A Buddhist and a Roman Catholic consider interfaith unity
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida, is a founder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center. His twenty-six years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His first book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at Amazon.Com for pre-orders, and will arrive nationally in major bookstores in the fall of 2006. He is also the author of Personal Transformations at Open Space.
Michael W. Clark, Ph.D runs Earthpages.org, an open-ended forum and portal to the best of the web. Sections include images of the world, articles, reviews, humor and verse; topics include the environment, health, religion, mythology and psychology, science, spirituality, women and more. He also has a personal site at Michael W. Clark.com
Rock: Is there any possibility of humanity going beyond its opinions and beliefs, or are we destined to fight with each other forever? If God commanded you to come up with something that would satisfy all beliefs, yet enlighten all minds, what would you suggest?
Clark: That is an interesting question. I do not know the answer for sure. Some believe that, as the New Testament of the Bible suggests, there ultimately will be a period of peace. But in my view, it is hard to know if this is just prophetic symbolism or something that will actually happen on Earth. It seems our human personalities inevitably come into conflict with one another. But as free beings we have a choice as to how to deal with that. We can see conflict as an opportunity for mutual understanding and growth. Or we can just react like an animal would. Worse, we can plot and scheme like devils. And don’t laugh, because it’s no joke; many people do.
I do not think we can always go beyond our opinions and beliefs. But I think during moments of grace we can. So if we continually turn to God for guidance, we might become better and better servants of the Divine. Some say that too much introspection is a bad thing. But I think that if you do not know your true inner core, then you are going to be acting on the basis of some personality fragment or tangent; or perhaps on the basis of a socio-cultural, transpersonal or negative spiritual influence. If you do not act from the center, then whatever bad you do will likely come back on you. If you act from the loving center, informed by Grace (or as Catholics would say, the Holy Spirit), then good will come back.
Rock: You mention that too much introspection is bad. Could you expand on that a little – where does that attitude come from? Perhaps introspection is bad for those who do not want their flock to see too clearly! The contemplative saints regarded contemplative prayer highly, discovering that the state of grace could be enhanced by orison, which is similar to Eastern thinking that meditation creates fertile ground for enlightenment.
Since nothing else has worked throughout history (we are still killing ourselves in the name of God!), could it actually be that introspection, orison, recollection, the dark night and unison, would enlighten our minds? And could it be that the Second Coming of Christ (Christ translated as enlightened mind) might be a universal enlightening of many people, instead of an individual Savior, this time around?
Thank you for your input. I am trying to find a common denominator among all religions that would transcend beliefs, yet not disparage any religion. What other hope do we have? Rarely will a Muslim become a Christian, or a Buddhist a Muslim. Perhaps introspection – meditation and contemplative prayer – could be an answer. Perhaps Christ was trying to teach us how to go within, but the original Church Fathers (no different from today), stressed the emotional side of Christianity, feeling that the deeper teachings should only be reserved for monks, thinking that the masses were not ready. Maybe it was more important to build a religion in those days than free their flock from the fear of God, and the fear of themselves, both of which are laid bare by deep prayer.
Clark: Ah, but I said that “some say” too much introspection is a bad thing. That is a little trick I learned over the years. It does not necessarily mean that too much introspection is bad. It is just a useful way to bracket a statement. It means that some people believe it is bad, those people not necessarily including myself.
However, I do believe that in my own life, anyhow, it is good to keep some kind of working and flexible balance between contemplation and outward activity, although I tend to be more contemplative and less visibly active than most. I think everyone has to strike their own balance here. And also, to keep renegotiating it.
My feeling on the Christian saints is that most of them reached very high levels of Godly awareness. But it came with such a price. They suffered for every grace received. And of course, their suffering was not only for their own purification, but also for the redemption of other souls. St. Faustina Kowalska’s Divine Mercy Diary is an excellent book about the power and importance of (contemplative) prayer. If you have not read it already, I would recommend it.
As for the differences and similarities among world religions when it comes to mysticism, this is a rich and fascinating topic. It is really hard to know for sure what another mystic experiences. Some believe they all come to the same type of “ah-ha” experience. Others, like Rudolf Otto and C. G. Jung, stress that the grades and qualities of encountered numinosities may differ. Myself, I find that the most intuitive folks in my hometown are scattered across the board. It could be a woman working in a dollar store. It could be the postman. It could be a businessperson with whom I just have a passing conversation. And it could be a priest too. While the vast majority of priests adhere to the standardized approach, I sometimes wonder if in private they have their own thoughts on certain issues. Would they be human if they did not?
I think you are right that most people will not convert from their own path. And why should they? These religions, when they work, serve to nurture the soul while keeping an individual’s cultural underpinnings in place. I tend to see religions as flowerpots. You need a pot to hold the soil. Every pot is a little different. But each grows a plant (and hopefully a flower). And just as flowers may also differ, so the look and feel of souls in heaven may differ too. Difference is not a bad thing at all. How boring heaven would be if it contained ten trillion daisies, and daisies only! As one person whom I spoke with through the web once put it, “there are many different flowers in the Garden of Eden”.
And this brings me back to the idea of getting in touch with the core, the center. I believe that it is here that the heavenly flower grows. This is not necessarily the Jungian self where the self is an aggregate or a totality of all observable elements. I tend to think that ultimately, after all the lesser elements are pruned away through eons of purification, we shine (and mediate grace) in heaven. But I also think this takes a very long time for most of us. Hence the importance of the idea of Purgatory.
To close, I should add that I have not passed yet, so all this is mostly reasoned speculation. A theory. I do not claim to really know what happens at death. Because other issues come into play, such as the nature of space, time and eternity – both on Earth and within other realms.
Thank you for an interesting question. Feel free to follow up on any of this. I generally enjoy talking about the soul and metaphysics.
Rock: Thank you Dr. Clark for your “enlightened” discussion, rare to find these days! As you renegotiate your personal inward and outward balance, and venture inwardly a little more, do you find yourself less interested in worldly pleasures? And when you do revisit them, just to test their power over you, do you find that they don’t hold the same mystique that they once did? What was it that Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “You can’t go home again”? To me, that indicates the unrelenting changing nature of things, and how we really cannot count on anything in the world. It is confusing, isn’t it, that a new reality is developing, but you cannot grasp it as you have grasped things in the past. Definitely a bittersweet experience.
Clark: Yes, it can be bittersweet because for everything valuable that we gain, it seems we first must lose something. This might be a golden rule. But I find that the gains really do outstrip the losses. And as we mature in the path, as you say, we do not really want those things we once craved. Moreover, they may reappear in subtler ways. With regard to sexuality, for instance, see the Afterword in my article Celibacy, Sex and Spirituality. (Editor’s Note: On this subject, see also our article “Do We Have To Give Up SEX?“)
I also believe that most people do revisit past pleasures and interests from time to time for various reasons. Doubtfully does it ever go in a straight line. Some say that the ego dances around the self; that is, it does not always rest there, nor is it always perfectly aligned with it. Still, most world religions advocate – and this might get back to your initial question about syncretism – that the ego ideally is a servant of the self. But again, the understanding as to just what constitutes the self varies dramatically, I think. So, one has to choose the path that is right for himself or herself. And also consider the possibility of embracing new paths.
Rock: I read a story once about a man entering a strange house, and finding a staircase which he was compelled to climb. The further he climbed, the more fearful he became, until he decided to climb back down – but all the steps had disappeared! A great analogy of the spiritual quest.
I enjoyed your article; it is very well thought out and complete. My experience with Roman Catholicism is like yours, but backward. I spent the first thirty-eight years as a catholic, and then the next twenty-seven meditating!
All religions seem to have their scripture as a basis, accompanied by individual experience, or the deeper side based on that scripture. I am at a point where I am taking a worldview of it all, beyond my personal viewpoint, and I see that something is amiss. Wars are still being fought over differences in religious beliefs.
My first experience of meditation was at Shasta Abbey, which is a Zen monastery. The monks there did not teach me Buddhist scripture, only insisted that I meditate, and practice silence most of the day, and because of that simple practice, my whole life was turned upside down with no teachings whatsoever. I was very surprised!
Is it possible that contemplative prayer or meditation could do the same thing for others? But how do you encourage people to pray deeply; that is, to listen to God instead of talking? You would think that everybody would want to communicate personally with the Source of all understanding, but usually we are shy in this area. Few dare to venture into the “dark night of the soul” of St. John of the Cross, or experiment with enlightenment.
Is it fear of seeing through our illusions, our concept of self, our beliefs? We attach to these notions and feel comfortable in them, not wanting to lose them, which is what happens when we achieve that ineffable that can only be described as the unborn, the undying, beginning-less and with no end. How would you ever introduce such a practice and concept to busy, everyday people? I do not know the answer to this, but I tirelessly attempt to find a way to introduce contemplative prayer and meditation into everybody’s hearts.
There is that which is underneath all the divisive beliefs, and to touch that is the key. It can be touched when all our thoughts, opinions, and knowing dissolve into that mysterious realm where we lose ourselves to that which is.
Clark: You know, I would keep asking God for advice. I am not sure how, as a practicing Buddhist, you envision the Godhead. Words and concepts can get in the way. But I tend to regard God as the creator, somehow other but immanent.
From my experience, Buddhists tend to deemphasize individuality while Roman Catholics feel that individuality is important. But it seems that you still have some sense of an individual self, yet one which is more fundamental than the intellectual, the conceptual, the desirous and so on. That is the core that I feel is the important commonality among all paths. As to how to get people to meditate, to contemplate, to know the Divine, this is something that I personally do not try to rush. I see the entire spectrum as important to the total picture. So I tend to look at individuals, and to try to determine where they are at, what external factors are influencing them, and so on. I guess as a doctor and educator, that is my role. I do not see myself as a mass preacher or contemplative exemplar. But maybe someone else is! As St. Paul put it, “One body, many different members” (Editor’s Note: See Romans 12.5, 1 Corinthians 10.17, and others).