There seems to be a cyclical pattern inherent in all religions that brings about the decline of practices that bring us closer to God, closer to a truly awakened state in which truth is no longer conceptual but is direct experience. A key hallmark of this decline is the emphasis of salvation in the next world, in what happens after we pass from this world. You can find this not only in Islam and Christianity but also in Hinduism and Buddhism. This represents a shift in emphasis from our current lives to the existence we hope to experience after death. This is one of the great tragedies of modern religious spiritualism: forsaking the present for the future.
Fortunately, the other arch of this cycle reawakens the desire to know God now, to directly experience truth to the extent we can in this life. This cycle can exist at the micro as well as the macro level. It can lead the spiritual aspirant in the course of a meditation through cycles of going deep within and experiencing the expansive, blissful peace that abides there, or sublime equanimity, only to be tossed out with worries about the future or regrets from the past. Or in the course of one's life, we may have many such cycles where we seek the direct knowledge and experience of truth only to later be sidetracked by the multifaceted, kaleidoscopic distractions of life and the quality of our day-to-day life suffers. Or it can be at the community or congregation level. And it can also happen at the level of sects within a religion or at the level of the religion itself.
Today, we see many such examples of the effects of religions losing their true bearings. When people are no longer concerned for this planet because they think it will soon be destroyed along with all the infidels that have different, and therefore incorrect, views and that all those worthy of God's love or Buddha's enlightenment will be resurrected or reborn in paradise, then we can be sure that religion has reached its lowest point. This escapism leads many of the problems we see today, problems of terrorism, of ignoring the sciences in favor of scriptural literalism. It governs significant percentages of the population and shapes our world by influencing the news we hear, the people and policies for which we vote, our attitudes towards war, free speech, democracy, education, the environment, in short, every facet of our planetary existence. It affects our ability to survive as a species in a very real and alarming way.
At the root of this decline is the loss of the transformative nature of religion. I once read that religion comes from roots that mean "to bind one back." Back to what? Back to truth, to wholeness, to fullness, to completeness, to the Divine, back to our true nature. Religion, when fulfilling this role, teaches people to experience truth here and now, teaches people to experience exactly what Divine love is, Divine mercy, compassion, altruism. To know God's peace and know that we can share in that most sublime peace. To share in God's presence and to lose oneself in it. To see the face of God in all others. To see the Buddha-Nature shining from the eyes of everyone, this unifying primordial awareness that is not ours but the domain of all that exists and underlies and permeates, is inseparable from the universe itself. This power of religion to transform, to enable people to awaken from separateness, to experience the Presence of God in each moment and merge with that Presence right here and now, that is what is lost when religion loses its way.
At this time when religion has lost its way and asks only that people focus on the afterlife, we see the cycle start to turn and the mystics, who have severely dwindled in number and have been silent but not completely extinct, begin to remind us of what was originally taught, that we should love even our enemies as self, that God is all merciful, that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, here and now, that the Dharma-ending age or Kali Yuga can be turned back, that the Pure Land is actually right here and has always been right here if we can let go of our compulsive worries about the future, depression about the past and seeming hopelessness of the present. If we can open our eyes and ears to see and hear, we could enjoy the true blessings of religion from this moment forward.
It's the transformative nature of religion, to transform a heart of greedy self-interest into a heart that knows no bounds and transform the mind from the bondage of destructive thought patterns to complete liberation experienced in each passing moment, that is religions' gift to the world.
How can we know that we've truly been saved but to directly live in union with God's love, awaken from the dream of self to the Divine Presence, live from Life itself? This awakened life is available to each of us as our human birthright. Through meditation, mindfulness, and direct contemplation of what is as it occurs, we can come to see the reason for our own existence and the existence of all other life including the life of the universe itself. True salvation comes about through union with what is already our very core and is also the essence of all that exists.