Ramakrishna, Life of Pi, and learning from multiple religions

Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and Sri Ramakrishna’s testimony to the harmony of religions: here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family–and in the Atomic Age, this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves. – Arnold Toynbee

Ramakrishna is a fascinating figure: A youth whose spiritual capabilities were recognized and developed early. An Indian mystic steeped in the Hindu tradition. Yet someone who spent years fully committed to practicing and understanding Islam and then Christianity. He even began to have dream-like visions of Jesus and Allah. Through these experiences, Ramakrishna came to realize that all religions share a core, that they contain a shared truth:

I have practised all religions—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity—and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects. I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths. You must try all beliefs and traverse all the different ways once. Wherever I look, I see men quarrelling in the name of religion—Hindus, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Vaishnavas, and the rest. But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Siva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Allah as well—the same Rama with a thousand names… – Ramakrishna

The main character in Life of Pi, Piscine “Pi” Patel, bears a striking resemblance to Ramakrishna. Pi was also raised Hindu. Pi also added Christianity and Islam into his religious repertoire.

The examples of Pi and Sri Rama have shown me that practicing one religion doesn’t have to exclude an interest in others, just as we have diverse and shifting interests in career paths, relationships, and hobbies.

If the purpose of religious practice is to help us lead a better, deeper, more meaningful life, then why wouldn’t it be a strictly better idea to understand more than one? If we draw an analogy to academic fields, we could say that genetics is by itself a powerful discipline, but how much deeper our understanding and capabilities if we also study computer science and combine the pursuits.

You might think that religion should be a monogamous relationship: like marriage, you’re better off committing to one person. And this could be true for many if not most believers. Yet even the most faithful of couples still have multiple healthy relationships in their lives, that provide different things: close friends, managers they see at work, role models they admire and study, exes from whom they learned and grew.

You could have a mother religion, like Judaism. You could have a Buddhist practice for its tranquility and detachment. And even – yes – an Islamic practice for its rigor and passion.

At the very least, a world where some form of multi-religiosity was common could improve understanding and reduce religious conflict. But I believe it goes much deeper than that.

There are many people who came to the same conclusion long ago. Besides Sri Rama, there have been movements, among them Omnism and Pantheism and Humanism and Unitarian Universalism, each with their own wikipedia entries, which take distinct paths to identify what is shared between the faiths or even try to unite them like Tolkien’s one ring. Jewish Buddhists, or JuBus for short, attempt to merge their Jewish practice and culture with Buddhist meditation and Eastern philosophy. Aldous Huxley was a proponent of the Perennial Philosophy, which recognizes that beneath all of the spiritual practices there is an underlying shared reality:

The Perennial Philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi (‘That thou art’); the Atman, or immanent eternal Self, is one with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself, to find out who he really is. – Aldous Huxley

Our third president Thomas Jefferson tried to approach the Bible and Qu’ran as sources of textual wisdom. He even cut and pasted his own TJ Bible by removing references to what he considered supernatural events, leaving a book of aphorisms and timeless wisdom.

Then there is intellectual giant David Foster Wallace’s insight into the nature of worship:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. – DFW

The way people camp out for days only to spend half their weekly paycheck on the latest iPhone; the way women obsess over luxury handbags and men over collector watches, how they devote fortunes and careers to their pursuits; the way helicopter parents spend life and limb to obtain Ivy League admissions letters for their kids. We invest as much time and emotion and hope into these dreams as devout Christians do in following the miracles of Jesus and Buddhists in securing karmic reincarnation.

We live in a label driven world and we ourselves are obsessed with labels. We are YouTubers, lapsed democrats, ovo-lacto vegetarians, and unicorn startup employees. Muslim and reform Jew and Southern Baptist are labels, but they’re just some among many. We could open ourselves to more of these “religious” labels and all be better for it.

To be clear, I am not convinced that religion is a human instinct, a genetic endowment that we all share. Maybe this is true, but I don’t begrudge an atheist or an agnostic their convictions or lack thereof. Yet I don’t believe like Daniel Dennett that religion is a spandrel, a kind of appendix of mental activity in human evolution.

The fact is – and the numbers prove, over and over – that the world is becoming more religious, not less. That’s right, the world is religio-fying. Primarily due to demographics. But also because while we economically lucky ones who live in North America and Western Europe may feel like God(s) is shrinking from our lives, the catching-up world, from sub-Saharan Africa to greater Asia, is spiritually awakening.

Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase. Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall.

…the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population, even though it will increase in absolute number. In 2010, censuses and surveys indicate, there were about 1.1 billion atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion. By 2050, the unaffiliated population is expected to exceed 1.2 billion. But, as a share of all the people in the world, those with no religious affiliation are projected to decline from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century.

–Pew Research (source)

Let’s not forget, too, that a practical and enduring reality is that even religious nones have their own unique, possibly spiritual beliefs:

24% of the public overall and 22% of Christians say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. And similar numbers (25% of the public overall, 23% of Christians) believe in astrology. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they have felt in touch with someone who has already died, almost one-in-five say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts, and 15% have consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic.

…upwards of six-in-ten adults (65%) express belief in or report having experience with at least one of these diverse supernatural phenomena (belief in reincarnation, belief in spiritual energy located in physical things, belief in yoga as spiritual practice, belief in the “evil eye,” belief in astrology, having been in touch with the dead, consulting a psychic, or experiencing a ghostly encounter)

–Pew Research (source)

The world I see is one where religion in its various forms is more prevalent, and more necessary, than ever. As Alain de Botton says, and I am fond of quoting:

The single danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation. When God is dead, human beings – much to their detriment – are at risk of taking psychological centre stage – Alain de Botton

We are standing squarely on that stage. Given a beaming spotlight. It’s no accident that as a result of our star turn, we are also taking more drugs (prescribed and illegal), committing suicide at higher rates, and being diagnosed with mental illnesses at a higher rate than ever.

Religion has been a powerful and ancient and proven remedy. A timeless anchor amidst the tides of societal change and technological acceleration. If you are a religious none, I believe your life can be improved through even a dispassionate study of the world’s major religions. If you feel comfortable meditating without understanding its place in Hindu and Buddhist evolution, then you should be fine reading the Qu’ran and saying a private prayer.

And if you are devoutly within a faith, there is no harm in learning from others. Start by reading their books. It will probably improve your own practice. Multi-religiosity already has several trends working in its favor: More and more Americans raised in interfaith homes. Mixed-religion marriages rising in frequency.

As the world continues to shrink, exposure to different religions will only grow. People through travels and change will visit more churches and mosques and temples, be exposed to different ways of practicing religion, meet new spiritual communities. This can only increase our understanding and cooperation, and this is a good thing for us as individuals and for global society.

A final point I’d like to make. The multi-religiosity that I am most interested in is one that recognizes and respects the different wisdom traditions. It is not an attempt to merge them. I don’t believe we are better served by trying to create a “best” religious tradition or raising competition between them. Instead, I believe that by reading the Bhagavad Gita, meditating daily, going to Church on Sundays, and participating in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we can become better people, and we can together build a more peaceful, more patient global village.

9 ways to worship: from nature to nurture to nerding out

I came across this excerpt recently and wanted to share it.

In his book Sacred Pathways, Gary identifies nine of the ways people draw near to God:
1. Naturalists are most inspired to love God out-of-doors, in natural settings.
2. Sensates love God with their senses and appreciate beautiful worship services that involve their sight, taste, smell, and touch, not just their ears.
3. Traditionalists draw closer to God through rituals, liturgies, symbols, and unchanging structures.
4. Ascetics prefer to love God in solitude and simplicity.
5. Activists love God through confronting evil, battling injustice, and working to make the world a better place.
6. Caregivers love God by loving others and meeting their needs.
7. Enthusiasts love God through celebration.
8. Contemplatives love God through adoration.
9. Intellectuals love God by studying with their minds.

This captures many of the thoughts I’ve had around what it means to be spiritual, what is religious versus what is not, what is faith.

Which of these nine do you identify with?

If made to choose one, I’d probably go with #9. But numbers 3, 4, and 5 stand out too.

4: To a young boy, race is just something you do with your feet

To a young boy, race is just something you do with your feet. Every group of kids knows who is fastest among them. I never held that title. My closest friend was a Mexican boy named Carlos who lived downstairs in our two story motel-style apartment complex.

I can’t recall a single conversation with my parents about race or ethnicity or Chinese-ness. Perhaps they harbored the hopes of immigrants everywhere, that their offspring could be a reboot, a blank slate of sorts, who could be raised free of the handicaps imposed by their own heavy awareness of racial identity and its perceived limitations. Perhaps as a result they tried to keep our house clear of as much Chinese identity as they could.

There were no Buddhist or Daoist shrines placed above the living room fireplace, no honorary pictures of dead relatives hung on hallway walls, no mention of the words feng shui, no bamboo trees or good fortune plants, no long parchment scrolls with images of calligraphic Mandarin characters or junk boats in misty bays or rice farmers hunched shin deep in watery fields. Even the red envelope, the Chinese 红包, a frequent finalist in the “What is the most Chinese thing you can think of?” contest alongside the perennial contender the restaurant fortune cookie, was foreign to me. I never gifted one to others. Neither did I receive one until our first trip to China in middle school, when a crinkly eyed uncle with a big toothy smile furtively handed me a glossy red packet and patted me on the back. Inside were grey-blue renminbi notes. I pulled them out and rubbed them. They had the sandy texture of dollar bills that had been passed through a wash and dry cycle.


This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in chronological order, starting with childhood. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

3: A black elementary school that made me self conscious but not of race

My first four years in America were spent in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood made mostly of poor Asians and frustrated blacks, two minorities sometimes thrown together like unwelcome guests at a house party. I watch the United Airlines video where a 70-year old Asian doctor is forcibly removed from his seat – he’s already seated, jeez – and yanked out of his chair with nose bleeding and glasses smashed and head slumped, he is dragged down the aisle in full view of the stunned customers. And I see the black guy who did it, and I think: Does it have to be a black guy? Why does it always go down like this?

But moving on. Chinese immigrants are ok with small houses and used cars so long as their children, their 宝贝, go to the best school their diligent savings can afford. But my parents were two graduate students, and their student stipends didn’t go very far. Some things haven’t changed. The best elementary school they could manage was the public school nearby our apartment complex. It was all black kids. I don’t remember white students except a few lonely clusters in the honors classes. Speaking of honors classes, I wasn’t in one because as a still-fresh immigrant, my English sucked. Eventually I would pass the tests for the math-y subjects, but literature and grammar continued to elude me. Plus, my parents were distinctly un-tiger-like in their willingness to wheedle and cajole and pressure the education system.

At school the kids teased me often. I was an easy target. It started of course with the Asian slanty eyes. They used their fingers and palms to make those classic slanted caricature eyes we know so well. Some of the more creative students would squish and flatten their noses, monkey and gorilla like. Then contort their mouths and sneer their nostrils and generally just make clown fools of themselves. It bothered the hell out of me. An easy target I was, an alien who didn’t speak English so good, sensitive to their ridicule. In addition to the eyes, my oversized ears would have looked funny on any kid no matter their skin color or gender. Not only large in size, they also seemed to defy gravity, sticking out like smooth teacup handles.

I grew to dread school lunch, a free-for-all battle zone where these packs of little boys became bully mobs without the teachers’ watchful eyes. Only lunch ladies were around, and tired as they were, they gave no fucks. On one occasion I begged the cafeteria cashier lady to help. She looked at me with sympathetic eyes, but said and did nothing as I stood beside her, crying. Like peeing your pants in a fist fight, it only made things worse. The other students, anyone resembling a friend, stayed away from me during lunchtime lest they too became targets.

This caused no end of anxiety in middle school. Even after I had a group of reliable and close lunch buddies, if there was even the slightest risk of needing to eat lunch alone – whether one friend was sick, or another had switched lunch periods – I would do everything in my power to stay in the classroom during lunch to assist the teacher, help other students, pretend that I didn’t need to eat or had already eaten – simply to avoid the drowning awkwardness of having to exit the cafeteria serving line, tray in hand, and spend five painful seconds gazing around for friendly faces amid an ocean of eyes and mouths and gossip and judgment.

Those small serious worlds that we children build. Nietzsche said the struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play. My flapping ears would become such a lasting source of insecurity that even now, twenty years later, I still mention them to every new barber in an attempt to make light of the very vivid fear that the new guy might shave off my sideburns or cut the sides too short, thus leaving my ears exposed. And as a kid, with easy kid logic, I would make myself sleep on my sides, alternating left and right, right and left, in the hopes that by pressing each ear systematically against the pillow, I could, with time and pressure, cause those ears to fold back and disappear.


This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Daily Habits Checklist (May 15th – June 11th): A painter, who became Picasso

Another good 4 weeks and the progress I believe is starting to show, at least in private. The big gap in late May was due to a family cruise which was a great time. And all that white space on Friday May 26th was the result of a delayed flight. I suppose I *could* meditate and do back stretches while waiting at the terminal, but am averse to public attention…

My music habits have been moved to their own category. These include practicing the piano and guitar, and writing song lyrics. Thus they aren’t here, on the main list. But maybe I’ll include them in future updates. My goal is to start publishing songs soon. They probably won’t sound very good :/

Some thoughts on the habits…

Waking early: Your partner’s sleep schedule has a big impact on yours. If your sleep and wake cycles aren’t in sync, then one of you (usually both of you) will suffer. If you can’t get in sync, consider sleeping in separate beds and ignore the social stigma…? :)

Pushups: Seeking ways to “exceed my level”, in the words of Bruce Lee. In this case, eg, decline pushups

Meditate: Still remains hard, after all these years. Why?

My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.

Here’s why I track habits this way.

Thanks for reading!