Rev. Dr. Paul Ashby
Without Vedanta, I could not serve as a Christian minister. Vedanta helps me to follow Jesus by looking for the divine in others. Vedanta guides me to focus on the “Big Picture” of spiritual realization in a culture obsessed by small, narcissistic, selfie self-indulgences. Vedanta reminds me each week to work for the truth of unity in a world that divides and discriminates based on race, religion, politics, gender and nationality. Vedanta inspires me to meditate each day on the Eternal to quote St Paul in which “I live and move and have being and existence.” Vedanta creates for me a family that is so much larger than self-identified Christians. In the beautiful, vast family photo of Vedanta I celebrate that I am a spiritual child of Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Lao Tzu, Rumi and Sri Ramakrishna.
In seminary, at Princeton Theological Seminary three decades ago, I signed up for a summer course on Hinduism. Professor Charlie Nielsen loved India and was delighted to introduce future clergy to the grace and variety of the spiritual traditions of India. His admiration helped each student to value the wisdom of India and seek to learn more. For me, it has been an inspiration that continues to grow after three decades. I have done interfaith peace work as a pastor to plant seeds of tolerance, mutual respect and to honor the wisdom we can learn from each other. I find in Sri Ramakrishna the first spiritual pioneer whose spiritual experience was a living embodiment of the harmony of religions as the path to understanding and peace. This was not a cold, abstract, intellectual analysis of ethical similarities between global religions. His journey was to find the heart of the divine in the mastery of significant spiritual paths that connect us to the Eternal.
On my very rare Sunday’s off, I have visited Vedanta Centers in Boston, San Diego and St Louis. Since moving to Seattle in 2013 I have been blessed to attend Tuesday night classes led by Swami Bhaskarananda’s at the Center for Western Washington. At age 90, Swami continues to share his wisdom and insight with a generosity of heart and spirit that is a model of faithfulness. In this time of COVID, his Tuesday night class on Zoom is so popular it draws a global audience ten times the size of those who drove to fill the class of the teaching room on Tuesdays. I find that the world always feels brighter, lighter and more peaceful after a Tuesday night visit with my Vedanta family of Seattle.
As part of a sabbatical two years ago I received permission to spend 3 weeks at the Vedanta Center in Hollywood. It was a wonderful learning experience and joy that I will never forget. I pray for the monks and the Vedanta family there each week during these COVID times with the Los Angeles area being a place with thousands of families enduring loss and grief. Staying at the Hollywood Center was like being back in seminary in the best sense of the word – four classes a week, evening lectures, daily worship but no grades! I was impressed that each of the monks had unique spiritual gifts and personalities. This was not some clone monk factory where every monk is trained to follow a pattern of uniformity. I have visited some Benedictine and Zen monasteries where conformity and uniformity were stressed to an extreme degree.
What did I find at Hollywood? One monk taught classes with a brilliant breadth of knowledge and logic. He answered questions directly and pointed out helpful resources that I later purchased in the bookstore. His approach was very linear, clear, and filled with practical wisdom.
Another monk taught classes with joyful, fun stories of India and personal experiences. He had an equally vast knowledge of Vedanta that was shared with warmth and humor. He answered questions with the reply, “that may give us something to work on in our next life.”
A third teacher was an ancient sage who probably has forgotten more than most people learn in two lifetimes! I truly admired this spiritual elder. His work for interfaith understanding and harmony spanned generations. His teaching style was also all his own. His compassion was so overwhelming he was quick to cry about the pain of those who suffered in our world. As a teacher, he had a James Joyce style that would take you on a stream of consciousness journey across vistas that were completely unpredictable. And yes, I loved him even when he pushed my logical, left-brained tendencies into uncharted territory.
I would urge everyone who visits the Hollywood Center to attend every class, join in the devotional time and benefit from the special, unique gifts of each monk. If you visit the Western Washington Center try to plan a time long enough to get to know all the monks and reserve a few days at our retreat center. You will discover for yourself the spirituality, faith and unique strengths of each monk.
Vedanta helps me deal with key weaknesses in the Christian tradition. Most of liberal Christianity in the mainline traditions has lost the practice of meditation, silence or personal awareness of the divine. Our churches are very good about works of charity, personal compassion and acts to promote social justice. Most Protestants and many Catholics have lost their yoga. Any devotional practices are viewed as relics of the past. Meditation is dismissed as “Eastern” or done based on a secular corporate program for stress reduction. Outside of Eastern Orthodox tradition Christians do not have a mantra practice.
Vedanta invites me to a transcendence of the small, the narrow and the flawed confines of Christian creeds. The God of Christians is often too small – even for Christians raised to think in terms that exclude other faiths from their view of the divine. The Apostle’s creed, which was not written by any of the Apostles, is flawed beyond any usefulness. This creed, the most popular in churches say absolutely nothing about the life of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, his acts of compassion or his wisdom in dealing with religious questions. In this creed his life is absent- deleted – ignored! It leaps from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “He suffered under Pontius Pilot, was crucified, died and was buried.” Where is his life? Where is his realization of God? His actions to demonstrate divine mercy, grace and hope are left out. Too often creeds reduce the vastness of the Spirit to the microscopic level of tiny bits of dogma. Vedanta throws away theological microscopes and offers a telescope to see a Big Picture of a Divine beyond all the little fragmentary bits of human definitions. After all, Jesus did not come to create another religion with its own holy texts to use to prove other holy texts wrong. Jesus never said anything about virgin births, a trinity, or any blood atonements for sin. Vedanta helps this pastor get closer to the religion of Jesus as opposed to the religion about Jesus.
Christians read the spiritual experiences of Jesus and quickly misread their implications. Jesus prayed for all his disciples to achieve oneness with God in John 17. But Christians dismiss Jesus’ experience of being “One with the Father” as something only he achieved. Christians miss the truth of the Upanishads that proclaims “Thou Art That.” We are reduced to following Jesus in charity but not in spirituality. There are exceptions to this Christian misreading of Jesus. Experiences of divine oneness are present in mystics in the Catholic monastic tradition, Orthodox monks, and some rare Protestants like Howard Thurman, William Law, Angelus Silesius and George Herbert.
I am grateful to all the people who have been a part of my Vedanta journey. They have helped me become a better minister and an improved human being. One life goal I have is to visit all the Vedanta Centers in the U.S. I have had church members who have as a life goal to visit every major league baseball park. I have had church members whose life goal is to visit every national park. Our life goals are a reflection of both what we value and who we wish to become. In terms of becoming, if I improve a bunch in this life, I would consider it a blessing to find the way to live a future life as a monk in one of our Vedanta communities.