I first encountered this phrase in 2007 while delivering organic produce to customers in New York City. My day often started with a cozy bodega-style market called Integral Yoga Natural Foods, almost hidden on a quiet residential street on the north end of Greenwich Village. It was on the storefront of the affiliated yoga studio next door that I saw this essential element of yogic teaching, along with the mandala on this page that has come to represent it in my mind.
At that point, I had spent almost four years contemplating this idea internally, and another full year trying, often with great vigor, to express it in writing. But in that whole time, I suspect, I had never learned to convey my own innermost truth as beautifully and succinctly as the folks at Integral Yoga did, right there for the world to see on West 13th Street. Now, ten years down the road, perhaps I am just starting to catch up.
As a singular testimony of my pan-Perennialism, I see this as a synthesis of two distinct statements that call to be accepted as one –which is why it is both simple and complex.
The latter, “Paths are Many,” is self-evident. Our diverse cultures have handed down a rich array of tales and traditions designed to point us toward awareness of a sense of self greater than these temporary bags of meat and bones. We find a world of difference (quite literally) in these traditions, and the distinctions between them alone would make a healthy buffet of offerings. But within each tradition, the diversity multiplies as individual flavors of each religion –often called “denominations”– have developed to cater to our personal idiosyncrasies and the different ways we think and feel and perceive the world.
Each item in this vast smorgasbord of spiritual paths has a distinct recipe for awareness, its own flavor that we consume and digest intellectually and emotionally, and these flavors are as diverse as we are. Some of them claim an exclusive relationship to the truth, which brings them into conflict with other paths that claim the same. That is the part of the world religion story that makes the news everyday, so we know all about that, and the situation is not too different than any other conflict in the political world. Complex to navigate, but simple to understand.
But the other part, “Truth is One.” What to make of that? It is not so evident on the surface. The words and symbols used along these paths do differ, sometimes drastically. It takes some digging, and then, like dinosaur bones, you rarely if ever find an intact skeletal system –something a lot more like jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Most people look at the pieces and see evidence of the same fragmentation that divides us on the surface, in the world of words and symbols. If they see any value in the pieces at all, they see it as a message that “truth is relative” –the basis of modern liberal/comparative religion, which succeeds at reducing xenophobia but falls short of the goal of union– and leave it at that.
But there are some who make a vocation of putting together the puzzle pieces. Maybe it starts with noticing how precisely two pieces fit together to form an image of truth greater than either could carry on its own –a simple parallel between Christ and Krishna, for example. Perhaps intellectual curiosity is what leads one to continue looking for more pieces that fit, or (as in my case) a deep and growing conviction that the picture will keep getting better as the pieces fill it in. Indeed, it has been my experience over the past twelve years that “Truth is One,” though complex to understand at first, is quite simple to navigate once the mind is trained to look for synthesis rather than prove a thesis or antithesis. And once the picture starts to feel complete, understanding becomes simple as well –or rather, it disappears from the picture, replaced by ” the peace which passeth all understanding”
This puzzle-piecing is what excites me the most about my path as a pan-Perennialist. I long ago gave up the notion that any one item on the buffet table would satisfy me, and I observed that my true hunger for synthesis was far from unique, that there were cohorts from whom I could learn to craft collaborative ties between faiths instead of becoming a partisan of one or another. I liken these folks to service workers at the smorgasbord rather than customers, people who have made it their job to replenish and revitalize all the offerings, who seek not to feed themselves from this bounty, and instead find their nourishment in seeing that we are all well-fed.
INTO THE MYSTIC
So this might be a fair time to ask: what is this One Truth?
The answer might sound like a total cop-out at first, but it is a crucial point to stress, and worth the risk of credibility loss (though Huxley said it first so I’m not alone), so here I go: the Truth cannot be expressed in words.
I know. Occupational hazard for a writer, eh?
Still, it is important to surrender the notion that anyone can encapsulate this ultimate Truth in words. Trying to do so is what keeps religions stuck on the level of political infighting, and why reformers who posit just another version of verbal “truth” often end up as despotic and dogmatic as their oppressors. History, after all, is written by the victors, and a study of religious history shows the same thing happens when a specific subculture’s version of Truth is chosen as official scripture. Just take a Wiki-deep glance at topics like the Nicene creed, ecumenical councils and biblical canon for a taste of the process that turns Truth into Official Fact. You can almost feel the centuries of lawyering and bureaucratic power-mongering that went into creating these “infallible” documents.
But I wouldn’t be writing a blog about religion and innermost Truth if I didn’t believe it can be discussed with authenticity. Indeed, just as the lawyers and bureaucrats have their official spokesmen (and I do mean “men,” more or less exclusively), the centuries have also given us the Avant-God: unorganized legions of mystic scribes and “metatheologians” who looked inward at the assembled puzzle pieces in their minds’ eyes and dared attempt to describe the Indescribable with words. The important difference –and this is absolutely crucial to understanding everything that pan-Perennialism stands for– is that the mystic writes to be a jumping-off point for you to make your own journey to Truth, not in a vain attempt to present Truth on a platter of words. The mystic knows that words can only be a framework for understanding a portion of Truth, so the words themselves are never given a God-like status. For the mystic, reverence is reserved for the experience of being steeped in the very personal knowing-beyond-knowing of innermost Truth, and nothing less. I cannot overstate the difference in the experience of reading our collected treasures of guideposts to Truth –the works of soul pioneers like King David and Jalalludin Rumi; the universal love poetry of Mirabai and Rabia; the more academic metatheological approach of Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell; and yes, even a fresh set of eyes on the Torah and the Christian Gospels and the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Tao Te Ching; just to name a few– versus latching onto one set of scriptures and calling it Truth.
With that as the context –words pointing toward the thing we want to know better, not being that thing in and of themselves– I’d like to approach this discussion of pan-Perennialism in two different ways.
One is a proper introduction to the person who may have had the single greatest influence on me as a mentor, the aforementioned Aldous Huxley, and share some of his own words on Truth through the Perennial Philosophy. Huxley was a brilliant social scientist, and perhaps the finest example of a puzzle enthusiast who was driven by intellectual curiosity. Accordingly, his Perennial Philosophy writings tend to stay objective and factual in perspective, with enough dry English wit to keep from being stuffy. I recommend this thread to anyone who wants to digest the principle of “Truth is One, Paths are Many” in the manner of a scholar, perhaps letting the heart be moved by a new pattern of discursive reasoning from the mind.
The other thread will be a series of articles —“All in All: How Non-Duality Pans Every Theism” (currently under revision)— that address the eternal ground of Being via the philosophy of pantheism, which I hold to contain the most “chemically pure state” of the Highest Common Factor. I will stay in my own more unabashedly opinionated, subjective voice, something more from the gonzo journalism mode of reporting. I too probably qualify as the kind of overthinking intellectual who is moved more by sound reasoning than an appeal to the heart. But if the ideas didn’t get past the filter in my head and reverberate in every cell of my body, I would have no reverence for them. The brain chooses the Official Facts to which we will subscribe, yes, but Truth begs an altogether different kind of scrutiny. I’ll share mine with you here, and let you decide if it moves you to the same feelings or not.
Onward to “All in All: How Non-Duality Pans Every Theism”
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