A Return to the One: A Brief Look at Common Threads
‘Even the rocks that seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent seashore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events connected with the fate of my people, and the very dust under your feet responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious to the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred.’
– Chief Seattle
Who knows what the first Native American thought of as he looked at his surroundings for the first time? The endless plains, the valleys and the vastness of America’s sky must have astounded him; they must have made him wonder. And it is, and always has been, wonder which turns the thoughts of man to things and forces greater than himself. And it is wonder that makes man think that these things may be at work day-to-day, in our lives, surrounding and permeating everything.
When Chief Seattle spoke for the first time to an audience so broad that it encompassed many white settlers, as well as his own Native people, he must have thought back to that first glance that settled upon the earth, the sky. For, as his speech shows us, it is there that the ancient beliefs of the Native Americans are buried, and kept alive.
Chief Seattle’s speech reflects more than just the dying embers of Native American culture as it settled into the ashes of a broader, more sweeping, and (it must have seemed to him) harsher belief system. It speaks to the power of a belief so old, and so believed, that its keepers speak of it as though it were Truth itself. The same can be said of many faiths, many religions, countless belief systems. Ask a Buddhist monk from Bhutan; he’ll tell you each story of every saint as though it were a piece from National Geographic. He’ll recite every facet of his beliefs as though they were fact; as though there were nothing else. Many members of the Islamic faith could be said to be the same.
And although many different faiths claim to possess the one, and only Truth, the question remains: what ties different faiths together? Where is the common thread that we can trace each faith along until it culminates in some age-old concept, constantly recycling itself through the institutions we call faiths? What idea can be so large, and so potent, that certain precepts of three completely different religions can be tied directly to it?
Over one thousand years ago, a Chinese philosopher named Lao Tzu reached deep into the knowledge, and wisdom he had acquired during his lifetime, and produced a concept he called The Tao. The idea of the Tao is simple, yet impossible to fully grasp. What Lao Tzu believed was that a single force, a constant, ever-shifting, all-being thing underlay everything. Lao Tzu believed that the Tao was the beginning of all things, and the end of all things. It was what moved us, what connected us, it was what made plants grow and water flow downhill. And although a dozen different local customs and beliefs have been tied to Taoism over the years, it has never diverged from its basic principle; that, although we may be unable to sense it, with our basic human abilities, everything is of itself – is of One.
Chief Seattle outlines a similar concept in his speech – albeit briefly. He envisions the earth as his version of the Tao; an all-absorbing, all-being thing to which everything eventually returns. The Buddhist concept of Nirvana is similar; souls depart from and return to a perfect place from which all things flow and stem. The Hindu idea of Brahman tells us the same. In Islam, all things are said after death to return to God – from whom all things stem, from which everything comes and to which all things return. What Chief Seattle described was, at its core, neither new nor any less exciting and/or interesting than it was one thousand years earlier, when the Tao Te Ching was written. What Chief Seattle spoke of was a great One, something from which everything comes and returns to. Many Muslims could describe God as something similar – and many Buddhists could say the same.
The thing that ties so many vastly different religions together is exactly that – some type of underlying force, a nexus that is also a continuum – a thing without shape because it is all shapes, a thing without form because it is all forms – and yet it is also itself.
A Buddhist could never tell you what Nirvana looks like – nor could a Muslim describe the face of God. And, although he may have had images to assist him in his understanding, Chief Seattle could never have spoken of the earth as a whole in a single, coherent word. The fact is, all religions – in fact, all beliefs – are similar in that they grasp at the same basic concept – some sort of entity that embodies all things. It’s hard to say that physicists or mathematicians aren’t looking for the same thing; even Darwin focused on evolution as being the single force that created everything. The thing is, that concept – the idea that all things are eventually One – is so attractive to us as humans (for whatever reason) that we find ourselves returning to it again, and again.
There have been many over the ages who have said that truth is relative. This may be true. However, when I look at this common thread, this seemingly all-too-coincidental convergence of vastly different ideas at a single point, hints at interconnectedness seem to emerge more often than they could under a world that’s as divided as we think it is. For me, the truth has always been this: different people believe and think different things, but at the end of the day, we’re all searching for that something – that elusive One – that allows us to know that everything is somehow connected with everything else. And that’s why I have hope for the future – because, as we come closer and closer to really believing – really knowing – that everything is connected somehow to everything else – we step that much closer to a peaceful world. And that’s what I believe in.