Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S07 #20 - Will ready-made religions ever really fit us properly? - A thought for the day

February 15, 2024 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 7 Episode 20
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S07 #20 - Will ready-made religions ever really fit us properly? - A thought for the day
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

The Cambridge Unitarian Church's Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation can be found at this link:
"New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass) 

Thanks for listening. Just to note that all the texts of these podcasts are available on my blog. You'll also find there a brief biography, info about my career as a musician, & some photography. Feel free to drop by & say hello. Email: caute.brown[at]

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation


In the Gospels written by Luke (9:58-59) and Matthew (cf. Matthew 8:19-20) Jesus tells us this story:

“And, as [the disciples] went along the road, someone said to [Jesus], ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the sky nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere he may lay his head.’” (Luke 9:58-59).

It’s a story that is often been employed to encourage people to follow Jesus wherever that may lead, but generally this really means to follow Jesus wherever this or that particular church, or this or that particular charismatic preacher alone, has already decided where following Jesus leads. Alas, that is nearly always into something which bears very little relationship to Jesus’ own spirituality, religious practices and beliefs which, remember, were rooted firmly in the kind of Judaism being practised in the first-century CE.

But the nineteenth-century Russian novelist and spiritual writer, Leo Tolstoy, interpreted the story somewhat differently. Here is how he presents Jesus’ teaching in his short book, “The Gospel in Brief”: 

“And a certain man said to Jesus, ‘I will follow you no matter where you go.’ At this Jesus said to him, “There is nowhere to follow me. I have no home, no place where I could live. Only animals have lairs and dens, but man is at home anywhere that he can live by the spirit’” (Leo Tolstoy, The Gospel in Brief, trans. Dustin Condren, Harper Perennial, 2011, p.66).

The result of following this teaching of Jesus, for Tolstoy anyway, is not to be led to some fixed lair and den — i.e. some claimed final idea, church, practice or belief — and to be told that this is forever your true and final home. No! Instead, Tolstoy’s whole understanding of what it means to follow Jesus’ teaching is about learning to open oneself up to that free spirit which allows a person to encounter the world in a direct, unmediated way, wherever it is that a person finds themselves in the world. Tolstoy thinks that, when this is done well, a human being can be at home anywhere.

This way of being in the world is what the twentieth-century Japanese educator and spiritual writer, Imaoka Shin’ichirō, called “jiyū shūkyō” which, as many of you now know, may be translated as either “free-religion” or as a “creative, free spirituality.” Imaoka-sensei was clear that being an advocate of jiyū shūkyō never stopped a person from being an active member of a Jewish or Christian community or, indeed, an active member of any other kind of religious tradition, so long as that person continued to remain genuinely open to the insight that no specific religion either monopolizes religious truth or is it the ultimate embodiment of it. Imaoka-sensei, like Tolstoy before him, thinks that Jesus embodied just such a spirituality, a free spirituality, one which was concerned to engage in the endless pursuit and improvement towards universal and ultimate truth as a core element in every authentic religious life. 

As most of you will be aware of this “jiyū shūkyō,” this creative, free spirituality, is central to the kind of spiritual practice I am explicitly encouraging and trying to nurture here in the local community where I am minister. It is a way of being in the world which allows us to be held gently, but firmly, by a centre of gravity that simultaneously frees us from the need to hold on to all fixed and final religious dogmas; it is a way of being in the world — centred here on meditation and conversation — which helps us to find a position which can orientate us authentically in the world without the need for a fixed and final position. 

Now this kind of spirituality is well illustrated by the “Parable of the Raft” told by Shakyamuni Buddha. It tells of how a man was trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. On this bank there was great danger and uncertainty, and on the far side was safety. However, there was no bridge crossing the river nor was there a ferry, so what was the man to do? Well, he gathers together a number of logs and vines, which he then uses to build a raft that could take him across the river. Then Shakyamuni asked those listening to him a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, thought to himself, ‘The raft has served me well, so from now on I will carry it on my back’” Shakyamuni’s audience replied that it would not be at all sensible. Shakyamuni continued, “What if the man lay the raft down gratefully thinking that it had has served him well but, since it was no longer of any use, he could leave it there on the shore?” His listeners replied that this would be the proper thing to do. Shakyamuni concluded by saying to them, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft and are for crossing over with, not for seizing hold of.”

In the eyes of the practitioner of jiyū shūkyō, Jesus’ teachings are akin to those of Shakyamuni Buddha and all the other great spiritual teachers, namely, truly excellent material — logs and vines — out of which all kinds of fine and serviceable rafts can be built which people can hold on to and live upon, to sail to the other shore with appropriate confidence. In their different ways these rafts provide for people good homes as we travel through this astonishingly complex, beautiful and highly dynamic world, they provide them with solid enough positions to hold on to which help them to structure genuine meaning and worth. But, as the parable of the raft reveals, it’s important never to become too firmly attached to these necessary but temporary structures and, as both Jesus and Shakyamuni’s parables reveal in different ways, we mustn’t start to think of them as our true and final home, den, lair or position. 

For the practitioner of jiyū shūkyō, as I feel sure Shakyamuni Buddha, Jesus and Tolstoy were, our true spiritual home can, therefore, always be accessed where ever we are. And, if some already existing, ready-made religion, like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, or whatever speaks to us sufficiently well, then all well and good. But, as Imaoka-sensei realised (in “The Purpose of Tokyo Kiitsu Kyōkai”, September 1950, “Creation”, Issue No. 1), each of these great teachers fully understood it’s not Buddhism, Judaism or Christianity, or whatever other religion, that exists first, and we only come after. On the contrary, we humans exist first, and only then comes Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, etc.. 

And one profound, and deeply challenging consequence of this insight is that, just as some of us understand that when we are trying to buy a new dress or suit, the ready-made cuts and sizes are never going perfectly to fit us, some of us also understand that the ready-made religions are never going perfectly fit us either, and that something more fitting can be made. This realization is, of course, precisely what drove the reforms Shakyamuni Buddha and Jesus sought to make to their own ages’ established religions and spiritual traditions.  

And this is where a creative, free spiritual community, like the one we are trying to create here in Cambridge, finds its appropriate, if always liminal, vulnerable and tenuous role in the world. It exists simply to offer people who can’t be fully satisfied with ready-made, established religions, a more flexible and fitting raft upon which to travel to the other shore. But, as I say this, it’s vitally important to be clear that sailing on this raft is not about rejecting established religions — not at all — it’s solely about being as faithful as possible to our own genuine spiritual insights and needs but without ever becoming attached to them as if they could provide some fixed and final answer to the always unfolding mystery and miracle of life.