The Parliament of the World's Religions has come and gone, leaving in its wake multichallenges, renewed hopes, strengthened bonds among diverse religious groups, and a profound conviction of our oneness in Divinity. This is a milestone of no mean proportion, eroding at its foundation the extraordinary notion that any religion represents the truth, and that its church, temple, or synagogue is the sole representative on earth of the Divine. Our purpose in this Special Issue is not to give a precis of the multitude of happenings shoehorned into eight days and nights at the Parliament, but rather to convey something of the spirit and atmosphere that prevailed, beginning August 28 with the Opening Procession and ceremonial blessing of Native American Elders and ending on September 4 with an address by the Dalai Lama in Grant Park.
Within the potpourri of reflections and impressions shared, our readers may detect the subtle yet significant influence that close proximity to so many differing peoples and religious communities had on all who came with an open heart and in the spirit of genuine ecumenicity. The hope was ever present that this world parliament would generate so powerful an impress on the thought continent of humanity that the arts of peace and brotherhood would in coming centuries be increasingly cultivated by every person on earth. When this occurs, instead of carelessly destroying, we would consciously build, heeding our finer impulses and working with rather than against nature's forward evolutionary purpose.
A central goal of Parliament organizers was acceptance of "A Global Ethic and Declaration" by an Assembly of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, to which I was invited for a three-day "discussion" behind closed doors. For a perceptive critique of the document see "Reflections on `A Global Ethic"' (pp. 48-53).
Thinking toward the future, and the growing acceptance of all faiths as part of the overall religious community, with universal brotherhood recognized as encompassing all lives in our universe, why not approach our human dilemma from quite another direction from that taken by the Parliament? Instead of calling for a consensus on how to resolve the "critical issues" of the 21st century, which are the obvious consequence of misguided thinking and behavior — why not take a leaf out of a 12th century Sufi mystical poem titled in English The Conference (or Parliament) of the Birds? Written in Persian by Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar and eloquently rendered into English by C. S. Nott (The Conference of the Birds, Mantiq ut-Tair, A Philosophical Religious Poem in Prose, from the literal and complete French translation of Garcin de Tassy; brush drawings by Kate Adamson, glossary; Shambhala, Boston, 1993), here is a golden theme that has been told in every age to every people in images and words unique to each: the quest for truth, for "a knowledge of spiritual things," to penetrate "the mystery of the unity and plurality" of all beings, and become at one with god-essence.
Using the familiar device of animals for humans, Attar spins out a marvelous tale of the thousands of birds (aspirants) who, guided by Hoopee (Hudhud), messenger of the Way, excitedly begin the journey to the king of birds, Simurgh: "He is close to us, but we are far from him." They are warned not to imagine that the way is short: "one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long and the sea is deep." They must cross seven Valleys: the Valley of the Quest, of Love, of Understanding, of Independence and Detachment, of Unity, of Astonishment, and of Deprivation and Death (also given as Poverty and Nothingness) — seven halls of trial and learning. They are reminded to be patient and "not to let exterior life capture" them. As time wore on, many tired and lost hope, and the once thousands of birds dwindled to thirty birds (and we are told that the word Simurgh means "thirty"!).
After surmounting innumerable difficulties the birds arrived weary and disheveled at the court of the King. Utter silence greeted them; then everything was said to discourage them from pursuing their goal. But no scorching words of the attendant moved them from their purpose: to become one with the Simurgh as the moth with the flame. Suddenly the door opened, and the birds, now at peace, knew that the Simurgh was with them. All that they had been through was "washed away," and they understood that they and the Simurgh were "one and the same being." They — their personal selves — were annihilated, but inwardly they knew immortality.
- - - -
If this seems to have little to do with our mundane affairs, or with future parliaments, let's ask ourselves what else is the authentic cause of humanity's and our own psychic and mental discontent but our sense of isolation from what we intuitively know but have been miseducated to forget. As individuals and as a species we know practically nothing about who we really are or the true purpose of our lives. Yet to seek and find this knowledge — is this not the moving force behind the founding of every religion, behind the mystic's yearning to enter the "strait and narrow" way and seek union with the divine within and without? While the way to such communion demands that we "die to everything" less than what we inwardly are, do we not all long to be in closer touch with our higher self, with the invisible yet ever near presence that is our companion of many lives and deaths?
Perhaps it is time we started seriously to think along these lines and do something about it in our private lives. Patently, humanity's most crucial need is for us, individually, to reorient our thinking and doing from selfishness to altruism. It's as simple as that, and yet in practice far more demanding of each of us than we as a global civilization have thus far been willing to offer. Human nature is a paradox: how moved we are when we find someone having the courage to live that universal guideline, the Golden Rule, but who of us has the courage to do so consistently? Still, little by little the snow piles up, though the snowflakes fall silently, one after another. Just as it happened with the thirty birds who step by step continued their quest, met the Simurgh and knew that he and they were one, so too, motivated by compassion over humanity's plight, we will more and more heed the silent voice of wisdom of our inner counselor and will act compassionately wherever duty calls.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1993; copyright © 1993 Theosophical University Press)