Religious Traditions - a brief explanation.

Below are my attempts to put together very short descriptions of various traditions. I have created this in response to many questions from friends and students. I must emphasize that these are in no way complete. I have also, where possible, put links to sources that I have been able to identify as typical and/or valuable in understanding each area. Also, while I have studied them, they do not necessarily reflect my own viewpoints or cosmology.

Hopefully, these links will stimulate thought and discussion. Also, a great site for looking up various belief systems is: Religious Tolerance.Org. Religious tolerance begins with an adequate understanding of beliefs systems which are not one's own.

Another curious site is one where you can discover how your personal beliefs match up with existing world religions - Religion Selector. This site lets you make choices based on your personal beliefs, then compares your answers to exisitng religious traditions. Sometimes, one discovers that what one believes is not in keeping with the religious tradition which one has chosen, or been led to by one's parents.

Taoism A belief system of ancient and modern China which also has affected thought in Japan and other countries. It exists both as a religion and also as a system or science of life. As a religion, there is a pantheon of gods, priests, punishments and benefits and many other religious practices. As a philosophy, Taoism exists without reference to a deity. Both are based on the awareness and belief that there is a natural "Way" or "Tao". The task is to put oneself in harmony with the Tao. Many times this is done by what is called "Wu-Wei" or non-action. This is often misunderstood in the West as meaning "doing nothing". Actually, it means to be in harmony with the Tao, to stand aside and do nothing which is not in harmony. This may mean intense action, or letting nature take its course. A central belief is Yin/Yang, which refers to the balance of opposites in nature. A natural ethics arises from the observation of nature and putting oneself in harmony with the Tao. It is always necessary to distinguish between the religion of Taoism and the philosophy of Taoism; it is possible to be a Christian Taoist, or a Hindu Taoist, for instance.

Zen is a belief system, or psychological training which emerged from classical Mahayana Buddhism. [there are several schools of Buddhism -Hinayana {Theravada}, Mahayana, Vajrayana, sometimes called Tantrayana, and Zen]. Zen emphasizes the changed personal awareness necessary to achieve satori, or enlightenment. There are no rituals or practices involved, except meditation and study. It is mistakenly called a religion, even though its greatest masters deny that it is. {A quote from one such master - "I am not a Zen Buddhist!"} Satori generally happens suddenly, after study and meditation, when the significance and understanding of life is directly experienced [like Tantric Buddhism {Vajrayana}, except that there is no physical component or exercises]. Many modern psychiatrists and novelists have been influenced by Zen, especially Jung, Maslow, and Nietsche.

Early Mysticism A mystic is one who believes that one can directly perceive God, or the universal, as a mental, emotional and physical experience. Early Jews, other middle-eastern peoples, and modern-day mystics all share this belief. Certain mystics believe that various ritual practices will enable this perception. During the Middle Ages, this included the alchemists. These practices may include meditation, fasting, movement or dance, gestures and symbols, and observing various times of day, week, month, or year. The correct preparation of the self is essential to the perception of the divine. Many times, a state of ecstasy or altered consciousness is a prerequisite to contact with the divine.

Hinduism A major religion of India, which has as its heart a kind of ethical mysticism, based on their sacred scriptures. At its heart is a love of life in all its forms. It believes that one's actions in this life will generate karma, or consequences in the next life. Reincarnation [on the wheel of life, samsara] may be at a higher level or not, depending on one's current actions. It accepts the body and soul as equal partners in life, and the use of both in religious life. When Hindus meet, they traditionally greet God as present in the other person. Many Hindus believe that religious practice involves the awakening of the chakras, or energy centers of the body, in order to let divine energy flow into the body freely. This perception is included in the eastern and western ideas of energy bodies, or auras, which surround the physical body.

Jainism Another faith of India, which holds that all life is sacred. It closely resembles Buddhism, from which it split. Knowledge, faith, and virtue attain deliverance for the spirit. One must not kill, lie, steal, have sex, or have any attachments of the senses [similar to Zen Buddhism, in which there must be a freedom from the compulsion of the senses or drives, {not to be misunderstood as no gratification}]. Gandhi was a Jain. Jainism, through Gandhi, has been a major influence in the civil rights movement, with its emphasis on non-violence.

Wicca A recent rebirth of an ancient tradition, primarily Celtic in origin. It accepts the duality of life, the immediacy of the divine, in the form of female and male entities, in daily life, and the belief in ritual and symbols as a means of using divine energy to heal. influence, and communicate. Wiccans believe that Divinity is immanent in all of nature. Divinity is just as likely to manifest in female form, as "the Goddess", or in male form, as "the God". It believes in the interconnectedness of life, respect and love for Mother Earth, a living being of which we are a part, the goodness of creation, in which all beings are meant to live in joy, love, and harmony. It accepts an ethics and morality based on the avoidance of harm to other beings and to the Earth. It believes in the importance of celebrating the solar and lunar cycles, and the cycles of our lives, leading to the revival of ancient customs (and the invention of new ones!). There is a minimum of dogma and a maximum of eclecticism. Many people who practice this religion do so in private, without others aware that they do so.

Excerpted from the Covenant of Unitarian-Universalist Pagans' Pamphlet
"Contemporary Paganism: Q and A"

Wiccans do not worship Satan or engage in sacrifices or "black" magic. Wiccans also do not actively seek new adherents; in fact, they respect all religious traditions. They believe that any evil which one does flows back to that person threefold. The prime ethic of Wicca is "'An it harm no one, do what thou wilt." Wicca is a legal religion in the United States as of 1986 (by U.S. Court decision), and is described in the US Army Chaplain's Handbook.

Shamanism The term used to refer to various practices, in various cultures, which believe in the direct manipulation and invoking of the power of God or other divinity. It may be used for magicians, witches, medicine men, certain psychic healers and channelers. The practices and methods vary from culture to culture. It usually emphasizes ritual and meditation to attain an altered state of consciousness in order to use divine powers. there is great emphasis put on the use of the breath and of drumming, or other repeated sounds. It believes in personal spirits, the alienation of which result in disease or death. The retrieval of personal spirits or totems is often the major practice of a shaman. This is certainly true in modern western shamanism. Shamanism, per se, is not a religion, but , many times, a use or practice of certain religions. Shamanism has existed on every continent for thousands of years. Until recently, it arose only in cultures which did not have a modern healing technology. In modern times, there has been a revival in the West of shamanism as a means of preventative holistic medicine as a psychological technique for personal discovery, without any religious overtones.

Native American Religions These are religions which believe in the universal presence of the divine, and reverence for all of creation. They are based in a reverence for the real world as a reflection of the divine. They generally believe in the powers of a shaman. All personal actions are seen as affecting one's surroundings, including people, creatures, and all of nature. There is a great diversity of ethical requirements and practices, however, and ritual and myth play a large role in daily life. As such, religion is not a separate practice from daily life, but a description of a personal daily involvement with the divine as one corries out the normal business of life. The paragraph on Shamanism is also applicable here.These religions and their shamans enjoy the status of a legal religion in the United States.

New Age Traditions New Age beliefs and philosophies are the modern distillation and renewal of what are seen as valuable parts of the above traditions and of many others. There is no one set of beliefs, but there is a sense of respect for the Earth and its creatures, an understanding of the interconnectedness of everything, an awareness of the possibility of many modes of mind and body, and a feeling of a personal and direct relationship with the universe. Mysticism, quantum physics, depth psychology, and the Unified Field theory have all contributed to this movement. There has been a revival of ancient traditions and practices which seem to be in closer harmony with the frontiers of modern science and psychology. There is an essential belief in the goodness of all creation, and a trust in one's deepest nature as being a part of the oneness of existence and non-existence. This results in alternative medical and psychological therapies, a belief in psychic healing and perceptions, and the belief that changes in the spirit/mind/human energy field are reflected in the body. This is reflected in such modalities as Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, crystal healing, color and sound therapy, chakra balancing, working with auras, shamanism, and other forms of natural and holistic treatments. For more on this topic , research "New Age" on any search site.

Universal Life Church A recent addition to world religious beliefs and practices, it was founded in 1962. It believes it the right of everyone to choose their own path. Since it does not have a required specific theology, it does not try to convert new members in any way. Its only ethical principles are to do the right and to maximize personal freedom without infringing on the freedom of others. It respects all religions and creeds as valid expressions of personal freedom. It differs from most religions in not having a hierarchy or any system of excluding people by credentials or practices. It affirms and supports the practice of healing by the "laying-on-of hands" as an essential part of ministry; in western language - Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, mind healing, psychic healing, faith/prayer healing, or healing by energy transfer. It supports all forms of healing, including psychotherapy. Its beliefs include ordination by request, in the three principles of freedom, food, and sexuality, and in the inclusion of any person, regardless of race, creed, gender, life-style, sexual orientation, training, or position in life. Its principles, ordinations and degrees have been upheld as valid by Federal and state court decisions, as well as being accepted by the courts and by the IRS as a legal church. While continuing, or borrowing from many ancient traditions, it is a modern phenomenon, using the World Wide Web as one means of contacting its clergy and members, including ordination, awarding of degrees, and the creation of congregations. Clergy are not required to have a congregation to function, but many do lead congregations. Clergypersons of the ULC can be found in every state and in many other countries. More marriages are performed in California by clergy of the Universal Life Church than by clergy of any other single denomination. ULC ordained ministers have included public figures in the arts, the judiciary, a President and members of Congress.