Approaching the varieties of religious expression and trying to make sense of them can be daunting to the casual observer. The World’s Religions are a peacock’s feathers display of color. There are differences in language, ceremony, and religious attire, as well as customs and histories making it all very confusing. Why do people do such different things and it’s all under the umbrella term, “religion.”
Unless we are trained to understand more deeply why religions do what they do we’ll miss the similarities that cut across religions, geographies, languages, and cultures. One intersection where the manifold religions cross paths can help us see through the external forms and catch the spirit. Zen Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism in their own ways bring us to this crossroads, and while it’s not my intention here to explain how those religious paths not included in this writing can also be found in this spot, I’d like to suggest that they, too, can be found here.
Buddhism has at its foundation an emphasis on relationship. All Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha (an awakened living being), Dharma (Teachings of the Buddha), and Sangha (Community). The Buddha was and is a real person that someone who considers themselves Buddhist can approach either in their daily life or through the Dharma that he expounded. The four-fold sangha of Nuns, Monks, lay women, and lay men work together to practice the Dharma. Relationship with others is at the heart of what it means to practice Buddhism.
Upon his awakening, Master Dogen in the 13th century heard the words of his Master, Tendo Nyojo Zenji, say, “Zen study is the shedding of body and mind.” This shedding Dogen Zenji equates with the Enlightenment of the Buddha on the celebration of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. What does it mean to “shed” or “drop off” body and mind?
I can’t say with certainty what Dogen’s experience was in the moments that lead up to his Enlightenment, however, Buddhist literature is replete with the concept of “no self,” that the problem we humans face has its origins in our attachment to our body and mind. We think that we end at our skin, however in reality, we are supported by all beings. We attach particular importance to what we consider our own body and mind and forget that this body and mind could not be without myriads of relationships in the present and extending back into the unfathomable past.
When all is said and done with regards to Enlightenment, the proof is in the pudding. If Enlightenment is really present, then so are we really present. It means that we live a life of selfless service, forgetting about the preferences of our own egos, and thinking about the needs of others.
The New Testament offers a similar sentiment:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though [or because] he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
The key to the above verse is the idea of becoming empty of self. While the above verse uses terms like “slave” and “obedient” that many people including me find distasteful, the main idea is that of being a servant, and of having a purpose that is above our own likes and dislikes. In other words, Paul is suggesting that we become more aware of our relationship with others and look at the needs of those around us.
Lastly, in the Hindu tradition we find the following verse in the Bhagavad Gita:
The world is bondage when actions are done just for your own sake. Therefore, Arjuna, make every action a sacrifice, utterly free of personal attachment.
Here, too, we find reference to the importance of letting go of self in the form of personal attachments – attachments being those desires we have to be something more than what we are, or to gain something more than what we have. There is also the idea of “sacrificing” oneself, which is similar if not identical to the previous verse in the New Testament, referring to Jesus sacrificing himself on a cross.
Sacrifice through the letting go of the ego self is not just a common theme throughout the world’s great religious traditions, but it happens in nature as well, on all levels. In the biological realm we see that new life cannot come about without the sacrifice of old life. Something must die for something else to live. The evolution of species is the natural world’s testament to the primacy of sacrifice and letting go of self at a cellular level. Without the sacrifices made at the lower levels of life in the forms of micro-organisms, human beings could not be as they are today. The difference between other species and Homo Sapiens, however, is that we human beings need to be willing to do our part on a conscious level, and that for us we are given the opportunity to willingly sacrifice ourselves for the common good. This sacrifice is what all the World’s Religions are asking of us at their heart, regardless of the multiform appearances, and, given the state of our planet, it is the crossroads that we all – religious or not – are being asked to walk towards for the sake of healing our planet.
 Zen Master Keizan, translated and introduced by Thomas Cleary. Transmission of Light: Zen in the Art of Enlightenment. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. Page 219.
 Philippians 2: 5-11
 The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita. A commentary for modern readers by Sri Swami Satchidananda. Buckingham, Virginia: Integral Yoga Publications, 2013. Page 35.