Towards Spiritual Concord
Report of the First World Congress towards Spiritual Concord
(Alma Ata, October 1992)
- / -
Published as First World Congress towards Spiritual Concord
October 1992) (Transnational Associations
, 43, 1993, 1, pp. 28-37)
It is unprecedented for the government of a newly independent country to provide
extensive official support for a large international non-governmental conference --
especially for a country in which 'nongovernmental' initiatives are a new and
questionable phenomenon. That the conference should be organized on behalf of an
international body headquartered in the capital of the former ruling superpower increases
the challenge of creative diplomacy. But it is even more difficult to imagine any
government providing official support for a conference on 'spiritual concord' --
and that this should be done in a country that is far from wealthy (as one of its first
international conferences) is a further challenge to belief.
And yet, without external subsidies, the Government of Kazakhstan placed extensive
facilities and resources at the disposal of the First World Congress towards Spiritual
Concord recently held in its capital of Alma Ata (October 1992) with the explicit
benediction of its President N Y Nasarbajev and his wife. The congress of 2,500
participants was organized by the International Association 'Peace through
Culture' (based in Moscow) in the record time of 3 months. This is a tremendous
achievement by any standards, but especially in a country in considerable political and
The physical location of the conference in Central Asia ensured an unusual range of
participants. In these times of transition for the countries emerging from the Soviet
Union it raised unusual challenges in terms of feasibility. The socio-political traditions
developed within the Soviet Union favour a command approach which is less than
satisfactory to nongovernmental conferences seeking other forms of interaction in which
they are as yet inexperienced. How these challenges can be met is a matter of great
interest for the future.
The dimensions of the social, economic, environmental and political challenges of the
world are now discussed at most levels of society. The international community has
explored many responses carefully articulated in numerous programmes in many contexts.
Despite such initiatives, it is clear to many that the situation is getting worse rather
than better. Commitments made are diluted or ignored -- notably in the case of the follow-
ups to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (June 1992). The favoured ways of thinking and
organizing have proved inadequate to the challenge.
In this context many are ready with 'answers' in the light of their
particular perspective, whether scientific, political, economic or otherwise. Many
millions continue to place great hope in the transcendent perspectives offered by
religion. Others are quick to challenge religions because of their inability to reconcile
their own differences in any creative way -- differences which continue to exacerbate
conflicts around the world (with Yugoslavia being but the most currently visible example).
The old styles of governance have completely lost their credibility. Religious hierarchies
and movements, whether old or new, see an opportunity to occupy territory on which the
disciplines of the 20th century have demonstrated their incompetence.
The past decades have seen many explorations of 'inter-faith dialogue'. These
have served to develop communications between religions traditionally hostile to one
another. A body of understanding has developed and in many cases bonds of friendship have
been formed where enmity previously prevailed. This has however changed little in
practice. The identity of particular religions remains closely associated with practices
and beliefs which are unacceptable to other religions -- whether or not they are
'tolerated'. Fundamentalism remains a continuing concern, whether in Islam,
Hinduism or Christianity.
Efforts at inter-faith dialogue have themselves been subject to the dynamics typical of
parallel initiatives on over-lapping topics. As with any international initiatives, that
undertaken by one configuration of religious forces or factions is often viewed with
suspicion by another. There is a marked tendency within any one context to ignore related
initiatives. This can of course always be readily justified by emphasizing the specificity
of the favoured initiative.
At this point in time there are a number of inter-faith initiatives. Four are grouped
within an International Interfaith Organizations Coordinating Committee (created 1991).
They are: International Association for Religious Freedom (created 1900), World Congress
of Faiths (1936), World Conference on Religion and Peace (1970), and Temple of
Understanding (1960). The World Council of Churches (1948) may also be considered as such,
especially through the various inter-faith dialogues that it has organized. Another is the
series of meetings (Assisi 1986, Rome 1988, Warsaw 1989, Bari 1990, Malta 1991,
Louvain-Brussels 1992, Milan 1993) organized by the Community of S. Egidio under the
auspices of the Catholic Church. 1993 is in fact the centennial of the World Parliament of
Religions (Chicago, 1893). It is being marked by a number of events, notably a succession
of meetings in India. A second World Parliament of Religions is also scheduled (Chicago,
During the 1930s, a remarkable individual of Russian origin, Nicholas Roerich
(1874-1947), was instrumental (through an international NGO, the International Union for
the Roerich Pact) in bringing into being an intergovernmental treaty. This was the Treaty
on the Protection of Artistic and Scientific Institutions and Historic Monuments (in
force 1935) otherwise known as the 'Roerich Pact', which presumably remains in
force in international law. Roerich was an anthropologist and painter, based in the USSR,
later in the USA, and finally in the Himalayas. He specialized in Central Asia. He
promoted widely a concern for peace through culture. His concerns were obscured from the
1940s but interest in his work (and notably his 7,000 inspirational paintings) has been
maintained in the West through various Roerich societies. With the fall of communism, some
500 Roerich societies have blossomed in Russia alone. An International Roerich Memorial
Trust is headquartered in Bangalore (India).
In the former Soviet Union, an International Association 'Peace through
Culture' was founded in Moscow in 1989 on the initiative of the Writers Union and
other cultural organizations (including Roerich groups) with the direct support of Mikhael
and Raisa Gorbachev. Its membership spread rapidly during the turbulent process of
breakdown of the USSR and now has members in 11 countries: Austria, Bulgaria,
Czechoslovakia, Germany, India, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, Ukraine,
USA. As an 'international association' formally recognized under Russian law,
the organization has special privileges, notably the unusual one for an NGO of being able
to support the issue of visas (a right normally restricted to official trade
organizations). The association held a conference in Moscow in October 1991 which issued
an appeal 'Towards Spiritual Concord' that stressed the importance of placing
spiritual principles above political expediency and called for a congress on that theme.
This was positively received by leading personalities of Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and
many spiritual-cultural communities.
In April 1992, on the initiative of the Kazakhstan 'Peace through Culture'
group, the President of Kazakhstan invited the international association to hold its
proposed international congress in Alma Ata with an agreement to support the congress at
the highest level. In June 1992, President Nasarbajev accepted patronage of the congress
and the support of key political and spiritual leaders was obtained, including that of the
Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, in May 1992, a primarily German-speaking affiliate of the
international association was created (and based in Munich) to represent individuals in
Europe as a whole.
Because of the unstable political and economic condition in the former Soviet Union,
the decision was taken to use this window of opportunity and to organize the congress in
October 1992 -- despite the unusual time constraints for such an event. The Kazakhstan
government, through its various economic institutions, provided funding, thus reducing the
cost of foreign participation.
Little known in the West as a constituent republic of the former USSR, Kazakhstan is in
fact larger in size than Western Europe but with a population of only 16.7 million
inhabitants, of which 6 million are Russian-speaking, and almost 1 million are descendants
of German-speaking peoples displaced as a result of World War II. Kazakhstan prides itself
on being home to over 100 ethnic groups, practising a mix of religions including
Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The 1000-year tradition of religious harmony is
explicitly recognized and cultivated. Striking to Western eyes, is the freedom of Kazakh
women compared to those of other countries with a strong Islamic influence -- a freedom to
which many women in Western countries might also aspire. This too is a traditional feature
of Kazakh culture, where women were expected to ride and even fight like men.
Much of the country is impoverished by the standards of industrialized countries. As
home to Baikonur, the principal space launching facility of the former USSR, Kazakhstan
has the dubious distinction of being the poorest country with the most nuclear missiles.
The extensive past use of the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan as a principal site for
nuclear weapons tests by the USSR has recently attracted attention, especially because of
the high proportion of children now being born with genetic defects.
Alma Ata, the capital of 1 million inhabitants, benefitted from considerable investment
during the Brezhnev era and is a pleasant city of low-lying buildings set back from
tree-lined streets. It is partially surrounded by a ridge of mountains from the Northern
Himalaya and Altai ranges. It has become the headquarters of the World Antinuclear
Alliance of Citizens and Legislators (Nevada, Semipalatinsk, Muruoa).
The unusually agreeable feel to the city and the mood of its inhabitants can perhaps be
illustrated by one simple practice that has a strange impact on Westerners. In the
overcrowded rush- hour buses, which have no ticket collectors, money is passed forward to
the bus driver from passenger to passenger. The ticket, and any change, is returned by the
same means. It is difficult to imagine this level of trust in any industrialized country.
In addition to the religious tradition of Kazakhstan, Alma Ata itself is recognized as
an important symbol of the spirituality common to several traditions. The name Alma Ata
may even be translated in symbolic terms as the 'original apple'. Roerich noted
in the 1930s that the ancient spiritual traditions were still active there. For those of
esoteric persuasion, it can epitomize the hidden places of the mystical East and the home
of hidden masters of wisdom. Inhabitants, including government officials, readily comment
on the cleansing spiritual energies of that environment.
The congress was held in the Congress Palace -- a magnificent, marbled building,
capable of holding 3,000 participants, with access to simultaneous interpretation. It was
but a brief walk across a park to the main congress hotel. The complex will undoubtedly
have a successful future as an international conference site.
Participants and Representation
The congress brought together over 2,500 people in some sessions, of which 600 were
from outside Kazakhstan, but with less than 100 from the industrialized countries of
Western Europe and North America. Participants came from the following countries:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Germany, India,
Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, UK,
Ukraine, Uruguay, USA, Uzbekistan. There were 350 journalists from some 30 countries.
Of greater interest than the numbers of participants was the variety of spiritual
traditions and tendencies represented. These included: Buddhism, Hinduism, Orthodox
Christianity (Russian, Ukrainian, Indian), Christian fundamentalists, Islam, and
Zorastrianism. Also represented were spiritual movements and organizations including:
Ramakrishna Mission, Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, Roerich foundations
(Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan), Jews and various groups (Mamluk, Kalmuk, Taoist,
Theosophist, Krishnamurti, Gurdjief, Krishna Consciousness, Rosicrucian, Sufi, Agni Yoga).
These reflected such concerns as: orthodox spiritual practices, spiritual healing,
charismatic approaches, esotericism, humanism, and ethical materialism. Also present were
gurus of various kinds, spiritual healers and business leaders.
Many participants exhibited considerable levels of commitment in travelling great
distances within their economic constraints (for example, students travelling three and
half days by train from St Petersburg). In that region, 1,000 kilometers by train is
considered 'not far'.
The languages of the congress were Russian, Kazakh, English and German, although
workshop interpretation tended to be more limited.
Key Figures and Endorsements
The congress was formally endorsed by Buddhists (in the person of the Dalai Lama,
represented at the event by Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Shadzhin-Lama of Kalmykia), Orthodox
Christians (Paulos Mar Gregorios, Metropolitan of Delhi and President of the
Inter-Religious Federation 'World Peace'), Hindus (Sankaracharya Jayendraji),
Moslems (Ahmed B Zakharia, Islamic Cultural Centre, Bombay), the Ramakrishna Mission
(Swami Jotirupananda, Moscow), the International Theosophical Society (Pedro Rogerio
Moreno de Oliveira, Adyar), Krishnamurti Foundation (Sri Radhakani Ramakani Upasani,
India), Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (B K Chakradhari, General Director),
Zorastrians (Meher Master-Moos, President of Zorastrian College, Bombay). The Patriarch of
Moscow and All Russia was also represented.
The key personalities in the actual organization of the event may be clustered into
- Valentin Siderov, President of the International Association (Moscow)
Afenasy Vesselitskij, General Secretary of the International Association
- Wilhelm Augustat, President of the European Association (Munich)
Andreas Graf Dönhoff, Vice-President of the European Association
Arnold von Keyserling, School of Wisdom (Vienna)
- Tolegen M Mukhameganov, President, Kazakh Association 'Peace through Culture'
It is to be noted that the Russian and German-speaking personalities could only
communicate through interpreters.
Organization and Structure
The event was organized from Moscow, in collaboration with the Kazakh 'Peace
through Culture' group, with the advice and material support of the European group.
None of the partners had concrete experience in the organization of international
conferences. It was therefore natural to rely on the traditional approach to conference
organization developed within the USSR. Where use could be made of the well-honed command
structures, certain infrastructure details (hotels, transportation, interpretation, etc)
could be arranged without too much difficulty within the socio-economic constraints.
Structuring the programme raised other challenges. Clearly the Kazakh group were under
local pressure to create openings for local personalities, whilst the Moscow group was
anxious to maintain the international and multi-confessional image. The European group was
anxious to relax the traditional Soviet and Asiatic style of conferencing, although this
style was to a large degree reinforced by the Germanic background of that group.
Because of communication (telephone, fax, etc) and language difficulties, negotiating
the structuring of the programme proved extremely problematic. The situation was further
exacerbated by the traditional Eastern European technique of cultivating the opportunities
offered by the limited availability of information (often justified by the severely
limited photocopying possibilities). The programme was not announced to participants in
advance, nor was it clear how many participants there would be, or from what countries or
This situation of non-transparency continued during the event. The participant package
contained only a skeletal programme indicating times for non-thematic plenary sessions
(daily from 10.00 to 13.00) and workshops (daily from 15.00 to 18.00). Only workshop
themes and chairpersons were shown. The themes were: Religious experience and spiritual
concord (interconfessional roundtable); Toward spiritual concord through humanism
(Humanitarian roundtable); Harmony of planetary and human health (problems of traditional
and non-traditional medicine); All- planetary role of culture of man and mankind; Man and
mankind as cosmic substance; Humanization of science and technosphere; Spiritual world and
different educational cultures.
Very unfortunately, the original intention to house all foreign participants in the
main congress hotel proved impossible at the last minute. Dividing that group eroded
communication patterns and destroyed coherence. Transportation from distant hotels was a
major problem. For some this became symptomatic of the negative side of the event.
Part of the difficulty arose from the 3-month organizing time and the difficulty in
knowing which tentative participants and speakers would actually be in Alma Ata. Much
negotiation on speakers was done behind the scenes on the spot. But even daily lists of
speakers proved difficult to organize and when posted proved totally unreliable. It is a
strange experience attending a session without having any sense of who will speak, or when
one might be called to speak oneself. One conclusion was that the Russian group had
effective control of the plenary sessions but that the Kazakh group had achieved control
of the workshop organization -- and that there was very little communication between the
Process Dynamics and Communication
The difficulties noted above did not affect the appearance of sessions which all ran in
a quite smooth and orderly manner on the basis of the last minute structure available to
the chairperson. The opening session, with 3,000 participants facing 20 people barricaded
behind a podium, evoked all the fears of those favouring more participative processes. The
'barricade' was however removed for subsequent plenaries to be replaced by a
less threatening cluster of casual seats.
The pattern of plenary processes remained unchanged. Named speakers spoke from the
podium without any participation from the floor. This pattern is widely accepted in
Eastern Europe and Asia, and is indeed common in German-speaking countries as well. It was
accepted with difficulty by some participants and, given the lack of speaker lists,
encouraged some to engage in other activities. The pattern tended to be repeated in
workshops, although the opportunities for floor participation were greater in some cases.
In contrast to this authoritarian formal atmosphere was the informal process during
extensive breaks within sessions. To a far greater extent than in Western countries,
participants used the breaks to surround, question and dialogue with speakers. It was
clear that participants felt totally empowered to use this time in a fruitful manner. It
was notably the occasion for participants to congregate around a number of charismatic
figures. This process was in part catalyzed by the activities of the many representatives
of the press and audio-visual media.
In a further move to offer an alternative pattern of communications, the European group
had funded the presence of a communications consultant, Tim Casswell (UK). During plenary
sessions he used drawing and painting techniques to develop a visual record of the points
made by speakers on flipchart paper. His English textual comments were supplemented by
Russian translations. These sheets were then attached to the wall of the plenary room.
After several days this provided participants with a visual journey through the event
which could be conveniently scanned at leisure. This process attracted much attention from
participants and from the media.
As an additional technique to facilitate communication between participants, Tim
Casswell provided participants with the opportunity to formulate messages (questions,
comments, wisdom, fears) on 'post-its' (donated in quantity by the
manufacturer). These were clustered onto flipchart sheets (also on the plenary wall) by
theme. This simple technique, explored in other conferences (notably at the Earth Summit
in Rio), also opened up new participative possibilities to participants. Both techniques
had the merit of appearing complementary (rather than threatening) to the formal
communication processes natural to the Russian and Asian cultures.
A number of participant groups made extensive use of the large foyer of the Congress
Palace to further their own initiatives. Many set up mini-stalls from which to distribute
brochures, newsletters and books. Others freely interacted with participants in a
'Hyde Park Corner' style that resulted in the formation of clusters around such
speakers. These self-organizing events were tolerated by the organizers and by the
security forces controlling entrance to the building. It was clear that participants felt
empowered to take advantage of this opportunity -- to some degree with more determination
and response than in equivalent situations in the West.
Purpose and Content
It could be said that the art of ensuring an interesting conference is to formulate an
overall theme, such as 'spiritual concord', with sufficient creative ambiguity
such that many different potential participants can project their own expectations onto it
in the light of their special interests. Failure to supply information to challenge such
expectations allows each to make of the event what they will. The declared purpose for the
event was of course supplied in advance to participants. This built on the Appeal
formulated in October 1991. It included the following statements:
Our civilization has reached its limits. Meanwhile we are amidst a world-wide
economic, social and ecological crisis which is due to our own failure... All of these
crises are obviously only the consequence of a certain development, a spiritual and moral
paralysis which has afflicted all mankind. This mental standstill is the main cause for
failed developments...We have to understand that there is indeed a way out of the vicious
circle of contradictions which we have run into. No special cleverness or heroic efforts
are necessary, but common sense and, above all, the striving for spiritual concord.
We have to recognize that suggestions for economic and political solutions, however
promising they may be, cannot improve the situation any more. They are coming too late.
The only feasible alternative lies in the evolution of consciousness, a change and
expansion of thinking in nations, also in the awareness of being part of a living cosmos.
One abbreviated formulation for the Congress itself was:
The goal is to acquaint the world, in the light of today's problems, with the
principle of peace- creating spiritual concord, in a quest to offer solutions to our major
Another formulation, by the Kazakhstan national organizing committee, was as follows:
In our time, when the world is torn by contradictions and some remain under the
spell of outdated ideas of confrontation, when basic moral values are sinking into
oblivion and mankind is ruining itself in wars, we, inhabitants of the planet, should
strive for the principles that will unite us -- we should strive for spiritual concord in
order to preserve this civilization. (edited)
The problem with such statements is that they echo so many others of similar nature
that commitment to participate can only be made on the basis of other factors. One
preliminary document offered the following:
In search of the experience of oneness, the Congress offers the possibility of
common meditation with Buddhists or to pray with Christians and Moslems.
Another document emphasized the importance of 'spirituality' as a dimension.
Spirituality and Concord: questions vs answers
The collective pursuit of any common understanding of 'spiritual concord' or
'spirituality' is fraught with traps for the unwary. Most religions slide
readily into complex articulations of answers and patterns of necessary beliefs as the
most appropriate way of enhancing spiritual awareness. By such means spirituality may
seemingly be satisfactorily defined although its essential experiential qualities must
necessarily escape any such definition.
Provocatively one might present the following comparisons, in which much depends on the
quality of the questions and the answers:
- Culture: many questions; many answers
- Science: many questions; few answers
- Religions: few questions; many answers
- Spirituality: few questions; few answers
- Peace: one question; one answer.
The Congress offered many the opportunity to present answers -- and this they did.
Unfortunately few questions emerged from such presentations. Without questions there is no
challenge or sense of opportunity for collective evolution into the unknown. Answers can
be alienating to the spirit in that they deaden any potentially active response. Many of
the answers have been disseminated for a long time. We have long reached the time when
reiteration of value statements has become fruitless, especially when no new action is
imagined or intended. Relying on this mode could therefore be dangerous in these critical
The calls for a common understanding of spirituality, or for spiritual concord, may
therefore be usefully seen not in terms of common answers of whatever quality. Is it not
rather a shared understanding of the questions raised by the spiritual dilemma of our
times which constitutes a more appropriate challenge for the future? What are the new
questions raised by the challenge of spiritual concord?
Spirituality and Concord: challenge of language
Several plenary speakers at the Congress referred to the inadequacy of the language
used to articulate the challenge of the times. We make daily use of languages which are
essentially 'obsolete' in terms of our needs. What we need to understand and
communicate may not be expressible in any one of the languages to which we have access.
Most spiritual traditions concur in indicating that ordinary language is inadequate to the
expression of the levels of understanding to which we are called to aspire - - especially
if our conflicting positions are to be reconciled. This recognition is increasingly
supported by academic studies of the limitations and distortions of any particular
conceptual language. A congress using Russian, Kazakh, English and German provided
frequent reminders of this challenge -- preventing participants from being entrapped by
the insidious assumptions of 'English-think' common to many international
Guidelines to inter-faith discourse have been clarified in earlier meetings.
Convergence in understanding of the answers formulated by different spiritual traditions
has emerged from the pioneering work over a decade of the Snowmass Conference grouping
representatives of 15 world religions and led by Thomas Keating. This has agreed on eight
guidelines that religions have in common: 5 relate to ultimate reality; 1 to mystical life
and transformation; and 2 concern moral values, non-violence and the promotion of harmony
among the traditions by mutual respect for differences (see Thomas Keating: Guidelines
for interreligious understanding. In: Speaking of Silence: Christian and Buddhists on
the Contemplative Way (Mahweh NJ, Paulist Press, 1987)).
But is there any sense in which these pose challenges to comprehension within our
existing mind-set? Do they simply call for 'universal agreement'? What of those
who resonate to other understandings of spirituality? Is it really necessary, as argued by
Father Luis M Dolan (see Religious Spirituality; the soul of development and change
(Bucharest UNDP Round Table on Global Change, September 1992)), to accept the fundamental
distinction between 'religious spirituality' and 'spirituality'? The
former being defined as: 'a very deep and universal form of spirituality that
expresses the essence of religion by connecting the transcendental with the immanent, the
eternal with the temporal, through a series of significant and revealing prayers, values,
beliefs, rituals and offerings that were learned from one of the original religions'.
Whereas the spirituality which has recently inundated the Western world is defined as: 'a
series of values, actions, rituals and life-styles that are usually partially or totally
separated from any known religion in the world'. As might be expected,
philosophers have agreed the opposite, namely that 'religions' do not have a
monopoly on religion (Raimon Panikkar reporting on the 1973 World Congress of Philosophy, Journal
of Ecumenical Studies, 11, 3, Summer 1974, pp. 515-517).
With the track record of religions in exacerbating conflicts, even in recent times, is
it not appropriate to raise questions about their monopoly of the understandings of
spirituality and transcendence appropriate to the kind of reconciliation which is
apparently called for? Is it possible that there may be inherent limitations in their
articulations of 'rules' and 'guidelines' and in their failure to
evoke challenging new questions?
Speakers at the Congress were disappointing in their simplistic reiteration of familiar
value statements and their exhortations to unquestioning belief in favoured creeds. There
is a need to move beyond this unchallenging stage which condemns so many speeches and
declarations to well-deserved oblivion. Has it not been made clear that this does not meet
the needs of the young?
Using differences creatively
Speakers were impressive in their ability to avoid expressing reservations about each
others positions. If concord is synonymous with conflict avoidance then this form of
concord was well-expressed -- and disappointingly so. The positivist school of thought
which favours elimination of any use of the negative form from language continues to
attract fanatic adherents. The belief that concord is based on the absence of discord and
tension is a growing force that ignores any challenges and condemns all opponents as
requiring re-education. And yet the closing plenary session revealed depths of
disagreement whose expression was swiftly suppressed -- although the challenge remains.
Is it not strange that a congress arising from a focus on 'peace through
culture' should ignore all that culture has been able to communicate so creatively
over the centuries about the relationship between harmony and discord? As one plenary
speaker noted, using a guitar to make the point, a discord in isolation is indeed
unacceptable, but music based only on the use of harmonious chords rapidly appears insipid
and monotonous. Music comes into its own when it uses discords to evoke recognition of
higher orders of harmony by challenging the musical framework in new ways. The same point
may be made in painting, drama and the other arts. Culture might indeed be defined as the
art of using differences creatively. And yet here too, at least in music, different
cultures have different understandings of what constitutes 'harmony' and
'discord' -- as is the case in some marriages where even violent conflict may be
viewed as an aspect of a fundamentally harmonious relationship.
The 1991 Appeal referred to the need to find a way out of the 'vicious circle of
contradictions'. Is it not possible that the spiritual challenge lies in using what
divides us to define what unites us? The call of Professor Arnold von Keyserling, one of
the principal speakers, to focus on what unites us rather than what divides us, then needs
to be reframed. It is by recognizing the configuration of definable forces which divide us
that we are able to use that configuration to identify the undefinable focal point which
unites us. What visibly divides us in this world, is indeed superficial, being 'of
the surface'. What unites us, underlying that surface, is a challenge to our
comprehension to which the configuration of visible differences provides the key.
Responding to the call to shift attention from what divides us can only be successfully
accomplished by accepting the challenge to comprehension of what unites us.
The point has notably been made by Lao Tzu:
The names that can be named are not definitive names. Naming engenders ten thousand
things... Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub. It is the empty centre hole that makes it
useful... Therefore profit comes from what is there. Usefulness comes from what is not
How is the nature of the emptiness which unites us to be understood other than through
recognizing the configuration of forces which so 'profitably' divide us? Our
expressions and deepest understandings can only be carried by partial and inadequate
language alienating to those with the complementary insights to correct that partiality.
Comprehension of spiritual concord lies through an understanding of that emptiness -- an
emptiness whose nature is the challenging question of spirituality. Efforts at naming the
different understandings of that emptiness enhance the divisiveness which characterises
the surface configuration of forces that protect its transcendent nature as the quality
without a name. And yet it is that configuration of divisiveness that most effectively
focuses our understanding on the quality of concord that transcends it.
Configuration of Tensions towards Polarization
Why did the Congress succeed, for succeed it did. Why did it 'work' despite
the numerous constraints and the apparently cumbersome organization? How could it possibly
have worked when participants and speakers avoided the central issue which had presumably
brought people together?
Is it possible that it succeeded because a set of dramatically opposed forces were held
in balance in such a way as to open some degree of recognition of the transcendent quality
of spiritual concord? Such a configuration of polarizing forces might include the
- The orthodox religion vs alternative spirituality polarity: Traditionally
orthodox religions have avoided contacts with those with 'non-religious' views
of spirituality. This is the tension noted above with respect to 'religious
spirituality' vs the forms of spirituality that have for example recently blossomed
in the West. The event saw a reasonable compromise struck between the two tendencies with
some evidence of mutual tolerance, if not respect, on both sides. Any criticism was voiced
with circumspection. Attention was accorded to both exoteric and to esoteric perspectives,
although neither was given weight as such.
- The 'alternative medicine' vs 'spiritual healing' polarity:
One manifestation of 'spirituality' that has some academic legitimacy is that
perceived in the light of various forms of alternative medicine implying an understanding
of subtle 'energies'. This perspective is treated with a fair degree of
impatience by practitioners of 'spiritual healing' of whatever school. And these
in turn (especially when manifested by charismatic personalities) are viewed with some
scepticism by academic investigators. Both groups were well-represented at the event. The
academic perspective was legitimated by formal representatives from various academies of
science, and indeed some meetings were held on university premises. Spiritual healers and
their retinues were present in great numbers and attracted much media attention through
their practices. But neither succeeded in dominating the proceedings.
- The humanistic vs transcendental polarity: There are ways of defining the human
'spirit' which require no reference to transcendent dimensions or experience.
Translations can easily emphasize natural definitions foreign to those who stress mystical
and related experiences. The humanistic perspective is of course most readily acceptable
to the academic world. It reinforces any focus on the ethical dimension, which others
would consider a substitute for action in the light of a more transcendental perspective.
As such it provides an opening for those educated in a materialist culture, whether in the
East or in the West. Both views were represented at the event. The concluding appeal is
worded in such a way that neither holds sway.
- The global vs personal polarity: The invitation to the event emphasizes the
contextual planetary crisis and focuses on spirituality as offering the possibility of a
valuable response. For some spirituality is readily reinterpreted through an exclusively
personal experience. This may lead to a concern with spiritual healing, namely healing the
person, as the most valid way to open the person to higher forms of insight and action.
There is therefore a tension between an individual's personal situation and concern for
the situation of the planet. Both were manifest in different ways at the congress. There
was much focus on personal healing and many would see that as the most memorable feature
of the event. But the strategic objectives of the event placed that concern firmly in a
global context that called for less personal preoccupations.
- The formal vs informal congress processes: As noted above, the formally scheduled
processes did not totally constrain the informal processes that allowed for greater
individual involvement. But the informal processes did not disrupt the formal processes
and the structuring that it provided. Each tolerated the pressures exerted by the other.
- The altruistic vs business polarity: Despite the seemingly altruistic theme of
'spiritual concord', the event was organized with funding from the
'economic institutions' of the Government of Kazakhstan. The principal local
organizer (on behalf of the government) was a businessman with business responsibilities.
The leader of the German-speaking group was himself a businessman with commercial
interests in Kazakhstan. It had been made known, at least to some Russian participants,
that the event would offer opportunities to make contacts and 'do business'. Any
such business priorities seem to have been frustrated on the whole, although many working
contacts with financial consequences were made. The more altruistic were undoubtedly
equally frustrated at any implication that the event could have been a cover for economic
operations -- although such concerns would be understandable in a country in such dire
economic straits where economic needs could legitimately be considered of much greater
- The material wealth vs material poverty polarity: Implicit in the structure of
the event was the considerable discrepancy between participants from industrialized
countries and some from the countries of the former Soviet Union (or even from Asia) --
although others were from the former nomenklatura. This tension was handled very smoothly
although clearly it was a factor in many interactions. Neither perspective acquired a
- The ethical austerity vs alcoholic concord polarity: With such a mix of
participants of different religious backgrounds, some clearly attached great importance to
various forms of abstinence, whether from meat, alcohol or both (the food available was
very simple throughout the event). Others saw fit to indulge, even to excess, to create a
more mundane, and better known form of 'spiritual concord'. Some were vegetarian
but consumed alcohol. A sheepshead, a delicacy in Central Asia, circulated around the
table at the closing presidential dinner. The tension between these modes of behaviour was
also handled effectively.
- The verbal vs non-verbal polarity: As with all congresses, this was a distinctly
verbal event, despite its declared concern with non-verbal dimensions of human experience.
And yet, with the displays of spiritual healing, and the constant evocation of non-verbal
experience, the verbal dimensions did not eventually dominate. In part this was due to the
language problems which all experienced at one time or another. Much communication had to
be based on non-verbal cues. Perhaps the only real attempt to explore this interface was
through a remarkable use of sound forms by Christian Ide Hintze (Vienna School for
Poetry). His plenary intervention constituted a creative attempt at breaking conventional
expectations from verbal sounds -- thus evoking new patterns across cultural boundaries.
- The predictability vs uncertainty polarity: As noted above there was a strange
mix of excessive planning and predictability accompanied by high levels of uncertainty
concerning the next moment in any portion of the event. This created an unusual tension
for many participants.
- The Kazakh vs Russian polarity: This obvious tension arose on the one hand from
the historical relationship between the countries. On the other hand it was compounded by
the Kazakh situation as local organizers with the Moscow-based group as responsible
internationally and to religious partners in the enterprise. It seems to have led to a
stand-off condition in which neither was able to gain complete advantage, although
manifestations of the problem were evident in the presence or absence of interpretations
between Russian and Kazakh. The situation was complicated by the proportion of people of
Russian origin that are now citizens of Kazakhstan. Russian and Kazakh are the principle
languages of Kazakhstan.
- The 'Roerich' vs 'Peace-though-Culture' polarity: There was a
tension underlying the event between the PTC organizational initiative and the
'Roerich' group context from which it had emerged, at least in Russia. Roerich
groups have proved to be an important rallying point for a certain apolitical approach to
the cultural situation in the former Soviet Union. PTC represents a new formulation, using
Roerich terminology, to ground an important insight in new ways -- to some extent freed
from an outmoded degree of cultism around Roerich as a personality. The congress was in
many ways so successful that the 'spiritual concord' focus suggested the need
for a new organizational form to replace the PTC framework by which it had been brought
- The German (West) vs German-speaking (Kazakhstan) polarity: It was strange to
witness the encounter between Germans from the West with those who had been displaced to
Kazakhstan by the consequences of World War II. The latter are a potential political
problem in the newly independent Kazakhstan and are the focus of special attention for
potential repatriation if relatives can be found in Germany. Where indeed is the
'homeland' of the descendants of such resettlement programmes -- of which there
are many other examples that cannot be readily resolved? This tension was acknowledged on
the occasion but did not influence the organization of the event.
- Nuclear vs Humanitarian polarity: There was a strange and paradoxical balance to
a humanitarian event in a context so marked by nuclear testing, by the presence of so many
nuclear warheads, and with the major space rocket launching facility of the whole of Asia.
The distorted spiritual energy was most evident to some in the extremely high incidence of
genetic malformation. At the time of approving the event the President of Kazakhstan was
faced with decisions on the dispersal and sale of warheads, and his wife was engaged in
programmes to respond to the childrens needs.
- Male vs Female polarity: As might be expected, given the context, the speakers
were predominantly male, with very few exceptions. And unfortunately, some of the
exceptions notably failed to correct this imbalance. On the other hand the audience, and
some of its key figures, exhibited a marked feminine quality. So although the event was
formally controlled by men, its success can in large part be perceived as arising from the
feminine quality governing the informal interaction for which that controlling framework
had only partially provided a context.
For whatever reason, the congress therefore
proved to be many things to many people. For some it was an inter-faith dialogue, for
others it offered the experience of spiritual healing. For some it created an academic
opportunity for the presentation of papers offering some legitimacy to unusual subjects.
For some it could be seen as an exotic form of tourism. Some saw it as an opportunity to
make contacts, or even as a business opportunity. For others it led to encounters with
extraordinary people under unusual circumstances. Some saw it as a form of pilgrimage to
places with a special quality of energy. Some saw it as an occasion for spiritual work.
Hidden Shift in Focus
Such polarities, and the dualistic thinking that sustained them, in many ways
established the boundaries of the event. Each polar tension prevented the focus of the
event from drifting too far towards a polarized condition. Acting together these
polarities concentrated the focus of the event at a level which transcended any of them.
The congress effectively reconciled its differences, signified by those tensions, by
shifting its focus into another dimension. The psychic 'centre of gravity' thus
emerged in a location which could not be defined by the words favoured in the language of
any polarizing perspective.
This description is unnecessarily static. In reality the dynamics of the event pulled
it in different ways at different times as each polarizing force exerted destabilizing
pressures. Viewed more creatively, the energy engendered by any polarizing force was
redistributed around the configuration of polarities. In metaphoric terms this might be
understood as the expression of different musical notes. Whether in succession or in
combination they formed harmonies and melodies. It was these that expressed the level of
spiritual concord that was achieved.
In the best spiritual tradition, participants were unable to rely on any particular
fixed pattern of categories in order to comprehend what was going on or emerging. It was a
case of 'not this, not that' (Neti, Neti -- in the famous Sanskrit phrase). Any
particular view or formulation was implicitly subject to challenge by other aspects of the
event. In effect the congress made of itself a container. Some expressed their
understanding of what emerged within the container as a 'sense of presence',
others referred to 'the magic of the place', and others referred to the presence
of 'angels'. Many felt free to place specific religious interpretations on their
understandings. Such views were voiced in exchanges between participants but not publicly.
Any such understandings were of course strongly coloured by the personal experiences of
the participants during the event -- of which spiritual healing was an important dimension
Evaluations and Learnings
In many respects the congress was a success despite remarkable constraints, notably the
limited time in which it was organized. Some specific learnings might include:
- Conventional wisdom: Despite the conventional wisdom of international
conference organizers, the event demonstrated that much could be achieved at short notice
with large numbers of people.
- By-passing rigid structures: From a conventional Western perspective, it
could be argued that the event was a success despite the non-participative organizational
structure. It would seem that there is an art in working around rigid structures which has
been developed to a high degree in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps
greater rigidity paradoxically allows for a quality of freedom which is of greater
significance than when it is deliberately planned for.
- Decision-making: Decision-making, whether within the organizing committee, in plenary or in workshops, was
conducted by a process strange to Western eyes but with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Because of the command tradition, much more power was vested in the chairperson, who was
able to brush aside objections and push decisions through -- often by force of
personality. No agendas were considered necessary and no records were kept of decisions
taken. This 'fluid' style, which undoubtedly complements the formal rigidity,
does of course lend itself to various forms of abuse -- but it can speed decision- making
in valuable ways.
- Culture of spirituality: In many ways the dynamics of the event may have
been carried by the phenomenal importance attached to spirituality in Russian culture.
This is of course matched by its importance in the Islamic culture that is so present in
Kazakhstan and Asia in general. In a sense there is a widely shared understanding that
spirituality is important, if not primary. This affects the way that communications occur
and takes the sting out of constraints that would be totally unacceptable in the West.
From the views of some participants, material concerns weigh relatively lightly to the
point of being invisible. Whereas in the West it is rather the spiritual concerns which
weigh relatively lightly, to the point of being invisible in comparison with the material
concerns. Material wealth can encourage spiritual impoverishment, whether or not material
impoverishment encourages spiritual wealth. One touching example was the response, by a
young Russian participant, to a drunken beggar acting aggressively towards a Western
participant in a wheel-chair in the hotel lobby: she held up an open palm in a peaceful
warding-off gesture whilst exhorting him to desist, made the sign of the cross in front of
him, and then bowed to him with hand over heart. He complied. It is common in Russia for
beggars to make the sign of the cross in response to gifts.
- Tolerant curiosity: Relating strongly to the previous point was a
willingness to encounter and listen to those expressing apparently eccentric spiritual
views. The media were especially interested in the following three cases: (a) one
participant, widely known in Russia, presents himself as Christ, and dresses accordingly;
(b) one group of Russian participants, known as the White Brothers, also dress in Biblical
style and go without shoes; (c) one participant, a well-known spiritual healer from Italy,
suffers from bleeding stigmata on the hands. All three cases blended into the dynamics of
the event without creating any disruption (although it is somewhat disconcerting to
encounter Christ in the hotel elevator). 'Christ' was however labelled
'Anti-Christ' by the White Brothers.
- Speechifying: The structure of the event, both in plenaries and workshops,
highlights the issue of the length and content of speeches in relation to spiritual
concord. Is movement towards spiritual concord achieved by exposing participants to
lengthy speeches which reiterate statements made on many occasions in the past? It is too
easy for those who preach to their congregations to use the same mode in a congress. Why
is the importance of dialogue not appreciated? Clearly dialogue, especially in a large
meeting, makes for a relatively high degree of disorder. Participants, whether
distinguished or otherwise, can be highly insensitive and undisciplined. The need is for a
new balance between imposed structure and spontaneous interventions through which new
insights can emerge. Spiritual concord may be considered as a higher order of consensus,
namely a resonance between perspectives at a higher level of subtlety. It is a mistake to
assume that building this level of consensus can be done by relying on the kinds of
processes common to the treatment of more material concerns in conferences.
- Language of spiritual concord: As noted above and during the event, there is
a concern with the outmoded nature of the language used to articulate spiritual concord. A
special discipline is called for, namely new 'rules of order' to curtail
interventions which do not build towards higher forms of concord. The challenge is that it
is unclear how such interventions are to be distinguished -- especially when a
'discordant' intervention may be what is required to evoke subtler forms of
concord. New metaphors are required to enable people to respond in ways which build the
harmonies that underlie such a higher order of consensus. It is possible that more could
be accomplished by avoiding exhortations laced with the well-worn value words that many
continue to hope will somehow imbue society with new values and a new social order. More
may be accomplished by exchange of visual images reflecting understandings of the types of
order that could emerge. Rather than dialoguing about alternative views on the use and
definition of terms, which represents such a preoccupation in religious discussion,
greater shared insight might emerge through exchanges in terms of favoured images. Focus
on terms constitutes a 'direct' route which has proved relatively impassible.
Switching to discussion of the merits and complementarity of visual images, as an exercise
in 'indirection', could prove more fruitful. Indirect routes can succeed where
direct routes fail, especially where the obvious is controversial. It is useful to recall
that the peace which can be defined is not the 'peace which passeth all
understanding'. Presumably it is the latter which is a quality of spiritual concord.
- Collective meditation: It is strange that an event in which there were so
many practitioners of spiritual disciplines avoided the opportunities for collective
meditation. The event started and ended with a somewhat artificial 'minute of
silence'. Some confessional groups made arrangements to meditate or pray together in
hotel rooms. But despite much effort to arrange a collective plenary meditation, this
proved impossible. It also proved impossible to negotiate access to a room for meditation
amongst the European group. There is clearly a strong bias towards speech and listening to
speeches. Presumably one factor opposing such meditation is the potential conflict between
different groups anxious to 'offer' or 'guide' the meditation
according to their traditional practice, and the resistance of some practitioners to such
'guidance'. It is disappointing that a more creative relationship between speech
and silence could not be developed in the plenaries themselves. The Quaker style of
meeting with its spacing of interventions, is one such format, but presumably with its own
- Quality of participation: Large conferences can usefully be understood as an
instant community. The mix of participants always ensures the presence of a range of
people. These include those with considerable expertise in enhancing the life of the
community as well as those whose prime objectives are self-interest even at the price of
the viability of that community. It is obviously a delicate matter to evaluate
participants in this way. As a result no distinction is made between interventions that
build towards greater concord, and those designed to protect vested interests. The
assumption is however made that those who are in some way perceived as spiritual leaders
can contribute most towards building concord, at least within their own tradition. Whether
they are best qualified to build concord between religious traditions is another
- Issue avoidance: As noted above, there was a significant failure in dealing with
the issues dividing participants. Is the concord which emerges to be seen as simply
'papering over the cracks' that separate the different belief systems?
Transcending differences is not achieved by ignoring them or being afraid of them.
Differences need to be reframed so that their function in preserving cultural identity
(and preferences in spiritual practice) is acknowledged. The concluding session left these
questions as hidden problems for the future to handle.
- Culture as a resource: Also noted above was the complete failure to make use
of culture to gain a new understanding of the subtler forms of concord which are
unthreatened by the more obvious forms of discord. Culture constitutes a repertoire of
exercises in balancing harmony and discord in order to evoke more profound harmonies that
touch the human spirit. In this vein, one plenary speaker even made an appeal to give
'power to the poets'. The theory of harmony basic to music has much to offer in
this respect. But despite an extensive 'cultural programme', with magnificent
musical presentations, the implications of the cultural insights could not be related to
the substantive portions of the congress programme. This was disappointing given the
'peace through culture' emphasis from which the event originated. And when
cultural experiences are offered, politeness rules, for there are no available criteria to
determine when the offering is an imposition rather than an enhancement of insights.
- Contact between participants: The absence of a participant list, or any
messaging system, made it very difficult to promote contacts between participants,
especially across language barriers. It is a mistake to assume that spiritual concord can
be achieved by avoiding such interaction. It might be more appropriate to see the
possibility of such concord as emerging only through such interaction -- provided it can
be encouraged to converge in insightful ways. The art of doing this remains to be
discovered -- as the limitations of computer-based messaging systems have demonstrated.
Conclusions for future initiatives
The congress was widely reported in the press and in the audio- visual media,
especially in countries of the former Soviet Union. A remarkable press conference was held
involving an unusual level of genuine dialogue between key participants and journalists --
which journalists themselves rated highly. It was unusual because journalists were
involved in the discussion rather than locked into their normal inquisitory role.
The congress achieved important strategic objectives in associating government with
spiritual concord. This creates an important precedent in this period of crisis. That it
was successfully held may be considered miracle enough. The congress produced a further
Appeal as a guideline for future work, including future congresses on the theme.
Negotiations were made with regard to setting up several initiatives in Alma Ata to build
on the congress theme, including the establishment of a School of Wisdom. A School of
Ignorance was also founded.
As to the International Association 'Peace through Culture', it is as yet
unclear how this body will be able to navigate into the future through the troubled waters
of the former Soviet Union -- despite the success of the event. The documents of the
congress will undoubtedly be published, although in what form and with what translation
remains to be seen. A range of participant messages are also being edited into meaningful
format in English and Russian. A further congress will undoubtedly be planned. But without
written records, it is unclear what decisions will hold as a basis for further programmes.
Like all extraordinary events, it could well prove unrepeatable -- the configuration of
circumstances for a Second Congress on Spiritual Concord may never arise. Alma Ata would
have been a good place to repeat such events on a regular basis.
Perhaps of most importance are the lessons to be carried forward to other events,
notably the World Parliament of Religions (Chicago, August 1993). There is as yet a
remarkable lack of contact between the various inter-faith initiatives. This raises
important questions concerning the accumulation of insight and the institutional
significance of 'spiritual concord'. This congress achieved a reasonably
equitable encounter between Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. That of
the Community of S. Egidio (Louvain, September 1992) was significantly polarized around
the Catholic Church. It seems likely that the World Parliament of Religions will
de-emphasize the Catholic and Orthodox Christian dimensions, whilst opening much more
widely to the non-Catholic Christian perspectives absent in the earlier gatherings --
possibly excluding non- religious forms of spirituality. Clearly each such initiative is
part of a much larger vision of spiritual concord.
Many would see the inter-faith concern as part of a wider debate on values appropriate
to the emerging world order. Many conferences have explored this theme, most recently on
the occasion of the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, June 1992). They include the
Parliamentary Earth Summit (organized by the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary
Leaders), the Earth Parliament of Indigenous Peoples, and the Sacred Earth Gathering of
Wisdom Keepers (organized by the Manitou Foundation).
Can the forthcoming World Parliament of Religions avoid the traps highlighted by these
other events? Is 'parliament' the right metaphor through which to seek spiritual
concord -- given the difficulties engendered by the spoken word and the allocutory sins
into which speakers are tempted? Are speakers and participants provided with
'guidelines' or 'gentle hints' about the old statements, habitual
responses and ways of participating that have proven to be less useful in moving such
events towards higher levels of understanding? How can new perspectives emerge through old
modes of speaking with their many outworn phrases? Why do the quarrelling specialists with
psychodynamic, psychoanalytic, psychotherapeutic and psychosynthesis skills contribute so
little to reconfiguring such challenges more usefully? Meditation will be an important
dimension of the Parliament -- but will this be more than collective celebration?
Such future events will undoubtedly prove to be successful in some measure -- despite
any major errors of organization -- because participants will overwhelm any artificial
barriers. But with so many such events, and so many appeals and declarations, is it
sufficient to be satisfied with what such events tend to achieve? Is there a way of
articulating insight, through new metaphors that do not trigger old reactions, in order to
create a basis for new responses to the crises of the times? What are the new questions
that are the real challenge of facilitating the emergence of spiritual concord? And what
are the cognitive and cultural resources on which we can draw?