Celebrating Religion, Rhyme and Reason

Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006

What does it mean to celebrate, we asked ourselves as we gathered material for this Mountain Record. What do we want to say about the last twenty-five years of the Mountains and Rivers Order? More importantly, what do we want our readers to come away with? The result, in the form of this commemorative issue, is somewhat unusual.

The articles we finally chose are not nostalgic or historical. They are not just dedicated to the sayings and doings of the Order. They are about celebrating the twenty-five years we have devoted to the practice and realization of the dharma, but the view we’ve taken is a bit broader, and hopefully, more far-reaching.

We live in a particular, peculiar, and dangerous time. From one perspective, it is no different than it always has been. Our wars are still largely, if not exclusively, religious. We continue to exercise intolerance more than acceptance, greed more than selflessness. But this time is also different: we have the ability to annihilate each other in an instant. Some would argue that religion is what keeps us from actually doing this, others would say it is, in fact, what has driven us to the brink.

Whether for or against religion, however, few people can afford to remain indifferent, its effect on our society is so palpable. In a way, this is what we are celebrating—as well as questioning, challenging, or at the very least, bringing further to light.

What, then, is our place in today’s religious landscape? And with a quarter of a century behind us, where do we now want to go? The articles you will encounter here do not answer these questions, but rather map out the territory in which they are asked, focusing on the tension between traditional religious values and a society’s need to “modernize.”

Is religion still relevant? In a penetrating look at faith, Sam Harris puts to the test the efficacy of religion in our increasingly sophisticated, rational world. Need religion be organized? “Organized enough to keep a city church going, one that offers an AIDS support group, a soup kitchen, services to the elderly,” answers Kathleen Norris. Is religion limited to a chosen few? In his article, Huston Smith takes a look at the “scandal of particularity.” Can art take the place of religion? Nobel Laureate Alexandr Solzhenytsin suggests that in some ways it can. Is the problem religion itself, or the ways in which we have interpreted it? Professor Wadud takes up this issue in her close study of one-sided interpretations of the Qur’an and their effects on the lives of Muslim women.

Ultimately, these questions boil down to one for which there is no easy answer: what does it really mean to be human? This, points out Shugen Sensei, is every seeker’s question. But, as Daido Roshi reminds us—and as thousands of years of history have proven—to wake up to ourselves is a difficult task. And whether we choose to do it through the practice of religion, spirituality or reason, this perennial process is something that we, as human beings, will have the opportunity to engage in for as long as we live. Isn’t this cause enough for celebration?

Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor