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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 10, 2003

A spiritual search for common ground

By Robert Ganung

Peace is every step.

It turns the endless path to joy.

— Thich Nhat Hanh,
Zen Buddhist

It is almost impossible for me to write about spiritual matters without referring to my spiritual master, Thich Nhat Hanh. Although I am from another religious tradition (United Methodist minister), this gentle Zen monk from Vietnam has influenced my spiritual journey more than most Christian leaders and authors.

He has written more than 75 books on subjects such as "Being Peace," "Touching Peace" and "Jesus and the Buddha Going Home," speaking of ways we can cultivate compassionate lifestyles and learn to live in harmony in body, mind and spirit.

Most of us desire a peaceful and balanced life, but our fast-paced, high-tech world often works against our deep desire to cultivate an authentic spiritual life. We must be persistent and intentional as we develop our spiritual lives. Our world needs all of us to bloom into the loving and caring people we were destined to become.

This is an extraordinary century. Despite our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have great reason to rejoice as we seek to embrace and understand the many important aspects and beliefs of our neighbors. Today in America, Sunni Muslims live side by side with Tibetan Buddhists, Conservative Jews and Orthodox Christians. We live in a world with innumerable possibilities for spiritual growth and understanding, if we open our hearts and minds and search for common ground in the religions that our new neighbors have brought to America.

For a decade, Harvard professor Diane Eck has been the director of the Pluralism Project, mapping religious diversity in the United States. Several years ago, she realized that she was teaching second- and third-generation American Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. America is no longer primarily Jewish, Protestant and Catholic. We have the most religiously and culturally diverse nation in history, she concludes.

Reflecting on this, we must ask if our spiritual lives can be enriched and nourished by other religious traditions. Precisely because the U.S. spiritual and religious landscape has changed so dramatically, it behooves each of us to ask:

• Do our neighbors' religious traditions have anything of value to teach us?

• Can we be spiritually and intellectually fed by sacred texts that are not from our own spiritual tradition?

• Did God intend for there to be many religions that agree upon a wide range of basic ethical and spiritual teachings but disagree in other significant ways that perplex us?

• Do any of the great religions of the world have sole possession of the truth?

We are in uncharted territory. It's challenging, for reasons readily apparent each day in the news. This is a watershed period in civilization.

We have an opportunity to come together and build a rich, diverse, loving, compassionate and tolerant world community that can nourish and enrich us all.

I encourage you to think of ways to build a global community, beginning here in Hawai'i, a way that honors and rewards those who seek spiritual understanding, peaceful ways to coexist, and compassionate and loving ways of life.

We must give voice to the growing number of the voiceless. Far too many people have become disenfranchised without access to a better life. There are multitudes of invisible victims in our society who suffer because of our rapidly increasing addiction to power, wealth, profit and material success.

The desire to live in a diverse community based on mutual respect and reverence has led me here from my New England home. Hawai'i has taught me that we can come together and embrace our differences. Let us continue to tap into the inexhaustible aloha spirit that pervades these sacred islands.

Robert Ganung is the new chaplain at Punahou School. His class on world religions will present "One God, Many Names: Finding Common Ground Among the Religions of the World" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Thurston Chapel on campus; 944-5719.