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Towards Spiritual Concord

Report of the First World Congress towards Spiritual Concord
(Alma Ata, October 1992)

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Published as First World Congress towards Spiritual Concord (Alma Ata, 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 economic turmoil.

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.

Global Context

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, August 1993).

Specific Context

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.

Alma Ata

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 three groups:

  1. Valentin Siderov, President of the International Association (Moscow)
    Afenasy Vesselitskij, General Secretary of the International Association
  2. Wilhelm Augustat, President of the European Association (Munich)
    Andreas Graf Dönhoff, Vice-President of the European Association
    Arnold von Keyserling, School of Wisdom (Vienna)
  3. 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 religious backgrounds.

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 two.

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 problem areas.

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:

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 times.

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 inter-faith events.

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 there.

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 following:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 importance.
  7. 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 predominant importance.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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 about.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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 for some.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 limitations.
  9. 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 matter.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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?

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