There is a fairly consistent realization that brings western people to the spiritual path. That realization is that life is hard. It is easy to feel as though we are going through life like a stuffed dog toy being shaken and chewed, thrown about every which way. Even in the moments of brief respite from the dog’s clenched jaw, we only find worry in knowing that the dog will come storming back for you.
So people decide they need to do something different in their life because happiness eludes them in the face of life’s difficulties. They read spiritual books, explore the wisdom of ancient cultures, travel to spiritual places; they try yoga, meditation, prayer, being altruistic, exploring different diets, different doctrines, different teachers. Trying to find the answers of how we find peace and happiness in the midst of this truth that life is hard.
The question that remains is how do we know what path, what teaching, what techniques to follow? What is best for us? The answer to this question is complex. Some people will say you need to pick one specific spiritual tradition and follow it strictly and wholeheartedly, and this is the only way you will reach a level of mastery where you can find peace in your life.
There is value in this idea, explained by the metaphor of digging for water to build a well. If you keep digging three-foot hole after three-foot hole searching for the perfect spot, you’ll probably never hit water because you never go deep enough. To find water, you’ll eventually have to pick a spot and dig a ten-foot hole.
So while we do not want to spend our lives digging shallow holes, we also have to be wary of where we dig deeply because every path is borne from a unique context and circumstances that are different from our own lives. It is also not to say these traditions are completely static. In many ways they are dynamic, evolving, changing as the system meets the world. There are new dialogues and debates on scripture, commentaries on ancient texts, different translations and interpretations from practitioners of different cultures and different ages. There is always room for new discoveries and understanding. But the core systems of the paths are designed for specific circumstances.
Paths like Tibetan Buddhism, for example, ask you to dedicate your life to achieve mastery through very precise and elaborate steps. It takes a total investment. But the Tibetan Buddhist path comes from an entirely different era, an entirely different culture with different values. One simple example is how connected the Tibetans were with nature. The demand of Tibetan Buddhism to avoid stimulation is an incredible challenge for someone who lives in a city and has to make a living using technology. The system they developed to find peace was built in the context of their circumstances, not ours.
Hasidic Judaism is another example of a system formed in a specific context. If you are at all familiar with the history of Jewish people, you know that it is one of struggle, persecution, and survival. Everything from the Inquisition to the Holocaust created the context for how the religion is practiced. When you hear Jewish orthodoxy say that they are the chosen people, this is very much a defense mechanism that comes from the circumstances of defending yourself again and again. The insularity of the community, the biblical interpretations, and the reactions to anti-Semitism are all borne of context.
Another case of the importance of context is from Yogic traditions that offer a certain disgust for civilization and an impetus to escape into the mountains, a drive to get away and find nothingness. Well this comes from the context of how incredibly difficult life was for certain people in ancient India. Every method is created for its own circumstance.
Our goal is to find the universal truth within each that extends beyond context, circumstance. What can be applied to our own modern lives without bending the integrity of the system itself? We are not ancient Tibetans or Indians, or Holocaust survivors, so each of the systems will relate to us differently. How can we find what is true?
When we say find the truth in the system, we do not mean find what is historically perfectly accurate. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, described truth as discovering what truly speaks to you; what points you to your own truth and touches your own soul in a way where you see yourself differently? You may never totally know if the stories in scriptures actually happened the way it is written, but to Maimonides this was not nearly as relevant as the truth of how the teachings transformed you. Whether miracles happened or not is relevant if we can discover within ourselves, with our own experience, what is true and what is not true.
It is for us to explore the truths of the different spiritual systems. What brings us focus and clarity of mind? What balances and brings us energy? What intellectually makes sense with logic and reason? What helps us move away from fear and towards loving with a full heart? What gives us real purpose that is true to who we are?
These areas of Mind, Energy, Intellect, Heart, and Purpose represent elements of universal truth that speak to every individual person uniquely. Through these avenues, we can discover the essence of the traditions that transcend context and circumstance. We can take teachings and practices from a variety of spiritual paths to find truth.
Taking different elements of different spiritual traditions is not like digging a bunch of shallow holes when searching for water. It is like using different tools to dig a deep hole to reach the water, the core, the truth below. If we are in a freezing climate, we need a different array of digging tools than if we live on a tropical beach. In that same way, most of us do not want to live as an Ancient Tibetan Monk or a 12th Century Jew. We need to match the wisdom of the ancient spiritual traditions to our own lives. Maybe we decide we want to go intensely into one spiritual path, or move to the Himalayas to become a nun, and that is beautiful if that is what you choose. This may be your best chance for happiness.
But there is a path for the modern lay person to become their best, happiest self that does not take escaping their own circumstances. The road to enlightenment transcends time, space, circumstances, and spiritual labels. When understood deeply and applied diligently, the tools the spiritual traditions offer us all the truth we need to be fulfilled in Mind, Energy, Heart, Intellect and Purpose. This is the vision of the Vagabond Temple.
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