11 November 2019

Perennial Wisdom

What is the truth? From as early as I can remember, this question had a prominent place in my mind and directed my seeking. Is there a universal truth that underlies all religions, or is there an exclusive version of truth that is unique to one particular religion or teacher?

Perennial Wisdom takes the view that while religions differ in many ways, at their heart is a common wisdom that unites rather than divides. So this week we investigate this Perennial Wisdom and how it informs my own life and work, but first

    Thought for the day

      It is essential to know what real devotion is. 
      It is not mindless adoration; 
      It is not abdication of your responsibility to yourself, 
      Nor indiscriminately following of another’s personality or whim. 
      Real devotion is an unbroken receptivity to the truth. 
      Real devotion is rooted in an awed and reverent gratitude, 
      But one that is lucid, grounded, and intelligent.

                      Sogyal Rinpoche

Some years back I had the good fortune to be with that wonderful Christian mystic and scholar, Fr Bede Griffiths. On asking him directly about the truth, he held up his hand and pointed to the fingers.

When you look at the fingertips, they are all very separate and function in different ways” he said.

However, if you follow them down, they are all come back to and are united by the same hand. The truth, and the religions that espouse them are the same. Each religion looks somewhat different on the surface and functions in different ways, but when you delve into the heart of each religion, you find they all share the same common truth.

Fr Bede has been one of my heroes for a long time. 

The archetypal “wise old man”, he came into my life after growing up in the Anglican tradition, finding its basic teachings did not explain the complexity and trauma of my early life, and then launching off into exploring philosophy, metaphysics, the Hindu tradition, the Theosophical Society, Zen, and finally Buddhism.

In Buddhism I found the most uncompromising devotion to pursuing truth, especially in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and my long-term teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. 

And yet this is a very particular pathway into the truth. For me it works very well personally, yet many these days are seeking truth through other traditions, many are seeking a more secular version of the truth and its expression.

And as I grow older and benefit from all the teachings and study I have done, as I mature in my own practice a little, I find myself increasingly interested in helping a broad audience. So I am incredibly respectful and grateful to Sogyal Rinpoche for having taught me so much, and now, given he has died, will remain personally involved with his organisation Rigpa and help there when I can. I am planning to continue to study and practice through that tradition, and to enjoy getting together with the incredible array of extra-ordinary people that make up that organisation.

However, in my public life, I find myself compellingly drawn to take the Perennial Wisdom to a wider audience wherever possible. Perennial Wisdom is like religion without borders. It takes the view that all religious traditions do have their origin in a single source. It is a unifying force for good.

Aldous Huxley, author of the book The Perennial Philosophy, popularized this notion in his own day and wrote that the basis of Perennial Wisdom (or Philosophy as he called it) as found in all the mystic branches of the religions of the world, can be summarised as follows…
There is a Godhead or Ground, which is the unmanifested principle of all manifestation.

That the Ground is transcendent and immanent.

That it is possible for human beings to love, know and, to become actually identified with the Ground.

That to achieve this unitive knowledge, to realize this supreme identity, is the final end and purpose of human existence.

That there is a Law or Dharma, which must be obeyed, a Tao or Way, which must be followed, if men are to achieve their final end.

More recently, Rabbi Rami Shapiro put it beautifully when he wrote...

The term “perennial philosophy” refers to a fourfold realization: 

1.  There is only one Reality (call it, among other names, God, Mother, Tao, Allah, Dharmakaya, Brahman, or Great Spirit) that is the source and substance of all creation.

2. That while each of us is a manifestation of this Reality, most of us identify with something much smaller, that is, our culturally conditioned individual ego.

3. That this identification with the smaller self gives rise to needless anxiety, unnecessary suffering, and cross-cultural competition and violence.

4. That peace, compassion, and justice naturally replace anxiety, needless suffering, competition, and violence when we realize our true nature as a manifestation of this singular Reality. 

The great sages and mystics of every civilization throughout human history have taught these truths in the language of their time and culture. 

Perennial Wisdom therefore takes the view each religion provides the particular group of humanity to which it is relevant and appealing with everything required to observe a common divine reality, and to achieve a state in which one will be able to confirm the universal truth and achieve salvation or spiritual enlightenment. As such, each tradition warrants respect from all, and of itself, benefits from celebrating this common ground and each other’s different expression of this common ground. 

Also, it is possible to teach, learn and practice Perennial Wisdom in its own right, in a way that respects, supports and reinforces any individual religious tradition, as well as providing an accessible option for those seeking a non-religious or secular pathway into their own truth.

So this is what is taking the focus of my attention right now…


  1. Kia ora Ian, you are speaking about what matters most if we are to be truly well individually and collectively - thank you.

    1. Thank you - my sense is the Maoris from your part of the world would relate to this nicely too :)

  2. Thank you Ian. "Great Spirit" is a fine name for that unmanifest reality behind forms and appearances. I have found over the last 30–40 years that it is the name I have used on the occasions I pray. Despite being very grounded in Indian yoga and vedanta, which refer to Brahman (and several other names) as the ultimate reality, I use the english language term "Great Spirit" if I am verbalising meditative thoughts or prayer. I think I picked up that term and idea from native American shamans and mystics whom I encountered over a four year period of living in the USA in the 1980s. Also, each yoga master with whom I studied also happily mixed and gave great respect to teachers from all traditions whom they encountered. I also spent time in the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India in the 1980s — their signature series of devotional chants included verses dedicated to "Jaya Sri Buddha, Jaya Sri Buddha . . . Sakyamuni, Sakyamuni . . . etc." AND "Isha Christu, Isha Christu . . . etc." I don't know where they got that Latin or Greek form of Christ's name from, but it was part of a very regular, long series of chants that every monk would practise as a group, morning and evening, before whatever other Upanishads, mantras etc were being recited at that time.

    1. Excellent David, Great Spirit is a great name too, and yes yogis seem to have a great track record in acknowledging and respecting other traditions and teachers :)
      You have a great track record your self... Rishikesh in the 80s must have been quite something :)