Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Dalai Lama, the Orthodox Church, Hiking, and the TPP & the Surveillance State

Ok, this is a hodge-podge of topics but so is my brain at the moment….so here goes:

A. The Dalai Lama recently made a statement that shook up some of the world media and some religious circles. He said that women have a greater capacity for compassion and that….the next Dalai Lama could very well be a woman. Indeed! Well all the great world religions have a problem in this regard. Why is it that women always seem to need to “push” a door open in all these religious traditions? Irregardless of what the spirituality or religious doctrine is, the male consciousness seems always to have difficulty letting go of “leadership” roles to women—no matter what the religion is. So in that context what the Dalai Lama said is quite remarkable, and kudos to him for being the most “advanced” religious leader of our time.

This of course brings me back to my own narrow little Catholic world! The debate about women priests (what debate? you might rightly ask) is depressing and inane. Because the recent popes have come down so hard against the ordination of women it has become impossible even to discuss the issue in official circles, and any theologian who writes about it positively will be censured or condemned. For the Church to come out in favor of women’s ordination it would mean admitting it made a serious doctrinal mistake, and THAT ain’t gonna happen! So that’s the inane part. Now for the depressing part. Basically the argument against such ordination is based on two points: a.) the priest symbolizes Jesus and Jesus was a male; 2.) the Church has never ordained women. The second point is not even worth discussing because the “never done it before” argument holds only for a tradition that has totally fossilized. The more serious argument is about this symbolism thing.

That is a bit more gnarly because Catholic doctrine holds that the priest symbolizes and represents Christ within the life and ritual of the Church. Thus the priest has to be male because Jesus was male. Now the problem with this is that in focusing on the historical Jesus of Nazareth we forget that the incarnation means that God took up all humanity, not just maleness. The Gospel of John says that the Word became sarx, “flesh,” meaning the Logos took on the fullness of the human condition(one might want to say the Logos “entered samsara”). The Gospel does not make a point of the Logos becoming male. Maleness in this case is incidental; it’s merely that in historical/biological existence you can’t be both, you can’t occupy two spaces at the same time as it were. But to absolutize this “choice” of maleness, as if there were some mysterious “male principle” in the Divine is just plain wrong. Maleness and femaleness are not just appearances or “shadow realities” but neither are they some absolutes. Thus any terms/symbols for God, like Father or Mother, are very relative and in fact can be quite misleading. We can only tentatively privilege “Father language” because Jesus used it, but we have to see through it and beyond it. Patristic writings tend to emphasize the fact that God assumed all of humanity in Jesus; Paul does not emphasize the historical Jesus of Nazareth but rather the Risen Christ, who is, yes, in continuity with Jesus of Nazareth but we no longer know him “according to the flesh”; and finally in the Resurrection life there is no more male and female, Jew or gentile, etc. So it seems there is plenty of leeway for the Church to have female priests—because as priests they symbolize the WHOLE activity of God, not just the maleness of Jesus. But you know it “ain’t gonna happen” because what is really at issue underneath the theological language and arguments is the notion of power. That’s why there are no women cardinals even though you don’t even have to be a priest to be a cardinal.

B. The next topic is the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople has summoned all the leaders, the Metropolitans and Archbishops of all the various Orthodox Churches for a meeting. It is to prepare for an All-Orthodox Synod in 2015. The problem of course is that not all the Orthodox Churches recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople—some of them are so split off and so isolated within their little “purity of faith” that they are no more than a sect. And this is precisely one of the problems that this Patriarch wants to address: the tendency of Orthodox Churches to turn inward in a very unhealthy way, to become obsessed about the “purity of doctrine,” to become bearers of a sclerotic tradition instead of a living tradition, and to become preoccupied with what is nothing more than a sick and narrow nationalism rather than a universal and all-embracing faith. Here is a most remarkable statement by Metropolitan Zizioulas, who is also an excellent Greek theologian in his own right and a true leader of the Greek Church. The following is from an article in Asia News:
“In this regard, the Metropolitan of Pergamon, Ioannis Zizioulas , co-chairman of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox and eminent theologian has told us that ” the greatest danger to Orthodoxy , but also for the whole Christian world, is not atheism, secular power in general or its various enemies. Nobody in history has been able to dispel the truth. The greatest danger comes from its self-marginalization . And this happens every time a movement, a spiritual force refuses to confront and come to dialogue with all social and intellectual movements of its era. Why must always remember that history is not monolithic”.

“The story – Zizioulas continues – is the space in which you exercise the freedom of the human being . And freedom in the ‘arc of human life is characterized by the expression of diverse opinions and consequently the dialectic of “you “and” no. “Only at the end ( in the eschatological sense ) human freedom will be expressed as a” yes ” , that turned to God and to the truth.The Church has established itself over time on this consideration. From the beginning, the first Christian communities dedicated themselves to constructive dialogue with Judaism and the Greek world. It reached its highest point in the so-called patristic period, in which the Church dared to tackle a constructive dialogue with the culture of the time, sealing it with his own truth . Only in the modern world has the so-called division between sacred and profane taken place in the world of culture, which has pushed the Church out of the cultural and civil sphere, with damaging consequences not only for the Church, but for civilization itself”.
“Therefore – continues Zizioulas – any escape from the historical reality and the continuing search for identity exclusively in the past, without taking into account the historical, social and cultural context in which the tradition of identity developed, is equivalent to first Orthodoxy and then to marginalizing romanticizing”.
“It ‘s very important then – said the Metropolitan of Pergamon – that we men of the Church, we give up our narcissist self-satisfaction that only leads to sterile confrontations. Instead we must learn how to offer creation the essence of the true witness, that of Our Lord”.
C. Hiking. Do you know when hiking became popular, when it became an activity that people took up for its own sake, and not just to get from Point A to Point B? Most people think that modern hiking developed from ancient pilgrimages when people used to walk miles and miles to go to some holy place. There may be some truth to this, but the real beginnings of the “hiking phenomenon” came with the Romantic Movement in Europe in the late 18th Century. With the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason rationality and human control were the dominant motifs and this extended even to the human environment in which people lived, like their gardens. The well-manicured, thoroughly planned, minutely structured garden became the ideal of the upper classes. The Romantic Movement was a revolt against all that, and the Romanticists urged people to get out of their structured gardens out into the wild nature. The ideal was not man-made nature but the wilderness. The sources of life were to be found not in what we construct and analyze but in the mysterious forces of wild nature, etc. So many people took up trips into the mountains and forests, and this was the beginning of the hiking tradition. By the middle of the 19th Century John Muir was only carrying on in that same tradition when he took off for the open road and into the Sierras.

Aldous Huxley: “My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”

A book I recommend for anyone wanting to explore this topic is Walking Distance by Robert and Martha Manning.

The TPP and the Surveillance State.

Really what can you say about all this? The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a total sham which our government is trying to sneak in. I do not know all the details, but people whom I trust in the environmental movement and the labor movement have been crying bloody murder on this one. The Surveillance State is another story. We have all been inundated with the stories of NSA spying on everyone. President Obama recently made a speech in which he promised to curtail some of the NSA activity. It was a poor presentation of a very poor effort, but its real deadly meaning is brought out by Chris Hedges in a razor-sharp piece entitled “What Obama really meant was:”

Chan Buddhism

This is the Buddhism of China and the true ancestor of Zen whose development we mostly associate with Japan. Also the Buddhism of Korea and Vietnam (see Thich Nhat Hanh) derives from Chan–we can also call it Chinese Zen. The different varieties of Buddhism is a phenomenon of interest in itself, but I would like to focus just a bit on Chan because of its peculiar beauty and power and simplicity. It holds some of the most remarkable figures in Buddhist history (like Hui-neng), and it enchanted someone like Thomas Merton for whom it contained the essence of Zen (but also he recognized that practically speaking he had to learn Zen from the Japanese and then he discovered Tibetan Buddhism which brought a very methodical, practical approach to very deep meditation—but after his encounter with the Tibetans he was going to go to Japan and meet some Zen masters there and then onto Iran and meet a number of Sufis there, so who knows how he would have finally landed!)

Guo Jun is an extremely young Chan Master and abbot of a monastery in Singapore, only 41 years old. He came from a humble, poor background but got a college degree in a scientific discipline. He began his Chan studies and practice at age 14 but did not become a monk until about the age of 24. He trained both in Singapore and in Korea, where the Zen monasteries are very austere and demanding beyond anything anywhere else I ever heard of. He himself is a very gentle, humane man in whose person one can see the true spirit and wisdom of Chan. Let us now listen to his own words:

“The breath is always there. It never leaves us. We abandon our breath, run away from our breath, ignore the breath. The breath is always there, waiting for us. The breath is always there, precisely as the present moment is always here. We are born with the most precious thing there is, which money cannot buy. We are born with the breath. From the moment we are born until the moment we die, our most loyal friend is the breath. It stays with us. And yet, so often we neglect this friend and take it for granted. We ignore the breath. We betray the breath. But when we want to go back to the breath, the breath
welcomes us. The breath is our treasure. It gives us courage and support. The breath is our refuge. Keep returning and returning and returning to the breath. Perhaps this sounds easy. It is not. Nothing
that is precious and to be cherished is easy…. It is not easy to always come back to the breath, to come back to the present moment. Still, in
reality it is quite simple. We are born with the breath; we are born with Buddha nature. At the end of the day, it is our choice. We all have a
choice to follow the path back to the breath and the present moment.”

Comment: Do not be fooled or lulled by the simplicity of these words or the seeming “obviousness” of this teaching. It flows from a profound
realization and is presented with a spiritual ingenuity of real depth masked by “everyday” simplicity.

Guo Jun again: “The purpose of Chan practice is practice. It is not this goal or that goal. There is no goal in Chan. There isn’t something in Chan that we want to attain. Rather, through engaging with Chan or living Chan, you discover yourself, you become more aware of yourself. But at the end of the practice, you get nothing. There is nothing for you to get. Don’t think: I want awakening. I want enlightenment. That is my
goal. That is what I am striving for. No! There is no goal. The Heart Sutra says, ‘No goal, no achievement, no attainment.’”

And again: “When our lives are not in harmony we experience stress, pressure, and tension. There is an imbalance. As a result, there is conflict. This is “duhkha,” a Sanskrit word that is central to Buddhism and usually translated as “suffering.” In fact, duhkha has many different levels of meaning. In a basic sense, it simply means “out of place.” The Buddha says duhkha is like a wheel out of joint: it can’t rotate on its axle. The wheel whines and complains as it turns. So, similarly, in our life when we feel out of place, we experience dissonance, whether in body, mind, body and mind, the self and others, or the self and the world. Duhkha can also mean “entrapped.” Sometimes we are trapped in our emotions, or in what feels like an impossible situation or relationship. We are overwhelmed and feel helpless and overpowered. All these conditions cause us to feel out of tune. This could also be thought of as a kind of disconnection or alienation. We’re out of position. There is friction. Our lives are not moving well. It is this position of entanglement that Chan addresses.”

Guo Jun describes the hair-raising discipline of a monastic retreat in a Korean Zen monastery: “The daily schedule was brutal. We woke at 3 am and finished at 11pm. We had only fifteen minutes each for breakfast, lunch , and dinner…. For 90 days we did not take a shower. We had a basin of water that was filled from a bamboo pipe that ran down from the mountain and used a towel to scrub ourselves clean. No break time, no time to relax, no nap after lunch. Sleeping after 11. Waking at 3. Most of us did not even have a room. We sat in the meditation hall on a folded-up cushion, which was also our bed. Each sitting was at least an hour, and we had to sit in full lotus. No movement was tolerated. If the monitors, who were senior monks, saw us move an inch, they’d hit us with a stick. In the morning, after waking up, we had to do 108 prostrations in only 10 minutes. Up and down, up and down…. The Korean terminology for this kind of intensive retreat is kyol che, which means ‘very tight dharma.’ You have to be very fast, very precise, always in the moment. There is no time to think, wander off, and daydream. If you fall behind, you get hit. There is nothing symbolic about these blows. Thwack! You dare not whimper or cringe…you have to bow and gently say, ‘thank you.’ In Korean. And then there is the pain, so much pain. Tears roll down from your eyes the moment you move your legs as you come out of the full lotus. There is so much pain that you don’t know where the pain is coming from…. And then the food. Kimchi all the time, kimchi and white rice. The kimchi smells like rotten eggs. It was repulsive…it made me gag, and I had to force down every bite. It was the only food, so you either ate it or starved! For seven days and nights in the middle of the retreat we were subjected to what is called in Chinese yong men jin jing, which translates as ‘great courageous diligence.’ This was an even more intensive practice than your run-of-the-mill Kyol Che. For 7 days and nights we were not allowed to lie down. Twenty four hours of continuous sitting practice for 7 straight days. We learned how to sleep while sitting, but when you were caught dozing, you were hit. You learned to sleep without moving. Before going into this retreat they warned us that it was called the demon training camp. We called it the cave of the tiger.”
Comment: Guo Jun is wise enough to recognize that this is not for everyone; that in fact few could survive such a regime for very long, and therefore it would be counterproductive. Even in his own case, of all the monks that began this retreat with him only about half survived to finish it—the others all would bail out at some point. What is most remarkable is that for most Chan monks this kind of retreat is only done once or twice in one’s monastic life, but Guo Jun did it a number of times—one year he did it 3 times in that same year. You might think that this is a kind of performance trick of a “spiritual Olympics,” or an attempt to “force” enlightenment as it were. Well, that certainly may be a possibility for some seekers, but it was not the case for Guo Jun. It stemmed more from his supremely intense determination to give himself totally to that Buddhist practice; and even if we do not wish to follow him in that aspect of his life, and he would be the first one to advise against it for most of us, we still can learn that lesson of determination which is an absolutely essential ingredient of all spiritual paths.”

Speaking of enlightenment, Guo Jun has some wise and incisive comments: “How can we tell whether enlightenment has occurred? When does a teacher test a disciple? Does the student say : ‘I’m prepared, now you can test me.’ No, the teacher usually tests the disciple when the disciple least expects it. This is when state of mind is most natural, in its original state…. Chan masters do not say, ‘I have a feeling I’m going to be enlightened soon. Enlightenment is close!’ There is no such thing. All Chan masters became awakened and enlightened when they least expected it. Chan masters don’t think about enlightenment; they don’t think about awakening; they only think about practice, practice, and practice. As a result, they never expect enlightenment, and then enlightenment comes. If you just keep practicing, and you do not grasp at enlightenment or run away from it, enlightenment will get you. All the Chan masters only want to practice; they don’t want to be enlightened or awakened. As a result they became enlightened and awakened. No Chan masters wanted to be Chan masters. And as a result, they became masters of Chan.”

And then there is this provocative teaching: “Sitting itself will not give you enlightenment. Meditation will not give it to you. It will only lead you to the brink. Retreating from the world will not liberate you. Happiness is not found in a secluded forest hut or an isolated cave. Enlightenment comes when you connect to the world. Only when you truly connect with everyone and everything else do you become enlightened. Only by going deeply and fully into the world do you attain liberation. This is the meaning of the star—the sudden illumination of our connection to the rest of the universe.”

Comment: A remarkable statement. The reference to the “star” pertains to the story of Gautama Buddha, who achieved full enlightenment after a whole night of meditation when in the early dawn he saw the morning star. The teaching here seems to contradict that of some other notable figures, like Milarepa, who advised people to “flee the world” and live in solitude. And of course our own Desert Fathers, like Antony and Arsenius, counseled the “seeker” to “flee the world.” The so-called discord is only a superficial difference in emphasis and Guo Jun’s words actually point to the same deep reality which is to awaken to the interconnectedness of all that is real. In a sense one could say “different strokes for different folks” in that some people will get to that reality one way and others another, but that all journey toward that same point of connection. The hermit in his cave is also “going deeply and fully into the world” as Merton was fond of pointing out, and most persons in society are actually evading that reality by trying to ground their lives on their individualistic ego self. It is actually this that we must “flee.” Interestingly enough the modern world mimics this spiritual drive in all the gizmos it provides for “connectedness”—but this is mostly to keep that ego from feeling isolated which it is by nature and to keep up an appearance of being connected to the world. Also, fascinating is the fact that Dostoievesky’s Father Zosima and Alyosha are such prime examples of what Guo Jun points to here! Read that section on the monk in The Brothers Karamazov!

Finally, Guo Jun is not blind to the problems of modern Buddhism: “Over the years in China, Buddhism deteriorated and nowadays among many Chinese, there is the impression that Buddhism is only about praying for the deceased. Tok tok cheng is onomatopoeic Asian slang that mimics the sound of the striking of the wooden block and ringing of the bowls in Buddhist ritual. It makes fun of empty, silly services that became the way monasteries and monks supported themselves by officiating at funeral services, chanting, striking the block, and ringing the bowl. Tok tok cheng. This kind of empty commercialization of Buddhism and exploitation of the importance Chinese people put on funeral practices caused monks to become known as parasitic maggots and worms who live in and feed off the rice of others…. Funerals must be grand in China to signify that you are an important person. There can be thirty monks, all chanting, a full orchestra, lots of food, and offerings of all kinds. The belief is that chanting creates merit that accrues to the deceased and ensures a better rebirth. Professional mourners may be employed who beat their heads and weep, pound the floor and carry on, all for a fee. The monks are very much part of the show, part of ushering the deceased through the ten halls of hell by burning joss paper and hell money (US one-dollar bills are popular; George Washington represents the king of hell who you are bribing to allow you to pass through the ten halls)…. Chan became entwined with these cultural superstitions, and it was enmeshed in the way we Chinese believe that life and death are permeable and interconnected. The folk superstitions of China became the bread and butter of Chan monks and monasteries, much to the detriment of the religion.”

Comment: The problem that Guo Jun talks about here is peculiar to China and other parts of Asia, but Buddhism in the U.S. has a whole other set of problems that are equally an obstacle to a healthy and authentic development of that religion. As I have pointed out in more than one posting, all the major religious traditions are equally seriously afflicted with a kind of obscurantism and superstition and fundamentalism and superficiality. One has to walk carefully and alertly on the religious path in order not to be misled. Simple Chinese peasants and well-to-do, college-educated Americans are equally vulnerable to what is in effect an “appearance” of religion, not the real thing.

One last thing: In India and in South Asia begging for food by the monks was an acceptable practice and so it became part of their spiritual practice. Cultural patterns and practices are always intertwined with spirituality. When Buddhism came to China, it was another story. The Chinese have always looked down on begging of any kind. To live off alms is simply unacceptable. So Chan monasticism developed the notion of work as part of their spiritual practice. And so the monks became self-sufficient to a large degree. This is very much like Benedictine monasticism in the West in this regard at least. Of course modern China is a whole different story and presents so many problems to a real presence of Buddhist monasticism that it can hardly said to even be there in relation to the numbers of its population. Modern China, even as Guo Jun recognizes and admits, is rampant with materialism, greed, commercialism and the drive for monetary success to such an extent that it even dwarfs us in the U.S.—and that’s saying a lot!!

All quotes are from Guo Jun’s book: Essential Chan Buddhism

Outside the Church There Is No Salvation

These words are an actual doctrinal statement of the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox, and most conservative evangelical Protestant groups. First enunciated by St. Cyprian of Carthage in the 3rd Century, they have been reasserted by many popes, bishops, and church councils. The kicker is that if you believe in the literal meaning of these words you will be a heretic, at least in the Catholic Church. The term “heretic” has a chilling resonance considering the old history of the church, but today all it means is that “you’re not one of us.” The point is that the meaning and interpretation of a doctrine can and does evolve as understanding grows. What is peculiar and funny about all this, at least for the Catholic scene, is that we never admit we made a mistake or even that we changed our understanding. You can never say that about any doctrinal statement. The words always stay the same; the old meaning/interpretation is thrown into an ecclesial closet never to see the light of day again, and a new meaning is trotted out. That closet has gotten quite crowded over the centuries!

Consider the following comments from the current Catholic Catechism:

“How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846)…. Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” (CCC 846)).

But the Church leaves a kind of “backdoor” open. It points out that in fact all kinds of people can be “saved,” even those “outside” the Church. So the Catechism goes on almost quoting Vatican II: “This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

Frankly, as far as this goes, I prefer the wording of Kallistos Ware, bishop, monk and great scholar of the Orthodox Church:

“Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (G. Florovsky, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church”, in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.”

Ok, all this is surely an advance over saying that all non-Catholics, non-Christians are damned. But it still leaves the interreligious encounter in a quandry Over the years many theologians and religious thinkers have wrestled with the full implications of all these kinds of statements and doctrines and have not really been able to find a satisfying explanation for there are some real problems here. Some of the best thinking, like Karl Rahner’s, resulted in this notion of “anonymous Christians”— to put it crudely, every person is a Christian whether they realize it or not! It privileges the Church in a sneaky way of sorts and that offends adherents of other religious traditions. Imagine telling the Dalai Lama, “You know you’re really ok in our eyes because you really are a Christian deep down!” Well, Buddhists could say every person is a Buddhist whether they realize it or not and we would object to that probably! You can kind of see the problem with that approach. And most importantly that kind of approach avoids truly encountering what another religious tradition has to say about itself, about reality, avoids truly encountering the “otherness” of the other tradition and learning from it, etc. Another variant of this approach is to see various boundaries to the Church. First there is the very visible boundary of the Roman Catholic Church, then the further out boundary of being a Christian, and then an almost invisible boundary of all basically good people of good will, and somehow the Church in its wholeness encompasses all these boundaries, but Catholics will again insist that the “fullness” of the Church is only within the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church. And the most crucial point of all this is that all other religious traditions are basically inadequate and will find their fulfillment when they enter the Christian fold in a very explicit way.

When Abhishiktananda first came to India, about 1949, and during the first few years there, he pretty much adhered to this theological view which was quite progressive for that day. With the arrival of Vatican II that became the standard interpretation of that doctrine, but Abhishiktananda was changing rapidly due to his openness toward learning from his Hindu brethren and especially due to his own religious experience in the light of the Advaita teaching of the Upanishads. James Stuart, a good friend and editor of his writings, had this comment about one of his essays: “In this article—a contribution to the Theology of Religions, a subject which deeply interested both him and Dr. Panikkar—he makes very clear his dissatisfaction with the widely accepted ‘theology of fulfillment’, which envisaged a final absorption or replacement of all other religions by Christianity. (This had been the assumption of his book Sagesse, which he later tried to tone down in its English version, Saccidananda.)”

By the late 1960s Abhishiktananda had turned the traditional position totally upside down. Now it was no longer the Church inviting Hindus(and others) to the fullness and fulfillment of their spiritual yearnings, but it was the Church and Christianity that needed that experience within Hinduism of Advaita and articulated so powerfully in the Upanishads, it was the Church that needed this gift from India in order to arrive to its fullness and true divine mission. Here is Abhishiktananda from a letter in 1968:

“As I am more and more persuaded, the salvation of the world and of the Church lies in realizing that fundamental experience of the human being, of which the best expression so far seems to have been given by the Upanishads. Any construction that seeks to be solid has to be built on this unbreakable block.”

And then from another letter the whole idea of conversion is jettisoned: “Only this month I have had with me a 22 year old student for his holidays. He comes to spend every holiday with me, and is like a son to me. It is marvelous to have such a deep and close relation with Hindus. But the further I go, the less I see how these real Hindus, despite their admiration for Christ, could ever enter into the framework of Christianity. I cannot see a single one of my friends, young or not so young, who could become a Christian. This sets a terrible theological problem, which begins to trouble our young theologians here. Living as I do more than anyone in both environments at the same time, I see less than anyone how to solve the problem.”

And of course the still more gnarly problem of the relationship of Advaita to Christian mysticism is even more intractable to any conceptual/theological solution. These two do not admit of easy reconciliation/formulation. Toward the end of his life Abhishiktananda believed that no “theology of world religions” could ever be reconciled with Christian claims and at the same time do justice to what these other religions claim. Comparing the words and symbols and concepts of each religion, while a worthwhile endeavor in at least appreciating what others are claiming, will never lead to that ultimate “common ground.” That common ground is an ultimately transcendent reality beyond all words and symbols and it can only be “realized” as a transcendent reality and for this we have this innate capacity that is open to that which is beyond rational, discursive analysis—in the Hesychast tradition this is sometimes called “the heart.” (Abhishiktananda, for example, was critical of his dear friend, Sara Grant, who had made a valiant effort to show the similarity between Sankara and Aquinas following the guidance of her mentor, the great Jesuit Sanskrit scholar De Smet.) Of course the scholar/intellectual who is learned in the claims and symbols of another religious symbol and who is also at the same time a true and devoted spiritual seeker within his own tradition will be in an excellent position to begin to evaluate the words and symbols of his own tradition in the light of that other tradition.

Abhishiktananda’s “solution” is that, for example in the case of Hinduism and Christianity, followers of each way dive deep down within each tradition, within the words and symbols of each tradition, going “all the way” to the ground of their religious tradition and then they will be able to look each other in the face and recognize that “smile” which is truly beyond all words and symbols and doctrines—like the smile of the Buddha which so transfixed Thomas Merton on his trip to Asia. That means “the mystic” has priority over the theological/religious intellectual—but not the “monopoly” in religious encounters. And so of course the real “dialogue” will only take place between people of deep experience who are witnesses of the depth of their own tradition. (Of course Abhishiktananda would also say that at least for the Christian what he/she learns from his fellow Hindu will make this “journey” ever more “powerful”—freeing it perhaps from being absolutized in the Semitic-Greco terms of Christian tradition.) This does not please the theologians for the very dynamic of their profession is to analyze religious concepts. This does not please church officials for it seems to bypass their authority. This does not please the average church goer for it seems to complicate what he/she had learned in a fundamental catechism/evangelism class where the Mystery of God has the stuffings knocked out of it. So it does not please anyone! Except the true mystic who simply seeks the Mystery which dwells in his/her heart.

So here is an extended quote from Abhishiktananda from early 1973, less than a year from his death:

“What a purification from all attachment is this meeting with the East, which compels us to recognize as namarupa all that previously we considered to be most sacred, to be the very Truth contained in ‘words’…. Later we have to be able to recognize the value of the namarupa, no less than we did ‘before’, but we have discovered another level of truth—the blinding sun of high noon. Our time is one of those without precedent in the history of the world, when the worldwide coming together makes us clearly see that we ourselves and our whole tradition and every tradition are essentially conditioned. Every religion is rooted in a culture, beginning with the most primordial and hidden archetypes which necessarily govern its view of the world. All that is citta [thought] is namarupa. And every namarupa has to be laid bare, so that the satyam [Real] may be unveiled. What a savage but marvelous purification! No longer even to say ‘I am’, but to be it to such an extent that the whole being ‘exudes’ it…. And then we have understood. We find ourselves once more Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, for each one has his own line of development, marked out already from his mother’s lap. But we also have the ‘smile.’ Not a smile which looks down condescendingly from above, still less a smile of mockery, but one which is simply an opening out like the flower unfolding its petals…. When religions are too close, like the Muslim, the Jewish and the Christian, we look for common denominators. But when the fancy takes us, we can equally well make an eclectic Hindu-Christian system…. Then we realize that on the level of the namarupa no comparison is valid. Religions are grandiose dream-worlds. But be careful not to call them dreams from the point of view of a dreaming…. The man who is awake marvels at the dream; in it he grasps the symbolism of the mystery. He knows that every detail has its significance. The only mistake is to want to absolutize each symbol. And the difficulty is that no deep ‘drive’ can be expressed without symbols. There is no religion without a culture. There is no Christ, if he is not linked to a time, a place, an ethnic group.”

So the real problem from the Christian standpoint is that we absolutize the normal and inevitable specific symbols and language of that transformation from the Semitic beginnings of Christianity, that specific time and place of the Middle East to its inculturation in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity. What many of us wonder is do we really need to ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE simply repeat that language. In other words, is the language of the Fathers of the Church to be absolutized to such an extent that we cannot find other expressions that come from other cultures and religious experiences as the reality of Christ comes to these cultures and religious consciousness. What if that religious experience is truly authentic and leads to good and holy lives, does it not lead to some kind of “explosion” (as Abhishiktananda loved to put it) when it meets the Christian complex of concepts and symbols? An explosion where all concepts and words and symbols, on both sides of the encounter, are shattered and remain not the same. The interesting thing is that in this encounter both sides are really shy about this, really apprehensive about such encounters, Buddhists and Hindus just as much as Christians.

Before I sign off, just a few notes:

First of all, note that there are three important words in that doctrinal statement I quoted: “outside”—a problematic word to say the least; “church”—a loaded term with many “trap doors”; and “salvation”—my favorite word here and I believe the one that needs a whole treatment on its own because I think it is greatly misunderstood and misapplied within Christian circles. More about that later.

Secondly, I have emphasized the Christian-Hindu encounter and the writings of Abhishiktananda (whom I believe is one of the most important Christian spiritual writers of our time). But what about Buddhism? Many Christian monks have been attracted to Buddhism because their own tradition seems to stifle the “mystic journey.” Many others have delved deeply into Buddhism because on the surface it seems to present less doctrinal challenges to Christianity than say the Hinduism of Advaita Vedanta. But I think that is a surface evaluation. In reality I think Buddhism presents an incredibly more difficult and more comprehensive challenge to Christianity. To simply borrow from Buddhism a “contemplative style” of living or to take up simply some techniques of meditation is not to do justice to the depth, the complexity, and the comprehensiveness of the “Buddhist Way.” It is much more than a mere “science of the mind/consciousness” as some Christians and even many Buddhists claim it is. Maybe we shall return to this later!

A happy New Year to all, and a Blessed Epiphany. Now for your homework: what do you make of the Three Wise Men coming from the East to worship the Christ child?