Some faith traditions or organized religions are inherently interfaith or interspiritual in their intention. Most, however, tend to be separating or “one way” approaches – “my way or the highway.” The interfaith-friendly ways don’t necessarily encourage people to take a-little from here and a-little-from-there as eclectics or even as dilettantes. Rather, they see that all ways of the Spirit have value, even as an individual usually gravitates to a particular approach. They are embracing or inclusive of the many ways while offering their own unique way to those who come to them.
Sri Ramakrishna was a teacher and spiritual presence in India from the mid-to-late 19th Century who held an inherently interfaith view and said a great deal about it. He left us many good words about the different paths. The traditional indigenous people of North America also held, and still hold, an open and embracing attitude to the multiplicity of spiritual ways that now occupy Turtle Island, the Native name for North America. They know that the many faiths lead to the one Great Spirit by different names and means.
It is possible to utilize a Native American Medicine Wheel, or four-directions circle, to think about various principles, laws, and values of all kinds. Thinking of issues by connecting them in a circle helps a person understand them in holistic, relational, and interconnected ways rather than through linear thinking. Thinking about topics linearly, through lists, separate categories and analytic thinking is usually not the way things work harmoniously in life. A circle approach brings relatedness and wholeness to the fore.
This Interfaith-Interspiritual Circle is a five-direction approach considering five topics that come up when reflecting on interfaith spirituality. These five topics occupy each of the four directions, plus the center. The Center is the location in a circle where all four directions meet. It is a place of connection. In this learning circle, the topics for reflection about interfaith reality are: East – Tolerance; South – Respect; West – Knowledge; North – Feeling. They come together in Inclusion, located at the Center.
In the Medicine Wheel, the East is a direction of new beginnings and can be connected with the time of infant or baby in the human cycle of life. Historically the word “tolerance” has been associated with accepting the differing views of others, especially in religious or political matters. It also carries a suggestion of “putting up” with differences that we don’t accept. Tolerance is the least mature of the interfaith/interspiritual attitudes and perhaps should not be included as an aspect of honoring spiritual diversity; but we include it in the East as a beginning, and as a first try in an offering of peace.
The South is connected with youth and growth in the cycle of life. A deep-felt sense of respect is needed in order to honor spiritual diversity. In feeling this respect we ourselves are impacted and changed in an inner way. We are no longer acting or merely tolerating the many expressions of spirituality in the world. We accord them a position fundamentally on a par, although different from our own spirituality even if we don’t yet have an understanding of their details. This respect may arise simply because others have benefited from them.
The West is connected with the adult and maturity in the cycle of life. As one’s understanding of diverse spiritualities deepens from East to South to West, the issue of actually having knowledge of another faith tradition defines the Western direction. This knowledge need not be one of comparison, as in the study of comparative religion, but in the West we actually learn how a particular religious approach works with various aspects of reality. Such knowledge might be of an intellectual quality, but it is a clear understanding.
The northern direction of the Medicine Wheel is the place of wisdom, expressed by the Elder in the cycle of life. In the North, Tolerance, Respect and Knowledge have been further refined and deepened such that a person actually feels with the heart the varied approaches of diverse religions. Tolerance, respect, knowledge and feeling acting together offer a wise understanding. This kind of feeling may take place even as an individual stays true to his or her own path or spiritual commitment. For example, a person of a theistic orientation may find him or herself harmonizing with a person of a non-theistic orientation even though the two ways might seem quite different.
The Center of the Medicine Wheel represents the unity of the four outer directions. It is where the four directions touch, where they come together. At the Center, the energies or qualities of Tolerance, Respect, Knowledge and Feeling are all alive and active as a person relates to diverse faith traditions, including his or her own. It is a place of inclusion at which rejection is absent even as one is comfortable in their own spiritual way. It is a vibrantly dynamic situation in which harmony mind, and love, show the way. Inclusion is an expression of love, and love is strong in inclusion.
These five directions of the Circle are guidelines or pointers to assist one’s own self-inquiry as challenging situations of difference arise. Differences may be diverse philosophies, cultures, outlooks or ways of feeling about things. They may be religious or spiritual differences, as well as issues of secularism and humanism. Notice what comes up for you in situations of difference using the five directions of this learning circle as reference points. People share the Center when they value, embrace, learn from and include diverse ways of understanding without leaving their own path, or way in the world.
In all situations of honoring diverse realities, the principle of being harmless to oneself, others and the natural environment must always be first and foremost. Acceptance of different ways and inclusive attitudes or behaviors is never an excuse to condone violence or oppressive, harmful actions or outcomes.
This Circle we’ve been discussing is perhaps a conceptual way of thinking about diverse spiritual topics and issues. It is a learning tool. But the Native American talking circle is also an actual physical gathering of people who sit together to share their thoughts and feelings about topics of compelling interest. A real talking circle of diverse individuals is also guided by the five principles of this writing so that it may function harmoniously with people of varied viewpoints.
The author is grateful to the online talking circle of the Interfaith Contemplative Order of Sarada for teaching him about the realities of interfaith conversation and relationship over many years of participation on email and through a blog site. He is grateful to his brothers and sisters in that now concluded Circle for sharing their hearts and minds and bringing to life Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings on spiritual diversity. He is also grateful for the many American Indian circles at which he participated.
Feeling inclusion and unity in a sea of diversity is to abide at the center of the circle. Such unity may be approached in many ways but two aspects will probably be felt if inclusion is a reality. These two influences are love and contemplation. Love is a field of fundamental warmth, connection, and compassion to self and other under all circumstances. Non-dual contemplation refers to abidance in, and as the primordial (also called pure consciousness) at this moment. Inclusion, and a loving, contemplative life go hand in hand.
Here are some quotes by Sri Ramakrishna oriented to the Four Directions and to the Center of interspiritual truth. Hearing these with the ear of the heart in a non-dual manner, they speak of a wholeness of attitude and clear discernment of issues. Even after all this time, they cut deeply to some core issues and attitudes about understanding and living the interfaith-interspiritual reality we need for a sustainable and livable future on earth. They could become seeds to move individuals and diverse religions alike into harmony mind for a respectful, healing and peaceful time among all beings, in concert with our good Mother Earth.
Quotations on Spiritual Diversity by Sri Ramakrishna
(Number citations and all quotations are from the book, Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai)
East Symbolizing: New Beginnings • Quarrels disappear
470 Through ignorance a common person considers their own religion to be the best and makes much useless clamour; but when his or her mind is illumined by true Knowledge, all sectarian quarrels disappear.
South Symbolizing: Growth and Learning • Many paths to the Truth
483 A truly religious person should think that other religions are also so many paths leading to the Truth. One should always maintain an attitude of respect towards other religions.
West Symbolizing: Maturity • Having found one’s own path
478 As a mother, in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, sago and arrowroot to another, and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out for different people different paths suitable to their natures.
North Symbolizing: Wisdom • Allowing the Grace of God
484 Dispute not. As you rest firmly on your own faith and opinion, allow others also equal liberty to stand by their own faith and opinion. By mere disputation you will never succeed in convincing another of his or her error. When the grace of God descends, every person will understand their own mistakes.
Center Symbolizing: Connection and Unity • Diverse entrances to a house
486 Some ardent moralists among the Master’s disciples often found fault with certain people of great spiritual attainments, because some of the practices they followed were the secret rites of the Saktas and Vaishnavas which seemed to violate ordinary rules of morality. To them the Master used to say, ‘They are not to be blamed. For they have the thorough conviction that the paths they follow lead by themselves to God-realization. Whatever is ardently believed in and adopted as a means to God-realization should not be found fault with. No aspirant’s attitude should be condemned, since any attitude, if sincerely followed, is sure to lead to God, who is the consummation of all attitudes. Go on calling upon Him, each in your own way, and don’t find fault with another’s path nor take to it for your own.’
487 With a view to removing the antagonism of his disciples towards secret cults, the Master would sometimes speak to them about his views regarding them as follows: ‘Well, why should you cherish hatred towards them? Know them also to be valid paths, though they may be dirty.
There may be diverse entrances to a house – the front gate, the back-door, and the door for the scavenger who comes to clean the dirty places in the house. Know these cults to be akin to the last-mentioned door. No matter by which door one enters, when one is once within the house one reaches the same place as the others reach. Are you therefore to imitate these people or mix with them? Certainly not. But do not hate them in any way.’
Richard Simonelli is a member of the Interfaith Contemplative Order of Sarada, He has a background in Buddhism and Contemplative Vedanta as well as a background in and affinity fo Native American issues and indigenous life. He has worked as an ally in the Native American community supporting education, traditional knowledge and addictions recovery for almost 30 years. He is a writer, book author, and a contemplative, now focusing on interfaith contemplative life.
He wishes to thank Sister Judith Thackray, OSAh, founder of the Interfaith Contemplative Order of Sarada, for her inspiration and teachings about contemplative Interfaith spirituality. He also wishes to thank Don L. Coyhis, Mohican Nation, founder of the Native American Wellbriety Movement for his inspiration and teachings about the Medicine Wheel.
Richard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org