This week’s theme from The Teachings of the Buddha is “Approaching the Dhamma.”—Editor’s note
One of the most distressing predicaments any earnest, open-minded spiritual seeker might face is the sheer difficulty of choosing from among the bewildering diversity of religious and spiritual teachings available. By their very nature, spiritual teachings make claims upon our allegiance that are absolute and all-encompassing. Adherents of a particular creed are prone to assert that their religion alone reveals the final truth about our place in the universe and our ultimate destiny; they boldly propose that their path alone offers the sure means to eternal salvation. If we could suspend all belief commitments and compare the competing doctrines impartially, submitting them to empirical tests, we would have a sure-fire method of deciding between them, and then our ordeal would be over. But it isn’t that simple. Rival religions all propose—or presuppose—doctrines that we cannot directly validate by personal experience; they advocate tenets that call for some degree of trust. So, as their tenets and practices clash, we run up against the problem of finding some way to decide between them and negotiate their competing claims to truth.
One solution to this problem is to deny that there is any real conflict between alternative belief systems. The adherents of this approach, which we might call religious universalism, say that at their core all spiritual traditions teach essentially the same thing. Their formulations may differ but their inner core is the same, expressed differently merely to accord with different sensibilities. What we need to do, the universalist says,when faced with different spiritual traditions, is to extract the kernel of inner truth from the pods of their exoteric creeds. From ground level our goals look different, but from the heights we will find the goal is the same; it is like the view of the moon from different mountain peaks. Universalists in matters of doctrine often endorse eclecticism in practice, holding that we can select whatever practices we prefer and combine them like dishes at a buffet.
To read the rest of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to “Approaching the Dhamma”, click here.