Some years ago I went to Fez, Morocco, to deepen my practice under the tutelage of a sufi shaykh of the Qadiri order. Although I am not formally a Muslim, I was welcomed by him and in the dhikr circles I attended. One day, however, when I was visiting the house of one of his students, the student turned on me angrily for not being a real Muslim, and insisted that the only true sufi path could be found by following the Shari'a — the laws of Islam. Some months later the shakyh told me he had heard of this conflict and had been furious at his student for his narrow-mindedness.
But the shaykh's view is less common than his student's. One often reads in current books on sufism repeated and harsh attacks on what the authors perceive as "pseudo-spirituality" masquerading as sufism in the Western world. They are especially sensitive about any suggestion that sufism could function as an authentic path of awakening outside the Shari'a and doctrine of Islam, or that it could look for any of its origins prior to the revelations of the Prophet Mohammed.
My sense is these authors are quite right in affirming that Islamic sufism is Islamic sufism, which naturally takes for its primary reference the Qur'an, hadith, and the treasury of sufi mystical writings that have formed the body of Islamic sufi doctrine through the past fourteen centuries.
But when the sufi mystic Inayat Khan brought sufism to the West in 1910, a major watershed occurred in the history of sufism. Himself a Muslim sufi initiated into the four primary sufi orders — Chishti, Suhrawardi, Nakshbandi, and Qadiri — Inayat Khan revolutionized and re-expressed traditional sufism by releasing it from an exclusive relation with Islam. "Sufism has never been owned by any race or religion," he wrote. "Sufism itself is the essence of all the religions as well as the spirit of Islam."
But it is unlikely the critics who condemn the "pseudo-spirituality" of our times have Inayat Khan or his message of universal sufism in mind when they write. After all, the several Western sufi orders that follow in Inayat Khan's lineage amount to no more than a few thousand people. Rather I think they are responding to an unmistakable drift in Western spiritual culture away from adherence to a single religion and dogma, and consequently many people's spiritual openness toward the inner teachings of several religions.
It is this more pervasive cultural movement that disturbs the religionists. The well-respected writer William Stoddart sums up their objections in this way: "One cannot take the view that, since mysticism or esoterism is the inner truth common to all religions, one can dispense with religion (exoterism) and seek only mysticism (esoterism)." Or, as other authors repeat, "There can be no esoterism without an exoterism," that is, there can be no authentic mystical path without a "divinely revealed religion" to ground it and inspire it.
I would like to explore this issue here because it causes much confusion in those who find themselves outside a formal religious tradition but who are nevertheless dedicated to a rigorous spiritual aspiration and path. Specifically I would like to look at what is meant by the exoteric, especially its ethical dimension, and how we might understand the source of exoteric forms in revelation, which is the arising of what we experience as true.
If the function of the esoteric refers to a path of mystical realization, of interest to only a few, the function of the exoteric refers to (at least) three areas of benefit to a broader cross section of humanity. These three areas are:
Ethics. The provision by formal religions of codes of social conduct to promote peace, fairness, and social and personal well-being. Here we have the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Shari'a, Buddhist precepts, Jewish law, etc.
Doctrine. The doctrine of a religion unites us with the divine or ultimate reality through the view it gives us of our place in the cosmos, the meaning of life and our mortality, as well as the spiritual lessons given through its symbolic narrative. When it claims to be based on divinely revealed scripture, religious doctrine carries a profound power to engage people and to secure their commitment to its view and teachings.
Worship. Formal religion also provides inspiration and a channel for our reverence and our desire to express it. Awe, intimacy, longing, love of beauty, praise, and thankfulness are given a context and focus through communal ritual and prayer.
Hence the charge by religionists is plain: those who follow a mystical path not faithful to a single formal religion are separated from any authentic source of ethics, doctrine, and worship, and are therefore relegated to a "cafeteria-style," "pick-and-choose" religion that has no depth, roots, or obligation.
I wish to affirm here, in the strongest possible terms, that in my experience exactly the opposite is true. We — and now I use "we" to include all those who follow a sincere path of spiritual awakening outside the definitions of a single faith — are blessed with nothing less than a source of ethics, doctrine, and worship that arises from the universal revelation of all of existence. This universal revelation is sufficient to inspire our lives with all the guidance and reverence we could hope for as human beings.
What is universal revelation? It is both the source of the vast heritage of guidance and wisdom we have received from the past and the source of our spontaneous awakening. Ultimately it is life and the source of life. Through the grace of universal revelation we receive ethical guidance, a meaningful word view, and a communion of worship which is non-exclusive in its scope and profound in its realization.
Typically "divine revelation" is understood as a transaction that has occurred sometime in the distant past between God and a prophet or other holy figure. Through that transaction a message is given of benefit to a certain people or to humanity as a whole. In speaking here of universal revelation I am not implying there are two kinds of revelation, divine and universal. They are the same. My point in using the word "universal" in the context of revelation is to free the notion of revelation from its associations with exclusivity and with the idea that only the great prophets of humanity could ever receive revelation from the divine.
Even the idea of revelation as a transaction is questionable. After all, what we mean by God or the divine is Oneness, Unity, the Only Being. There are not two, a Divine Giver and a mortal receiver. The divine reveals through creation immanently, not transactionally. This point is crucial in understanding universal revelation: it is immanent—immanent in the waves of the sea and in the joy of the heart, immanent in the gaze of our eyes and the understanding of our minds, immanent in birth and immanent in death. Both of these words — "immanent" and "revealed" — describe the same intimate experience of God's Self-Disclosure. The subject-object, knower-known relation is not how this is experienced — rather the recognition is revealed immanently and what is immanent is the transcendent.
I would like to turn this contemplation now to the more specific subject of ethics, since ethics is one of the three central domains of traditional exoteric religion founded upon divine revelation.
The accusation of religionists toward us has been that because we do not live inside a particular revealed religion we have no access or obligation to right guidance. In the remainder of this essay I will consider how guidance is in fact abundantly accessible through the universe revealing itself around us and within us every moment.
The Revelation of a Global Ethic
To repeat our central question: If we do not rely solely upon the revelation of a single religion to provide an ethical code to live by, upon what do we depend? How is a reliable guide to right conduct revealed to us?
We might begin to look for an answer in the natural ethics taught to us by life itself. I use the word "natural" here in its sense of needing no explanation. Every day we are immersed in life's guidance. For example, what do we learn when we have a baby? We learn a natural caring arises in us, a caring that gives us strength and patience. We lift an infant to our chest and rock it there, and coo softly. From where does this behavior come? When we consider the whole tableau of our lives — learning how to love and how to be a friend, learning from one's mistakes, searching for meaning and purpose, growing older, burying our loved ones — all these natural events and life stages teach us through positive and negative experiences how to live better, be kinder, and care for others.
Yes, one can say life also produces murderers and dictators, and greedy and broken souls — this is true. Yet if we look very closely, or from a height, we will see a natural tendency for kindness and wisdom ever resurgent in the enormous drama of our species. Violence flares forth from ignorance and fear and its cyclic history, yet it is always met with shock and distaste. This shock and distaste is one of the ways natural ethics teaches us. There are many others. The very occurrence of learning itself is evidence of what Buddhists call the basic goodness of the universe, revealing truth and the impulse for compassionate action.
From this naturally arising field of moral guidance — universal revelation — there has appeared in nearly every religion descriptions of what is known as the Golden Rule. This essence of ethics is the common property of all people. Its ubiquity is proof of universal revelation — it has been revealed through the very nature of things. At the core of the Golden Rule are two principles: first, unity — we are not separate from each other or from the earth's community of life, and second, kindness — it is through compassion and love that this relative world is united with ultimate reality.
The Golden Rule
We are as much alive as we keep the Earth alive.
– Chief Dan George
Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be
laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you
would not desire for yourself.
– Baha'u'llah, Gleanings
Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
– The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18
In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you;
for this is the law of the prophets.
– Jesus, Matthew 7:12
One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct...
loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not
want done to yourself.
– Confucius, Analects 15.23
This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would
cause pain if done to you.
– Mahabharata 5:1517
Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what
you wish for yourself.
– The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith
One should treat all creatures in the world as one would
like to be treated.
– Mahavira, Sutrakritanga
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.
This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.
– Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a
I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me.
Indeed, I am a friend to all.
– Guru Granth Sahib, pg. 1299
Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your
neighbor's loss as your own loss.
– T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218
Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.
– Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29
Text compiled by The Temple of Understanding
Out of the spirit of the Golden Rule, gestated for millenia in the evolution of religions and the social contract, and in rejection of the specter of violence and greed, there arose in the twentieth century a great flourishing of ethical scripture, a gift of the universal revelation: the ethical declarations and charters of the world's peoples. Here there are many examples, among them: the Charter of the United Nations (1945), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), The People's Treaties from the Earth Summit (1992), The Declaration on a Global Ethic from the Parliament of the World's Religions (1993), the Beijing Declaration on the Rights of Women (1995), and the Earth Charter (1998).
These declarations are more than high-minded words on paper. They represent sacred scripture that has been revealed through the hearts of people everywhere, responding to our yearning to live in harmony and beauty with each other and with the earth. While the laws and commandments of the world's religions form, for the most part, a basis for these declarations, the declarations are more comprehensive and specific than the codes of ancient scripture. They express distinct guidelines for a truly ethical civilization in which the rights of all are respected.
The heritage of universal revelation obviously includes the moral laws, commandments, and precepts of the world's religious traditions. They are a great treasure for all of humanity. Here we are not limited to following one set of these codes, but can learn from them all. We do not need to feel constrained by a particular law we sense is no longer appropriate. This is the aspect of "pick and choose" which annoys many religionists: take the entire tradition, they say, or don't take it at all. But their insistence that a particular dogma is mandatory reveals the very attitude that no longer can be considered ethical. Rather than accept a moral code that calls for killing homosexuals (Judaism and Christianity) or stoning adulterers to death (Islam), we accept the responsibility to determine right action based on everything we know and love — scriptures, teachings, life experience, philosophy and art, the intuition of our hearts, and prayer.
As we pay notice to the ethical fruits of universal revelation, let us not forget our secular explorations into good governance, jurisprudence, listening and communication skills, sociology, psychology, medical ethics, creativity and fairness in the workplace, etc. These evolving disciplines reveal the deepening wisdom of humanity's quest for personal and societal well-being. Are they divinely revealed? I believe we can answer yes — to the extent they remain responsive to fairness, kindness, warm-heartedness, and intelligence. We can see how the natural current of universal revelation uplifts our search for ways to live in beauty and harmony with each other.
This overview of our revealed ethical heritage would not be complete without mentioning the field of environmental ethics and its philosophical roots in Deep Ecology. With the exception of indigenous spiritual traditions, most of the world's religions have not prepared us well for the ethical challenges of determining right relations between the human family and the earth. There may be no more pressing issue facing us. In our search for authentic revelation and guidance, shall we choose to refer only to scripture written many centuries ago, or do we have other choices?
To conclude by returning to where we began, let us consider once more the Muslim critique that there cannot be a universal sufism thriving outside the religion of Islam. Our descriptions here of a universal revelation may be satisfying to some ears, but not to all. The objections offered by religionists are pointed. Martin Lings, another well-respected authority on Islamic sufism, asserts that a person on their own "has no means whatsoever of reaching the Absolute....The Absolute must first as it were hold out a hand, or throw a life-line.... [This is] precisely what is meant by Revelation, whatever form it may take. The question may therefore be asked: If Sufism is non-Islamic yet effective, that is, endowed with a reintegrating power of ebb back to the Absolute, to what flow proceeding from the Absolute is that ebb a reaction, or in other words, on what Revelation does it depend? The answer should moreover be immediately and clearly forthcoming, for it is not conceivable that Providence should have acted surreptitiously in this matter."
An answer is immediately and clearly forthcoming: This! This revelation that is before us and within us and that creates and obliterates us every instant. It is not news of a distant paradise, or the story of an event long past. It is This. As the hadith says: "Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God." The revelation on which we depend is not kept in a book, although it certainly has left its traces in many books. The flow that reaches out from the Absolute belongs to no religion. When we finally stand in God's presence it turns out we are not there, and no religious ethic, doctrine, or form of worship stands there either. The revelation is This. In the words of Inayat Khan:
"Life, human nature, the nature around us, are all a revelation to a Sufi. This does not mean that a Sufi has no respect for the sacred scriptures revered by humanity. On the contrary, he holds them as sacred as do the followers of those scriptures; but the Sufi says that all scriptures are only different interpretations of that one scripture which is constantly before us like an open book—if we could only read and understand it."