CHAPTER 1: Ultimate Reality
This chapter contains selected passages on the nature of God or Ultimate Reality. This Reality is both knowable and mysterious, transcendent and immanent, unchanging and passionate. He or She may be encountered as a personal, loving God, as impersonal Being, or as Truth which is neither being nor non-being. It is a Unity, yet has many manifestations. In many religions, it is credited with the creation of the universe.
Religions denote Ultimate Reality in various ways. If one contrasts the personal God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism with the impersonal Absolute of Hindu Vedanta, one may infer that each religion has its distinctive way of apprehending the Absolute. However, it is more accurate to consider a variety of images of the Absolute even though important distinctions are to be made between similar images in different religions.
A seven-part typology is helpful for understanding how these passages from various scriptures have been put together.
- First, we may speak of one image of Ultimate Reality as a personal God; this image is central to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and to the theistic traditions of Hinduism.
- Second, there is the image of Ultimate Reality as an impersonal transcendent Being, the ultimate source of all existence: this is Brahman in some Hindu traditions, the Primal Unity or Tao of Chinese tradition, the Christian philosophical image of God as the Unmoved Mover, the Sikh One Without Attributes, the Mahayana Buddhist concept of Suchness (Tathata).
- Third, there is also an image of Ultimate Reality as immanent within each person: this is the Hindu Atman which has an eternal substance, the Mahayana Buddhist Enlightening Mind or Buddha Mind (bodhi) or Womb of the Tathagata
(tathagatagharba) which dwells in Liberation and has no substance, and Christian concepts of the indwelling Spirit.
- Fourth is an image of Ultimate Reality as the ultimate goal or blessed state; here is the Buddhist goal of Liberation (Nirvana) and the Jain ideal of the soul in its most purified, divine stage (paramatman).
- Fifth, religions which recognize many spiritual beings may image Ultimate Reality as their common solidarity which works with a single purpose: the Shinto kami and the Taoist deities and the Native American spirits (Sioux: wakan) may be
called "Heaven" or "divinity" in the singular.
- Yet a sixth image establishes Ultimate Reality based upon the manifestation of the Founder; this is the Buddhist image of the Absolute as the Buddha in his eternal, cosmic manifestation (Dharmakaya), the Christian image of the cosmic
Christ on his heavenly throne, as in the Book of Revelation, or again the Jain paramatman as revealed through the Tirthankara.
- Finally, Ultimate Reality may be depicted as eternal law, as Hindu Dharma or Rita, Taoism's Tao, Buddhist Dhamma, Christianity's Word (logos), Jewish Torah, etc. But as this last type is often recognized to be a subordinate and consequent attribute of Ultimate Reality that is itself beyond any law, we will defer its consideration to a general treatment of divine law in the next chapter.
Although this typology can distinguish the several different ways of imaging Ultimate Reality, in fact the concepts typically overlap.
For example, the goodness of God can be understood in any of these seven images: the loving kindness of the personal God, the impersonal beneficence of Heaven, the absolute bliss of Nirvana, the solidarity of the kami for the promotion of beauty and purity, or the compassionate nature of Reality as revealed in the compassion of the Buddha.
Therefore, for the sake of finding common ground between religions, we have placed side by side these various expressions of Ultimate Reality as they pertain to common themes.
The themes which are distinguished in this chapter are: traces of God's existence in nature and in ourselves; the unity of God; Ultimate Reality as formless, unknowable, or void; Ultimate Reality as transcendent; the sovereignty and power of God; divine omniscience, knowing all secret thoughts and deeds; Ultimate Reality immanent in nature and in the human heart; its unchanging nature in the midst of a world of transience; God the Creator; the goodness of God; and God our Divine
Further themes that deal with the nature of Ultimate Reality can be found in sections scattered throughout later chapters.