Many have embarked upon the journey of self-exploration and individual potential. Their discoveries have been passed down to us throughout recorded history. A few have left a written record of their observations. More frequently, their teachings have been communicated to us by their students and followers. Most of this wisdom has developed into canons of philosophy and spirituality, and much has been converted into elaborate systems of worship. Thus, original personal discoveries have become standardized codes of thought and behavior.
Curious explorers throughout history did not have codified systems of beliefs to guide them. Lao Tzu did not have the benefit of the institutional religion that was created centuries after the appearance of the Tao Te Ching. Siddhartha Guatama left behind a life of hedonism and indulgence, and eschewed the rituals of the traditions he experienced, to become the Buddha. Jesus separated from his religious heritage, telling us that his purpose was to fulfill the teachings, not to observe them. These pathfinders and their teachings were original. They didn’t teach codified systems of behavior. They didn’t tell others how to think. Their teachings were not written down and disseminated until much later — by others — long after their deaths.
Transmitted decades or centuries later, the secondhand teachings — already susceptible to interpretation and distortion — gradually developed into codified systems of beliefs reinforced by elaborate rituals. These codified systems then passed down to succeeding generations, to the point where the original teachings of individuals have become obscured by the dogma of institutions, and are even considered subordinate to the mission statements and bylaws of the religious corporations that purport to now have a monopoly on “truth.”
Spiritual institutions now assert their supremacy as qualified intermediaries and seek to increase the dependence of their supporters by maximizing the contributions of the customer and minimizing the importance of the individual. They invent the ignorance of their followers by advertising that only their executive officers are qualified to interpret the personal teachings of individuals. Organized religion is a double-edged sword: necessary for spreading important messages to masses of people yet prone, by its very nature, to develop corporate ambitions of its own. Over time, the survival of the institution becomes paramount to the message.
The paths that the spiritual trailblazers walked were individual ones whereas the elaborate systems that successive generations of collective adherents have devised are designed to discourage individuality. The Buddha advised us to diligently seek our own salvation and to distrust anyone as a spiritual authority. Lao Tzu warned us not to seek intermediaries as sources of truth, for then we would become beggars seeking outside for a treasure that is already within. When the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus responded, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” Time after time, those who have embarked on the spiritual journey before us have urged us to seek our own answers to our own questions, and not rely on the beliefs of others.
If we examine the teachings, as they were originally presented, we will find that they are not so very difficult to comprehend. We may also find that the unique messages of each trailblazer are remarkably similar to the others; the teachings contain similar themes. We will not find specific instructions or detailed road maps because life is not that simplistic, but we will find general directions and a few signposts.
In their original form, the teachings of the great sages contain common basic themes; the advice that has been left for us from diverse sources is remarkably similar. It is only the layers of superficial differences developed by institutions that have separated this knowledge into opposing viewpoints. But common timeless principles do not oppose each other, and a conscientious review of accumulated wisdom will reveal insightful guidelines for effectively managing practical affairs while melding the spiritual and the mundane. The messages are open to discovery by anyone with a genuine curiosity.