Home » Features » Are All Religions Rivers Leading To One Ocean?

While there might be more than a path up a mountain,
not all paths lead upwards,
and not all paths lead to the summit.

– Stonepeace

A fellow Buddhist remarked that different religions are like rivers leading to the same sea of one taste – of saltiness, which represents liberation. This is a common albeit mistaken view, which is a serious mistake if it implies that the Buddha taught so. How is this so? Because the actual words of the Buddha are these in the Uposatha Sutta – ‘Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste – the taste of salt – so in this Doctrine and Discipline (that he teaches – the Dhammavinaya) there is but one taste – the taste of freedom (vimuttirasa)’. The Buddha was commenting on the nature of his teachings; not on all teachings everywhere in general. If all teachings of everyone equally led to ultimate liberation, there would be little if any special value in the Buddha teaching something similar… or different. However, the Buddha, as we learn of via the suttas, say in the Brahma Net Sutta, is known for explaining why some 62 belief and practice systems in his time were inadequate in terms of perfect truth and goodness. This the Buddha did to illustrate why the Buddhadharma (his teachings) is different too.

The Uposatha Sutta also said this – ‘… just as whatever great rivers there are – such as the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Aciravati, the Sarabhu, the Mahi – on reaching the ocean, give up their former names and are classed simply as “ocean”; in the same way, when members of the four castes – noble warriors, priests, merchants, and workers – go forth from home to the homeless life (become monastic followers of the Buddha) in the Doctrine and Discipline declared by the Tathagata, they give up their former names and clans and are classed simply as “contemplatives, sons of the Sakyan (Sakyamuni Buddha as a spiritual father or teacher).”‘ Perhaps details of the quotations were missed while the salt and river analogies were mixed together, with each river representing a general belief and practice system (i.e. religion) instead? However, when we study different spiritual systems, two things tend to happen… At first, on a superficial level, many similarities would be seen. Next, upon deeper scrutiny, many irreconcilable doctrinal differences surface. This is the basis of the need for inter-religious harmony.

Perhaps one of the ways, albeit without ill intention, of accidentally shortchanging or diluting the Buddhadharma is when it is not learnt in detail, which leads to it being shared in a manner lacking in accuracy. The only way to share the Buddha’s teachings more clearly is to study, practise and realise it as personally and deeply as possible. It so happens that a ‘Buddhist’ writer liberally rewrote the salt quote in a once popular book as so – ‘Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so too there is but one taste fundamental to all true teachings of the Way, and this is the taste of freedom.’ What was specifically the Doctrine and Discipline of the Buddha became a generic great ‘Way’, which was hinted to accommodate many other ‘ways’. That ‘all roads lead to Rome’ is really a romanticised concept because surely, only some roads lead to where we wish to reach. Some roads lead us only part of the way, some away, some astray, while some lead us in circles. Could it be, that some misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings due to such books? If so, it is all the more important, that we study the suttas well, so as to right such wrongs.

If you don’t know where you’re going,
any road will get you there.

– Popular Misquote of ‘Alice In Wonderland’

Related Articles:

When is So-Called “Buddhism” not Buddhism?
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/thedailyenlightenment-realisation/message/343
Are All Religions the Same?
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/zeph/message/834
Why Buddhism Isn’t Pyschotherapy (See ‘The Great Way’)
http://www.buddhanet.net/crazy.htm

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14 Responses to “Are All Religions Rivers Leading To One Ocean?”

  1. Excellent article! If only there are many in the millions like you who can, not only remember but understand as well what was being taught by the Buddha. (Y)

  2. Vijay Rai October 28, 2010

    I love reading the articles that are usually found in this publication except for this particlar article. I’ve always been drawn to Buddha’s teachings because of his all encompassing nature but after reading this article I’m shocked. Are buddhists now adopting the close minded values adopted by other fanatical religious groups – my religion/teachings are the only and best religion/teachings and all others are fakes or not as good? The major problems in the world are caused by one religious group thinking that they are superior to others so let’s not bring Buddhism down that path. I prefer the all emcompassing teachings of Buddha rather than this anal restrictive superior veiw that the author has written about.

  3. The Buddha’s teachings are all encompassing in the nature as in the article – open to people from all walks of life to try. In this sense, there is nothing restrictive. The Buddha also urged the wise personal questioning of any teaching, including his.

    If Buddhism has a truly superiorist approach, the Buddha would command all to believe him and threaten with eternal hellfire for non-believers. There is nothing fanatical or close-minded about the Buddha’s approach then, because he never did anything even close to that.

    Whether the Buddha’s teachings are the best is entirely up to the individual to decide. It is never to be forcibly impressed upon anyone. The Buddha also never said that all others’ teachings are entirely wrong.

    Being all encompassing doesn’t mean to accept every other teaching. For example, Buddhism does not accept ‘religious teachings’ of ‘religious intolerance’. Some examples are cited at http://www.religioustolerance.org/intol_bibl.htm (includes scriptural quotes which incite the massacre of non-believers):

    “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you may nations…then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” Deuteronomy 7:1-2, NIV.

    More can be quoted. But let’s not… lest we stir up any actualisation of such quotes.

  4. The Buddha was wise in vouching for his own teachings to offer confidence. We can’t expect him to vouch for every other teaching, especially those that have not even arisen in his time! If we read his words quoted in the article below, we don’t see any intolerance:

    ‘Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste – the taste of salt – so in this Doctrine and Discipline (that he teaches – the Dhammavinaya) there is but one taste – the taste of freedom (vimuttirasa)’.

    ‘… just as whatever great rivers there are – such as the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Aciravati, the Sarabhu, the Mahi – on reaching the ocean, give up their former names and are classed simply as “ocean”; in the same way, when members of the four castes – noble warriors, priests, merchants, and workers – go forth from home to the homeless life (become monastic followers of the Buddha) in the Doctrine and Discipline declared by the Tathagata, they give up their former names and clans and are classed simply as “contemplatives, sons of the Sakyan (Sakyamuni Buddha as a spiritual father or teacher).”

    – Uposatha Sutta (The Buddha)

    The author was simply saying that the Buddha never said ‘all roads lead to Rome’ in the spiritual sense. Come to think of it, if, in the physical sense, we think all roads do lead to Rome, why do we not try walking the roads to Rome from where we are now? We don’t because it is either impossible or impractical.

  5. I agree with the author. One thing to note is that when we say not all religions are the same… it does not mean that only we Buddhist are good people and followers of other religions will all go to hell.

    I believe all the major religions of the world are good and when practiced correctly can lead to happy rebirth. But to lead one to complete awakening… only very few offer this path.

    Its easy & politically correct to say all religions are the same. Truth is… they are not (of cause, they do have more in common than differences).

  6. Here is the Buddha’s definition of which religions can lead to awakening. (We need to note too, that not all religions see the definition of ‘salvation’ as awakening.)

    When is So-Called “Buddhism” not Buddhism?

    In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, an ascetic approached the Buddha to ask a question. As summarised here… How do we know if spiritual practitioners held in high esteem have realised the truth or not? The Buddha skilfully replied that as long as the Noble Eightfold Path is practised in a teaching (and its discipline), that would constitute a path to enlightenment. The Buddha also proclaimed that he did not discern any other teaching that could lead anyone to enlightenment. As such, the presence or absence of the Eightfold Path in a supposed path to liberation would determine whether it is a truly valid one. Since the early days of Buddhism, this has been the universal yardstick to define what is or is not the Buddhadharma.

    Occasionally, there is argument among fellow Buddhists as to whether certain teachings in some scriptures were originally taught by the Buddha. Perhaps the basis of argument is skewed because, as the Buddha put it, what makes a teaching equivalent to the Buddhadharma is the presence of the Eightfold Path. That is to say, if a so-called “Buddhist” path adheres to the unchanging principles of the Eightfold Path without contradicting it in any manner, it would be a proper path. And if a so-called “Buddhist” path proposes the forgoing of even just one or two aspects of the Eightfold Path, it would not meet the Buddha’s criteria of being a complete path to enlightenment. In other words, it would not be a true Buddhist path.

    It can be surprising how many who regard themselves as Buddhists are uncertain of the various aspects of the Eightfold Path. How truly Buddhist one is would be measured by how much one understands and practises this path, as elucidated in detail by the Buddha. Even if a Buddhist does not memorises all eight aspects (Right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration), one should more or less strive to be aligned to them. The challenge is to continually practise aligning to the path. Of course, the Buddha does not expect every Buddhist to perfect this path instantly. If so, there would be no need for practice. However, the good news is that practice does make perfect. This too was proclaimed by the Buddha!

    From http://groups.yahoo.com/group/thedailyenlightenment-realisation/message/343

  7. Thought Provoking. I am of the same opinion of Vijay Rai in this aspect. But I also agree that Buddha had held the basis of steps taken to enlightment – which is why Buddhism becomes a religion. To accomodate other religion does not equate to believing other religion also lead to enlightment. But to each his own, maybe enlightment might not be everyone or every religion’s goal.

  8. Going down the same vein with Vijay Rai, Different religions might be spoken in different tongues but with a common goal or intent to lead us to salvation. How much it varies from the various religious teachings or whether it does lead to enlightment will very much dependent on 2 things: 1)how well the religious teachings are preserved without deviate too much over thousand of years and 2) how well we perceive and understand them.

  9. Romanot July 14, 2011

    If all religions lead to the same salvation, what’s with those that claim most will burn in eternal hell due to not subscribing to them? Buddhism for one, doesn’t buy the idea of an eternal hell. Anyway, in Buddhism, there are Bodhisattvas working in hell to guide beings out. This is just one of many glaring differences in outlook and so-called result. Please study deeper to realise that there are many differences.

  10. Leong Seng Chen January 2, 2012

    Yes, indeed, each of us is just that tiny drop of taste in the vast ocean yet when it is purified properly & accordingly it is back to its basic bare/pure nature of truth regardless wherever or whatever it is coming from. Look within yourself inwardly (not outwardly), you are the very treasure of your own goodness of creation. Smile With Cheers Always~~~

  11. I think all religions(Good religions) leads to the same thing, which is salvation. Almost all religions holds true the concept of Karma, what goes around comes around. The problem starts when religious teachings becomes fascist and dogmatic, like I am the ONLY way. This often backfires as it only suffocates its followers, who often becomes disillusioned and disappointed with the very religion itself.

  12. It is not true that all religions lead to salvation. As above,

    “That ‘all roads lead to Rome’ is really a romanticised concept because surely, only some roads lead to where we wish to reach. Some roads lead us only part of the way, some away, some astray, while some lead us in circles.”

    Classic Christianity claims most will burn in hell FOREVER. There is no salvation for non-Christians – which of course others would disagree.

    Is it that all religions teach karma? Take the above… Where is the law of karma if beings can go to hell even if they do good; just because they don’t believe in a non-existent God?

    Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
    Priest: “No, not if you did not know.”
    Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?”

    – Annie Dillard

  13. Derringer January 18, 2012

    There is a newspaper report few days ago about leaders and followers of various religions communing together in meditation to foster religious understanding and harmony. The reporter said it is so inspiring amd beautiful to see so many followers of different religions meditating in silence in order ‘to reach god’ and praying for world peace.
    Just yesterday a Buddhist clarify in the newspaper saying that Buddhist do not meditate in silence ‘to reach God’ but to attain concentration, which leads to wisdom and ultimately to Nirvana. Unlike other religions, Buddhism does do support the idea of a Creator God(s). This sort of set Buddhism apart from other religions. However, doesn’t Buddhist also pray to Guan Yin(God) or chant the name of Amitabha(God)? Is it really any that different?

  14. It is true that Buddhists don’t meditate to reach God, because he doesn’t exist:

    He who has eyes can see the sickening sight;
    Why does not Brahma [equivalent to creator God idea] set his creatures right?
    If his wide power no limit can restrain [if he is omnipresent and omnipotent],
    Why is his hand so rarely spread to bless?
    Why are all his creatures condemned to pain?
    Why does he not to all give happiness?
    Why do fraud, lies, and ignorance prevail [if he is omni-benevolent]?
    Why triumphs falsehood — truth and justice fail?
    I count your Brahma one the unjust among
    Who made a world in which to shelter wrong.

    – Bhuridatta Jataka, No. 453

    If there exists some lord all-powerful to fulfill
    In every creature bliss or woe, and action good or ill,
    That lord is stained with sin.
    The human being does but work his will.

    – Mahabodhi Jataka, No. 528

    What Buddhists don’t believe in is a creator god who decides who goes to eternal hell.

    Prayers to and mindfulness of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is VERY different because teaching based on them are clearly rational, based on truth and there are tangible benefits experienced. If the so-called God one is mindful of doesn’t exist, it is pointless. For more on mindfulness of Buddha, do check out this course:

    https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2012/01/course-understanding-amituofo-via-the-amitabha-sutra-9th-run

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