Truth is One; Its Names are Many

Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/31/2016

Truth is One; Its Names are Many –©Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila


“Truth is one, sages call it by many names.”

“The Real is One; it is known through many symbols.”

This is a great, inspiring verse from the Hindu tradition. It has become well-known in the West as one of the earliest statements of religious inclusivism. There is great core Truth to religion, to all religion. All the religions are different ways of putting into language one message. It is wonderful to think humanity is, not divided, but united in this faith. All the colors of the rainbow are still light, one light. Absolute Reality is the Source of All, whatever it is called. Inclusivism is such a positive way of looking at religion.

By saying “one truth” or “one Reality” I don’t mean to be absolute, however. This is just one way of looking at religion. So, for today, think in terms of “if” there is a Single Truth. If we are to do theology, this is an inclusive way.

Whether God is called Vishnu or Dao or Yahweh, it’s the same Ultimate Reality we are talking about. You could call that the common core. What a breath of fresh theological air! Our differences are not essential after all. Our theological differences are primarily linguistic. Our religious differences are only semantic.

I used to believe that one religion had to be true. But I came to see that the religions are not really at odds with each other. With some important exceptions such as some forms of Buddhism, they share a core message about a Supreme Being. Only in surface appearance are they different. Thinking there’s a shared core, is one way, one key to unlock the doors of the great spiritual traditions. It’s an old bronze key that allows us into the world-view of other people.


Ethics – One Example

The religions may share a core view about a spiritual Being that is the Source. They also share core teachings about ethics: about how we treat one another. This is more how a humanist might look at religion. These ethical stories are often stories of love or compassion.

Often wisdom is couched, not in theological treatises but in story. So, I’ll share a story.

One of my favorites is from the Buddhist tradition. It is a story about the Buddha, but not when he lived in India as a human being. The Buddha, like other sentient beings, lived many different lifetimes in many different forms. This is a story from a previous life of the Buddha, one of the Jataka tales. “Previous life” you may say? Oh oh, UU’ism is a bit too weird for me! Rev Henry’s talking about past lives now?! But hang in there. I’ll try to offer an interpretation for those who might find that difficult.

Reincarnation is an idea shared by Hindus and Buddhists, as well as Jains. It a central idea for these systems, because our past lives are what has developed our karma. Karma means action. Karma is the behavioral baggage we have accumulated from our past actions. Karma is the basis of ethics—we have karma because we are responsible. Our bad and our good actions follow us. Karma is a way of saying that you can’t get away with anything permanently. Karma is cosmic responsibility.

Maybe you (like myself) don’t see any actual evidence for reincarnation. If so, interpret reincarnation as an existential statement. Interpret reincarnation as a statement about human existence. You can take reincarnation, not as a literal statement, but as a way of describing the human condition. Instead of many lives going back into the past, I think of reincarnation as many days going back. Each morning is a new reincarnation.

And instead of karma being punishment from a life a million years ago, I take karma to describe our responsibility in this life.

So, we have the key, this antique bronze key, of religious inclusivism and we have a way of interpreting karma and reincarnation. Now I’ll finally get back to the Buddhist story.

In one past existence, the Buddha was a rabbit. As he hopped along munching clover, he was developing an inner life based upon enlightenment and compassion. (Isn’t the Eastern world wonderful in imagining the inner life of animals, something the West hasn’t done since Balaam’s talking ass in the Old Testament!) Shakyamuni Buddha was acquiring merit in each life, building up good karma. He was storing spiritual rocket fuel for his final rebirth as a human being. With the fuel of merit, the Buddha was becoming something that could escape the gravity of suffering, this world of samsara.

The Bunny Buddha, as I will call him, please forgive, noticed a tiger by the side of the forest. At first he wanted to flee from the tiger. The rabbit was not fully enlightened yet and still sometimes acted out of fear. He had fear of his own impermanence. But he noticed the tiger did not move. The tiger was old and exhausted. In fact, the poor tiger, once proud and majestic, was starving to death. The Buddha in his incarnation as a rabbit felt compassion (karuna) for the suffering of the tiger. He realized all beings, even this tiger, were sentient beings and capable of enlightenment.

So the Buddha, compelled by this care for another, made a tremendous decision. He would offer himself as a last meal for the tiger. He walked over to the tiger. His heart was pounding. But he know what he was doing was right. He got closer and lay down on his side in front of the great feline. The tiger ate. And by his selfless concern, the Bunny Buddha acquired even more spiritual merit. He had sacrificed his life for that of another. (The important thing is compassion, karuna….)

And the tiger too was touched. It was an act of kindness the measure of which the tiger had never experienced. For years, for his whole lifetime, animals had fled from him. The tiger lasted two more days with the energy of his last meal, but he finally died. But he died asking himself why this rabbit had been so kind. Then he realized that was no ordinary rabbit, but Bunny Buddha. (Although I’m being mischievous, this is a real Buddhist tale, which I have rewritten a bit.) The tiger was blessed by an act of absolute altruism. The tiger was motivated to a new life of compassion in a new reincarnation. The tiger was destined to soon become a Buddha in another part of the universe and bring the teaching of selfless love to that realm.

There are many stories like this of early lives of the Buddha; they are called “the Jataka tales.” They are meant both for children and for the child in all of us. We may forget the greatest philosophical idea, but it’s easy to remember the story of Super Bunny Buddha and how compassion, or karuna, karuna, is a fundamental virtue.

Should we take this story literally? Should we act similarly? Should we be mindlessly self-sacrificing, a doormat to the world? Do we have to take the idea of reincarnation literally to understand this story? I would say that we don’t have to take it literally and we don’t have to take reincarnation literally.


Compared with Christianity

These Jataka stores are similar to the unexpected turns taken by some of Jesus' parables. "Go the extra mile" means something like "have compassion on all sentient beings." Since tigers and rabbits are usually enemies, this story is a nice way of saying, “Love your enemy.” The tiger is that part of all of us that is hungry, rapacious, angry and needs to be tamed. We tame the inner tiger by seeing a better way. Altruism overcomes “angerism.”

Another way of looking at this is sometimes we want our relationships to be 50/50. We want fairness; we want equality. But any search for the exact boundaries can become energy-draining and sometimes nasty. In relationships, sometimes we quibble so much about to make it 50/50 that we spend more time quibbling about the chore than it would take to actually do the chore. You know it’s OK to sometimes go 60/40. You shouldn’t be a door mat, of course. But sometimes you can go the extra mile. Don’t live by “angerism.”

We can stretch our comfort zone too, in going the extra mile in understanding the great religions. It may be a little strange to think of Buddhism or Daoism as sources for our spirituality. But when we learn to do that, what an affirmation! What a great way to look at religion! And Hindus discovered it thousands of years ago! This is a wonderful verse. “Truth is one; sages call it by many names.”


Exclusivist and Inclusivist Views of Religion

There is more than one way at looking at the variety of religions in the world. There is an “exclusivist” way and an “inclusivist” way. Unitarian Universalists in general try to include all religions and philosophies. We are inclusivists. The exclusivist view is that one's own religion is true, while that of another religion is false. This is dualism. This is us/them thinking. This is the us/them dichotomy. This is pact loyalty. Orthodoxy bases itself on a revelation from on high, the "Truth" with a capital "T," the one true way to God. In this view, other religions are faulty attempts at describing the truth. It means, “Truth is one; and only our sages have the right names.”


Exclusivism and Dualism

It is all too easy to claim that our thoughts and words about God are not merely our thoughts and words about God, but God's thoughts put into God’s words. But our thoughts and words about God are our thoughts and words about God. This is a very helpful idea. No matter what is said in the Bible, no matter what is said by any theologian, no matter what is said by any mystic, saint or seer, it is all, every word of it, human verbiage, our words. That’s why I do not like when I hear the phrase, “The word of the Lord,” in traditional worship. I wish they ended with, “These words are the words of people.”

We could think of an exclusive view as a circle. This circle is drawn around one, absolute, divinely-inspired tradition. Inside the circle is OK, and outside is definitely not OK. Truth is only in the circle. And likewise others do the same. We are left with a world of many circles. These circles are mutually exclusive.

Exclusion is a theologian’s way of saying, “my way or the highway.” There is one absolute, uncompromising, and indubitable view of the world. This is 100/0 thinking. I have 100% of the truth; you have 0. The exclusivists look at the different names and words on the outside of the circle.

So, let’s pause. That the exclusivist way.

The inclusivist person, on the other hand, realizes that, at their core, religions share many principle teachings. Inclusivists focus on the point at the center of the circles, the core.

One part of that core by be theism, as we have talked about. A similar theological core.

And we talked about an ethics of agape or karuna, love or compassion as a core ethical value. In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures there are the 10 Commandments. In Buddhism there are the 5 Precepts. Now, I know many of you will be tempted to weigh this in your mind and be drawn towards Buddhism. Hmm, 10 Commandments, but only 5 Precepts. I can cut my burden in half! But Buddhist monks have a harder life, there are 10 precepts for them.


Humanist Circle

Let’s go back to that circle image. Sometimes inclusive-minded folk attempt to draw a large circle around all the religions. “The true-believers drew a circle to keep the heretic out, but we drew a larger circle and kept everyone in.” So, it is said. That’s a great idea in our humanist tradition – drawing a larger more inclusive circle of all people.


Truth is One

Diana Eck, who is a Methodist and a professor of Indian religion at Harvard University, writes: "One of the most commonly quoted lines of the Rig Veda [one of the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism] is "Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti," "Truth is one; the wise call it by many names: (RV I.64.46). The word is not Brahman here, but Sat--Reality, Truth, Being--"ultimate reality" in Tillich's sense" (Encountering God, 63). The vocabulary she uses is not as important as the idea: True reality is one; but people use many names to refer to it. There is a profound humility to the inclusivist view: human beings must always be wary of thinking their picture of God is God. Spiritual humility is important.

In India, the United States and throughout the world, there is a form of Hinduism called the Vedanta Society. It's comparable to UU'ism; it's modern and inclusivist. It is spiritualistic. In some Vedanta Centers, the main symbol of their faith is the statement: "Truth is one; sages call it by various names" carved into the altar. What a wonderful symbol!

In the other reading, Jack Mendelsohn, once a UU minister, writes that UUism must be more than Christian, because he is loyal to a view that unites the universal sources of religion. He is also a Jew, a Hindu, etc., and we could add a Poet, a Scientist and a Philosopher. 


The Bible and Inclusivity?

I looked through the Bible for readings on the universality of religion. I was surprised. The Bible does not attempt to answer this question. I thought of the wonderful Story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan cares for a Jew. However wonderful it is, the Parable of the Good Samaritan does not say that the belief systems of others have a claim to validity. Take the Sermon on the Mount and the injunction to love your enemies. Here also there is no statement of the value of other religions. The Sermon on the Mount, however inspiring it is as an ethics of service, does not assert an inclusivist view of religion.

Early Unitarians talked about “ongoing revelation.” Each of us is on the cutting edge of insight and truth. Revelation is a process going on even now. This is what makes our religion so great. We can take insights from other religions and make them our own. The can appreciate the message of Super Bunny Buddha, the Jataka tale of compassion. What is that message? –Radical compassion for others in their inner life struggle. –And radical awareness that others are capable of enlightenment.

To conclude: We can supplement our religion with the idea that “Truth is one, sages call it my many names.” We can make that part of our worldview and I find that liberating.

I will end as I said I wished we did: “These words are the words of people."