Interspiritual Perspectives on Wisdom
by Dr. Ed Bastian
Generally speaking, the word wisdom often connotes a holistic knowingness harvested from the totality of one’s life experience, including knowledge gained through intellectual conceptualization and empirical observation. From a spiritual perspective however, Wisdom (note the capital “W”) is generally said to be the result of a transcendent insight that surpasses, informs, and then guides our everyday thoughts, perceptions, and mental projections of reality. This Spiritual Wisdom (Sophia, Gnosis, Holy Spirit, Prajna, Jnana, Hikmah, Chokhmah) is the subject of the articles in this issue from colleagues focused on the subject from their different religious perspectives. TIO invited me to collect them for this issue as a way to see how different doors lead us to a shared ultimate reality.
From an interspiritual perspective, Wisdom begins with a heartfelt openness, curiosity, reverence, and celebration for the Wisdom experience of the world’s marvelous diversity of spiritual and contemplative traditions. For while the metaphysical formulations among traditions might differ, the results of their spiritual wisdom are often quite the same. These are often characterized as a blissful or equanimous state of consciousness infused by universal love, compassion, and kindness, expressed through a quality of speech and action that inspires a sense of profound unity amidst our marvelous diversity.
Many spiritual wisdom traditions tell us that all human beings have the potential to achieve this transcendent state of consciousness and offer similar methods and practices to achieve it. These include prayers, sacred chants, rituals, scriptural contemplations, meditations, movements, artistic expressions, mystical revelations, and loving compassionate intention and action. In each tradition, these practices have been carefully transmitted through a lineage of teachers and students for hundreds or even thousands of years.
My interest in meditation and multiple spiritual perspectives was initially inspired by my private conversations with the Dalai Lama in 1970. It was honed through Ph.D. work in Buddhism under the guidance of Geshe Lhundup Sopa at the University of Wisconsin, where I learned Tibetan and Sanskrit so that I could read the ancient Buddhist scriptures and commentaries. This prepared me to live in Tibetan refugee monasteries in India where I studied in Tibetan with two of Geshe Sopa’s senior students from Tibet who became leading scholars and practitioners of their generation. My Ph.D. thesis on “The Perfection of Wisdom” Sutra from Tibetan and Sanskrit sources deepened my understanding of Buddhist wisdom. The rigor of my training led me to value the direct lineage transmission of authentic wisdom teachings from indigenous wisdom holders in addition to English translations and secondary sources.
My appreciation grew through producing films on Asian religion for the BBC and PBS as well as the programs on religion that I taught at the Smithsonian Institution. But my most direct interspiritual experience emerged from participation in Father Thomas Keating’s annual interreligious gatherings at St. Benedicts Monastery near Aspen, Colorado. Here, contemplatives from many traditions sat in a circle, each entering into the meditative depths of their respective traditions. After our meditation sessions, we engaged in deep dialogue with each other about our respective contemplative methods and experiences.
Based on Father Thomas’ example, I founded the Spiritual Paths Foundation. Over a ten-year period, teachers of meditation from many traditions gathered together to meditate and talk with each other and to teach the students who gathered for our programs. It was here that the rigid boundaries of our traditions became porous and we actually experienced the fruits of what I came to call “InterSpiritual Consciousness.”
The following articles in this issue of TIO come from a very special group of interspiritual friends who collaborated with me to create a two-year degree program in InterSpiritual Wisdom that graduated a class of twenty-two students.
Each of our contributors in the following articles has been trained within the wisdom lineages of their respective traditions. They include Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault (Christianity), Swami Atmarupananda (Hinduism), Shaikha Camille and Shaikh Kabir Helminski (Sufism/Islam), Rabbi Rami Shapiro (Judaism), and myself (Buddhism). Together we agreed to speak from our personal perspectives of our ‘religion.’ We do not claim to speak “for” our religions. Each religion and spiritual tradition is vast and varied, making it very unlikely that any individual person can claim to embody and represent all their fascinating strands and interpretations. Yet we can marvel at and enjoy their wondrous diversity. I invite you to enjoy, as I do, these pearls of wisdom offered by dear friends and great teachers.