“Zen” is the Japanese translation of the Chinese term “Chan,” which in turn is a translation of the Sanskrit word “Dhyana.” I take this word to mean “meditative absorption,” that is, concentration that reaches the point where there is no experienced distinction between the subject or perceiver and the object perceived, or in other words where there is no subject-object duality.

“Gnosis” is a Greek term that I take to refer to nonsensory awareness of the ordinarily hidden causes, underlying principles, and ultimate facts or truths of existence, as well as the ordinarily hidden “levels” of existence within and beyond oneself. It is distinguished from “episteme,” or knowledge in the ordinary sense rooted in sensory (or even extrasensory) experience and the rules of logic. (And I of course would not refer to propositions based on gnosis or sensory experience and the rules of logic as knowledge; I would instead use the term apparently justified belief.)

As I understand them, Zen and Gnosis refer to two different things. However, both are necessary for a person to have wisdom, here defined as sustained, absorptive insight into the underlying causes and principles and ultimate facts or truths of existence, and — most importantly — living in accordance with such insight. Thus, when I speak of the possibility of a Universal Zen or Universal Gnosis, I am speaking of a universal set of concepts and practices that lead to this state of wisdom.

From a historical point-of-view, Zen cannot be understood apart from its Buddhist (and to some degree Daoist and even Confucian) origins, but here I am using the word in a more general sense. Many scholars of religion and particularly of Buddhism would object to this use of the term, but from the point-of-view of sustained direct experience of the hidden causes and underlying principles of existence, this use of the term is wholly coherent.

The same can be said of gnosis. This term is normally associated—for good reason—with several early Christian sects that taught the possibility of directly knowing or experiencing God rather than merely having faith in God (note that these sects did not reject faith for the most part, but taught that it was possible to go beyond mere faith). However, I am again using it in a more general sense. And again, from the point-of-view of the history of religions and religious scholarship, it probably makes sense to avoid using the term in this general sense, but from the point of view of sustained direct experience of the hidden causes and underlying principles of existence, this use of the term is wholly coherent.

The goal of proposing a Universal Zen or Universal Gnosis is to glean transformative wisdom from the world’s religions, philosophies, and initiatic traditions and discard their cultural, social, moral, and legalistic baggage. Theoretical teachings (here, “theoretical” has a rather loose, nonscientific meaning and refers to conjecture based on experience as well as disciplined inquiry into experience) would be judged on a case-by-case basis, but would not be rejected outright. However, none would be believed dogmatically or without an experiential basis of some kind.

I am not the first person to propose such a thing. Far from it. Attempts to find common wisdom in multiple religious, philosophical, and initiatic traditions have been made many times throughout history. Most, if not all such attempts have been unsuccessful.

The fundamental problem that all such attempts must overcome is that religions, philosophies, and initiatic traditions do not seem to disagree merely in their outward aspects, but even in their more esoteric or “spiritual” aspects. And they even agree far less on questions of morals than many people suppose (many traditions have variations of the golden rule and consider compassion and/or love for one’s fellow humans a good thing, but they have very different conceptions of what it means to live by the golden rule or exercise compassion or love in practice).

God only comes into the equation after one defines precisely what one means by the word “God.” The same applies to terms like Being, Existence, Consciousness, Awareness, and the Self, but to a slightly lesser degree, as debates about the meaning of these terms are less contentious than the debates concerning the various understandings of God that people have in different traditions.

My (admittedly limited) experience has been that there are teachings in many (but by no means all) religions, philosophies, and initiatic traditions that lead to gnosis and/or zen, though again whether it is the same “gnosis” or the same “zen” in each case cannot always be decisively established. Where it can be decisively established, the experiential evidence seems to suggest that there is more than one variety of each of gnosis and zen.