People here in the West often speak of "Eastern religions" as if they were all alike. This shows how little understanding citizens of predominantly Christian nations have of other cultures.
Actually, some Eastern faiths have as much, or even more, in common with the Big Monotheistic Three (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) as they do with monistic/atheistic teachings such as Buddhism and Taoism.
Case in point: Sant Mat, which means the "path of saints." For about thirty-five years I was an active member of an India-based Sant Mat organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, so I know whereof I speak.
That's why I disagreed with a comment that David Hedges left yesterday on a Church of the Churchless blog post, "What if a 'guru' is no different from us?"
Brian, Sant Mat is a path of meditation, nothing more, nothing less. The outer Master puts us on the path of meditation to discover the inner Master, who is the Shabd or Tao or Nam or God. You totally missed the whole point of Sant Mat, which is meditation to discover the truth. Buddha taught the same thing, the path of meditation. David
David equated "Tao" with the Sant Mat "God," and said that Buddhist meditation is the same as Sant Mat meditation. No, neither statement is true.
I'm well acquainted with Taoism through a lot of reading, and five years of Tai Chi practice with a thoroughly Taoist instructor. Ditto with Buddhism on the reading front. And over the years I've had quite a few talks with people who were very much into Buddhist meditation.
The easiest way to explain the central difference between Sant Mat and Buddhism/Taoism is to generalize this distinction. Sure, saying "there are two kinds of..." frequently is simplistic.
But in this case I think it is pretty darn true. So I'll say it.
There are two kinds of religious, spiritual, and mystical pursuits. One aims at bringing individuals into harmony with some sort of divinity. The other denies that individuals really exist, so there is no entity to be brought into harmony.
Christianity is an obvious example of Religiosity #1. Humans are considered to need salvation, because we are sinners who have fallen from an original state of purity. Buddhism is an equally obvious example of Religiosity #2. Our sense of self is a falsity, because Anatta is our nature -- no-self, no-soul.
Here's where the Eastern/Western religious split falls apart (an unpictureable turn of phrase, but I like it).
Hinduism is akin to Christianity in its positing of an enduring individual soul, or atman. So is Sant Mat, which has strong ties to Hinduism. Sure, in these Eastern forms of Relgiosity #1, souls get reincarnated and generate karma, whereas in Christianity they don't.
But the emphasis in Christianity, Hinduism, and Sant Mat is on individual salvation.
Meditative practices, including prayer, are aimed at connecting the soul with God. Salvation is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on one's own. A savior is needed who serves as a link between God and Man/Woman. This is Jesus in Christianity, and a guru in Hinduism and Sant Mat.
By contrast, Buddhist and Taoist practices -- meditative or otherwise -- are focused on realizing that there is no "me" who needs to be saved. Enlightenment basically is realization of the emptiness, or sunyata, of all things. ("Emptiness" isn't nothingness, but rather interdependence.)
Here's a description of what this means:
To some extent, sunyata is an extension of the concepts made explicit in The Three Flaws. All things being impermanant, nothing can be seen as having an independent, lasting form of existence. And this is, in essence, what sunyata is all about. Strictly speaking, sunyata can be defined as "not svabhava".
The concept svabhava means "own being", and means something like "substance" or "essence" in Western philosophy. Svabhava has to do with the notion that there is a form of being which "is" and "exists" in a form that is not dependent on context, is not subject to variation, and has a form of permanent existence.
As such, the "soul" as understood in Abrahamic religions would have svabhava. God would certainly have svabhava. The Platonic forms (such as those described in the allegory of the Cave) would have svabhava. Certain abhidharma teachings conclude that the building blocks of reality have such svabhava.
But Mahayana philosophers like Nagarjuna concluded that sunyata is the fundamental characteristic of reality, and that svabhava could be found absolutely nowhere.
Pretty deep philosophizing. But the basic notion is simple.
If we are part and parcel of the cosmos, there's nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to become. Any effort aimed at some religious, spiritual, or mystical attainment -- of going somewhere, doing something, or becoming someone -- is misguided. Any such practice is valuable only insofar as it enables us to realize how useless it is.
That's the essence of Religiosity #2, which is very different from Religiosity #1. As noted above, faiths such as Christianity, Hinduism, and Sant Mat all assume the existence of an enduring soul which needs saving or self-realization.
In Buddhism and Taoism, there's no soul and no self, so relaxing into an embrace of ever-flowing, ever-changing reality where there are no hard and fast distinctions is the Way to go.
The Taoist sage Chuang Tzu puts it nicely:
The true men of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned no joy; exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they came and went.
They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be.
They accepted life and rejoiced in it; they forgot all fear of death and returned to their state before life. Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tao, and attempts by means of the human to assist the Heavenly.
Such were they who are called the true men.