Monthly Archives: June 2015

Void and Fullness, Part 1

Void and Fullness, Part IIn 1999 there was a gathering in Varanasi, India of scholars and spiritual seekers coming from Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. It was a small group, less than 24 members, and each person was both intellectually engaged in his/her tradition and at the same time serious spiritual seekers within their respective traditions. This made the gathering a bit special. Usually such gatherings are with monastic people who engage in dialogue about some aspect of spiritual practice within their tradition; or such gatherings are sometimes simply a scholarly exercise by people dialoguing about various conceptual structures within their traditions. But in this case, the encounter was moving on both rails as it were.

The gathering had a very clear focus; a topic of intriguing interest on many levels: void and fullness, the words sunya in Buddhism, purna in Hinduism, and pleroma in Christianity. Six years after this conference a book appeared presenting what looks like all the major papers given at the conference, but lacking in much of the dialoguing that went on between the papers. The title is obvious: Void and Fullness in the Buddhist, Hindu and Christian Traditions: Sunya–Purna–Pleroma. Very interesting stuff, full of insights and illustrating some of the strong points of interreligious dialogue and some of its weaker aspects. During the next few blog postings I will be discussing some of the content in this book (though no doubt interrupted by other kinds of postings also).

Within the book the distribution of essays was as follows: 4 had distinctly Christian themes; 4 were Buddhist; and 5 were very much drawing on Hinduism (or some aspects/versions of it—I should simply say the Sanatana Dharma!). There were also two essays that were much harder to categorize. One on Nietzsche’s encounter with Buddhism; and another by the Catholic Indian theologian, Antony Kalliath: “Purna—Sunya—Pleroma as Communion of Beings.” This latter essay was the only serious attempt in this gathering as far as I could tell in crossing over the boundaries and exploring the connections in these three words among such diverse traditions. Even though the result may not be satisfactory, the effort was truly praiseworthy and it’s this kind of thing that needs to be pushed further. The other essays were of various depths but all interesting in that they opened up some of the riches within these diverse traditions. One could say that at the beginning of any dialogue one should get acquainted with what exactly the other person is saying! In that regard it was all a worthwhile effort.  


I would like to begin with the Prologue written by one of the contributors to the seminar and an editor of the book: Bettina Baumer. In this Prologue she does us the service of reminding us of that very early interreligious encounter that took place at a very high level (or maybe one should say at a very deep level) of spiritual encounter: the dialogue between Daisetz Suzuki and Thomas Merton. So let us do a bit of recalling. This took place around 1960 when there was very little interreligious dialogue going on. Yes, there was the World Council of Churches and occasional global gatherings with sundry folks. But as for Christianity, neither the Protestant scene and certainly not the Catholic one had interreligious dialogue as a prominent focus. For Catholics they still had to learn and open up to talking to their fellow Christians much less people from other religions! But it was not just the Catholic scene that suffered this kind of intellectual and spiritual claustrophobia—the Buddhists also! Here is a quote from one of the contributors, the Ven. Samdhong Rinpoche: “In 1960 I began to attend international religious conferences. The first large conference I attended was the eighth general conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists around 1964-65. In that conference it was almost impossible to have dialogues between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists. The Theravada monks refused to sit with Mahayana monks even for meals and prayers, not to mention for dialogue and discussion.”

So you can see how remarkable that Suzuki-Merton encounter was, given that context. And even more, consider this: Merton was embedded in one of the most traditional of traditional Catholic monastic groups: the Trappists. We all know his zeal and his far-ranging interests, but this encounter was the beginnings of something quite more than just “interest.” He had a spiritual hunger and a profound spiritual intuition that led him to explore these other traditions and to suddenly find himself traveling along their paths. Merton was surely a spiritually mature monk by 1960 but it took a lot more to take him “Beyond.” In many ways he is a different monk by 1968 than he was in 1960 because of the journey he started taking with this kind of encounter. By the time he was undertaking his physical journey in 1968 he was no longer seeking to understand the terms of these various traditions but to actually experience what they experience. Thus, for example, he did not just want a book-knowledge of dzogchen but a true experiential knowledge with a true and authentic guide. So it is an enormous tragedy and an unspeakable loss that he never made it to Japan and meet the few authentic Zen masters, or that he did not make it to Tehran(as planned) and meet some authentic Sufi teachers; or that he never met Abhishiktananda. I am sure if he had lived he would have come back and landed on his feet back as a Trappist monk in some setting here, but he would have been a Trappist monk which none of us has ever seen!! Perhaps we were not ready for such a manifestation; perhaps not even today. In my opinion the interreligious dialogue is still in its “childhood” stage, barely learning to “walk,” certainly not yet an adolescent, and adulthood is way over the horizon.  

Ok, back to Bettina’s Prologue and Suzuki-Merton! Even though Merton was intellectually very sharp and had a profound spiritual intuition, he was quite capable of making mistakes and letting his enthusiasm for seeing “oneness” lead him into missing the serious differences. But the thing with Merton was that he was quick to adjust his thinking once he saw what he had misread. As an example, let us consider the unfolding of this encounter and dialogue. In 1959 Merton collected and translated his own collection of Desert Father stories and sayings. He had already begun a study of Zen, so he sent his collection to Suzuki hoping to begin a dialogue on the basis of similarities between the Desert Fathers and the ancient Zen masters. Suzuki responded warmly, eager to engage such a deep Christian thinker. but he also saw that he had to steer Merton’s thinking in another direction, at least if he wanted to get a deeper connection to Zen. Merton originally made some oversimplified equations–and distinctions–listen to this: “John Cassian, in his reports of the ‘conferences’ he heard among the Desert Fathers, lays down the fundamental rule of desert spirituality. What is the purpose and end of the monastic life? Such is the subject of the first conference. The answer is that the monastic life has a twofold purpose. It must lead the monk first to an intermediate end, and then to an ultimate and final state of completion. The intermediate end, or scopos, is what we have been discussing as purity of heart, roughly corresponding to Dr. Suzuki’s term ‘emptiness.’ That heart is pure which is ‘perfectum ac mundissimum’(perfect and most pure), that is to say completely free of alien thoughts and desires….. It is the quies, or rest, of contemplation–the state of being free from all images and concepts which disturb and occupy the soul. It is the favorable climate for theologia, the highest contemplation, which excludes even the purest and most spiritual of ideas and admits no concepts whatever. It knows God not by concepts or visions, but only by ‘unknowing.’… Cassian himself…gives a characteristically Christian affective balance to the concept of purity of heart, and insists that it is to be defined simply as ‘perfect charity’ or a love of God unmixed with any return upon self. This qualification might conceivably constitute a significant difference between Christian ‘purity of heart’ and the ‘emptiness’ of Zen…. Purity of heart, says Cassian, is the intermediate end of the spiritual life. But the ultimate end is the Kingdom of God. This is a dimension which does not enter into the realm of Zen.” (One cannot imagine Abhishiktananda being so cautious, even in 1960. And Merton himself, eight years later, in 1968, was writing that Zen was “beyond” both Buddhism and Christianity as cultural structures.)


Now Suzuki responds in several ways. First he simply points out that the language of Cassian and the Desert Fathers does not go far enough from the viewpoint of Zen: “Father Merton’s emptiness, when he uses this term, does not go far and deep enough, I am afraid…. Father Merton’s emptiness is still on the level of God as Creator and does not go up to the Godhead. So is John Cassian’s. The latter has, according to Father Merton, ‘God’s own ‘suchness’ for the ultimate end of a monkish life. In my view, this way of interpreting ‘suchness’ is the emptiness of God as Creator, and not of the Godhead. Zen emptiness is not the emptiness of nothingness, but the emptiness of fullness in which there is ‘no gain, no loss, no increase, no decrease,’ in which this equation takes place: zero=infinity. The Godhead is no other than this equation.”

Secondly, Suzuki shifts Merton’s attention to Christian spiritual writers who ARE closer to Zen (Eckhart and Ruysbroeck) and here we will take Suzuki right out of Bettina’s Prologue: “The metaphysical concept of emptiness is convertible in economic terms into poverty, being poor, having nothing, ‘Blessed are those who are poor in spirit.’ Eckhart defines: ‘He is a poor man who wants nothing, knows nothing and has nothing .’ This is possible when a man is empty of self and all things, when the mind is thoroughly purified of Knowledge or Ignorance, which we have after the loss of innocence. In other words, to gain Innocence again is to be poor. What strikes one as somewhat strange is Eckhart presenting the poor man as ‘knowing nothing.’ This is a very significant statement. The beginning of Knowledge is when the mind is filled with all kinds of defiled thought, among which the worst is ‘self.’ For all evils and defilements start from our attachment to it. As Buddhists would say, the realization of emptiness is no more, no less than seeing into the nonexistence of a finite ego-substance. This is the greatest stumbling block in our spiritual discipline, which, in actuality consists not in getting rid of the self, but in realizing the fact that there is no such existence from the first. The realization means, being ‘poor’ in spirit…. Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to give, nothing to take; to be just so, and yet to be rich in inexhaustible possibilities—this is to be poor in its most proper and characteristic sense of the word. This is what all religious experiences tell us. To be absolutely nothing is to be everything.”


Merton learned from this encounter, changed, deepened. Eventually his grasp of Zen was much, much deeper than at this point. By 1968 he was no longer seeking “equivalent terms” between the traditions or trying to “translate” one tradition into the terms of another tradition. By 1968 he was ready to admit that Zen was somehow “beyond” Christianity. Bettina has this quote from Merton: “ We begin to divine that Zen is not only beyond the formulations of Buddhism, but it is also in a certain way ‘beyond’ (and even pointed to by) the revealed message of Christianity.” He holds on to the language of his own tradition; he appreciates its distinct vision; but he is also at the same time able to “cross over” and “become” a Zen person. As Bettina points out Abhishiktananda was also engaged in this kind of encounter and dialogue–from the “inside” as it were, not just as “outsiders” seeking conceptual understanding–and in a very real sense Abhishiktananda went much further than Merton. (One might say that Louis Massignon was similarly engaged with Islam.)  

So we need to distinguish various kinds of interreligious dialogue and encounter. There is the moment of learning what the “other” is saying (good, important and necessary); and then there is the moment of “crossing over” and trying to understand the other tradition from the “inside.” This will require a real “poverty of spirit” with regard to our own positions and our own understandings, being willing to make profound changes as our awareness grows, even as it may put us in tension with our own tradition. I must say at this point that I don’t see too much of this kind of dynamic from Buddhists or Hindus but mostly from a few Christians. Buddhists and Hindus generally don’t seem to feel a great need to understand Christianity at a deep level. That may be because most of their exposure is usually with a very superficial Christianity that hardly deserves much attention. It may be that they don’t feel that Christianity has anything to say to their experience–this was Abhishiktananda’s great anxiety. However, I would definitely agree with Gandhi: “Because I am a good Hindu, I am also a good Christian, and a good Muslim.” But Bettina puts it this way: “More and more people are no longer satisfied with the practice of their own religion, either because they have experienced its limitations, or because they have discovered spiritual treasures outside their own tradition.” Again, I am not so sure this is all that true of Buddhists and Hindus to a large extent but I may be wrong here. And one more concluding quote from Bettina’s Prologue: “…our dialogue is not a spiritual luxury, but if we can really break the artificial boundaries of our respective concepts and reach a deeper level of understanding, we are contributing…to a greater harmony among the various religious groups and traditions.” I would put the emphasis on “breaking the artificial boundaries”!! Our book is very interesting and very informative, and for that we should be thankful, but, alas, it does little by way of “crossing over” and “breaking the artificial boundaries” as exemplified by the Suzuki-Merton encounter.

So we shall return to this book in some future postings and take a look at the various contributions from Christian and Buddhist and Hindu perspectives on the notion of “void and fullness.”