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Our Traditions Are Gems Covered in Centuries of Junk

I recently had a lovely conversation with a group of young people, beautiful people, who are searching and seeking for a life that is spiritually open and porous, inviting and welcoming, yet rooted and grounded in teachings and practices that have stood the test of time.

In this conversation, one of the points that we shared is that so many of us are divers in the ocean of meaning, searching and seeking for teachings and practices that speak to us from across the centuries. There is a delicate balance between being open and receptive, drawing on teachings from multiple religious traditions (on one hand), and remaining rooted and grounded, having a sense of community, and having sufficient discipline and ritual to give shape and form to our spiritual lives (on the other).

That sense of diving again and again for the pearls and jewels of one tradition (or more) also reminded me of something that in my own heart I have experienced as true. There are jewels in each one of our traditions. These jewels are there both in our foundational sources and lived out by so many in our contemporary lives. But it is more complicated than simply diving for gems and living through these teachings today.

For Muslims, there are teachings that the whole of creation is the outpouring of Divine mercy, teachings that command us to love and justice. There are contemporary exemplars, from Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to Linda Sarsour and Alaa Murabit.

For Jews, there are teachings that remind us to treat the stranger with kindness, for we ourselves were once strangers, as well as the teachings of tikkun olam. And there are exemplars like Rabbi Heschel and Michael Lerner, the Jewish Voices for Peace community and others who embody these teachings.

For Christians, there are teachings that remind us that to love God we have to love the “least” of God’s children. And there are exemplars like Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Cornel West, and others.

And in each one of our traditions there is also… shit. The jewels of our traditions, all of our traditions, are covered in shit. Actually, “shit” might be too kind of a word. Shit can serve as fertilizer. This filth, this untruth, this opposition of truth only covers up the jewels.

There is the filth of racism, of sexism, of misogyny, of tribalism, and more recently of white supremacy, ethnic supremacy, and nationalism. And each of us has to deal with the cruelty committed and justified in the name of our traditions: transatlantic slavery and colonialism and the KKK; al-Qaeda and Taliban and ISIS; Israeli occupation and bombardment of Palestinians; Hindu nationalist groups; Buddhist attacks on Myanmar Muslims; and on and on.

None of us is spared. None of our traditions is pure, none unsullied. Any justification that states that pointing out the shortcomings and flaws that have crept into our traditions is a result of us not understanding the language or the context is simply denial. We deserve, and our traditions deserve, more and better than denial.

This notion that we each contain jewels covered by filth also operates at the personal level.

One of the loveliest teachings of the Prophet Muhammad is this: There is a Qur’anic question in which God asks all of humanity who have ever been, are, and shall ever be the ultimate rhetorical question:

“Alastu bi-rabbikum?”
(“Am I not your Lord,
who cherishes and sustains you?”)
Qur’an 7:172

This question is addressed not to Muslims, not to Arabs, but to all the children of Adam and Eve. The knowledge, that intimate, tasted knowledge of God, has been there with us since before there was a time, or a “there.”

That knowledge is innate in us, within our hearts. It is the jeweled nature (the fitra) that is in all of our hearts. In our hearts, we already know God intimately. This fitra is something like the Buddha nature. There is no need to “acquire” this knowledge of God.

There is only the dropping of the illusion, the forgetfulness, the veils that have hidden from us that awareness of who God is and who we are. These illusions are like the filth that covers up our own jeweled nature. There is no need to “acquire” religious knowledge. There’s only the need to let it go: let go of the egoism, the sexism, the nationalism, the tribalism. Then the inner jewel of our hearts will shine. In the Qur’an all of humanity joyously answers God’s rhetorical question above by shouting in unison:

“Qalu bala.”
“Yes, yes!”

Let us also answer yes. Let us also recover these jewels in our hearts and in our traditions.

Here’s the challenge we find ourselves in. All of us have to drink from waters that run deep. And we have to also engage and purify the very fountains that we are drinking from. Let us dedicate ourselves to cleansing these ancient fountains.

Yes, there are real jewels in each of our traditions. And they are all covered in filth and junk that is centuries old. In some ways, the jewels shine today as they have always shone. There is a light that’s too bright to be put out. At the very same time, the filth and shit of racism, tribalism, nationalism, colonialism, classism continues to cover the jewels. There is a jewel inside our own hearts. That jewel, the inner divine knowledge, also shines so bright. It too has to be purified from the filth of egoism, sexism, and greed.

Let us wash these jewels,
you and I.

Let us rinse these jewels,
you and I.

Let us polish these jewels,
you and I.

Let us be in awe of our own inner light,
you and I.

We dive, and keep diving, into these oceans, picking out dirty jewels.

We curate these jewels and think about which jewels, which stories, which teachings, which practices are worth passing on to our children. So many are. Not all of them are.

There will be a polishing that our own children will have to do. We may be too deeply immersed in some of the filth to see it.

Let us be divers after pearls, friends.
Let us cleanse the fountains we drink from.

And then we will be able to sing together:

This little light of mine,
I am gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine,
I am gonna let it shine.

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