A Volume in:


National Geographic Society

Copyright @ 1971


T HE VACANT LOT BESIDE OUR HOUSE IN THE CHINESE TOWN where my parents served as missionaries held a special fascination for me. On the day of a funeral, wealthy families would build on it an elaborate, full-scale paper house, fill it with paper furniture, paper effigies of servants, and piles of paper “ghost money.” Sometimes there would even be a paper Ford motor-car on the street out front. Later, straw was heaped against the house. Then, as monks circled it, chanting and playing cymbals and flutes, a torch was applied. In an instant the flames destroyed the paper symbols, making the amenities they represented available to the departed in his new life.

Not far away stood a large building I called the “hotel for the dead,” a mausoleum in which the bodies of the wealthier deceased lay for several years before burial. Here people came regularly to pay homage to their ancestors . How special that dark hall seemed, with its racks of tightly sealed wooden coffins. Some of its occupants may have arrived sooner than expected as a result of having purchased from Taoist alchemists elixirs to prolong life. These costly and secret brews could achieve the opposite of their intended effect, for they frequently contained dangerous doses of arsenic and mercury.

Folk superstitions mingled freely with Taoist precepts. The streets of our town curved for no apparent reason; I was told this was to thwart demons, who could move only in straight lines. The parents of my friends took their problems to very wizened priests with musty books whose logic defied my young mind. They also consulted fortune-tellers who threw sticks to divine the future.

I liked, respected, even loved the people of my town, but I could not understand their beliefs. When I left China to attend college in the United States, they slipped from my mind. I was busy learning American ways. But as the years passed and I devoted my life to the study of philosophy and religion, I remembered my Chinese friends with new understanding. Their rituals and beliefs—however distant from our own—dealt, after all, with matters that concern us all: awe of death and what lies beyond, the need to cope with life’s hazards, and the need to know who we are, why we are here, and where we are going.

Amid the dazzling variety of rituals and creeds that distinguish religions, these three themes recur again and again. Man feels the burden of time acutely; we grieve to see the flowers wilt and the leaves fall, for in our hearts we know that we too are transient and will soon disappear. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away”—when we hymn such lines we don’t simply philosophize, we raise our voices in a human obsession.

It was recognition of the inevitability of death that led a pampered Indian prince to renounce his throne and become Buddha—the Enlightened One. Tradition says he was shielded from all unpleasantness until he accidentally glimpsed three men, one aged, another diseased, a third dead. “Where is the realm of life in which there is neither age nor death?” he cried. His quest for an answer led to the founding of one of the world’s great religions.

Endlessly vulnerable to illness, accident, and heartbreak, man feels at times—in Job’s telling image—as if even a moth could crush him. We smile today at Pueblo Indian rain dances; our granary is constant, we doubt the efficacy of their rites. But what do we do when we are desperate? Fume impotently? Rage against the dying of the light? Orate about being masters of our fate? On the two occasions when my life was shattered by the anguish of personal crisis, I did as those Indians did—I prayed for help.

Prayer, of course, is more than petition; there are, besides, prayers of adoration and prayers of meditation. Yet prayer remains in part petition, wherein it is joined by sacrifice . Sacrifices seek results, but they are not simply payment to the gods for favors requested. The will to give is as deep in man as the will to receive —or the need to feel worthy. When the Brahmins of early India offered libations for rain, they were not just bargaining; they were demonstrating their control of the elements. Their rites and formulas kept the monsoons on schedule.

Without a sense of right direction, man feels disoriented and confused. His life lacks meaning and wholeness. Sin pulls against right direction and the wholeness it affords, while atonement brings at-one-ment. One of the reasons for the phenomenal spread of Islam, youngest of the great religions, lies in its answers to these very questions. The Koran tells man he is the servant of his creator, then delineates the path he should walk in detail sufficient to help in every human endeavor. The very word “Islam” connotes the “peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.”

Man seems to have wrestled with these concerns as long as he has been on earth, for anthropologists have found no culture without religion. Primitive man sought his answers in ritual and myth. By participating in ritual actions which imitated the original creative acts of the gods—such as the “First Planting” or “First Mating” — he sought to partake of the timelessness of the gods themselves. Myths developed to embellish these rituals and enrich their meaning.

In time man developed the idea of a soul; he saw it as separable from, yet surely dependent on, the body. This is why pharaohs built pyramids — to protect their bodies and the possessions on which their souls depended. Scholars see a connection between the idea of a soul and dreams — in which a person can “travel” without his body leaving the room.

Primitive man also shared with modern man the concept of “ sacred space” Such a fragile thing, man’s hold on the sacred! It can announce itself with power only to withdraw in the face of all protestations.” Why hidest thou thy face from me?” sang the Psalmist . To induce the sacred to linger, man has built habitats for it, trying to make a home for it in this bent and broken world. Caves, grottoes and mountains served originally. Then buildings arose, crude and simple at first later gathering glory into a Chartres, a I.ingaraja, an Isfahan. Each summons the sacred with symbols: spires that aspire to heaven, stained—glass windows and mosaics that stun the senses, the play of light and darkness that speaks eloquently of mystery to the human soul. Temples also served another purpose; they joined heaven to earth. The central, towering pyramid of the temple at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat was conceived as a magic mountain that ran through both heaven and earth and — as Cosmic axis — held the world stable and in place. Its design repeated heaven: Its moat mirrored the heavenly ocean, its surrounding rock wall the heavenly chain of mountains that held the ocean at bay. As pilgrims crossed the temple’s rainbow bridge (rainbows often symbolized the arch from heaven to earth) they believed they were stepping into heaven on earth. They felt they were likely to find gods there too, for gods would feel at home in a place so closely patterned after their own abode.

To archaic man, sacred places were awesome; they were places of power. Facing the burning bush, Moses was enjoined, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Sacred places had also to be guarded against pollution . If a woman chanced into the dream spot’’ where Australian aborigines gathered to commune with their ancest-ors, she was immediately killed. Women were denied the appropriate purification rites and were thus regarded as profane — that which must be left in front of (pro) the temple (fane).

Sacred time complemented sacred space. We look on Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve as times to let ourselves go. But behind our guarded release, our lowered inhibitions, move shapes dark and old: the orgies through which primitive man reenacted the primordial chaos that reigned before the gods established order and decorum. New Year’s resolutions echo dimly man’s determination to mirror this cosmic change by tidying up his own life.

I n the period from around 800 B.C. to A. D. 650 —a brief span in the life of mankind — religion took a giant swing. Then arose the geniuses who molded the great faiths we follow today: the prophets of Israel, Zoroaster in Persia, Buddha and the Upanishadic seers in India, Confucius and Lao Jzu in China, Jesus in Palestine, and Mohammed in Arabia.

This phenomenal outpouring of religious creativity across the globe coincided with changes in man’s secular history. Improved agricultural techniques had led to increased populations, expanded trade, and the accelerated growth of cities. As man found himself dealing more and more with strangers, the old tribal codes, the immemorial rituals and myth no longer sufficed. . He had to learn how to behave toward people he did not know.

The faiths taught by these great leaders introduced ethical systems that helped man answer this need. Each one had its Golden Rule: Christianity’s Do unto others ; Judaism’s “What the Lord doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God .... ; Islam’s man who gives his substance to kinsmen, and orphans, the needy, the traveler, beggars .... ‘ Budd-hism’s “boundless heart toward all beings”; Hinduism’s highest yogi who judges pleasure or pain everywhere by “looking on his neighbor as himself”; Confucianism’s “Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.”

 These faiths offered common features: sacred script tires, a systematized theology to relate these teachings to man’s life, a priesthood or ministry’, rituals and prayer techniques, symbols, and pilgrimages. But profound differences also marked these faiths, especially those of East and West. The stark monotheism of Judaism confronts the 33 million gods in the traditional Hindu pantheon; the Christian envis-ions a personal God who knows and loves each one of us, while the Buddhist may adhere to an impersonal god who remains aloof from human scramblings. The Western believer may cherish an individual soul that will endure for all eternity; the Easterner may’ see his soul merging ultimately with a single universal soul, as “the dewdrop slips into the shining Sea.”

These fundamental differences in the way man looks at his God and at himself lie ie rooted in the origins of the various faiths. Hinduism, for instance, evolved slowly through the millenniums, absorbing the beliefs and practices of many peoples. The morning prayers to the sun voiced by millions in India today echo the nature worship brought there 40 centuries ago by Aryan invaders. No act of the gods has ever disturbed the immemorial rhythms of the cosmos. But in the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God intervenes personally and dramatically in human events: Yalweh reaches down to rescue a hand of Hebrew slaves from Pharaoh’s bondage; God sends his only begotten son to earth to atone for the sins of man-kind. Allah speaks through the angel Gabriel in a dark cave to bid Mohammed become his prophet.

Scripture develops these differences. In the Bible, God yearns over his children like a compassionate father: “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them [the children of Israel] up in my’ arms.... How different the Supreme Being in the Hindu Rig Vecla: “Who knows . . . whence [this world’s creation] first came into being? He . . . in highest heaven . . . knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”

These various outlooks have profoundly influenced the cultures and ways of life of the peoples who embraced them. The Book of Genesis gives Western man a buoyant optimism in his attempts to change the world. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth And, behold, it was very good. ” Man was commissioned to ‘have dominion . . . over every living thing.” The Eastern outlook is voiced in the Chinese classic, Tao Te Ching: “Those who would take over the earth and shape it to their will, never, I notice, succeed.”

Modern technology flourished in the West, while China strove to teach men how to live together in harmony and good order.

Sometimes these differences seem to defy rational understanding. Entering the world of Zen Buddhism, for instance, is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass. One finds oneself in a topsy-turvy wonderland in which everything seems rather mad. It is a world of bewildering dialogues, riddles, paradoxes, and abrupt non sequiturs, all carried off in the most cheerful and urbane style. One Zen master, when asked the meaning of Zen, lifted a finger. That was his entire answer. Another kicked a ball. Still another slapped the inquirer’s face.

Is such a religion playing jokes? Not at all. Zen carries further than other faiths the recognition of the limitations of words and logic. At their best, words provide only a distorted reflection of reality. The highest modes of experience, Zen claims, trans -cend the reach of words entirely.

On a simpler level, the differences between East and West can be observed in their rituals. The Westerner usually worships congregationally; the Easterner traditionally goes to his temple alone or with his family. The Westerner closes his eyes in prayer to shut out external distractions; some Japanese, fearing internal as well as external distractions, meditate with eyes half-closed.

I n the centuries since their founding, the great religions have shaped empires and nations. The fervor of Islam inspired the Arab conquerors to win a realm stretching from Spain to India—a realm which transmitted classical learning during Europe’s Dark Ages and displayed a tolerance not always matched by other faiths. The thrust of Christendom sent Crusaders for two centuries to battle in the Holy Land and molded chivalric codes of warfare.

Religion permeates the story of our own nation: Its impulse sent Puritans to settle in Massachusetts, Quakers to Pennsylvania, Catholics to Maryland. “One Nation under God” declares the Pledge of Allegiance; our President takes his oath of office with a hand on the Bible; “In God We Trust” announce the coins in our pockets. Religion has inspired the greatest art: the Parthenon of Greece, the cathedrals of Europe, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; the paint-ings of Raphael, El Greco, Durer, Rembrandt; the music of Palestrina, Bach, Beeth-oven, Handel.

More importantly, religion has answered affirmatively the Biblical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We see the response in hospitals, orphanages, schools, and social service organizations around the world. We see the same response in the lives of men like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Pope John XXIII, and countless others whose names are not matters of history.

Of course the record of the great religions has not been one of blessings only:

Institutions are guided by men, so we see wars, persecution, and intolerance. But the great faiths have always stood ready to help man in his common quest to reach out beyond the confines of human experience with all its imperfections and limitations, to seek the fearful glory that contrasts with the banality and fragmentation that mark so much of life. Were we to observe only the seekers we might be tempt-ed to side with the skeptics who see religion as wishful thinking, an effort to comp-ensate for real lacks through imagined substitutes, “pie in the sky by and by.” But some men and women have not only groped for the light they have found it . I think of Isaiah glimpsing the Lord “high and lifted up the universe exploding in a bouquet of flowers for Buddha beneath the bo tree John reporting, “I .... was in the isle that is called Patmos I.... was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day For St. Augustine it was the voice of a child saying “Take up and read”; for St. Francis a voice from a crucifix . It is as if these saints had wider windows to see through. The reports they flash back to us affirm our faith. If the doors of our perception were cleansed of self-centeredness and opened to the whole, we would be both aston-ished and pleased.

Today the great religions stand in a new human era—the age of technology. More and more, science dominates areas once reserved for priests: The psychiatrist replaces the minister for the troubled soul, the economist replaces the bishop as adviser to the head of state. The rural and small—town church, with its stability and familiarity, yields its members to the anonymity of great urban centers. Jet planes and television shrink our world to a “global village,” while the hydrogen bomb threatens to destroy God’s own creation.

In times like these, today’s prophets insist, the Golden Rule is not enough. Now that society as well as nature seems subject to human control, we are responsible for “cruelty systems”—war, prejudice, unfair tax laws—that may have found their way into our political and social order. Others attack aspects of religious as outmoded the shepherd imagery of the Bible, the dietary laws of Hinduism the sharp prohibitions surrounding the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath.

This discontent flourishes not just in the West: One can see it among the young people in India, Burma, Egypt, and in Japan — where the rise of more than 250 new sects since World War II reveals both a disaffection with the old faiths and a yearning for something to replace them.

Many ancient religions have died, but the great religions described in this book have endured----often by adapting themselves to changing circumstances. Buddhism was attacked s a religion for monks only; in time the Mahayana school arose to offer salvation and greater participation to laymen. In the Second Vatican Council we see the Roman Catholic church struggling to meet modern needs without injuring basic creed Of structure . The struggle is as old as religion :conservatives seeking to keep hard-won values at hand, radical prophets trying to break through what they see as encrusted tradition.

From time to time we hear a call for a single world religion; alter all, we are told, are not all religions the same in all important aspects; do they not all lead ultimately to the same place, like so many rivers pouring into the sea? It is an appealing doctrine, and at least one faith. Baha’i, attempts to institutionalize it.

Circle of Caring

Circle of caring Jewish youngsters in Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch Sinai.

Every great faith proclaims a GOLDEN RULE, an invitation to brotherhood

among strangers yearning to share their planet in peace..

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