My favorite course at Wellesley College, where I received my undergraduate degree, was Comparative Religion. The professor was a man named James Kodera and he truly embodied the material he taught. Professor Kodera was Japanese, but his grandfather had been Norwegian. His grandparents had met in Nagasaki, which at the time was the only port open to Westerners in Japan. At first, Professor Kodera had studied Christianity and became an ordained minister; but then he began to feel the call of Buddhism, the other spiritual tradition of his ancestors. And so he received a doctorate in Buddhist Philosophy. Professor Kodera brought all this and more to his amazing course, where we learned about many of the world’s religious traditions. We read from original texts of all of them – including the Bhavagad Gita, the Koran, and the Ways of Confucius to name some.
I am writing about this course at this winter solstice time, which is a holy moment for so many of the religious and spiritual traditions of the world, because something Professor Kodera said in that class has stayed with me ever since, and I would like to share it with you. One day a student asked Professor Kodera which religious tradition he preferred and which one he thought was closest to the “truth”. And Professor Kodera, in his Asian manner, paused and then softly said,
“Let me tell you the story. There was a beautiful phoenix atop a high roof of a circular building. Many people saw this phoenix and wanted to reach it. So each person went off and built a ladder to get to the phoenix. And when their ladder was ready, they placed their ladder somewhere around the base of the circular building where the phoenix was still perched and they began to climb. And as they climbed, they looked over at the other people who were also climbing and saw how different their ladders were. One was painted gold, another silver; one was made from pine wood, yet another had garlands of flowers wound around its rungs. And people being people, each one thought to him or herself that – of course – their ladder was the only one that would reach the phoenix.”
Professor Kodera paused for a moment, and looked around at all of us in the room before he continued. And then he said, “And so it is with different religions. There is only one phoenix, and each religion is a ladder to get there. They all arrive to the same place; it is just that they have different ways of getting there. So you must never judge others beliefs as wrong.”
How I wish that some people of so-called faith could be this tolerant and understanding. This week in Saudi Arabia, a woman was beheaded for sorcery; hard to believe that in the twenty-first century such events are still occurring. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, traditional healers and shamans are being persecuted ruthlessly by evangelical Christians. In the Middle East, intolerant Muslims and Jews refuse to recognize the possible truth of the other, even though in places like Moorish Spain hundreds of years ago Jews, Muslim and Christians peacefully co-existed side by side for centuries.
In this holiday season, may peace come to all of our lands and communities and healing come to all those who have been persecuted due to their religious and spiritual beliefs – whatever they may be. May the phoenix of truth that shines for all of us equally inspire us to be tolerant and appreciative of the beautiful diversity of human cultures and beliefs.