When I was young, one idea that was held up to mockery in fundamentalist circles was the idea that, when speaking of world religions, “all rivers lead to the ocean.” It was driven home that there could only be one way, one truth that was true for everyone. Only one system of belief that was correct.
A Zen Koan has a succinct answer to that mentality:
A student monk came to his master and said
“Master! Blessed be your teachings they are the truth!”
The master said,
“No. my teachings are not the truth. The truth is the moon.
My teachings are my finger that point at the moon.
You can find the moon without my finger.
Or perhaps my finger will point you to the moon.
But many can see my finger pointing and still miss the moon.”
So to me the point being made is that there are many teachings, systems, or practices one can adopt to find the true, the good, and the beautiful.
It is to be noted that two people can have the same “beliefs” but only one of them actually discovers the truth. The proof is in the outcome. One becomes more loving, just, etc. The other stays the same, parroting concepts but not transforming. I have been that person who is merely a parrot. I try to be like the first.
I am not disparaging any single person or group. But I have simply observed that some people cling so literally to their own system that they can only see the “finger,” not the truth it is pointing to. I do not know why some people find the moon and others do not. I do not even claim to see the moon clearly. I just know I want to see the moon.
Some might ask, “well what is this truth in this tale symbolized by the moon?”
What is my definition of the moon? I cannot define the moon. My first thought is that it gives gentle light even in darkness. But I cannot define the moon. It does not belong to me, so I do not get to define it.
But in general, by “the moon” I mean that which enlightens, redeems, and empowers.
The “moon” is that which makes us more fully human, more fully humane. I was once told that a true vision of God always makes one love oneself and others more.
So. I think there are many paths to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Many different people point in different ways to the moon.
How does this play out in the real world? It means that there are many different ways of believing that bring life and light. And other ways that lead to negativity and despair. So it is false that, “all rivers lead to the ocean,” but true that many rivers do.
I have a good friend who used to be a charismatic christian. He was a decent person but very haughty and judgmental. In the course of his early college days, he lost all religious faith and belief in God. He became an avowed atheist. He also became a curious, humble, and compassionate person. I am glad he became an atheist. It was obviously what he needed.
Other friends of mine have found their way in progressive christian circles like the emergent church. I was lost and seeking when I found the writings of pacifist christians like John Howard Yoder and emergent writers like Brian Mclaren.
Still others have forged their own path apart from organized religion, like my friend who is a reiki master and spiritualist.
I recently visited a group which had members who were atheist, wiccan, christian, new thought, and probably other things as well. All different “paths” and “language symbols” were honored.
An atheist got a question about God related to the idea of enthusiasm. Some atheists might have launched into a rant about how the question did not apply to them. But this atheist took the word “God” as a symbol. She seemed to know, like the zen master, that many fingers point to the moon. That the word “God” for some could just mean “the cosmos” or “reality,” for those who do not use the term “God.”
At a practical level, I saw that the members of this group knew the wisdom of the zen master– That we all seek the moon, and we are all allowed to have different “teachings” as a way to get there.
Whatever one’s path, if it leads to empowering one to be more loving, more just, and more merciful…it is the right path.
So, tonight, look up at the actual moon. Think of the words of Zen Master. And know that you are finding your own truth.