Dialogue With Eastern Religions

“Listen, O Drop, give yourself up without regret, and in exchange, gain the Ocean. Listen, O Drop, bestow upon yourself this honor and in the arms of the Sea be secure. Who, indeed, should be so fortunate, an Ocean wooing a drop!” —Rumi

Christian pioneers in interreligious dialogue with people of Eastern religions found their writings, if not their lives, pro- scribed. To note a few: Fr. Denobile in the 18th century in India; the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago in 1893 who was penalized from afar for appearing on the same stage as other religious leaders during the First Parliament of World Religions; Fr. Hugo Enomiya Lasalle, S.J. (1898-1990), after publishing his first book in German in 1958, Zen: A Way to Enlightenment, was ordered by Rome not to publish any more on this topic; and Abhishiktananda (Fr. Henri le Saux) and Fr. Jules Monchanin, European religious leaders in the 1940s and 1950s, were ostracized to some extent by their communities and by their fellow priests in India. As some Christian missionaries had taught in ignorance: things Eastern were considered magic, superstitious or diabolical.

In 1976, when setting out for India myself, I had not so much as thought of entering into interreligious dialogue. Fr. Bede Griffiths, the Acharya or teacher at Shantivanam Ashram where I stayed for one year, had left Prinknash Abbey in England in 1955 to find “the other half of his soul.” His name and pictures appeared in monastic journals from time to time, spelling out some of his involvement in intermonastic dialogue. But what came through to me the most was that he was a holy monk who lived radical poverty in a country known for its interiority and he spoke English. Abhishiktananda, one of the earlier founders of this same ashram, had passed away, or as they say in India, passed to the Other Shore, just three years before my arrival. Abhishik had spent the last years of his life in the hermitage on the Ganges in the North of India. It is from Abhishik’s reflec- tions on dialogue that I draw on. He, too, saw dialogue as communion.

Since we are social beings we ourselves are in communion: ontologically, relationship, fellowship, with others. There is actually no living person apart from others. So we discover ourselves, realize ourselves only in the meeting with others; the deeper the meeting, the more we find ourselves and blossom into persons. From a Christian perspective we are even more so created to be in communion, reflecting as we do the very “being-one-together” of the divine Persons in the Trinity, that ultimate secret of God’s life, as shared with us by Jesus. With Jesus, in Jesus, we are each a kind of cor- porate being, living in a most intimate and ontological rela- tionship with the whole of the Mystical Body, and with all humankind. We are interrelated whether we are aware of it or not. Abhishik insists that life in solitude is only possible after a long preparation in human fellowship. Call to mind Thomas Merton’s own struggle.

First, one must discover within him- or herself that center where no human being or other creature is distant from us. That same interrelationship between us and other people becomes dialogue when it reaches the level of the person, of consciousness, of the mind and heart. Dialogue has its prin- ciple in relationship with others, only when this relationship is accepted and integrated into the person, her- or himself, giving and receiving. The other becomes someone with whom we relate at the very level of our own self-awareness, to whom our own self-awareness is open. True dialogue is, at this level, a meeting, exchange, a mutual donation, not from the level of having but of being. Because it implies the mutual donation of what is the most essential to both, dia- logue takes place only in depth.

In the experience of the Catholic Church since Vatican Council II (1962-1965) there has developed one of the most remarkable and revealing encounters in the field of interfaith dialogue. The former head of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Church’s Relations with non-Christian Religions, Pietro Rossano, attributed this ‘new era’ in the world to Thomas Merton’s giftful presence and sudden death in Bangkok in the very process of dialogue with Eastern monastics. Since that time never before heard of exchanges among the monas- tic world have taken place, the most recent one was ‘The Gethsemani Encounter’ which took place in July of this year in Thomas Merton’s own monastery in Kentucky at the express request of the Dalai Lama. His Holiness had met sev- eral times with the Trappist monk in 1968 in Dharamsala, just a few weeks before Merton’s death. His Holiness wanted all of us gathered together with the present monks of Gethsemani Abbey to know the impact that one person, faithful to their own religion, can have on another. His Holiness said, “My own attitude toward Christianity com- pletely changed upon meeting this monk.”

The dialogue of religious experience is a sharing of experi- ences of prayer, contemplation, faith and duty, as well as expressions and ways of searching for the Absolute. This type of dialogue is the deepest, most demanding and yet most promising of all. Since it deals with experiencing the spiritual practice of the other’s tradition, a “crossing over,” to use John Donne’s phrase, it can lead to a “mutual trans- formation.” This transformation, in Thomas Merton’s words, is a “transformation of consciousness,” as he described in his Calcutta paper: “I come as a pilgrim who is anxious to obtain not just infor- mation….but to drink from ancient sources of monastic vision and experience…to become a better and more enlightened monk myself. I am convinced that communication in depth, across the lines that have hitherto divided religious and monastic traditions, is now not only possible and desirable, but most important for the destinies of 20th century man.”

With all these considerations we see that we have been creat- ed for dialogue and we are ceaselessly in dialogue at various levels: as parents, spouses, friends, children, students, apprentices, and job training, interacting on all human lev- els, but above all these is the level of religious dialogue which reaches in us a depth of interiority and personal com- mitment beyond the reach of all other levels. True religious dialogue begins in the depths of our heart and spirit, rooted in our deepest meaning where we are related to the Beyond. But we have lost, for the most part, this in-depth dialogue in ourselves, our families, parishes, communities, and therefore in our schools and seminaries. Today, individualism has per- meated our whole society with its self centeredness on the level of the ego; self-aggrandizement, competition, jeal- ousies, quarrels, wars, genocide and suicide. It all adds up to meaninglessness and chronic ignorance.

St. Mark, the ascetic, who lived in the desert of Egypt in the early 4th century, described what he called the “three great evil demons” or “giants” or “thoughts that poison us.” Notice he equates demons and thoughts. The first of these evil giants is ignorance which he insisted is the “mother of all the others.” The remedy he strongly suggested for this poi- son is “the light of divine knowledge.” This we can easily turn on and flood ourselves with by reading some scriptures, or recalling some teaching that will help, hearing another on this level of sharing, or reading some lines from the earliest Christians, the Philokalia or some of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. Ignorance can play havoc in the area of dia- logue with assumptions, presumptions and the like. This is why it is important that we be authentic and “at home” in our own religious tradition and open to learning from the heart of another about his or her tradition and practice.

Editor’s Note: Sister Pascaline Coff has been a leading figure in promoting interreligious dialogue. Her monastery in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, is a crossroads for people in Christian and Eastern traditions.

Sr. Pascaline Coff, OSB Osage Monastery

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