MANY OF US ARE FOND OF using clichés and proverbs without really understanding their meanings. One such is "All roads lead to Rome", and is often used to show how eclectic and open people are regarding religion. In fact, all that they succeed in doing is demonstrating their ignorance, for unless a person has practiced all religions, as far as they can take him, and has verified, by his own experience, that all religions do, in fact, lead to the same end, to say such a thing has no meaning at all. And, short of practicing all religions to their ultimate ends—or even just one of them—a little intelligent and objective investigation of the theories of the various religions would reveal that the aims are not the same, and in some cases, differ considerably.

Most religions are centered around the idea of ‘God’, which is a term open to interpretation, and many wars have been fought, much persecution perpetrated, much hatred and fanaticism generated from differing interpretations of it! Most believers in God say there is only one God—their God, of course—but there is an inherent contradiction in this that shows that they do believe in ‘other Gods,’ or they could not say our God is the only God,’ as ‘ours implies ‘yours.’ If there were really only one God there would be no need to talk about it as such.

The ultimate aim of theistic religions—that is, Creator-God-centered—is Heaven, but this is a postulated place that can only be attained after death, as it is remote and different from the one we presently live in; we can’t go to Heaven with our physical bodies, but must die first, and then one’s soul, spirit, or consciousness—call it what you will; one name is as good as another for something so intangible—may go there; the body stays behind, to be burnt, buried, or otherwise disposed of.

The Non-Theistic religions, on the other hand—and the three main ones generally considered such, when they are considered religions at all, are Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism—teach that the highest reality can be attained anytime and anywhere, and not just after the body's death; Reality has no limits, and if it is to be found only after the body’s death, and not in this life, it cannot be Reality. They also teach that Heaven, as a place—and if there is such a place—is impermanent and therefore cannot be the Ultimate. Also, unlike Theistic religions, they do not depend upon belief, but emphasize direct, personal experience.

Now, apart from the differences between the various religions, there are differences between the numerous sects of the same religions, and Christianity is the most outstanding in this respect. A well-known Christian magazine, The Plain Truth (April 1991 issue), stated that Christianity is divided into more than 25,000 sects, cults and denominations, and that this figure appears to be increasing by about five every week! Undoubtedly, each and every one of these sects and sub-sects considers itself to be right and divinely-appointed—and in many cases, to be the only right one—or else there would be no reason for its existence.

Buddhism, too, is divided into sects and cults, though far fewer than its younger brother, Christianity. Unlike Christianity, however, Buddhism has no record at all of persecution of dissidents or ‘heretics’; it allows everyone freedom to go his own way, to seek Truth in his own manner and at his own pace; excommunication or condemnation to Hell forever is something unknown in Buddhism. It is said that we are punished by our sins rather than for them.

As in all other religions, there is fanaticism and sectarianism among Buddhists, too; Buddhism can’t claim to be free from this human failing. But there is less excuse for it in Buddhism, for it teaches, from the start, that we should keep our minds open, and investigate things clearly and thoroughly, instead of just believing and accepting the words of others unquestioningly. However, such freedom is seldom valued and used, and many Buddhists fall into the common habit of looking at things from just their own particular viewpoint, forgetting, or not knowing, that there are other ways of looking at the same things. Life is not two-dimensional, like a photograph, but has depth—and time, too, in which things change—so the more angles we can look at a thing from, the clearer the picture we will get of it, and we will be less inclined to cling onto and defend our own viewpoint, saying, "I am right, and you are wrong." If we wear blinkers, like a horse, and are thereby restricted in the way we see the world, there is no-one to blame but ourselves, and we cannot reasonably complain that there is nothing to be seen except whatever is right in front of us.

Now, when Prince Siddhartha left his palace to go into the forest in search of Truth, he went first to the hermitage of a famous spiritual teacher named Alara Kalama, who readily accepted him as a student. Siddhartha was so keen to learn, so humble and intelligent, that he soon mastered all Alara Kalama taught him, at which the teacher was overjoyed, and calling all the other disciples together, said to Siddhartha: "What I know, you know; what you know, I know," meaning that there was no difference between them in spiritual knowledge and attainment; "Come, Siddhartha, and share the leadership of my disciples with me."

But Siddhartha, though grateful to Alara Kalama for his nobleness and selflessness of spirit, was not satisfied, as he still had not found the Truth about Suffering, for which he had left his home and gone forth. And so, sincerely thanking Alara Kalama for his generosity, he left and went in search of another teacher who would lead him to higher things, and hopefully, to the Way out of Dukkha.

It wasn’t long before he came to the hermitage of Udrakka Ramaputra, another famous teacher, and without hesitation was accepted as a disciple. Expecting no special treatment because of his royal blood, but depending solely on his own effort and initiative, here, too, he soon mastered all he was taught. And here, too, the teacher was so devoid of pride and attachment, that he was delighted to have met someone who so easily and quickly understood his teachings, when no-one else had come near to it even after being with him for years, and, far from feeling his position and fame threatened thereby, eagerly acknowledged Siddhartha as an equal. "What I know, you know; what you know, I know. Come Siddhartha, and take over the leadership of my disciples, while I retire." What loveliness of spirit! Here was this widely-known and respected teacher, much older than Siddhartha, prepared to step down, joyfully and willingly, and let another take his place! Where, among the teachers and leaders of religion today, can we find such nobility and absence of pride?

But again, though Siddhartha respected the greatness of heart and generosity of Udrakka Ramaputra so much, he felt obliged to decline his offer, as he had still not found what he had set out to find. Thanking the teacher respectfully, he departed, and went on alone, as before.

Soon afterwards, he began the ascetic practices common among yogis, hoping that, by torturing his body in various ways, he could free his spirit from its shackles and thereby find Enlightenment. But although he carried these practices to terrible extremes—sitting surrounded by fire under the blazing summer sun, squatting immersed in icy water in the winter, controlling and holding his breath until he felt his lungs and brain would burst, crouching in painful postures until his body became numb, starving himself until he was just skin and bones, and so on—it did not produce the hoped-for break-through. And one day, having weakened himself so much by fasting and deprivation, as he emerged from bathing in a stream, he fainted, and had it not been for the timely arrival of a passing goat-herd, who forced some milk between his parched lips, he would have died, and we would have heard nothing of him.

At this point Siddhartha saw that torturing his body like this was extreme and wrong and would never lead to Enlightenment, so he abandoned it and began to eat in order to regain his strength. This accomplished, he resolved to follow the way of meditation—avoiding, on one hand, the extreme of sensual pleasure, such as he had known in the palace, and on the other hand, the extreme of self-torture, as he had recently followed. Then, as is well-known and needs little comment here, the Truth dawned in his mind, and he became Enlightened; He was then a Buddha!

Now, He knew, from His own experience, having tried and practiced the various spiritual disciplines of His day, as far as they could take Him, that all roads do not lead to Rome; they do not all lead to Enlightenment! Some paths took him part-way, but none took Him all the way.

This is not to say, however, that Ways other than the Buddha’s are devoid of merit; we cannot be so bigoted as to think like that! All Ways—even the Buddha’s Way—are means to an end, and there is enough in any Way to keep the average person busy for his entire life. Moreover, what the Buddha discovered while seated beneath the Bodhi-tree, and which set Him free—the Dharma, Truth, or Reality—is not confined or localized to Buddhism and Buddhists, but is universal, and there is nowhere, nobody and nothing where it cannot be found. Once comprehended, we can see it here, there, and everywhere.

Now, while Truth is the monopoly of no one Way, it is also not true to say that all Ways lead to Truth; some might, some might not. But, while it is silly and meaningless to babble such things as "All roads lead to Rome," or "All religions are the same, and lead to the same end," we cannot claim that there is only one Way to Truth, and that our Way is that Way. It is like this, as put by one master: "Ye shall see the truth, and the Truth shall set you free."

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