Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Collage of Our Times: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Let us proceed in reverse order:


The Ugly.

  1. Did you see the story about the Georgia public school that tried to teach yoga to its students? A number of evangelical Christian parents got really upset. Here is the story:


The school apologized for the yoga instructions and even banned the use of the Sanskrit word, “Namaste.” Strange. Incredible. But given the nature of the religiosity of these folks, understandable. And interestingly enough the parents do have a valid argument of sorts: given that public schools do not allow expressions of Christian faith, like prayer, why is it that Hindu expression is allowed? The school answers that they are not allowing Hindu expression but simply extracting a popular element from the matrix of Hinduism that is useful for relaxation and de-stressing. That of course raises a very big question that has elicited thoughtful and intelligent debate and discussion among various people: can you really and legitimately abstract some element from a given religious tradition and use it for some other purpose? The true use and place of yoga is in uncovering the presence of God within one’s consciousness, not just for exercise and de-stressing. People can and do have different opinions on this topic, but suffice it to say these folks are not interested in that kind of debate but prefer to protect their children from “satanic religion.” There are a number of conservative Christian websites that warn of the “perils” of yoga!


  1. Another dubious expression of Christianity: Every Good Friday there are these people that flagellate themselves and others who even crucify themselves. This bizarre religious expression defies explanation, and I can see why some begin even to question the nature of religion. You could say that this is only a very small group of people compared to the large numbers of the “more sane” believers; but really these folk are only the extreme tip of a large iceberg so to speak. In this group I include the large numbers of these televangelists, the hawkers of spiritual goods, programs and books to solve all your problems, the Prosperity Gospel people; the miracle hounds, like what does it really matter in this insane world that some remnant of blood liquefies or some flesh does not corrupt, really…. Religion gets turned into superstition or magic; if you have the magic words and/or the proper talisman, presto, you are “saved.” But….but if you get to the heart of every major religion, you will find that the real meaning of that religion has everything to do with compassion and freedom…not the freedom of our superficial society but the deep freedom of our deep self which is not moved by compulsion or fear or the crazy images and phantasms of our insane social existence. Read T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Real religion addresses that picture; it is not a magical substitute for the mess we have made.


  1. Ok, just to show you Christianity isn’t the only one afflicted in this way, take a look at this story from India:

India has a lot of problems. Political, social, and yes even religious. This cradle and home of a very deep spiritual tradition has been beset with radical Hinduism that equates religious identity and national identity and raises caste to a sacred rule. It has also been beset with unsettling violence against women and with calls for repression and censorship of any other religious views or of any criticism of Hinduism. The story here is not that serious but it is also worrisome. The fake religiosity and spirituality is rampant and that does not bode well; it is not a sign of religious health.

The Bad.

  1. So with all these examples of “ugly” religion, is it any wonder that religion as a whole is losing ground in our culture? Take a look at this story:

What’s interesting here is that this phenomenon includes not only formal religion but also that fuzzy spirituality that supposedly was growing in our time, spirituality “without religion.” No comment here. Take it for what you will; it pretty much matches my own observations of life around me. And what I think is much more important is that this is a small piece in a much larger and darker picture which I point to below.


  1. I wonder how many people realize how really, really bad our social, economic and political situation is. Here’s a short essay to help you with that:


  1. So we had these suicide bombings in Belgium a few weeks ago. The reactions from out leaders are typical and predictable. Here is something a bit different from Christ Hedges:


  1. Take a social concern, like gun control. The prevalence of gun violence in our society is very troubling, and we count on our political leaders to make some wise decisions to reduce that violence. Unfortunately, what they do is give you something with one hand to alleviate your concerns and then with the other do something hidden and quite contrary that exacerbates the situation in incredible ways. Just one example: the President is down on the prevalence of guns in our society but did you know that our country has been the leading seller of arms to the whole world during the past 8 years. We are the gun dealer for the world. There is no end to our hypocrisy. Here is the story:



  1. And I can’t leave the political scene without a bit of dark humor. Here is a hilarious clip that parodies a Men’s Wearhouse Ad, a place where you can buy a cheap suit. Here you can buy a congressman really cheap:


  1. Mother Nature may have her own plans for solving all this rot–like wiping us out!! Kurt Vonnegut once said that Earth will one day treat us like an invading bacteria and cleanse itself of us. It’s called Global Warming. We are sleepwalking through all this and very few seem to care or want to take the radical steps needed. That climate conference a few months back in Europe was a totally inadequate response and things may be a lot worse than anyone suspected. James Hansen, the legendary climate scientist who first brought this phenomenon to our attention about 1990 or so, has recently brought out a paper indicating that we are only decades away from catastrophe, not centuries as some thought.   Here is the story:


And then there was this story just about February weather:


The Good.

  1. There was a reasonable and a half-way intelligent debate about Mother Teresa on the front page of the New York Times–whether she should be canonized. Considering the other crazy religious news and considering the insanity of our times, this was “different.” Here is the story:

Both sides have their valid points, and I don’t think anyone will convince the “other side” of a change in perspective. But it is refreshing that we don’t idealize and idolize our “holy” figures–like we have in the past with so many so-called saints. My favorite in this regard is St. Bernard who called for the killing of Moslems. Enough said. As one who doesn’t really believe in this canonization thing, I figure if my church wants to play at this let them. My concern is NOT to “get to heaven,” as a reward for “being good,” but the Presence of God here and now and what that means here and now. For every human being every breath is not some arbitrary, mechanical event but a pure gift and a messenger from Absolute Reality, saying, “You are my child; you are one with me.” To hear this, to know this, is what is called “heaven” or paradise; nothing more is needed.


  1. Here is a marvelous “picture” of Jesus of Nazareth:


I wish more Christians would try to imitate this Jesus.


  1. And then there was Pope Francis on Holy Thursday:

Marvelous. And very significant if you follow the implications of what he said.


  1. Given the darkness of our social situation, there are also some culture heroes and voices of a different vision. One of my new-found people is the turn-of-the-century writer Jack London. Here is a bit of an autobiographical statement from him as he had achieved a certain success as a writer:

“So I went back to the working-class, in which I had been born and
where I belonged. I care no longer to climb. The imposing edifice of
society above my head holds no delights for me. It is the foundation
of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar
in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and
class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and
setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more
hands and crowbars to work, we’ll topple it over, along with all its
rotten life and unburied dead, its monstrous selfishness and sodden
materialism. Then we’ll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation
for mankind, in which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the
rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will
be clean, noble, and alive.

Such is my outlook. I look forward to a time when man shall progress
upon something worthier and higher than his stomach, when there will
be a finer incentive to impel men to action than the incentive of
to-day, which is the incentive of the stomach. I retain my belief in
the nobility and excellence of the human. I believe that spiritual
sweetness and unselfishness will conquer the gross gluttony of to-day.
And last of all, my faith is in the working-class. As some Frenchman
has said, “The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe
going up, the polished boot descending.”


  1. And in conclusion here are a few words from another one of my favorite culture heroes: John Muir. As I long to get out into the High Country of the Sierra once more this June, I ponder these words from Muir:

“ I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains.”











Silence, the Beyond, and Isaac the Syrian

We have been pondering how each major religion points to “that which is Beyond,” each in its own language–we are not saying that all religions are pointing to the same Beyond, that is not for us or for anyone to say. Simply that the existential manifestation of those who strive in that context seems to exhibit very similar qualities, and when these folks put down their preconceptions they find a very deep fellowship among the world religions on this path. And this “Beyond” is not something that any language can grasp in its symbolism, like “heaven,” “paradise,” “kingdom of God,” etc.; but rather it is that which truly is beyond the grasp of any religious language. So, we shall continue on this road, but staying mostly in the Christian context with one of its greatest hermits, Isaac the Syrian. And strikingly enough we will be able to do this using very little narrowly explicit Christian language.

Now Isaac the Syrian is a very little known spiritual figure in Christian circles. In Catholic and Protestant milieus he is almost totally unknown except in monasteries, and even there I bet the majority of monks know little or nothing about him. Isaac fares better in Orthodox circles because they do love their hermits, but I think you will find most Orthodox lay people not really interested in him in spite of their “idealizations” of the “desert-dwellers.” Isaac, like the Tibetan Buddhist Milarepa, was a radical proponent of solitude, and with that of silence. Hardly “social values”! Their way is certainly not everyone’s “cup of tea”–even the Dalai Lama says that it’s not good to go into intense solitude as a way of life but only for a periodic retreat. And Christianity itself is a thoroughly communal religion emphasizing the interpersonal and social nature of humanity, placing a divine value on the reality of community.  However……each person must follow the way that unfolds in their heart; to ponder abstract ways of life is sometimes worthwhile, but totally useless in determining “the path I should follow.” And the hermit life is a powerful icon of that Beyond which is the true goal of every religionist; an unwavering symbol and pointer at that Beyond which is the true patrimony of every human being no matter their situation. And so the hermit life is an absolute essential within the Christian context.


Let us begin with a quote from Isaac the Syrian, Isaac at his most radical:

“Just as among ten thousand men scarcely one will be found who has fulfilled the commandments and what pertains to the Law with but a small deficiency, and who has attained to limpid purity of soul, so only one man among thousands will be found who after much vigilance has been accounted worthy to attain pure prayer, and to break through that boundary, and gain experience of that mystery. Indeed, the majority of men have in no wise been deemed worthy of pure prayer, but only a very few. But as to that mystery which is after pure prayer and lies beyond it, there is scarcely to be found a single man from generation to generation who by God’s grace has attained thereto.”   From Homily 23.

Now there are two very important things to point out in this remarkable statement. First, never mind the hyperbolic language here, the rhetorical exaggeration if you will, that Isaac uses to make his most profound observation. The “fewness” of the people who will achieve these special moments in the spiritual journey makes it sound like it’s a numbers game and exceptional work, effort and very special grace give one a slight chance to “win” this spiritual lottery. I think this is a mistaken impression that Isaac’s language gives. Yes, there are few who find this very special pearl, but not because of lack of access on the part of the many. It is more likely that people settle for a lower form of religiosity, one that keeps religion within the confines of controllable religious language and concepts–often this is so because of ignorance or lack of awareness, but it can also be that they want a clearly delineated religion that is so easily encapsulated in concepts and notions. Thus for many their religion is simply trying to “be good,” morally, and get their reward for this: “heaven.” Or maybe they are more pious and they engage in a kind of relationship with saints, angels, and of course Mary and Jesus, and this engages more of their life than just “keeping the commandments.” But it’s amazing how often all this religiosity is still, underneath it all, a way of keeping the ego fed and clothe with approval and getting some favorable treatment in terms which are more or less understandable. Generally people see themselves as no more than as members of some social reality, being “part of something” is reassuring, and as no more than caught up in this struggle to maximize the positives in one’s life and minimize the negatives; and religion then becomes part of the picture and the mechanism to make this happen. Ok, so Isaac (and the many other Desert Fathers and Christian mystics) are saying, wait, there’s a lot more to your identity than that. But Isaac is also a very down-to-earth realist and he realizes that only a few, a very few, grasp the epiphenomenal nature of our supposed identity and awaken to something way beyond that. But we must emphasize that Isaac’s language does not mean that the “Beyond” is only for a chosen few, an elite of sorts; no, it is the very foundation of everyone’s humanity wherever they are, whoever they are. But it does require a kind of “seeking” that few want to partake in.

So this brings us to the second important point of Isaac’s statement: the reference to “the beyond.” It is striking enough that he posits “pure prayer” as a true goal of Christian praxis–this in itself would make him a mystic in the Rahnerian sense. Important here to note that this term points to something that is called by different names by different spiritual teachers. Thus, for some this is termed “purity of heart,” for yet others as “continual prayer”; for others as “theoria” or the “vision of God”; for others as “quies” or stillness; and for some others, “the kingdom of heaven,” and so on. The appropriation of Biblical language for noting mystical experience is very interesting. Recall that Beatitude: Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God. Whatever be the original Gospel meaning of this statement, which probably had to do with an afterlife situation, like “going to heaven,” the monks and mystics of Christianity appropriated this language to speak of an awakening to the ever-present Divine Reality, to abide in the Divine Presence continually. And it is not in their imagination or in their thinking as another concept that this takes place; but it is as real as the ground under their feet. This kind of awakening should be the patrimony of every Christian, but as a matter of fact it is very rare.

Now an emphatic note: here we are still within a dualistic mysticism and vision: here I am and there is God (or the Risen Christ). Even if it be the depths of the heart where this God is found, still….there is me and there is God and there is this most profound and intimate relationship. So “pure prayer,” as mystical as it is, it still functions within a dualistic vision, which is in fact the signature vision of Christian spirituality. Except that there are these glimmers and occasional glimpses of something quite different–for example, in Eckhart, and of course here in Isaac. I am really struck by the plainness of his language here: “But as to that mystery which is after pure prayer and lies beyond it “…. So there is this “beyond” which lies beyond even “regular” mysticism–it is a “mystery,” not describable in theological or spiritual terms. Isaac is speechless; he merely points to that Beyond. And here we can rightfully and speculatively inquire whether this isn’t a reference to a kind of Christian advaita, that which Abhishiktananda struggled so much to express in Christian language from his own inestimable experience of that Beyond.

And just some more additional words by Isaac on this topic–again from Homily 23: “Even as the whole force of the laws and the commandments given by God to men terminates in the purity of heart”….   So here we see that normal religious observance is to reach the goal of this “purity of heart” which leads to the vision of God. Religious observance is not for its own sake; nor just a social structure and not meant to serve the neurotic needs of certain individuals!

Isaac continues: “…so all the modes and forms of prayer which men pray to God terminate in pure prayer. For sighs, prostrations, heartfelt supplications, sweet cries of lamentations, and all the other forms of prayer [emphasis mine] have…their boundary and the extent of their domain in pure prayer. But once the mind crosses this boundary, from the purity of prayer even to that which is within, it no longer possesses prayer or movement, or weeping, or dominion, or free will, or supplication, or desire, or fervent longing for things hoped for in this life or in the age to come.”   So here we see that Isaac holds that the whole purpose of true piety is to lead to this “pure prayer” and beyond. Piety, religious observance and practice, in fact the whole of one’s religious life are not ends in themselves but open up on something much more vast and incredible. But Isaac is only beginning to astonish us! There is much more. He has spoken of a “boundary” here, but now he is once more pushing us beyond this boundary to something that is unspeakable: “Therefore, there exists no prayer beyond pure prayer. Every movement and every form of prayer leads the mind this far by the authority of the free will; for this reason there is a struggle in prayer. But beyond this boundary there is awestruck wonder and not prayer. For what pertains to prayer has ceased, while a certain divine vision remains, and the mind does not pray a prayer.” So there is only this abiding within the Divine Reality and there is no more space between you and God; and it is an awakening like a lightning bolt, as Abhishiktananda said, and there is only the “Ah” of the Upanishads–the Christian version of advaita.


Isaac not only points to this Beyond, but he provides an existential picture of the quality of life lived by the person who has knowledge of this Beyond. For Isaac the chief characteristic of such a person could be summed up in this phrase: a merciful heart. To be sure this is not just some emotional state or a whim of good feeling or dependent on us having sufficient “willpower.” Rather it means a total transformation of the dynamics of one’s personal life and an awakening to a transcendent sense of identity. Do you want a better picture of this “merciful heart”? Isaac is quite obliging: “’And what is a merciful heart?’ It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and at the recollection and sight of them, the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy that grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up prayers with tears continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles, because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.” So, quite a statement! But what is most remarkable is how close this is to the Buddhist Bodhisattva theme; in fact you might want to say that this is the Bodhisattva in Christian terms. We are no longer locked in a narrow vision of “saving our souls,” but our concern is for all sentient beings!


Now for Isaac the gateway, so to speak, for his Beyond lies in silence and stillness. This means a lot more than just verbal silence, refraining from talking, etc., though of course that would be a good foundation. What Isaac is referring to is something very close to what Mahayana Buddhism seeks, both in its Tibetan and Zen forms–a stillness of the mind. And this is best illustrated by a well-known analogy. Consider being on the shoreline of a very great ocean, like the Pacific. There is a lot of turbulence on the surface and on the edge with large waves crashing and foaming, etc. But go down diving a few hundred feet and it will be eerily quiet and calm with serene fish swimming along. So it is with our consciousness. Along the “surface” we are constantly in motion with thoughts and feelings running along and “crashing” on the shores of the mind. But if you quiet this down; or if you go deeper into one’s own consciousness, there comes a deep calm. And the deeper you go the more calm it gets; and the more calm it gets, the deeper you go. This is the royal road to a profound awakening both in Buddhism and for Isaac–among others also.

Isaac: “True wisdom is gazing at God. Gazing at God is silence of the thoughts.”(Homily 64)

Isaac: “Love silence above all things, because it brings you near to fruit that the tongue cannot express. First let us force ourselves to be silent, and then from out of this silence something is born that leads us into silence itself. May God grant you to perceive some part of that which is born of silence!” (Homily 64)

Isaac: “Do not be surprised if sometimes when you are kneeling in prayer and your mind is concentrated upon it, your mind grows silent and desists from prayer.” (Homily 64)

Isaac: “It is impossible without stillness and estrangement from men to bring the senses into submission to the sovereignty of the soul. For the noetic soul is hypostatically united and conjoined with the senses and it is involuntarily carried away by her thoughts, unless a man is vigilant in secret prayer.” (Homily 65)

Isaac: “Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world.” (Homily 65)

The silence/stillness that Isaac points to is a deeply inner reality. Now Isaac has language about all this, but it is obfuscated for us by its antiquity and its mannerisms and its (strange to us) imagery. Isaac seems to recognize the limitations of his language and of all language to communicate his vision and his experience. Furthermore, in Christianity there is no methodology or practice that deals with this inner silence–that’s why Merton wanted to explore what Buddhism had to offer in this regard because, as he put it, they had gone further in this regard than we had. For most Christian contemplatives this silence is reached through various prayer forms, like in the midst of praying the psalms, or the mantra-like Jesus Prayer, or even lectio divina, the meditative reading of Scripture. I remember once writing in this blog how as a youngster I would observe my grandmother drift into a deep silence while praying the rosary. While at prayer, focusing their whole heart at it, a person could find themselves enveloped in a very deep stillness within. Some persons, however, do go directly into the quiet through silent meditation. Whatever be the case, then opens the gateway to an experiential knowledge of the Beyond; and as they say, you will never be the same again!







The Languages of Religion

Recently I came upon this incredible quote by Abhishiktananda–it was in his diary: “The ashram they want me to set up would be an ashram based on Christian namarupas. I am no longer capable of that. No more could I establish an ashram using Hindu namarupas. I can only agree to have with me one who is ready to go beyond all namarupas.”

This entry in his diary is from 1972, toward the end of his life. The implications of this seemingly simple statement are truly revolutionary, and I am not sure that there are many who would follow him in this. Let us step back a bit and take a look at the meaning of such a statement.

Religion is composed of these different languages. Each of the great world religions is a language in itself with its own grammar, syntax, vocabulary, colloquialisms, and codes of interpretation. A whole semantic field of meaning and signifiers is established by each language. Now by “language” here we mean not only the words, concepts and teachings of each religion, but also the prayers and rituals, the art and symbolism, the authority structures, the spiritual methods, the special (“holy”) places, etc., etc. All of these render the various forms of each religion. These are the namarupa, in Abhishiktananda’s terms, of each religion. Now maybe you begin to sense the radical and revolutionary nature of that little statement of his. The namarupas are not merely the “externals” of a religion. They are its doctrines, its practices, its claims, its core rituals, its “face” in the public square.

Most of us live within one of these particular languages. There is the Christian language, the Buddhist language, the Islamic language, and the Hindu language(I am not leaving out the Sikhs or the Jews or Native American religions, etc., but I just want to consider the major religions and everything I say there would also be applicable to all the other smaller religions. ) Now there are real and serious differences among these languages–I mean, by analogy, think of the difference between Chinese and English. And whether one is born into a language or whether one comes in as a convert so to speak, there is a real effort and a learning process to undergo if one wants to become “fluent” in that language and able to appreciate its more subtle nuances. One can also say that within each religious language there are also different dialects so to speak. There are different versions of Christianity and different versions of all the other great religions.

Now let us return to the Abhishiktananda quote. You sense a certain frustration and exasperation in this statement–as was also evidenced often in the last years of his life. There are some very important reasons for this exasperation. First of all, from his viewpoint all the great religions, at their clearest and at their best, point to an Absolute Reality that is beyond all languages, all namarupas, to the Beyond beyond all the beyonds…the Further Shore…and each religion is merely a vehicle to get there in one way or another. In Christianity even the Church is such a vehicle from this viewpoint. Now it is not at all easy or clear to see this claim as being true in any of the great religions. Each religion, each language, has in its own way a tendency to ensconce the participant within the horizon of its own language. Each language has its own specific way it leads the person to cling to the namarupa of that language. The “Beyond” becomes only a faintly hinted at possibility in the writings of the mystics of that religion and certainly not something that your everyday religionist ponders. For Abhishiktananda, due to his own deep and mystical “experience” of the “Beyond,” this was a source of frustration because for him this was not meant as something only for some rare birds but the spiritual patrimony of all human beings.


Let us now consider the language which is called Christianity, which at times was the most acute source of exasperation for Abhishiktananda. Recall what he was like when he first came to India: he was eager to bring the Gospel to India and the Christian monastic life, but to inculturate both thoroughly in Indian culture(You know, dress like an Indian, eat like an Indian, live like an Indian, use Indian cultural forms in worship, etc.). In some ways Abhishiktananda was ahead of things; in other ways he was quite traditional. Basically he was going to translate the namarupa of Christianity into Indian culture; later, after a deepening of experience in Hinduism, especially the advaita of the Upanishads, he begins to move toward a position of trying to translate the namarupa of Chrisitianity not only into Indian cultural forms but into the very heart of Indian religiosity, or at least the Upanishadic variant of it. By the mid ‘60s he gave up on that project altogether as a result of an ongoing religious crisis due to his discovery and experience of the Upanishadic vision (and Ramana Maharshi) and how it stands on its own and in some ways superior to anything that the Christian language ostensibly presents; and all this can be summed up in one word: advaita, nonduality. In the last years of his life he practically turns the tables on the whole missionary thrust of Christianity: it is Christianity itself which needs this Upanishadic vision in order to open up its deepest meaning. At this point he is moving between these two languages in a way that transcends their namarupa, and he no longer has any patience with an exclusive commitment to any namarupa.

Needless to say the average Indian Christian did not follow him on that path, and that is so true even today–as converts, even if from generations ago, they have embraced the namarupa of Chrisitianity, perhaps at great cost to themselves, and they are not about to relativize what they see as an absolute reality.  And of course a lot of Christian/Catholic theologians would not want to go that far either, and certainly the institutional Church would only allow a certain “Indianization” of piety and religious culture. And of course the Church sees its fundamental namarupa, its doctrines, as definitive, non-negotiable, and privileged statements, even though they are put in Semitic-Hellenistic terms. Abhishiktananda wanted to translate this language into the Upanishadic/Sanskrit language of advaita. Not a promising prospect! As I pointed out in a posting long time ago, the Christian language is interpersonal and relational while the Upanishadic is of being and nondualism. The two seem to travel on parallel tracks.

Now there is another problem for Abhishiktananda–his “Beyond” might be a bit too beyond for the comfort of Church folk and theologians. In Christianity, yes, there is that sense of being called beyond but this “beyond” is still somehow, more or less, demarcated by the namarupa of Christianity. So Jesus takes us to the Father, etc., etc. With very few exceptions among Christian mystics like Pseudo-Dionysius and Eckhart, most of Catholic Chrisitianity (and the other Christian dialects) stay within their namarupa, their language, precisely because it is considered as privileged because “chosen” by God. So, the argument goes, if God wanted to reveal Himself in Indian/Sanskrit terms, he would have chosen India for the Incarnation, but there is a reason why this Semitic language was chosen and then the Greek. This is the kind of reasoning that drove Abhishiktananda up the wall. There is, then, this interesting example of Thomas Aquinas, a giant in Catholic theology and Western intellectual history. Recall how at the end of his life Thomas has this mystical experience of the Reality of God–right in the middle of celebrating the Eucharist, in the middle of Mass; and he is so shook up that he calls all his theological and spiritual writing “dung” (a euphemism as I once pointed out). Thomas has gone “beyond,” so beyond that he can’t even celebrate the Eucharist the last few months of his life. Church folk who believe that you can never take leave of the namarupa simply say that Thomas suffered from a mental breakdown. Of course.

At this point it is important to point out that neither Abhishiktananda nor anything said here is an invitation to play havoc with the namarupa of one’s religion or that one can abandon this or that namarupa willy-nilly. This is the kind of thing that liberal Christianity is prone to–just pick and choose among doctrines and beliefs, change rituals to suit personal whims, etc., etc. This is the old changing-the-furniture-on-the-Titanic picture–they miss the significance of the whole structure. Liberal Christianity does not refer to a Beyond but merely to a redo of the namarupa; and it does not ground itself in a Transcendent experience of Absolute Reality. In some ways it fixes one even more solidly within the language of one’s religion because it gives the feeling that it’s all so malleable. A more traditional approach says, ok, this is what it is but it calls me beyond everything. And what conservative Catholics call “cafeteria Catholicism”–picking and choosing the namarupa– is NOT what Abhishiktananda is about. Incidentally, this points to another large problem: the renewal and revitalization of a religion’s namarupa. When that originates without deep inner experience as the ground, then the changes tend to yield superficial results. Compare modern Catholic liturgy with the old Latin Mass (which Merton always preferred!); or Gregorian chant with the new stuff. Gregorian chant came from a very deep place, but unfortunately when it’s presented as a show piece these days, or as an ideological badge, well, it just shows the incredible shallowness of our ecclesial experience.

Now recall a couple of famous Zen sayings: before enlightenment mountains are only mountains, during enlightenment mountains are no longer only mountains, after enlightenment, mountains are once more only mountains. And: before enlightenment, chop wood and wash dishes; after enlightenment, chop wood and washes dishes. This is a very healthy insight from the Zen tradition. Whatever be the experience of “going Beyond,” one comes back and lives within the namarupa of one’s daily language. Truly you will be seeing it in a new and unspeakably deeper way, but the fact is that the deepest expression of any religious language will be concealed by its “ordinariness,” how it seems NOT different from the casual practitioner’s language. When you have real knowledge of the Absolute Reality, you will be at home within the namarupa of one’s religious language. For a few, however, there is a real vocation to “transgress” the bounds of their language.

Now it is worthwhile to remember three of Abhishiktananda’s predecessors who also had to wrestle with religious namarupa: Ricci in China, de Nobili in India, Desidiri in Tibet. These three great Jesuits, who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, were inflamed with this apostolic zeal to bring Christ to the enormous religious and cultural structures of Asia. When they got there they found themselves in an enterprise that was much more complex and more profound than any simple missionary effort to “bring good news” to a “lost people.” They were opening a door that Abhishiktananda walked through! In some ways they sound very conventional and traditional to our perspective; in many other ways they were and are way ahead of where the Church was and is. All three, each in his own way, discovered that they were encountering something that was solid, real, profound and not at all explainable in Semitic, Hellenistic, or modern Western terms. They were faced with the beginnings of a realization that they were not so much “bringing God” to these people but the first glimmers that they were finding God within these cultures. The institutional Church ultimately did not approve of their approach and their vision because it diverged from the theological party line. These men were giants of their time and someday I need to spend more time examining the work of each.

But here let’s just briefly consider this phenomenon when two very different languages “collide.” Take a poem in ancient Chinese, for example, and your language is English. Certainly you can take the words of the Chinese poem and translate them into English if you have developed enough fluency in Chinese to do so. You will have a certain verbal equivalence if you are any good, but will you have THE poem? Most would say, no. Translating the words is not enough; there is the subtle nuances of language, the shades of meaning that the equivalent words in the new language might not at all be capable of conveying. Think of just moving between two modern Western languages like English and German, like translating the poetry of Rilke into English. It has been done and rather well, but it’s not easy. Now with ancient Chinese it is a lot more difficult. It helps if the translator has something of the depth of experience that the poet had and the translator is able to connect to that experience.

So by analogy this applies also to the case of two languages of religion encountering each other. The namarupa of one language is not equivalent to the namarupa of another language, and to translate the namarupa of one language into terms of another language may very well be impossible. As long as we stay on the level of concepts, doctrines and ideas that each religious language carries, we will simply end up talking to each other about these things (and that’s certainly a good thing to do), and be nice to each other and share our religious paths, etc., but it won’t be until we look at both sets of namarupa from the profundity of deep experience that is way beyond any words or concepts–and here many scholars and theologians will disagree because words are their livelihood– that we will begin to sense what is and isn’t common in the Beyond that each is pointing to.

With all of the above in mind, I will conclude by offering you a Tibetan song, a Tibetan namarupa if you will, one I heard Tibetan nuns singing. It was composed by a great 19th century lama who was an amazing patron and supporter of Tibetan nuns. I found this English translation of it very moving and illuminating. Translated by a modern Tibetan lama, I have hopes that it conveys the original as well as it can. See if it has any message for you. Does the namarupa of this song hint at a “Beyond” that resonates with you? (Ps. “Mara” is the “demonic” figure that tried to tempt Buddha the night of his enlightenment.)


A Vajra Song of Tsoknyi Rinpoche I

Don’t wander, don’t wander, place mindfulness on guard:

Along the road of distraction, Mara lies in ambush.

Mara is the mind, clinging to like and dislike;

So look into the essence of this magic,

Free from dualistic fixation.

Realize that your mind is unfabricated primordial purity.

There is no buddha elsewhere; look at your own face.

There is nothing else to search for; rest in your own place.

Non-meditation is spontaneous perfection, so capture

The royal seat.