What does it mean to be "in the
world but not of it"? Few questions have captured humanity's collective
religious imagination like this one. The question of how to live a truly
spiritual life in a world more often than not devoted to the pursuit
of pleasure and material gain has most likely been an important theme
in spiritual discourse since the first sparks of the religious impulse
ignited in the human heart. Wary of the seemingly endless barrage of
temptations that inevitably accompany the pursuit of fame, wealth, romance,
and power, many of history's greatest sages have insisted that the only
way to walk safely through this world is to relinquish all possessions,
sever all ties to family and career, and take up the empty-handed life
of a homeless ascetic or monk. Others, though still cautious about the
temptations of the world, have encouraged a moderate engagement with
the activities of worldly life, either out of obligation to society
and family or as a means to test one's ability to remain unensnared
by worldly attachments. And still others have created elaborate codes
of conduct and ritual to sanctify life in the world, to infuse even
the most seemingly mundane activities with a sense of the sacred and
holy. Despite their often radical differences in approach, however,
what these great teachers have all had in common is a healthy respect
for the power of the things of the world to lure the serious aspirant
away from the spiritual life.
times change. And in contemporary spiritual dialogue, both within and
outside of religious traditions, discussion of the challenges that worldly
life presents to the seeker of enlightenment seems to have all but disappeared.
While more and more people are speaking and writing about the spiritual
life, the life they describe almost always implies a total immersion
in the activities and duties of the world. Perhaps, as some would argue,
with the advent of our modern psychological understanding of human nature,
these are more enlightened times which call for a more humanistic approach.
But as the East-meets-West spiritual melting pot endeavors to update
the world's traditions in the light of contemporary Western values,
it seems that an all-important question may be getting lost in the mix:
As the most materialistic culture in the history of the world rushes
to embrace the spiritual, how is it going to reckon with the challenges
that engagement with the world has always presented to the serious seeker?
If the dwindling populations of most monastic institutions (and the
undeniable shortage of isolated caves and mountaintops) are any indication,
chances are, most of us won't be renouncing the world anytime soon.
But might there nonetheless be something to learn from the time-tested
traditions of old that could still apply to our modern, "more enlightened"
Western context? It was this question, and the countless sub-questions
it invites, that inspired our inquiry for this issue.
hard to imagine a better starting point for an exploration of spirituality
and "the world" than the teachings of history's most famous renunciate,
the Buddha. As the legend goes, the former prince, who abandoned his
wife and kingdom to pursue enlightenment, eventually inspired over 10,000
men and women to join him in living homeless in the forest—several hundred
of whom are said to have attained enlightenment. While we had long been
familiar with the Buddha's teachings and at least the rudiments of his
life story, it wasn't until we began to explore what he had to say about
the importance of renunciation that we began to glimpse the power and
precious simplicity of the humble life to which he called his followers.
afternoon, after reading passage after passage describing the unparalleled
peace of mind and purity of heart to be found in a life unencumbered
by possessions and worldly responsibilities, one of my coeditors and
I suddenly found ourselves in the grips of a shared renunciate fantasy.
Gazing out the window of our hilltop solarium at the lake and hills
across the valley, my friend queried, "Brother, where shall we make
our camp tonight? Against the shores of yonder lake or in the hills
beyond?" "Perhaps the lake would be best," I replied, mesmerized by
the thought of having no more pressing decision to make than that of
where to rest my head, "Those houses along the far shore would likely
serve us well in our morning alms round." "The lake it is," my friend
concurred, his bright mustard khakis for a moment seeming to resemble
the folds of a saffron robe. "But first, let us repose in this open
field for a few hours of meditation before sunset. How rare it is to
come upon such an unobstructed view."
know who broke a grin first, but as we began to chuckle about our brief
theatric interlude, it was clear that for both of us, in addition to
providing a bit of comic relief, the journey had also stirred a genuine
longing. In that moment, faced with the radical simplicity and singularity
of a life unencumbered by worldly cares, it was hard to imagine how
the spiritual life could work any other way. Suddenly it all seemed
days later, however, around a table in that same solarium, we began
to explore the teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Through the words of great
Jewish theologians like Abraham Heschel and Leo Baeck, we learned of
a relationship to the world in which every aspect of worldly life—from
work to family to sexuality to creative pursuits—is embraced and included
on the spiritual path. Sharing their conviction that the fullness of
God's vision can only be realized through active and appropriate participation
in His creation, they described how an elaborate code of law, conduct
and ritual elevates even the most mundane of activities into rich expressions
of devotion. As the five of us were drawn ever deeper into this Hebraic
vision of wholeness, we soon found ourselves overwhelmed by the seeming
perfection of this all-embracing spiritual life in which one's every
movement is sanctified. In the midst of that richness and fullness,
which seemed at that moment so utterly complete and life-affirming,
I couldn't help noticing that the lake and hills across the valley were
beginning to lose their glow.
our research for this issue, we again and again found our enthusiasm
flipping back and forth between those views that call us to leave the
world, those that encourage us to embrace the world, and those that
aim to chart a middle course between the two. In the midst of this merry-go-round
of perspectives, we were soon faced with an obvious question: What about
us? What is our relationship to the world? As spiritual practitioners
who have abandoned our former lives to live together in a community
dedicated solely to the pursuit and expression of liberation, we generally
tend to think of ourselves as most closely aligned with renunciate communities
like the Buddha's. We rise early in the morning for several hours of
spiritual practice. We often participate in extended meditation retreats.
Some of us have taken temporary vows of celibacy in order to explore
more deeply our relationship to the powerful force of sexual desire.
We definitely have a healthy respect for the deluding power of the world.
And the very foundation of our life together is a spiritual teaching
that calls for the giving up of anything that stands in the way of our
liberation. On the other hand, like the Orthodox Jews, we are passionately
committed to bringing the spiritual vision to bear on every aspect of
human life. Many of us are in committed sexual relationships. We almost
all have careers in the world. We eat well and exercise. We occasionally
go out to see movies and hear live music. And all of this is part of
a dynamic ongoing exploration of what it means to live a spiritual life
in which no aspect of our humanity is avoided or left out. Are we world-renouncers?
World-embracers? Both? While the attempt to align ourselves with a traditional
spiritual category ultimately proved impossible, it did help to reveal
just how complex this subject can be—particularly these days.
inquiry contained in this issue is perhaps unique in our time. For while
it dips deep into the well of traditional wisdom on a subject often
lost to modern ears, it also seeks again and again to bring that wisdom
to bear on the emerging questions and paradigms of the new spiritual
era. Engaging in dialogue with spiritual teachers from across the ideological
spectrum, we have tried to uncover the full range of complexity and
subtlety involved in humanity's attempt to come to terms with the world
on the spiritual path. As the extraordinary breadth of vision in the
interviews on the pages ahead will reveal, creating this issue has been
a truly remarkable adventure, and one that we hope will bring clarity
to the way all of us view our place in both the world—and the heavens.