Religion and Spirituality
The Path between Traditions
By David Spangler
The main objective of many ecumenical efforts is to build bridges of communication and understanding between the great religious traditions of humanity such as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. The need for such bridges is beyond dispute. These traditions are like continents in a vast ocean, each with their own complex ecosystems, on which the majority of humanity live. There needs to be a prosperous and thriving cultural exchange between them, for the alternative is all too often conflict and suffering.
But what the bridges can overlook are those innumerable smaller traditions that are many peoples' religious or spiritual homes. One need only think of the different religious practices and beliefs of the various Native American tribes as an example. There are few if any major efforts by universities or churches to explore interfaith relationships between, say, Buddhism, Christianity, and the faith tradition of the Absaroka, or Crow Indians. Land-based spiritualities-such as shamanism in its many forms-may be thought of as once forming the spiritual equivalent of Pangaea, the Ur-Continent from which all our modern continents have been formed over millions of years through the movement of the earth's tectonic plates. But those spiritualities, though gaining in popularity and familiarity, have been like islands off the coast, often lost in mists and fogs, rather than part of the mainstream continents themselves. For millions of people, they have either been unknown or part of our so-called primitive past. As a consequence, ecumenical efforts may ignore them or only acknowledge them in passing.
This is also true for those who metaphorically live on the ocean itself, those who have no tradition or move between the traditions. This could include those who identify themselves as being "spiritual" but not "religious," who have a spirituality but not a particular traditional religiosity. If the ocean is a symbol for the Sacred or for divinity, then all the islands and continents float within it and upon it. But none of them cover the ocean. No tradition, however large or small, from the largest continent to the smallest island, encompasses the whole of the Sacred. If the ocean can support a continent, it can also support a boat, even one so tiny that only a single person can ride in it.
I suppose I am one of those boaters. If I were to describe my spiritual orientation in the metaphor of continents, islands, and oceans, then I would say that I live on a boat that has a mooring on the island of the Western Esoteric Tradition, which is off the coast of the continent of Christianity, as well as on the larger island of shamanism. But most of the time I navigate the currents of the ocean itself, visiting all the continents but fully living on none of them.
Two influences led me to becoming a spiritual "boat person." When I was six years old, my father, who was in the military, was transferred to Morocco where we spent the next six years. My parents had a great love for people of all cultures and were particularly interested in their religious traditions. Morocco, which has always been a cultural crossroads, provided them ample opportunities to explore as we had friends who were Moslem, Buddhist, Jewish, Bah'i, Catholic, Russian and Greek Orthodox, and Protestant. I remember as a child participating in religious festivals and observances from many of these traditions, gaining a sense of the universality of the spiritual impulse. I encountered divinity through many different faces and practices, in the process coming to a sense of a sacredness that infused but also transcended all the particular elements of a specific tradition.
The second influence came from a less familiar source. Since earliest childhood, I have had a supersensible awareness of non-physical worlds. The experiences and contacts I have had over the years, including a classical experience of mystical union with the sacred and with the world when I was seven, have greatly shaped my sense of spirituality. I suppose if I had been part of a traditional, indigenous culture, I would have ended up as a village shaman. As part of a modern culture, though, these experiences led me to becoming a kind of researcher into spirit and the inner worlds, instilling in me a sense of exploration. So like many explorers throughout history, I found myself as a young man of eighteen taking to the sea, so to speak-though an invisible sea in this case-rather than metaphorically staying on the land of a particular tradition. What I have observed and discovered in this process has largely been the foundation of all my public work, which started in 1964 with my first public lectures on the inner worlds.
So what is it like walking a path between traditions? On the one hand, it is liberating and exciting. With no need to defend or promote a particular tradition, a person becomes more open to what different traditions have to offer. All the traditions become welcoming, each one offering something unique and important in the form of insights into the sacred, into spirituality and the meaning of human life. It is easier to get into the world view of someone who lives on that "continent" all the time. The spaces between traditions offer a new view of the sacred or of spirit. A person can see more clearly the similarities and connections between different spiritual paths, but at the same time he or she can also see and honor the important differences.
I have found that having a sense of the ocean, of the spirit that underlies all spiritual paths-all the continents and islands-makes me more capable of honoring their distinctions. I am less willing to mush them together in a search for some form of ecumenical or mystical unity. Instead, I want each continent to have its own unique ecology, its own practices and beliefs. I have little need to discover how each religion "fits" with another or how its world view is really the same as that of another tradition, only using different images and words. In this sense, being between traditions has allowed me to more deeply honor and value the different traditions for their differences and for what each uniquely brings to the spiritual table of humanity.
Being a "boat person" who derives much of my spirituality from my own inner experiences, I value discovering how different people in different traditions have had the same or similar experiences as my own. A danger to my kind of path is that it can become mired in idiosyncrasy, in elevating my way of seeing above all others. So I visit the continents frequently through the various writings, teachings and scriptures of those sages and masters whom I honor in order to make sure that in my own wanderings I keep faith with the spiritual wisdoms that have guided humanity for centuries. Being a spiritual "boat person" is not the same as being isolated. I have no desire not to visit and benefit from the continents and islands, only not to let their particular landscapes become the only ones I see.
On the other hand, a tradition carries with it depth and momentum that can be important in a spiritual practice. An explorer encounters mysteries or challenges for which there are no ready answers while someone who is following a well-traveled path has a rich heritage of wisdom and shared collective experience on which to draw. It is easier for the individual seeker walking between the traditions to go astray or, as I said above, to become caught in private fantasies or idiosyncrasies, because he or she lacks reference points and landmarks made familiar by centuries of use and observation.
There is the power of community for the person who lives and stays within a tradition, a community that extends through time as well as space. When a Moslem goes on the Hadj or the pilgrimage to Mecca, he joins in a community of thousands of others in which differences of nationalities, race, and economic status dissolve in the brotherhood of faith and practice.
I know that I have felt lonely at times on my path. There are not many people who have the same experiences as I do, so I often am at a loss for people to talk with. My friends who belong to well-established traditions tend to interpret what I say in terms of their own familiar understandings, sometimes putting words in my mouth in the process. Or they may find what I share unsettling because my images and observations are outside the landscape with which they are familiar. To avoid this, I often work at translating my experiences into terms that will fit in their world view. I enjoy the sharing this can bring about, but it is not the same as talking to someone whose boating expeditions have led them to the same places I have been.
Fortunately, there are such people. I have a small network of friends who are explorers like me and we compare notes. This is very helpful, for all the same reasons that community is helpful upon any spiritual journey. And in the forty years I have been teaching, I have found increasing numbers of people who are heading out in boats themselves, no longer able for various reasons to stay upon the continent of a particular tradition. I am pleased that my experiences can be a help to them. Indeed, at the Lorian Association, the spiritual and educational foundation for which I work, we are developing a Master's Degree course in non-denominational, non-traditional spiritual direction and coaching just for such people who are launching themselves bravely onto the ocean of spirit but who still seek help themselves or wish to help others.
Identifying my spirituality can be a problem for those for whom such identification is important. Sometimes it has led to humorous situations. A friend of mine, John Matthews, who is a teacher of Celtic shamanism, told me once that he had announced to some Pagan friends of his that he was going to spend some time with me. "Why do you want to spend time with Spangler?" they asked. "He's too Christian!" At the same time, some of his Christian friends asked him the same question, announcing that I was "too Pagan!"
In a similar vein, I am sometimes asked to take part in ecumenical gatherings and conferences. In one such event, I was invited not only to lecture but to be on a panel of individuals all of whom were ministers, clergy, or priests within a particular tradition. There was a Zen Buddhist, a Hindu, a Catholic monk, a Moslem, a Jew, and one or two others whom I no longer recall, and then there was me. Everyone on the panel was asked to come wearing the vestments or uniform of their tradition. In my case, the organizers wanted me on the panel but didn't know how to identify me. They ended up calling me a representative of "new spirituality." Everyone else on the panel wore a robe of some kind, which made me envious as I love loose clothing, but I came in a jacket, slacks and tie. After all, what is the "uniform" of emergent spirituality? I decided it was simply to look presentable.
I was the last presenter on the panel, and before me, each of the others had spoken lovingly and deeply of their particular religious traditions. When it came time for me to speak, I introduced myself by saying that I had no tradition to represent. At which point, the Zen Buddhist roshi, who was sitting next to me, interrupted me and said, "You can borrow mine!" She took off her rakusu, a small, square pouch-like apron worn like a cloth breastplate over the chest, and put it over my head. "Thank you," I said. Then I took off my tie and put it on her. The crowd loved it, and I felt warmly embraced by her and her tradition.
This was a magical moment for me, but often it's different. I can participate where appropriate in the practices and celebrations of my traditionally religious friends, but I never feel as if I belong. As I have said, I am a visitor to their continents, not a resident. In a world where far too many people identify their tradition exclusively with the Truth, being on the outside makes you, well, an outsider, someone not to be wholly trusted or included. Traditions all too easily become walls and fortresses, or promised lands granted exclusively to a privileged few. But this is true even (or especially) for the smaller "island-like" traditions, who feel a need for protection and distinction from the larger continents looming on their horizons. And it can certainly be true for boat people like myself who can end up glorifying in their outsider position, viewing themselves and their freedom to navigate the seas as superior to the land-bound continent dwellers, those who give their lives to ancient dogmas and rituals, beliefs and practices.
In my experience, there are five kinds of people who sail the seas beyond the shores of any coherent tradition. There are those who are actually continent people, fully immersed in and devoted to a particular tradition which is their spiritual home but at the same time open to the universality of human spirituality and seeking "trade routes" of understanding and communication with the other traditions. These are those people dedicated to the ecumenical conversation between religions, and they often journey to and even live for a time upon the continents of other faiths. They seek to build a common bond between people of all religious persuasions, as I said at the beginning.
Then on the opposite extreme are those who are spiritual boat people because they are rejecting the lands on which they were raised. They are simply anti-tradition, especially in most cases against their religion of origin, and are dedicated not so much to the sacred in its universality but to freedom itself, or at least to their image of what freedom is.
A third group are those people who are simply seeking. They are restless, wandering, and searching for a spiritual home. They are not against any tradition per se, but they have wanderlust and may not know just what they're looking for. So they dabble in this spirituality or that tradition, sometimes fashioning for themselves a pastiche of practices that suits them for awhile but still never satisfies some vague inner longing. They walk between the traditions not to foster communication and understanding between them, nor out of rejection and anger, but simply because they are seeking what they don't have. They may not know just what it is, and sometimes they become enthralled with the seeking itself, never finding, never settling down, always looking.
Then there are those rather like myself who have had experiences of wider vistas and mysteries beyond what any particular tradition represents and have become explorers and researchers. They move between traditions in a quest for deeper understanding and for insights they feel their birth traditions do not or cannot offer. They may feel a calling to something new, a dedication to an emergent spirituality that has not yet fully taken form.
If anyone in these four groups is lucky and insightful, he or she may come to be part of a fifth group. These are the people who will feel and understand most keenly what Universal Awakening is all about. Such people can be, in my metaphor, boat people, travelers, islanders, or mainlanders who dwell on a particular continent of faith. How they relate to a particular tradition or to traditions themselves is in some ways beyond the point, for these are people who have come in their various unique ways to a realization of the Ur-spirit from which all traditions arise. In my metaphor, both ocean and land rest on the fiery mantle of the earth, the structure that supports all the surface manifestations. This mantle is the Ur-tradition, a living presence of the ground of being itself, the generative mystery from which all emerges. It is not made up of dogmas, beliefs, teachings, rituals, or practices but of a living, dynamic spirit that is molten with love.
Those who have experienced this can appear to be walking a path between traditions or they can appear immersed in the depths of a tradition itself, but in fact they have a clear sense of an unspeakable reality that undergirds all life, all religion, all spirituality. As such they see themselves as belonging metaphorically not simply to the land or to the ocean but to the world as a whole, to spirit as a whole, to the sacred and to humanity as a whole. These people can move freely between traditions or live freely within one, but in either case, it is the tradition or the space between traditions that finds meaning and power within them, rather than the other way around. In their lives and behavior, a tradition blossoms and fulfills its promise; it comes alive, flexing living muscle and becoming supple rather than stiff and spasming with ancient habits and rote, reflexive rituals. And in their lives, the path between traditions becomes more than just a search for alternatives, an idiosyncratic posturing of spiritual self-referencing, or simple research into emergent possibilities; rather it becomes a space in which the generative power from which traditions arise can be seen, celebrated and honored. For such people, being in or out of a tradition-or walking a path within or between them-becomes irrelevant; for them spirit itself and the humanity that contains it and liberates its possibilities, becomes the tradition.
The path between traditions can be an exciting, insightful, risky, lonely, and exploratory space. In the end, though, it is just another place for our minds and hearts to be as we conduct the eternal human quest for meaning, understanding, love and truth. Being in a tradition or between them is really only a way of talking about tools. A tradition is a tool, the space between traditions is a tool. Some hands hold and use some tools better than another, but all tools are servants of a craft; they are there to help us to accomplish something. That something for us is to meet the needs of a suffering, conflicted world longing for love and compassion and a unitive, holistic vision.
Universal Awakening, the theme of this website, is not just about awakening to a god-vision peculiar to a particular tradition or to a sense of spirituality found in the spaces between traditions. It is about awakening to the world that embraces both of these paths and to that mystery of divinity that is deeper than both and found in both. Whether we are boat people, islanders, or mainlanders, we all belong to the world. The path we need is the one that takes us into that world and awakens us to the wholeness that has always been there.