I went to seminary and even spent a couple years in monastic life. At some point I was basically confronted by the teachings of Buddhism and got a kind of “contact high” on the taste of truth there, and I practiced Zen seriously for a long time, took precepts, etc. I still sit, but have lately re-entered the sacramental life of the church, with much gratitude. I have pretty strong aversion to “pick and mix,” yet here I am, sort of dual-traditionial in spite of that. There’s a kind of perspective to be gained from that. A feeling of one tradition sort of pulling the rug out from under the other sometimes, in a beneficial way. I’m not alone in this. It’s not pick & mix.

July 15, 2010 at 10:14 am
(6) Pete Rickard says:

Won, I would like to reiterate Barbara’s point to avoid the NKT as you explore the Buddhist path. They are fringe, and in my opinion, dangerous to anyone who wants to truly practice the Buddhist teachings.

July 15, 2010 at 4:47 pm
(7) Kalsang Dorje says:

I really take heart in the idea that these are all walks up the same mountain. I take time to stay within my tradition of Buddhism but I really understand this as a human journey. I always say “they’re all the same”, in the spirit of inclusion. All religions should be understood distinctly.

The pick & mix really is a mistake. Each tradition is structured by generations of embedded knowledge that should be very carefully modified as we come to them.

I echo what Dave O’Neal has said before me and have several traditions in my makeup. This is just a statement of the way things are in North America. No one is from one culture exactly. But then, I have to point to the obvious clinging to inherent identity here.

I think the different religious traditions have “grown up” in their own localities and their own cultural symbols. I believe they express the same desire: human spirituality.

Try to practice one fully. Be authentic and scare yourself once in a while.

July 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm
(8) Jeff says:

Many ways up a mountain, for certain. The question is, what mountain are you aiming to climb.
I don’t think all religions aim to climb the same mountain.
For instance, if your mountain is your own enlightenment or salvation alone, then on the paths along the way you may end up doing harm to others. Ultimately, the view from the top won’t be what you’d expect.
If the mountain you strive to climb is the enlightenment and well being of all people, then every path will constitute a ilfe of the highest merit and virtue.
Those who do harm to others, whatever their religion or whatever their religious justification, have chosen the wrong mountain to climb.

July 15, 2010 at 7:10 pm
(9) JoeBuddha says:

I believe that while you can pick and choose your path, there have only been a handful of religious geniuses who could do it right. Doing it myself would be like trying to use an arithmetic mind to do rocket science. Not enough horsepower to even know where to start, let alone do it successfully.
As to the “many paths” model, that kinda irks me as well, but I always fall back on Nichiren’s “All philosophies, insofar as they are correct, are themselves explanations of Buddhist truth.”

July 15, 2010 at 10:27 pm
(10) Owndrum says:

I am struggling at the bottom of the mountain! Choosing a path seems to me to be extremely important as it needs to be compatible with the psychology of the traveller. For example, i had for many years as you say “picked & mixed” from the buddhist traditions & its only very recently i decided to follow one tradition. Whilst i swung from Zen to Tibetan Buddhism, all i became was more confused resulting in me feeling that far from climbing the mountain, i was rapidly descending without control. I think that we need the discipline of a way of practice that is also conducive to our nature, then at least we have more chance of obtaining the understanding of the way. Its the discipline that leads us to taking the steps on the path, making us mindful of our commitment to the spiritual path that we have taken. Sometimes for example, persisting with Zen because our ego has determined we are fine intellectual people whom no Koan can defeat, is only leading us back down the mountain, its better to realise that you are not suited to Zen & you need to look elsewhere.
Can anyone please tell this beginner, why wanting enlightenment for oneself is viewed as if not wrong as suspect? I understand the Mahayana doctrine of boddhisatvahood encourages that we wish all beings to enter nirvana before we do ourselves, but i cannot find anything told to us by the historical buddha that says for a human to obtain enlightenment for their salvation alone is unacceptable. Most of what i’ve discovered is that the buddha himself said he could not liberate anyone, he could only show the way, implying its the responsibility of the individual to attain to liberation. By implying that those seeking liberation for themselves may be harming others just adds to my confusion?

July 16, 2010 at 12:35 am
(11) martin says:

My I say that it is different paths up different mountains to see the same view from different perspectives. Also, it is not that I dismiss your god or path but that mine is best for me. I think that the bigger question is why does one person enjoy the sea while another enjoys the mountains and the third finds immense pleasure in both.

July 16, 2010 at 10:53 am
(12) George Deane says:

I don’t think we should be overly rigorous about strict and unswerving adherence to one single path. I think there should be a certain degree of individuality in what practices one follows. One shoe does not fit all feet. There should be a touch of pragmatism in one’s practices – a judicious blend of practices might be recommendable for those practitioners for whom this might be suitable. For example, Tibetan Buddhism stresses visualization and Zen does not. I see nothing wrong with a current Zen practitioner who received his formative Buddhist training in the Tibetan tradition to totally renounce visualization exercises if he (or she) feels that the Tibetan approach is rich in creating transformational capabilities and developing the strong positive mindsets that to me are a necessary foundation for further exploring the nature of mind. Careful judicious judgments are necessary but should not be ruled out . I am not a partisan of Buddhist “strict constructional.”

July 16, 2010 at 11:54 am
(13) bullet bob says:

Respect and learn about other’s paths, but don’t get stuck on someone else’s path or even your own. The spiritual journey may be infinite and the mystery or destination may be beyond current limits of our brain power. My path is keep an open mind, use it to gather experience, improve my ethic and moral guide and follow to higher levels of enlightenment. The path may not be up a mountain, but simply a circle or maybe a path without dimention or spacial relationship. Can one get stuck in some form of religious and spiritual masterbation?

July 16, 2010 at 1:57 pm
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

Can one get stuck in some form of religious and spiritual masterbation?

Happens all the time. More common than not, I suspect, and a particular danger of solo practice. The big advantage of working with a teacher (a good teacher, anyway) and sangha is that your understanding is challenged and your practice is less self-absorbed.

July 16, 2010 at 5:28 pm
(15) Mila says:

Can anyone please tell this beginner, why wanting enlightenment for oneself is viewed as if not wrong as suspect?

As a beginner, the aspiration/inspiration/desire to attain enlightenment for ourselves is useful. It’s what motivates us to actually practice, and should therefore be cultivated, and celebrated: we’re choosing to walk the path of the Noble Ones – how wonderful!

As our practice deepens, we’ll enter a phase of exploring more precisely who this “me” is, that has entered and is now walking this path. The Hinayana version of this enquiry thends to go in the direction of unraveling the “self” into its component parts, viz. the skandhas — so the “self” is discovered to be much less solid and unified than we had imagined — and the skandhas themselves then discovered to be empty.

The Mahayana approach tends to involve an expansion of our notion of “self” to include all sentient beings — so we then employ our tendency to cherish and protect our “selves” in the service of cherishing and protecting all sentient beings, who we now include in our notion of “self.”

Either way, in the end we realize that all along there hasn’t actually been a “self” doing anything; the realization of which enlightenment. But for most, arriving at that place requires beginning with a strong aspiration to liberate our “selves.”

July 16, 2010 at 5:34 pm
(16) Mila says:

Last paragraph of above comment should read:

Either way, in the end we realize that all along there hasn’t actually been a “self” doing anything; the realization of which is enlightenment. But for most, arriving at that place requires beginning with a strong aspiration to liberate our “selves.”

July 16, 2010 at 7:21 pm
(17) Owndrum says:

Thank you Mila for your insightful comments vis a vis the differing views of Hinayana & Mahayana with regard to the self.
I personally haven’t heard it put it in that way, certainly certainly cleared up the matter for me anyway!

July 18, 2010 at 2:09 am
(18) Nalinaksha Mutsuddi says:

Many paths up the same mountain? No. The analogy is totally flawed. Because the mountain top is different for different religious people. For Buddhists it is ‘Nirvana”, for Hindus ‘Moksha’ for others it can called ‘Heaven’. Again, Christian heaven is not the same as Islamic heaven. So, different paths up different mountain tops. In short all are divergent. Yes, similarity exists as Kalsong Dorje says, “they express the same desire: human spirituality.” It is again a subjective matter as expressed by ‘martin’, “..why one person enjoys the sea, while another enjoys the mountains and the third finds immense pleasure in both.”

July 18, 2010 at 5:58 pm
(19) Lee says:

For me I’ve found, of course, that there are many paths and the only way they lead to the top of the same mountain is if I am trying to climb the same mountain again and again … what top am I going to reach … what vision am I going to grasp? (When I reach it) Sometimes when I bow at the alter I just bow … sometimes I really Bow totally (it deals with intent I believe)… In the ritual performed it matters not that I turn left or right of do full prostations or bows from the waist … it matters only that I really, totally do the bow. And in that instant I pass over the top of the mountain. So for me it’s not which path I am taking; it’s what intent is being expressed from my heart … (with the caution to beware of greedy, self centered teachers) If they ask for your wallet, or your mind run fast…) otherwise as the Dali Llama said Paraphrase “take your religion very seriously.” I feel all religions can offer the ability for one to let go and see truth.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.