The basis for the following article was originally published in 2005 by the Hashlamah Project.
בשם יהוה הרחמן הרחם | بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Every religion has a mystical dimension to it. Judaism has Kabbalah, Islam has the Sufi `urafaa’, Taoism has those who accept more than the cultural (and often tribal), interpretations of the Tao, Buddhism, those who adhere to more than the cultural affiliation with their religious nominalism, Hindus have those who see the Pantheon of“gods”as nothing but allegory for the Divine Singularity of Being, Christianity too has the mystics of an era long gone; Saint Catherine of Genoa, Hans Denk, Meister Eckhart, and the notorious Saint Francis of Assisi.
All of these hold relatively similar views; so similar in fact that in many cases the linguistic phraseology of one could easily be swapped out for that of another cultural manifestation of “mysticism,” and there would be no demonstrable difference in what was actually being said. This is certainly a good thing.
Those who are able to penetrate beneath the layers of sociological baggage that so often obfuscates the meaning underlying man-made religion, are the heirs to a Universal truth that is bound by no language, no culture, and even no specific prophet. However, there is a problem that lies just below the surface of this purported doctrinal “Enlightenment.”
Among the Exoterists, there is constant observable and notorious bickering, leading to sectarianism and all too often murder in the name of one’s chosen conceptualization of “God.”Those proclaiming “mysticism” in these same traditions, often see themselves above this (and there is no doubt that to some degree they are). However, a more passive form of conflict arises with the question of “which mystical tradition should I follow?”
When the seeker comes to a Rabbi, Shaykh or Priest and asks this question, there is more often than not a sales pitch for why their chosen path is the path which should be followed. Conversely, and somewhat more rarely, there are those who spiritually “throw up their hands” and suggest that the seeker should follow whatever path most culturally fits with them. The latter of the two can be said to have a somewhat less attached perspective than the former. However, in neither case is there a true sense of Universalism; as it must be understood in the context of unfettered spiritual discipline.
It has often been said, in various traditions, Buddhist, Kabbalist, and the like, that the goal of spirituality, of religion, even of “mysticism”(if you will), is akin to the goal of climbing to the top of a Mountain. The Mountain itself has many possible ways up it, and so too – the allegory purports – are there many potential paths up it. Nevertheless, the point is that once the climbers have reached the top, they are all in good company with each other…
This illustration is not flawed so much as it is incomplete. Being inherently circular in nature, the analogy of the Mountain is reduce and simplified to the inorganic concept of a conical shape; with a base of 360°. That being said, a Mountain is organic in nature, and the 360° are flattened and distorted along ridges and crevices that are anything but uniform.
Just as the Mountain itself forms naturally and inorganically, so too do the paths that trek up its steep face. All paths form by the sojourner either treading a path beneath them – thus more easily facilitating the path of those who follow them – or by hacking away the growth to form a path. It can be said that the Prophets themselves were those given the tools, a machete of sorts, to carve out a path for their followers. All prophets, being born on different sides of the mountain, started up the easiest and most route before them (according to the relative information they had of the geography of the Mountain itself).
Thus, we are left with a mountain bearing the scars of many paths carved out along the ascent. The problems arising in the absence of these prophets, who etched out these paths, are many. In some cases the paths lead to an expansive plateau; where those who journey thus far set up camp and trek no further (believing there lies no further path ahead of them). Some amongst them are aware of a continued path, but have navigated it for a few yards and decided that it would be far easier to remain on the plateau with their friends and family who have set up camp. If they began their journey with such individuals, or if they got to know them along the way, then it can certainly be a difficult decision for them to continue on with out them. Most who know of the path’s continuation, therefore, determine with a sense of deliberation, to remain behind.
In other cases, the paths lead to a headwall, where the face of a mountain steepens dramatically; in which case only the very experienced climbers can progress further. There is more path ahead, but to reach it one must be able to overcome the obstacle in their way. These are the paths carved out by the exceptional climbers who had exceptional companions on their journey. For them it was not impractical to make such a climb. However, to climb in such a manner (often the most direct route), the leader must assemble companions for the climb based upon their quality, not upon quantity.
Some paths zig-zag to the left and to the right, in order to make the ascent less abrupt. Some paths take an even longer time to ascend. They circle around the mountain, almost spiraling upwards. They encircle the mountain many, many times, giving names to each spiral of ascent. They continue on in this manner until they reach the point where circling no longer becomes possible. At that point they must either chose a direct path, or they must bring their ascent to an abrupt halt.
In most cases, the climber will climb the path that his father, and his grandfather climbed before him. If you ask him why he climbs this way, he will either answer you with introspection – admitting that he climbs it because it is the only path he knows – or he will relay to your some old stories that his Grandfather passed down to him about how only their path will reach the summit, and why those on other paths are fools.
In other cases, the climber will become more skeptical of their father’s path, and will forsake it for another one once an obstacle is reached. They will scoff at their “foolish” ancestors, and will abrogate their way for the way of a path more remote to them. They assure themselves that on the other side of the mountain there simply must be less obstacles to face.
As time marches on, these paths carve out a strange network of mazes along the face of the mountain. To those near the bottom looking up, it seems an veritable labyrinth to enter. The more rational-minded tell themselves that the likelihood of successfully reaching the summit is improbable. Most of them turn around and return to the cities and towns that do not concern themselves with making retreat to the Summit. Others are aware of the stories of their Grandfathers, and they assure themselves that their path will take them directly up the mountain. Once they step foot on the path, they immediately shut down all objectivity and become mockers of those on other paths in the case of the Exoterists, or become salesmen for the Esoteric:
“Here, here on this path, we have a secret route that is better than even the other paths’ secret routes. Come join us on this path.”
Within all of these complexities lies the problem that the mystical analogy does not address. The fact that these paths do all lead to the Summit does not in any way simplify things, nor resolve the conflicts that emerge when these paths intersect along their ascent.
When two paths intersect, more often than not the climbers face off and refuse to let the other pass. In some cases they will insist that the person they encountered convert to using their path. In the worst cases still a fight ensues and one, or both of them are killed in the process…
Nevertheless, the mystic tells themselves that this is reality of the mountain itself and that it cannot be avoided. The mystics so often adhere to this notion that the following of these individual, winding, twisting and turning paths is the only way up the mountain. However, time brings about a change in what is best. This is the process of evolution; whether biological, sociological, or even spiritual.
As a new generation gazes upwards at the labyrinth of paths, there are some who begin to question. They do not question the validity of the paths, but they do question the exclusivity of the paths:
“Look at the way the paths all cross each other. Look at the twists and turns that they have in common; running parallel to each other in some places. Look at the points where the intersect and then diverge; often both in directions that soon thereafter encounter obstacles. Look at all of the fighting, look at all of the killing at this point and that point.”
A new idea, beyond that of mere acceptance of the paths’ validity, begins to emerge…
“Why not avoid these places of conflict altogether? Why not make certain to unite along the ways that these paths run parallel? Why not avoid the places where the paths run into difficulty that is easily bypassed by this path here and that path there? Why simply follow into problems that we see are so easily avoided by this path or that path?”
This new generation realizes that the paths that came before had to come for them to observe and analyze what worked and what did not work for them. They do not hold blind affinity, nor hatred for any path. Instead, they come together to carve out the most straight and direct path foreseeable up the mountain. They realize that, through their efforts in carving out this direct route, the subsequent generations (who can see past the blind allegiance to the legends of superiority passed down by their forefathers), with have a safer and more direct path. They commit their work to them (not merely for their benefit, but because to act for their benefit is righteousness); a future for those sojourners that is not plagued by avoidable problems.
This they do while bearing in mind that one day their descendants will likely learn from and improve upon their work as well. In this realization, they do not grow emotionally attached to their path either. They simply seek to do whatever works the best; all with the ultimate goal kept at constant attention and intention, that the purpose of the path is found in the Summit, not in the path itself. Whether or not that path is reached in one individual lifetime is never the concern; rather that the intention to reach the Summit is maintained as one strives along, never finding contentment in the plateaus, and never being distracted into conflict at the crossroads. This is the way of the mystic, the way in harmony with the spirit of the prophets who themselves carved out these paths in the days of old. This is the approach that we take.