The role of Mysticism in fostering Interfaith Dialogue and Tolerance

Dalai Lama and Lawrence FreemanIn a world in which religious sectarianism and religiously-justified violence are all too common 1, the possibility that an essential mystic truth is shared by most if not all the world’s Great Religious Traditions, nurtures and strengthens the hope, that this discrimination and violence born of sectarianism may eventually be replaced by sincere and comprehensive interfaith dialogue and cooperation based on love, compassion and wisdom.

Mystic (contemplative / esoteric) practitioners of the Great Religious Traditions share much in common despite the fact that the outer or exoteric forms of their religions, such as scripture, liturgy and codes of moral behaviour seem irreconcilably different in many ways. What is shared by contemplative practitioners provides a ready, though often unrecognised or under-recognised basis for interfaith dialogue and tolerance.

This common ground between religions on the mystic, contemplative, esoteric level of practice is referred to as the perennial philosophy, the key underpinning concept of which is the transcendent unity of religions. The essence of this philosophy was encapsulated by the renowned Christian contemplative Thomas Merton when he said:

“The greatest religions are all, in fact, very simple. They all retain very important essential differences, no doubt, but in their inner reality Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism are extremely simple. and they all end up with the simplest and most baffling thing of all: direct confrontation with Absolute Being, Absolute Love, Absolute Mercy or Absolute Void, by an immediate and fully awakened engagement in the living of everyday life”.2

Furthermore, as explained by Professor Dana Sawyer and depicted in the diagram below:

“. (on the physical or exoteric level) … the various traditions are as unique as the times and places they arise, each exhibiting its own personality and values; however on the metaphysical or esoteric level they merge, becoming identical for the simple reason that mystics share an experience of what transcends all differences, the Oneness of the Divine Ground … [and hence the traditions have a] … transcendent unity on the esoteric level.”3


Diagram: The Transcendent Unity of Religions.
Diagram: The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Source: Smith, H. (1993). ‘Introduction to the Revised Edition’ of Schuon, F. (1993). The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Illinois, Quest Books. (p. xii)

Before proceeding further let us clarify the meaning of a few terms. Firstly, in this article, the terms mystic, contemplative and esoteric are synonymous. Secondly, an esoteric practitioner of religion is one who is principally concerned with internal, contemplative, mystic, non-literalist-scriptural aspects of their religion, whereas an exoteric practitioner of religion is mainly and often exclusively concerned with its external, ritual, literalist-scriptural aspects. Thirdly, the term Divinity is used to indicate the Absolute Undifferentiated Unity of Being, which as the Ground of Being, is both the inherent Primordial Nature of, and origin of all manifest forms, human or otherwise.

What then, the reader may ask, constitutes the ‘unity’ referred to in the phrase ‘the transcendent unity of religions‘, and hence, what is shared by the mystic practitioners of the Great Religious Traditions? Furthermore, how do we know it is shared by them? One important answer to these questions is, that at the stage of advanced practice, mystics experience non-dual consciousness (also known as unitive consciousness) as a fundamental, if not the fundamental aspect of the ultimate nature and realisation of Divinity. This is evident from the writings of acknowledged and renowned mystics such as the Christian mystics Meister Eckhart and St Teresa of Avila; the Advaita-Vedanta (Hindu) mystics Adi Shankara and Sri Ramana Maharshi; the Zen-Buddhist Masters Young-chia and Seng Ts’an; the Dzogchen-Buddhist Master Longchenpa; the Taoist Master Chang Tzu, and the Sufi mystics Jalaluddin Rumi, Fakhreddin Iraqi, Ibn ‘Arabi and Bulent Rauf, to name but a few. With sustained and intensive practice of contemplative prayer, meditation or contemplation, non-dual consciousness is usually experienced sporadically at first, and then experienced with increasing frequency and duration until it becomes a pervasive and then constant state of consciousness.

Nonduality is, as explained by the American philosopher Ken Wilber, a state of consciousness in which “absolute reality and the relative world are ‘not-two’ (which is the meaning of “nondual”), much as a mirror and its reflections are not separate, or an ocean is one with its many waves … The “other world” of Spirit [Divinity] and “this world” of separate phenomena are [hence] deeply and profoundly “not-two”, and this nonduality is a direct and immediate realization which occurs in certain meditative states . although it then becomes very simple, very ordinary perception, whether you are meditating or not.”4

How then, we might ask, can the shared experience of the mystics (contemplatives) influence interfaith dialogue and tolerance? Although the extent of this influence has yet to be fully explored, in this brief article we will consider five ways in which contemplative practice may foster this work.

First, the fruit of contemplative practice is a common ground for ecumenism beneath the external differences of religions. On this matter Thomas Merton wrote:

. ecumenism implies dialogue: genuine ecumenism requires communication and sharing, not only of information about doctrines which are totally and irrevocably divergent, but also of religious intuitions and truths which may turn out to have something in common, beneath surface differences. Ecumenism seeks the inner and ultimate “ground” which underlies all articulated differences.5

Furthermore, the knowledge that religions share a great deal on the level of contemplative practice can provide grounds for interfaith dialogue and tolerance by exoteric practitioners of religion as well. That is, although many exoteric practitioners may humbly yet wrongly view contemplative practice as the exalted domain of renowned ‘mystics’ or ‘saints’ rather than of practitioners such as themselves, their understanding that the mystics or saints of their own and other Traditions share the same or similar experiences, offers a welcome bridge in interfaith work not easily provided by the differences in the external forms of their respective Traditions.

Dalai Lama and othersSecond, the influence of contemplatives in promoting contemplative practice within their own and other religious Traditions has potential to reduce religious sectarianism by facilitating the experience of nondual consciousness and hence lessening dualistic consciousness and its negative effects. In a 2013 radio interview, the Christian Contemplative Richard Rohr OFM explained the role that nondual contemplation can play in mitigating religious sectarianism arising from dualistic thinking. He said:

. the contemplative mind does not ‘divide the field of the moment’. It lets the moment, the person, the situation, the idea, come at you as it is. [You don’t] judge it, pigeon-hole it, dismiss it, or even totally agree with it. [You] just let it be its mysterious self [without] dividing the field of the moment. [When you] let it present itself as it is, without your judgement, that’s ‘contemplation’ ..

… … If I had to describe contemplation in one descriptor it would be ‘nondual thinking’. When [we] stop the argumentation that the mind loves, the ego loves, [because] the ego loves to divide things into sides and then take sides, [then] we get out of [a] win / lose mentality about religion [a mentality that says] our religion has to be 100% right and your religion has to be 100% wrong.”6

A third way that the shared experiences of contemplative practice can foster interfaith work is that, ironically, contemplative practitioners at times find they have more in common with contemplatives of other Traditions than the exoteric practitioners of either their own Tradition or other Traditions. For example, in the years between the Second Vatican Council and Thomas Merton’s death in 1968, contemplatives from a wide range of religious Traditions visited him at the Cistercian-Trappist Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. These Traditions included but were not limited to Raja Yoga, Zen, Hasidism, Tibetan Buddhism and Sufism 7. In response to these visits and with regard to the role of contemplatives in interfaith dialogue, he observed:

A little experience of . dialogue [between contemplatives of different traditions as well as scholars versed in the contemplative aspects of their own traditions] shows at once that this is precisely the most fruitful and the most rewarding of ecumenical exchange. While on the level of philosophical and doctrinal formulations there may be tremendous obstacles to meet, it is often possible to come to a very frank, simple, and totally satisfying understanding in comparing notes on the contemplative life, its disciplines, its vagaries, and its rewards. Indeed, it is illuminating to the point of astonishment to talk to a Zen Buddhist from Japan and to find that you have much more in common with him than with those of your own compatriots who are little concerned with religion, or interested only in its external practice.”8

As is apparent from Merton’s experience, contact between contemplatives of different Religious Traditions offers rich opportunity for interfaith dialogue.

A fourth way that the shared experiences of contemplative practice can foster interfaith work, is that through contemplative practice, the experience, even if fleeting, of the ineffable nature of Divinity as nondual consciousness that is simultaneously immanent and transcendent, is likely to mitigate rabid adherence to the kind of personification of Divinity that is the basis of so much of the religious fundamentalism and sectarianism we see in the world today. As observed by Aldous Huxley:

“…personifying the Absolute as a god . often leads devotees of that god into conflict with those who personify oneness differently, mistaking their personification of [Divinity] for the only proper or possible personification.”9

As also observed by Huxley:

“If the world [is] ever to live in peace it must learn to distinguish truth from how truth expresses itself in any particular culture at any particular time.”10

A fifth way of fostering interfaith dialogue and tolerance is to establish and or participate in an Interfaith Contemplative (Prayer & Meditation) Group. See for an example of a session format currently in use by an Interfaith Contemplative Group.

Dalai Lama and othersThe experience of Divinity revealed in the writings of acknowledged and renowned mystics, is available to us all when we come to directly apprehend Divinity as our Primordial State, our Original Nature, the Divine Ground of our Being. While this truth can be asserted and the writings of the mystics provide some evidence for it, ultimately it can only be directly substantiated by the reader’s own experience. It cannot be proven through rational inquiry by the dualistic mind because its proof involves direct apprehension of Divinity by processes other than the rational mind, namely, Sacred Art and the contemplative practices of Contemplative Prayer, Meditation and Contemplation.

It is therefore desirable to foster these types of practices within one’s own religious tradition and the religious traditions of others. This will in turn not only foster the wellbeing of those concerned, but also, as explained in this article, advance the cause of interfaith dialogue and tolerance.

In the 11th Century both the truth of the transcendent unity of religions that underpins the perennial philosophy, as well as the religious tolerance concomitant with this truth, were expressed with beauty and tenderness by the renowned Sufi mystic-poets and metaphysicians Ibn ‘Arabi and Fakhreddin Iraqi. Hopefully, the increasing prominence and influence of the perennial philosophy in the 20th and C21st as a vehicle for understanding the transcendent unity of religions, heralds this truth as one whose time has come. 11

Referencing Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions, Ibn ‘Arabi wrote:

“My heart is open to every form: it is a pasture for gazelles,
and a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols,
the ‘Kaaba’ of the pilgrim, the tables of the ‘Torah’,
and the book of the Koran.

I practice the religion of Love; in whatsoever direction His caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.” 12

Similarly, through his exquisite poetry, Fakhreddin Iraqi observed:

. every lover gives a different sign of the Beloved and every Gnostic a different explanation; every realised one seems to point to something different, yet each of them declares,
“Expressions are many
but Thy loveliness is one;
Each of us refers
to that single Beauty.” 13

1 Pew Research Centre (2014); Welby (2016); Wilber (2001, pp. xix -xx).
2 Merton (1968, pp. 61 – 62)
3 Sawyer (2014, p. 180)
4 Wilber (2001, pp. 292 – 293)
5 Merton (1999, p. 204)
6 Rohr (2013)
7 Merton (1999, p. 209)
8 Merton (1999, p. 209)
9 Sawyer (2002, p. 114)
10 Sawyer (2002, p. 125)
11 Oldmeadow (2010, Ch 1); Sawyer (2014, p. 283).
12 Quoted in Oldmeadow (2010, p. xiii)
13 Chittick & Wilson (1982)

Further Reading:

This article is a condensed version of an extensive essay titled Mysticism, the Perennial Philosophy and Interfaith Dialogue. For a copy of the essay email the author at

Chittick, W. and P. Wilson (1982). Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi – Divine Flashes (Preface by Seyyed Hossein Nasr), Paulist Press

Merton, Thomas. (1968). Zen and the Birds of Appetite. New York, New Directions Books.

Merton, Thomas. (1999). Mystics and Zen Masters. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Oldmeadow, Harry. (2010). Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana, World Wisdom.

Oxherds: An American Interfaith Contemplative Group. (access at

Pew Research Center. (2014). Religious Hostilities Reach Six-Year High. Washington, Pew Research Center. Accessed Feb 9, 2017 @

Rohr, Richard. (2013). Richard Rohr: Priest of Paradox. The Spirit of Things., Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Commission).

Sawyer, Dana. (2002). Aldous Huxley: A Biography. New York, The Crossroads Publishing Company.

Sawyer, Dana. (2014). Huston Smith: Wisdom Keeper (Living the World’s religions – The Authorized Biography of a 21st Century Spiritual Giant). Louisville, KY, Fons Vitae

Smith, Huston. (1993). ‘Introduction to the Revised Edition‘ of Schuon, F. (1993). The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Illinois, Quest Books.

Wilber, Ken. (2001). The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston, Shambhala.

Welby, Justin. (2016). ‘The Generational Struggle‘ – ending religiously justified violence – Church of Ireland Theological Lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury (09/02/2016). Accessed 31 March 2018 at

Author’s Biography:
Philip Brown spent his working life teaching children with severe and multiple disabilities and developing training programs to prevent the physical and sexual abuse of people with disabilities. In 2007 he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to further this work. Baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church, he has practised meditation for over 40 years and for the last 23 years has studied and practiced the Dzogchen Teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism. Prior to Dzogchen he practised Transcendental Meditation and Vipassana Meditation. Since the age of 14, when he first read Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, he has had an abiding interest in this philosophy and the field of comparative religion. This interest fostered a longstanding interest in and desire to promote interfaith dialogue. Indicative of his disposition towards interfaith dialogue, Philip is a Buddhist practitioner who has attended meditation retreats by Father Laurence Freeman (Director – World Community of Christian Meditation); read extensively and widely in the field of comparative religion, and had an article recently published in the online magazine Science and Nonduality (SAND) [March 13, 2018] paying homage to the Sufi mystic Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi and his exquisite and poetic metaphysical work Divine Flashes. (



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