Monthly Archives: February 2014

Dostoevsky and the Russian Fable of The Onion and Ash Wednesday

Since I mentioned in passing this Russian fable as a parable pointing to the reality of Advaita in a previous posting, I figure I better explain myself!  Actually this little story is incredibly rich and worth considering on its own merits, so let us begin.  The version I have appears in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and it pretty much reads the same in all translations:

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”


So first of all let us consider this story simply in the context of Christian spirituality and especially of Russian spirituality.  The underlying atmosphere of this fable can be found in that lovely Russian word, “sobornost,” (this person is an icon you might say of “anti-sobornost”) which has only a weak rendering in English as “communion.”  In fact various philosophical approaches to sobornost mischaracterize it even more.  It is a theological/spiritual term for a profound communion  which values at once and at the same time both the infinite uniqueness of the person (because it is rooted in the infinite reality of God) and the unspeakable communion and interrelatedness of all reality.  Sobornost points to a kind of oneness that is in fact a key characteristic of “being saved.”  One might even say that it is a kind of prelude to the advaita, the nonduality, of which Abhishiktananda speaks.  Here he pushes beyond the orthodox Hindu model into a distinctly Christian vision when he points out that non-duality is not only the condition of our life with God but also with our brothers and sisters.   We are not “two” but “one.”


So then the reality of hell is nothing more than the paralysis in the thought of “I” and “me,” the thought of “myself” and “mine.”  An isolated, fragmented self is the ambience of hell and endless suffering.  “Salvation,” then, is the realization that one must abandon all of that superficial selfhood and find our real self in Christ: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  This is not all that far from basic Buddhist teaching: so long as we fixate on the thought of self in our heart, we find ourselves in hell.  But also here we are on the way to advaita, non-duality, where “I” and “you” are no longer absolute designations of absolute separateness where we live in our own separate worlds  (Sarte’s “Hell is other people” comes from that where our own self is in constant friction with other selves and seemingly limited by these other selves; thus the other is a problem in this modern western view).   But “I” and “you” are merely “placemarkers” as it were within one reality that encompasses our oneness.  It is only then that we begin to realize the meaning of “sacrifice” and “love.”  These are no longer the isolated acts of an individual inevitably acting for his own self-good, but they are now simply an opening into Reality where there are no calculations of what is “to my benefit.”

By the way, it is apparent from this story that even the smallest “good deed” can catapult us into this realization.   Even an onion skin.

Here is what Elder Zosima says to the young Alyosha Karamazov about hell…

“What is hell? I maintain it is the suffering of no longer being able to love.”


Very shortly it will be Ash Wednesday for many of us Christians.  Many of us Catholics will be seen with a smudge of ash on our foreheads.  Actually it should be sannyasi-like and put all over our bodies because what is really symbolized is that we are all afflicted with this problem of a transient, superficial, isolated identity that we absolutize into something that becomes incredibly substantial—our sense of this limited “I-ness.”  But it is only “dust”—and this is what the minister proclaims upon each one of us.  Unfortunately we mostly take it in a way that reinforces that illusory self in its illusory isolation—it becomes “my onion”—it becomes a matter of “saving myself.”  Perhaps we can borrow something from Mahayana Buddhism…the Bodhisattva notion and adapt it to our own “salvation story.”  The Bodhisattva seeks salvation/liberation not for him/herself alone but for the sake of all sentient beings because he realizes that his identity, if one may use that word, is not “I” or “me” or “mine,” but always “we”.  Compassion is then not some special “good deed” or “extraordinary isolated act” which we perform now and then, but simply the way things are.  Compassion is then like our breathing. But this takes us far afield!


Long time ago I recall the renowned Berkeley sociologist, Robert Bellah, speaking of the individualistic ethos of America.  In the course of his talk he said that the whole point of a rich man owning a Mercedes instead of a simple Ford is that the rest of us cannot own the Mercedes.  In other words that ownership reinforces his sense of “separateness”—he is different from you and me.  That’s what wealth allows him to do—it facilitates this feeling of “apartness” and thus of “specialness.”  Owning a Ford would make him just like everybody else.  So wealth plays this insidious role of paralyzing us in this illusory separate self that defines itself in the differences that wealth brings.  But it is not just the actual material wealth that is the problem; rather it is the desire for wealth, the desire deep in our hearts—and this “wealth” can take on many forms indeed.  So with Ash Wednesday, with Lent, we are called to a profound repentance, to recognize what is “dust,” to awaken to our true identity in Christ as Christian Bodhisattvas, and to be prepared for that moment when we will be tempted to say “It’s my onion.”



Two Paradigms of Encounter With Ultimate Reality

At times this blog seems to have become an “Abhishiktananda Blog” but that is not the case. It’s only that I consider this person the most significant religious figure of our time, and his lived experience and his words beckon us to a journey that most of us never heard of in any theology classroom, in any religious community, or in any standard Catholic teaching. Or if we did “hear” of it, it was almost a “whisper” expressed in very disguised language. Yes, there was Merton, a relief for most of us, but he was only a “beginning”—read his meditation in Asian Journal on Christ as the Door and you will see hints of a radical rethinking going on in his own mind. But Abhishiktananda probably went further. That does not mean he does not have his limitations—he does, and plenty of them. That also means we need other voices, other lights also, to focus on this path, on this journey. That’s why we often turn to our Sufi friends and sometimes to our Buddhist friends. Among other things, Abhishiktananda tells us that it is no longer wise to journey in an isolated tradition. So this is what this blog is all about, this path, this journey, with an occasional foray into “current events.”

In the last posting I gave a quote, advice from De Lubac to Monchanin when the latter was leaving for India. I discovered that quote was a redacted one, so here is the complete quote, and even more interesting: “Rethink everything in the light of theology, and rethink theology through mysticism, freeing it from everything incidental, regaining, through spirituality alone, everything essential.” Very, very important words. And it was not Monchanin who followed this advice but his partner, Abhishiktananda—and De Lubac could never guess, I think, how deep his own words could go.

I am glad for that reference by De Lubac to “mysticism”—a word that has been badly corrupted and misused and thoroughly misunderstood. This blog has been an attempt to recapture this word for some “ordinary” religious usage, to salvage it from what our culture considers as weird or exotic or special. In fact many religious people themselves tend to criticize all mentions of all such terms as “elitism,” or impractical and not having to do with people’s real problems. I am especially bewildered by the charge of “elitism” at any talk of mysticism. You will recall Karl Rahner’s famous statement: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not be.” Indeed! This is what Abhishiktananda was seeking—the uncovering, the awakening of this mysticism in all its fullness within Christianity. He had discovered through his encounter with Arunachala and Ramana Maharshi and the Advaita of the Upanishads the radical accessibility of this Ultimate Reality we call God, the radical closeness of this Ultimate Reality—closer to him than he was to himself (in Augustine’s words). The one thing that Abhishiktananda was NOT was an elitist. For him mysticism was just as basic to life and everyday living as breathing. The Presence of that Reality was always and everywhere THERE where you were doing whatever you were engaged in. To say that he was not sensitive to simple human problems in pursuit of the mystical depths is a serious mistake. And to claim that the radical contemplative/mystical journey is something that is a luxury for those fighting for social justice or simply trying to make it in life is a tragic and profound mistake.

True, Abhishiktananda wanted the Christian community to recognize the importance and significance of those who are drawn into this Mystery in a kind of exclusive way—these folk are also very much in great need within the Christian community for its own self-understanding. But that did not mean that the mystical depths were only accessible by these “few”—but rather the mystical depths are in their radical simplicity at your fingertips wherever you are, whoever you are—that was Abhishiktananda’s teaching. Listen to this letter he writes to a housewife:

“I would not know how to give a good answer to the question whether Christ is necessary for Hindus. I only know that plenty of people who do not know his person have access to his ‘mystery’(not to his ‘concept’) in their inner deepening and also in transcending themselves in the love of their brothers. The mystery of the Heart of Christ is present in the mystery of every human heart. You have found fulfillment through music, through painting. Art is also a way of access to the mystery, and perhaps—in poetry, painting, music—it reveals him better than any technical formula. And in the end it is this mystery—at once of oneself and of each person, of Christ and of God—that alone counts. The Awakening of the Resurrection is the awakening to this mystery! …Joy to you, to your husband, to your children. May it shed its rays on all! And don’t worry about those who love the esoteric, who run around to ashrams and ‘saints’. The discovery of the mystery is so much simpler than that. It is right beside you, in the opening of a flower, the song of a bird, the smile of a child!”

This was written in 1972 about a year before his death. Abhishiktananda’s teaching was about the radical accessibility, the radical simplicity, the radical closeness of this Ultimate Reality which we call God. Anywhere, anyplace, anytime. There is only the Awakening to that Reality in whatever way that our life unfolds. If we are drawn to live in silence with the abiding Presence, we are doing something very important for the Church and for all humanity. If we are drawn to feed and clothe the poor in a Catholic Worker community, for example, we are still to “know, love and serve the Lord” within a non-dualistic framework and in a non-dualistic realization of profound depth which rightly can be called “mysticism.” “Whenever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me”—words that are not taken seriously enough, profoundly enough by all of us. Somewhere Abhishiktananda says that we cannot be speaking of “one” when in our lives and activities we are acting as “two.” True advaita, real non-duality means that we live this advaita with our fellow human beings—perhaps this is an emphasis not found in Hinduism per se. (Recall Merton’s famous “awakening” episode that he writes about in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, his realization on a downtown street corner in Louisville that he and all those other people, “strangers,” were really and truly “one.” This was a real experience of Advaita, and it is interesting that he speaks of it as an awakening. Such is also the language he uses in that famous moment depicted in the Asian Journal before the great Buddha statues. Awakening is the language we use as the Real opens before our eyes.) And if we are married and raising a family, the sexual love between husband and wife are true and actualizing symbols of our non-dual relationship with this Ultimate Reality. That’s why so much mysticism borrows erotic language to express that non-dual state.

Christian mysticism gives all kinds of indications of non-dualistic realizations and not just in Eckhart and the Rhineland mystics but also in so many other varied personages. (You can interpret St. Francis along these lines—the mythic stigmata, his “brother, sister” language, etc.) Usually the non-dualistic language is expressed through a whole matrix of symbology and a layer of bhakti-like expressions which suit ordinary everyday human psychology. “I turn to you;” “I turn to God”—in everyday human psychology these two “turns” seem to indicate a very similar “motion” and structure. It is only when we begin to Awaken that we begin to discover that the second “turn” is of a profoundly different nature, but we may still use the same language.

All kinds of diversifications are significant as long as we are “on earth” and “in history,” but once we are “in heaven,” that is once we awaken to this Reality and our constant abiding within its loving Presence, the particulars of our life really will not matter in the same way as Scripture itself seems to hint—recall, there is “no marriage in heaven, no male or female, nor Jew or Gentile.” In fact ultimately there will be no “heaven” and no “earth” (and dare I say it, “no hell”—like St. Isaac the Syrian seemed to indicate when he prayed for those “in hell” that hell might be emptied out—and Dostoyevsky’s “onion skin” that reclaims a person from “hell”, is that not an incredible symbol of the non-dual character of Christian realization)–there will be no “heaven” and no “earth,” there will be only God—if we want to use a name.

So now we proceed to take a look at this interesting essay by an Indian Jesuit, Sebastian Painadath: “The Spiritual Encounter of East and West.” Normally I run away from such titles! But Fr. Painadath has written a thoughtful essay on a serious issue of this thing called “mysticism.” There seems to be two distinctly different patterns of the human experience of the Divine, and one pattern seems to dominate in the West and the other in the East. He calls it the “Interpersonal” and the “Transpersonal” paradigms of religious experience, but really only the “transpersonal” (not to be confused with transpersonal psychology) seems to fit the name of “mysticism” in the classic sense. (Everything I wrote above would belong more in the Transpersonal Paradigm.) Also, both patterns can be found in every great religion, but one will be dominant here and the other dominant there. This can create some problems in understanding what each is saying if they are in fact speaking from these different paradigms. But this is not only an obstacle in interreligious dialogue but actually quite a problem for two different people within the same tradition. For example, a person who is focused on having a “personal relationship with Jesus” will have a hard time appreciating what a disciple of Eckhart is all about, and I am sure that an “Eckhartian” would not be very engaged by the “personal relationship” stuff. In any case, let us listen to Fr. Painadath’s presentation of the Interpersonal Paradigm:

“ …the Divine is experienced as a personal God. As a result an interpersonal relationship between the human person and God evolves; this is a relationship in the pattern of I-Thou. God, who is I, encounters the human thou in love; the human person, who thus becomes aware of his/her subjectivity, responds to the divine Thou in surrender. Encounter with the divine Thou is expressed through personalistic symbols like father, mother, lord, king, friend, bridegroom. The primary medium of communication between I and thou is the word: when one speaks the other listens. There is a constant dialectic between revelation and response, between the demanding word and obedient surrender. Disobedience to God’s Word…is sin…. The relationship between the human person and God gives rise to a spirituality with ethical overtones and a dominant sin-consciousness. Justice becomes the central concern of religious existence. Interpersonal relationship with God creates human communities with a keen spiritual sensitivity to interpersonal human relationships. Religion thus inevitably promotes social responsibility and creates salvific communities…. Since God is experienced as a personal Thou, devotional practices, vocal prayers, and structured rituals play significant roles in the practical religious life of the believers. Hence houses of worship, like temples and churches, exert a great influence in shaping the religious life of the believing community. Consequently a certain domination of cult officers like priests sets in…. Laws and regulations, norms and customs, well defined dogmas and precise rubrics play a decisive role in shaping the religious life of the believers.”

And now for a look at the Transpersonal Paradigm—very different:

“In the transpersonal approach the Divine is experienced as absolute mystery. No personalistic symbol can truly express the ineffable mystery of the Divine. Hence the seeker goes beyond all names and forms in search of the God-beyond-God. Transpersonal symbols—like ground of being, depth of existence, ineffable silence, within, and the ultimate Self of all—may surface in the course of this inner pursuit…. The medium in which one awakens to this awareness of the Mystery is contemplative silence. In silence one enters into the deeper levels of consciousness and even into the experience of oneness with the Ground of being. Transparency to the divine reality is the basic dynamic of this apophatic spirituality. Opaqueness to the Divine Light is sin; it is ignorance: not knowing what one truly is…. Transparency to the divine Ground is ultimately a matter of being: the transformation of consciousness that leads to a holistic perception of reality. Here spirituality assumes a cosmic dimension. When the divine Light within shines forth, one ‘sees the Divine in all things and all things in the Divine.’ This gnosis recreates the life of the human individual. Such an outlook on reality has mystical underpinnings. A holistic vision of reality is the fruit of enlightenment. Integration and harmony with all beings becomes the central concern of religious existence. Alienation of the individual from the totality of reality is considered to be the cause of all suffering; it is the possessive attitude of the mind that causes this alienation. Spirituality, therefore, means progressive liberation from egoism and insertion into the totality of reality…. In so far as the emphasis is placed on the individual seeker’s relentless quest for oneness with the Divine and consequently with all beings, external structures and practices of religion are not considered normative here.”

Now for a few comments:

a. Needless to say Fr. Painadath has a lot more to say about each paradigm. Both paradigms can be found in every religion in some fashion and even in the same spiritual seeker—even as they are in a tense relationship with one another, almost working against each other in some cases.
b. There are extreme examples of the Transpersonal Paradigm that just about totally exclude the Interpersonal. Consider the example of Ramana Maharshi.
c. Within Christianity it is obvious that the Interpersonal Paradigm dominates, but once you discover the Transpersonal experience, like Abhishiktananda, you try and find the Christian language for it and that is very difficult. There are a number of saints that indicate a profound mixture of both kinds of language, but you have to know how to read their language, like in St. Francis as I alluded to earlier. Or consider now the example of the great Russian saint and mystic, St. Seraphim. His whole teaching can be summed up in one sentence: the whole point of the Christian life is the possession of the Holy Spirit. And when in that famous scene of him and his lay disciple he describes the warmth and light of the Presence of the Holy Spirit it is a more Transpersonal depiction than an Interpersonal one and a true expression of Christian advaita. (Orthodox theologians probably would scream at me because the notion of “personhood” in the Divine is extremely important for them, but I think they would also agree that the modern use and understanding of the word “person” is totally inadequate and misleading as a designation for the reality of God.)
d. But now consider the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament. Certainly the Interpersonal Paradigm is there, but underneath the Semitic and Hellenistic language and symbology you can sense the thoroughly Transpersonal. This is especially true in the Gospel of John. This is what Abhishiktananda found and tried to communicate. His whole Christology became focused on this “I AM” experience of Jesus and his advaita with the “Father.” The whole point of being a Christian and the whole mission of the Church was to lead people to this awakening in Christ. It is a transcending of all I-Thou views of God.
e. If we are going to have a true Christian mysticism we need to rethink, revise, and re-interpret all of Christian theology. So De Lubac’s advice quoted above is really a call to rethink it all within the Transpersonal Paradigm without losing the Interpersonal Paradigm. But this will also mean a full “injesting of Asia” and a relativizing of Europe. Nothing less will do.
f. One final, personal note: When I was a little boy, I sometimes saw my grandmother go into her room and pray. She prayed the rosary everyday. She would sit on the edge of her bed and start murmuring the Our Fathers and the Hail Marys and pretty soon she would become very silent, eyes closed and be in a deep peace. Even as a little boy I could see that she was “somewhere else” even though her fingers kept slowly moving over the beads. She was very uneducated and I am sure all this talk of paradigms would confuse her, but I think I am still trying to get to that place where she was every day.

Abhishiktananda, a New Book, and Fr. Francis Tiso

In the current issue of Dilatato Corde, the monastic interreligious dialogue journal, there is a very interesting review by Fr. Francis Tiso of a relatively new book on the thought and significance of Abhishiktananda. The title of the book is: Cristo e l’Advaita:
La mistica di Henri Le Saux O.S.B. tra cristianesimo ed induismo.
Ok, the book is all in Italian, so it seems that those of us who can’t read Italian are stuck—but Fr. Tiso has come to our aid in giving such a comprehensive review that the reader of the review feels like he has read the book after reading the review. The book itself is a collection of papers given at a monastic-theological colloquim given in 2010 in Rome, and so it reflects a variety of viewpoints. Fr. Tiso’s review is thorough, cogent, and thought-provoking, and he does not hesitate to interject his own disagreements with the authors—thus inviting our own divergences both from his views and those of the authors. A true dialogue! I would like to point out some critical points of agreement and disagreement because there is actually a lot at stake in one’s interpretation of the life of Abhishiktananda. But I would like to begin with a kind of prolegomena to my comments in 4 parts(all of which will come into play in my critique of certain positions concerning Abhishiktananda):

. Bettina Baumer, the famed indologist and expert on Kashmir Shaivism, relates somewhere the story of her first academic paper she delivered. It was at the University of Vienna and it was on the topic of anUpaya(no-method) in Kashmir Shaivism. In the audience was the eminent Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. After her presentation, he took her aside and said to her,”Wir sind nur Waisenkinder.” Translation: “We are only children, orphans”—that is, compared to what these Indians have realized.
. When Monchanin was first setting out for India in the 1930s, his friend, the eminent Jesuit patristic scholar Henri De Lubac, gave him this advice: “Rethink everything in the light of theology, and rethink theology in terms of mysticism. And keep only what is essential.”
. Dances With Wolves was an award-winning movie from 2 decades ago. For many it was simply a “modern revival of the Western,” but the movie had unsuspected depths that few explored. It tells the story of a civil war soldier, John Dunbar, who is traumatized by his war experience and so he seeks to go as far West as he can to experience the wilderness before civilization gets there. He asks for the furthest out posting and he gets exactly that—he ends up alone in a dilapitated scout post in Lakota territory. While waiting for other soldiers to arrive, he encounters the native Lakota. He encounters them in the deepest sense of the term, not just in terms of an “exchange of views.” Thus begins a story of profound transformation. In the end his whole identity has changed and he is no longer a white soldier but “Dances with Wolves,” the name given him by his Lakota friends. The name change is very important and very significant, pointing to a new reality within him. In one sense he is still John Dunbar, but in another sense he is someone else now due to a new vision of what is real for him. He can never simply go back to the “white society.”
. From “Letter to a Priest” by Simone Weil:
“Every time that a man has, with a pure heart, called upon Osiris, Dionysus, Buddha, the Tao, etc., the Son of God has answered him by sending the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit has acted upon his soul, not by inciting him to abandon his religious tradition, but by bestowing upon him light [-] It is, therefore, useless to send out missions to prevail upon the peoples of Asia, Africa or Oceania to enter the Church. Besides, it is written that the tree shall be known by its fruits. The Church has borne too many evil fruits for there not to have been some mistake at the beginning. Europe has been spiritually uprooted, cut off from that antiquity in which all the elements of our civilization have their origin; and she has gone about uprooting the other continents from the sixteenth century onwards. Missionary zeal has not Christianized Africa, Asia and Oceania, but has brought these territories under the cold, cruel and destructive domination of the white race, which has trodden down everything. It would be strange, indeed, that the word of Christ should have produced such results if it had been properly understood.

I will let the reader “connect the dots” from these four “witnesses” to uncover something that I think is missed by most of these kinds of conferences but which is very hard to put into words. In fact toward the end of his life, Abhishiktananda was not very favorable to such gatherings. Murray Rogers, probably his closest friend in India, tells us that Abhishiktananda was certainly interested in and enjoyed intellectual discussion, but there was one major proviso—he would listen to what any speaker had to say but the speaker’s words had to be backed up by his life. Something of his life had to be invested in those words for them to be taken seriously. Otherwise the effort was merely one of throwing labels and names on things.
Now let me just hit a few sporadic points at random from this book:
1. Fr. Tiso makes the point that no Hindus participated in this conference. Perhaps that is understandable because it was to be a theological-monastic conference looking at Abhishiktananda’s experience and writings from a Christian perspective. More problematic, and Fr. Tiso is right to point this out, is that almost none of the presenters touch on the real thorny issue of the goal and purpose of interreligious dialogue. In some parts of Asia, and in India with conservative Hindus (and in many Moslem countries), the suspicion is that Christians use dialogue as a subterfuge for conversion. The reason we are talking to all these people is that we want to convert them! It’s like when a pair of young Mormon men come to your door—very friendly, courteous, interested in talking to you about your life, your problems, etc.—but eventually it becomes an invite to come to the Mormon Church, read the Book of Mormon, and see that “we really have it together”! Now of course the people “on the ground” doing monastic interreligious dialogue do not engage their dialogue partners in this way or for this purpose(most of the time!), but what about the official Church? That’s another matter. Irregardless of how many documents there are from the Vatican with all that nice language about “appreciating” all these various religious traditions and how the Church values them all, the bottom line is that the Official Church wants them all “in the fold.” The official, theological, doctrinal self-understanding of the Church is that it is “evangelical,” “missionary,” “making disciples of all nations,” 24/7—it is NEVER not this. Even in dialogue. So the Church wants its monks and religious to be “present” within the cultural contexts of all these religious traditions and dialogue with them, but with a view of “informing” the other of the “riches of faith” and inviting them in. Thus, conversion has definitely taken on a different tone from the past, where the Church was trying to “save the lost,” but conversion still is the bottom line. The “official dialogues” can go no further than this in a sense, even though it may be intellectually stimulating, cordial and even inspiring. The “unofficial dialogues,” like Abhishiktananda’s was, is something else altogether. Here encounter can transcend dialogue, and a whole new self-understanding can emerge with profound implications for all parties. That’s where the real “rethinking” takes place!

2. Here’s a problem that I have with this conference/book which Fr. Tiso does not mention: the title. It is all about Henri Le Saux, not Abhishiktananda. This is not a trivial issue but indicative of a whole perspective on this man. Name changes can be superficial and simply “window-dressing,” but in Abhishiktananda’s case it pointed to something very deep in his own self-understanding and his relationship to all else, including the Church. In contrast, Monchanin, who also had a name change when he founded Shantivanam, taking on a certain “Indian flavor” as it were, never had that as his real name. It was a kind of “Indian label.” So to keep referring to Abhishiktananda as Le Saux is in fact a “Eurocentric” bias and indicative that we have not yet discovered the real transformation that has taken place.

3. I think that Fr. Tiso and the author of the first essay are mistaken when they lament the fact that Abhishiktananda and Monchanin did not engage enough the Catholic Christian community that had already been there for centuries. The fact is that these people were not really interested in or even friendly toward “dialogue” or even encounter with their Hindu brethren. This is well-documented in Abhishiktananda’s letters and diary. This is even true today to a large part as even Fr. Tiso alludes to. Progressive Indian Christians are more interested in “theologies of liberation” which address the very real social problems in India, while conservative and official Catholicism keeps Hinduism “at arm’s length.” The sannyasi tradition is increasingly seen as irrelevant to India’s present condition, and the “Advaita thing” is more often an object of study rather than of life. Scholars “talk the talk,” but how many “walk the walk.” Furthermore, certainly “inculturation” has taken place, but this is a tricky word that could be very superficial. Simply dressing like Indians, eating like Indians, etc. and incorporating some cultural forms within the various liturgies is merely scratching a surface. Fr. Tiso alludes to some of this in regard to liturgical inculturation and actual life in some of the Catholic ashrams.
4. Just my opinion but I think it is a serious mistake to view Abhishiktananda through the lens of Husserl and Heidegger. I think what you will then see is an Abhishiktananda of your own construction in a very modern European sense, never really getting to the core of his experience. In fact all those allusions to the “hidden modern European” in Abhishiktananda are a mirage, so is my contention. For example, his whole critique of religion does not come from some European consciousness/philosophy of religion, etc. Certainly he read modern thinkers like Teilhard and Jung and tried to use whatever scraps he could find to build a new Christian paideia that expressed his spiritual experience. This came from a true and profoundly deep encounter with the “other”—here the other was the advaitic experience within Hinduism as exemplified by Ramana Maharshi. In the movie mentioned above, Dances With Wolves has taken off his western clothes as a symbol of entering deep within the Lakota experience and vision. It is not a matter of “bracketing” his identity as some phenomenological experiment, but one of profound encounter and not merely “dialogue” or inculturation. I don’t think the Church is quite ready for that! But also think of some ancient examples. In the time of Jesus there were multiple Judaisms, not just one. In Alexandria the Jewish experience became transformed into something quite else as it encountered in a true sense Platonism and Neoplatonism. In Qumran they were translating Plato into Hebrew, indicating a thought-world foreign to the rabbis. In fact what we have in modern Judaism is a result of Rabbinic Judaism squashing all these other Jewish experiences and “rethinkings.”

5. Here are three relevant quotes from Abhishiktananda himself:
As early as 1953 he is saying: “Shantivanam…henceforth interests me so little. Arunachala has caught me. I have understood silence…. Now sannyasa is no longer a thought, a concept, but an inborn summons, a basic need; the only state that suits the depths into which I have entered….”
There is more than dialogue or inculturation going on here. From here on he will struggle to rethink the Christian message in the light of his Advaitic experience. His “rethinking” will have him still use “Jesus language” and “Church language” but now it will have a radically transformed content and direction. Note this quote:
“Whether I want it or not, I am deeply attached to Christ and the koinonia of the Church…. It was under his image, his symbol, that I came to know God and the world of men…. When I woke in India to new depths within myself this symbol became marvellously expanded. Christian theology had already revealed to me the eternal dimension of Jesus. India showed me…the immeasurable Christ, higher than the heavens and also infinitely close…. Moreover, I recognized this mystery, which I have always adored under the symbol of Christ, in the myths of Shiva, Krishna, Rama. This same mystery. But for me Jesus is my sadguru.”
Finally, very close to his death he has this to say:
“Even more after my beyond life/death experience of 14/7 I can only aim at awakening people to what ‘they are.’ Anything about God or the Word, in any religion, which is not based on the deep I-experience is bound to be simply ‘notion’, not existential. Of course I can make use of Christ experience to lead Christians to ‘I AM’ experience, yet it is this I AM experience which really matters…. Christ is this very mystery ‘that I AM.’ And in this experience and existential knowledge all christology has disintegrated. It is taking to the end the revelation that we are all ‘sons of God’…. If at all I had to give a message it would be the message of ‘wake up’, ‘arise,’ ‘remain aware’ of the Katha Upanishad…. I feel too much, more and more the blazing fire of this I AM in which all notions about Christ’s personality, ontology, history etc. have disappeared, and I find his real mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos….”

7. The Church is probably a few centuries away from understanding these words and being able to really and truly “rethink” its self-understanding in the light of the mystical experience of all the great religious traditions. One might also say that Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are also in the same predicament, more or less, and perhaps have even a more difficult path toward transformation. I mean we do have one ancient example: when Indian Buddhism travelled to China and encountered the “Chinese mindset” and Taoism it was transformed in some very significant ways. It was not simply inculturation! Today’s Buddhism in the modern West is having some real problems along that line. So Chrisitianity is not the only one with this problem. And by the way transformation will happen because encounter now is inevitable even in spite of deep and innate conservative forces within each tradition.

8. Yes, most assuredly the Rhineland-Flemish mystics of Medieval Europe do offer a “gold mine” of possibilities to see how a language of Christian non-dualism could emerge. By the way, it is interesting that the Orthodox were not present at this conference either. Although Abhishiktananda did have some contact with Orthodox spiritual figures, Eastern Christian mysticism does not seem to have played any role in his inner dialogue. In a sense that is very understandable considering the attitude of many Orthodox toward the “non-Christians.”
9. There is also the criticism that Abhishiktananda is too narrowly focused on Advaita Vedanta and ignores so much else about Hinduism. The fact is that is where his inner experience first emerges—at Arunachala and with Ramana Maharshi. All else is a development off that. His letters and diary show that he was fully aware of many other facets of Hinduism including the strong bhakti traditions. For him it all pointed to this central reality: the final realization of the non-dual Mystery. To criticize him for that is like taking someone who has had a very deep experience of the Presence of Christ in his heart and in his being and expecting him to give the same weight to this as to the “rosary hour” or “making a novena,” etc. Religious practices can abound and they are all good, more or less, but once the essential has been realized, there is a kind of focus on that wherby other things fade into the background.

10. Speaking of Hinduism, classically speaking there was no such thing. “Hinduism” is an invention of 19th Century Europeans and a wave of westernized Indians at about the same time. Then came this notion of neo-Hinduism, a kind of monolith of all kinds of things patched together in supposedly one religion. And the modern world pretty much sees it that way—Hinduism as a world religion among other world religions. Classically speaking there was only the “sanatana dharma.” In Sanskrit the root “dhr” or dhria means to uphold, to support, to sustain. The word “dharma” has no real equivalent in English but often it is translated as “religion,” “law,” “duty,” “code of conduct,” etc. All really mistaken or very weak renderings. So instead of that very empty word “religion” what we have here is what eternally holds it all together. It is a kind of vision or realization of what is at the basis of all reality, and then this realization is multiplied and multiplied into numerous symbolic forms and practices and myths and ways of life. Certainly there did develop corruptions and distortions but this is inevitable in such a diverse phenomenon. But note, strictly speaking we do not have here “religion”—this word comes from “religio” meaning to bind. So religion means attachment and adherence to doctrine and also a founder. There really is none of that in the Sanatana Dharma—inspite of so-called ultra-orthodox Hindus, who are really more the invention of the 19th Century.
11. Lets give Murray Rogers the last word: “Abhishiktananda found himself reinterpreting what religion was all about. In the end he left it behind. Because he saw that people who were being led nearer to going beyond themselves with the help of the Spirit, those people would express—with many a stumble of course, because words cannot convey the experience—but express what was happening to themselves in whatever language their culture gave to them to use. For European Christians and Jews it would be expressed in terms of a Jewish background. It would be the Bible. But he quite understood that a deep Hindu would express him or herself in different religious and cultural terms. He had to cease to imagine that everybody had to get themselves somehow onto the European Christian pathway, to use the same words or the same scriptures. Every person was given by God, in His love for us human beings, the wherewithal to be able to offer love and worship and to adore the Beyond, within whatever language and bulture by birth, and most of all by silence. It didn’t matter. We still have not caught up with that yet. I mean we still feel that our words or our doctrines matter most.