The Idea of the Way in History and Modernity

Updated on November 13, 2019
Jared Barlament profile image

J. W. Barlament is an author, blogger, and researcher of political, philosophical, and religious issues.

Introduction

There is a force that permeates us all; a unifying energy on top of which existence itself has been built. To give it a name is to ridicule its essence. It is beyond all language, and indeed, even all perception. It defies human reason and is completely incomprehensible to our monkey minds. It is the Way; the All; the Absolute; the Universal Nature; the Tao; the Great Spirit; Brahman; Dharma; Mana; even, some say, God. An experience of it – even a little glimpse of it – is the ultimate goal of many a religious man, and indeed, many a religion. Still, very few have a good grasp on terms like the Way, All, or Absolute when they use them, and fewer still know how such ideas impact the world around them. This, of course, is an attempt to remedy that sorrowful state of things.

The Way & the Inheritance of Ideas

Huge religions, strict philosophies, and loose spiritual systems the world over believe in some form of what we shall call the Way. Taoism, perhaps, does so most expressly, but eastern religions such as Buddhism (especially the Mahayana and Won schools), Hinduism (especially the Vedanta school), Cheondoism, and others also developed similar ideas, albeit laid out in different terms. In Western philosophy, pagan and esoteric traditions have floated related concepts around for millennia. Spinozan pantheism and its subsets (such as panentheism, pandeism, panpsychism, and more) give them a foothold in traditional philosophy. The Way is even present in some, shall we say, way in a whole host of animistic and shamanistic religions, such as the Algonquian Great Spirit and the Pacific Islander Mana. Perhaps such a staggering worldwide presence and prevalence in primitive tribal traditions suggests that the Way is a universal concept of early humanity. Perhaps we may even trace the Way’s many related philosophies back to their original ancestors.

There is an important distinction to be made between ideas which are simply inherited from older ones and ideas which are independently formulated time and time again. If an idea is inherited, and has split off to adopt different specifics and terminologies, then it is not necessarily a universal truth. It is but a steadfast inheritance. If an idea is independently formulated time and time again, though, by people with no connections or contact, it just might be a universal truth. Let us figure out, then, if the Way can be explained away through the inheritance of ideas.

"Luminaries of Pantheism" by Levi Ponce
"Luminaries of Pantheism" by Levi Ponce

The Way & its Theoretical Lineage

Some of the aforementioned belief systems with some incarnation of the Way within them are quite clearly related. Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism (with Confucianism as an occasional contributor) intermingled for centuries, with a whole host of offshoots, Cheondoism among them, as a result. Of course, the many pagan traditions of Europe are almost all connected as branches on the Indo-European tree, and its esoteric tradition is one big web of ideas. Spinoza’s pantheism can be said to be truly original, although obviously not without its influences. Its offshoots, however, mitigate its stark originality; panentheism, pandeism, panpsychism, and more make up an entire new branch of variations on the Way where Spinoza’s pantheism intended to stand alone.

In fact, we may take the many similarities between these different belief systems to a startling conclusion. Almost every worldwide tribal religion is strikingly similar; they are shamanistic or animistic, with some sort of overarching energy or spirit present in their mythologies. Cultures with strong tribal traditions, such as the Amerindians, Pacific Islanders, Australian Aboriginals, Sub-Saharan Africans, and the indigenous Siberians all provide evidence of this. In addition to this, plentiful evidence exists that Europeans, Near Easterners, and Far Easterners had similar practices in the deep past. This all makes it reasonable to assume some variety of shamanism or animism, containing some form of the Way as a universal energy, was the default religion of all humanity before the birth of civilization. This theoretical religion, which emerged perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago, we may call the Proto-World religion.

Portraits of Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, author unknown
Portraits of Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, author unknown

The Way & the Proto-World Religion

This is obviously a grandiose concept, and as such, it has multiple interpretations. The first is that, as Proto-World seems to have come from our earliest human ancestors, it is forever etched into both our cultural and evolutionary biases. In simpler terms, the only reason remnants of the Proto-World religion seem to be everywhere is because they’re so deeply engrained into us that we’re incapable of shaking them off. Perhaps it was just one of many ideas back in the earliest stages of human development that just so happened to outlive all of its contemporaries. Perhaps it gave our ancestors some sort of communal bond or other evolutionary edge that made it advantageous to propagate. This theory throws the veracity of Proto-World thinking into question, for if it is only prevalent because its prevalence was useful, that doesn’t make it at all true. It is not, however, the only theory out there.

According to the doctrine of perennialism, Proto-World is, in fact, the one true religion, and all succeeding religions are mere misinterpretations of its eternal truth. Perennialism states that there is, indeed, a single religion at the origin of all others, and that this religion was based off of direct religious experience and a less corrupted understanding of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual. This would make Proto-World’s influence so universal because it’s based off of a truly universal truth, thus giving credibility to the apparently Proto-World concept of the Way. Unfortunately for perennialism, though, its ideas are almost entirely based off of speculation, as we have very little evidence of religious activity in the deep past.

"Priest of the Devil" by Nicolaes Witsen
"Priest of the Devil" by Nicolaes Witsen

The Way & Independent Discovery

There is one other option, and that is that there is no Proto-World after all. While tribal religions do all seem to have some similarities, they have been fundamentally revolutionized and replaced throughout history. Time and time again throughout human history, the idea of the Way has seemingly been independently discovered – by Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Gaudapada, Zeno of Citium, Spinoza, and more. This certainly supports the idea of the Way as a universal truth, as if it was repeatedly independently discovered, then it had to be repeatedly independently available. In other words, for it to have been discovered so many different times by so many different people, it had to be a universal truth – ever-present and unchanging – existing throughout all of human history, able to be uncovered by anyone with the ambition to dig for it.

Perhaps most eye-raising of all, the idea of the Way might just actually be both an inheritance from the Proto-World religion and a universal truth. We may be predisposed to being able to perceive the Way, either because of culture or evolution, but that does not necessarily make the Way any less real. We’re evolutionarily predisposed to see what’s in front of us, but even though our specific interpretations of what’s in front of us may be warped, that does not make what’s in front of us any less real. The Way is similar in this regard. It is likely a fusion of a cultural or evolutionary inheritance and a universal truth. Having established where the Way came from, then, what exactly even is it?

Gautama Buddha in meditation, author unknown
Gautama Buddha in meditation, author unknown

The Way & its Specifics

Any discussion of the Way must begin with the disclaimer that it is ultimately unquantifiable. It is not this or that; it simply is; life and death, every atom and every universe, being and non-being, and all in one. It is the ineffable energy which gives order to existence, thus being a bulwark against entropy. It is not the material world or anything evidently physical, for it has no form and cannot be directly observed. It is, rather, experienced, through the experience of existence itself. One could identify it with consciousness, claiming it to be the inherent consciousness of the universe. Conversely, one could identify it with nature, claiming it to simply be the natural order of things. Regardless, in order to experience the bliss of desirelessness in all our everyday lives, we must align ourselves with this energy. It is not the job of man to transcend or challenge the Way. It is the job of man to unite with it.

Clearly, this explanation is soaking in open-endedness. All but the broadest generalizations about the Way are inherently debatable. This is because, as we’ve established, the Way is not subject to the confines of human communication, and can only be understood through individual experience. And, if it can only be experienced and never be communicated, then no one can tell anyone else what it is like in any real detail. As a matter of fact, individual experiences of the Way are likely only marginally similar. This would, of course, lead to individuals coming back from their experiences with religious and philosophical ideas that only marginally tie into others’, even if their and the others’ experiences were nigh identical. This is why the Way is expressed in so many ways across the world, and this is why the full revelations gifted to one by experiencing the Way cannot be taught. The Way can only be experienced.

"Stargazing Campers" by Joe Trodden
"Stargazing Campers" by Joe Trodden

Conclusion

We come out of this exploration of the Way with an enlightening duality; we have both covered everything and barely anything at all. Even if we have not grasped the full extent of the Way, we have grasped why so many others have failed to do the same before us. We may, thus, end our exploration with this – the Way is universal, and the experience of it seems to be available to anyone. In this, we are all united. The Way cannot be communicated, however, so we are all unique in our interpretations and implementations of its teachings. In this, we are all unique. Thus concludes our grandiose journey into the mysterious realm of the Way – whatever the Way even is. Perhaps the Way may not even be the most appropriate term. Perhaps a simple sound would be more appropriate; a hum, a mantra, a ringing bell, or a singing bowl, maybe.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 J W Barlament

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