Asian Spirituality: A Quest For Depth

Nearly all major religions of the world were born in Asia. We look at some common traits of Asian spirituality – inner journey, search for depth, silence, detachment, nonviolence, and honesty – shows their significance in our modern times.

An inward pilgrimage is central to Asian understanding of religion. Spirituality is the removal of all obstacles on this journey to arrive at one’s true self, the purification of the inner being in this process, and seeing it in relationship with the Universal Self.

According to the Upanishads, inner liberation comes from withdrawal and reflection on the deeper nature of things. ‘Sitting in forgetful ness’ is considered most helpful for attaining the highest state of perfection, Nirvana. The Taoist thought in Chinese tradition also identifies religious quest as the liberation of the spiritual element of the ego from its physical limitations in order to move on to immortality. The danger of this form of spirituality is that it tends to neglect the social dimension, though correctives have been proposed in modern times.

For Buddha, spirituality was an inner journey and removal of egoism, attachments, greed, hatred and illusions in order to be ‘enlightened’ and to get rid of sufferings. Diverse Asian traditions suggest diverse practical techniques for making progress in this long and painful pilgrimage – restraint, observance, right posture, breath-control, sense-withdrawal, meditation, and absorbed concentration.

The depth we are speaking of is about looking at life in all seriousness, in its objective reality: pains and their causes, gains and their limitations, problems and possibilities. It is about taking a holistic vision of things rather than be lost in immediate issues, e.g. remoter causes, long-term consequences, diverse perspectives, attention to other people’s concerns. It builds up in a religious person sturdy convictions and unshakable commitment. It provides inner stamina during trouble, ensures intelligent balance in success, and endows consistency and coherence on one’s being. It supplies great enduring capacity and sustaining power for long-term effort.

The search for depth in Asians makes them value silence. They have a conviction that an understanding of deeper truths can be gained only in silence and through careful self-discipline. Silence strengthens one’s spiritual depth, making it a more resurging resource than mere blank emptiness. In fact, silence leads to intense activity in the inner world. It equips one to delve into the unfathomable depths of Truth, which are to be realised and lived out.

For Asians, spiritual seriousness is expressed, most of all, in detachment. Even non-Christians readily understand the monastic model of poverty, celibacy and obedience as expressions of religious detachment. That is why Christian missionaries, who are true to these values, are greatly respected in Asian society. The world-renouncing tradition goes several millennia back in South Asian religious history. If this quality is missing in a religious person, something essential is missing in him in Asian understanding, no matter how competent he is in other respects.

Undoubtedly, nonviolence remains at the heart of Asian spiritual tradition. It is not that Asians are less violent than others, but a longing for peace has clung to their hearts even in the most violent of times. Buddha developed his message of peace when Aryan tribes were invading indigenous communities, eliminating weaker groups, and violent towards nature.

Ahimsa, nonviolence, has remained an inspiring theme in Asia, among the followers of Jesus, the co-nationals of Buddha and the disciples of Lao Tse. Hence, the greater tragedy when this message is forgotten on the continent.

For Asians, spiritual seriousness is expressed, most of all, in detachment. Even non-Christians readily understand the monastic model of poverty, celibacy and obedience as expression of religious detachment.

It was the genius of Mahatma Gandhi that brought the concept of nonviolence to the political field when he decided to fight the mightiest imperial power of the day in his own peaceful style. Nonviolence was, for him, not mere passivity or weakness, but a pointer to the strength of the spirit. It consists in showing respect for the opponent and all his legitimate interests while refusing to bend to unjust treatment. He developed the concept of “strong persuasion” by appealing to the conscience of the opponent in respectful protest and expressing non-acceptance in a gentle and courteous manner.

Ahimsa also excludes the use of violence in language, provocative statements, unfair criticism, insensitive remarks; even violent forms of protests against injustice, and indifference to suffering. All the more should it exclude abortion, euthanasia, sexual irresponsibility, self-weakening indulgence and any manner of experimenting with the human body that would damage a person’s dignity.

Today, it needs to be extended to over tapping of natural resources, damage to environment, and competition that rises to merciless heights. Ahimsa would fully be in agreement with the concepts expressed in Laudato Si’, especially with regard to the ecology of the human person.

Truthfulness is considered the highest virtue among Asian peoples. There is an ancient Sanskrit saying, “The truth shall triumph.” However, honesty is probably the most forgotten spiritual value in public life. The tragedy in our times is that corrupt practices have risen to the world stage. No one can plead to be totally innocent. That is why everyone must join hands in order to wipe out this plague from society.

A spirituality of responsibility reminds us that our fates are interlinked and that we all must be concerned for each other and develop sensitivity for each other: “To know the anguish of others is to feel that anguish as our own”.

If we were to read the ‘signs of the times,’ we would develop a farsighted strategy to enter into a happy relationship with global Islam and other religious traditions in an intelligent and respectful manner. It will open doors to billions of people.

Our primary duty is to learn to live together in peace and harmony and collaborate in common ventures for the growth and development of societies we are together a part of, working in happy relationships, respecting differences; and not indulging in mutual contempt, violence, exaggerations and hasty generalisations.

– by Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil, Jowai, India

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