Interfaith Retreat, 7-10 March 2014
Over several years now, we have been conducting interfaith retreats where members of very different religious traditions come together. It is a form of inter-spirituality.
These retreats involve times of meditation, periods of sharing, input, silence, observing our various rituals if desired. They are very stimulating as we get to know our traditions better in the light of other traditions.
At our last one, held at the Janssen Spirituality Centre, 7-10 March 2014, the participants were Rev. Toby Gillies (Tibetan Buddhist), Ven. Khedup-la, (Tibetan Buddhist), Yogi Matysendranath (Nath Yogi), Fr Ken Petersen o.carm (Catholic Priest), and Fr John Dupuche (Catholic Priest).
We agreed to make a limited record of some of our conversations which are so enlivening. What follows are some of the points that were made.
At the start we spoke about joy and suffering. John noted that joy is at the start of the Christian story where the angel greets Mary with the cry “Rejoice so highly favoured” and the angels sing of joy at the Saviour’s birth. Yet Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’. Paradoxically joy and sorrow come together at the cross, for sacrifice is a moment both of sorrow – obviously for it involves deep suffering – and of joy for it is the moment of truth, of entry into the highest transcendent level. In the Gospel of St John it is the moment of triumph when Jesus cries out “It is accomplished”. It is the moment when blessing is poured out on the world, beginning with Jesus’ own mother. Thus joy and sorrow are no longer two but one, no longer exclusive but mutual. This reveals that the cross is planted at the heart of the Trinity. It is divine.
We then got talking about Abhishiktananda and his meeting with Ramana Maharshi who used to ask the question ‘Who are you’. This meeting is famous for it revealed to Abhishiktananda the sanctity of India. So Ken started to ask the question ‘Who are you?’ John replied it is irrelevant who we are, or again one might say ambiguously: “I am who I am”. To this same question Toby answered, in the manner of the Buddha, with silence. To the same question Ken made the gesture of throwing up his arms and adding that the answer can be given on many levels. The question is valuable and the reply shows at what level you are thinking. It also asking the question about self-identity, which is a major issue in religion thought today, and in interfaith relations. It is a question which can be very self-destructive and other-destructive.
We then got talking about the old style of teaching theology. With the famous 90 theses of Pope Leo XIII it was very much a manner of debate: the thesis was put, the various contrary opinions were stated; the teaching was giving; then the rejoinders were made. Toby went on to say this too was the style of Tibetan teaching: the master would urge his disciples to examine the teaching by debating it. The point was not to reach a definite verbal formula once and for all but to reach precision in understanding.
We spoke about the contrasting values of experience and verbalisation. We noted how experience is developed and solidified by understanding, but also how an over-emphasis on understanding can lead to intellectualism, and how the over-emphasis on experience can lead to vagueness. There is a fine balance.
We spent some time in Eucharistic Adoration. In the Host there is both emptiness and form, to use the famous Buddhist phrase: ‘emptiness is form, and form is emptiness’. Jesus empties himself to become food for others. The priest and the people are invited to do likewise. The Host is like a hole in the universe.
Toby then made interesting connections with the process, in Tibetan Buddhism, of transforming the object into the deity; similarly Matsyendranath spoke of the power of the mantra. This is a theme to be explored more fully at another time.
Matsyendranath spoke at length about the chakras and the movement up and down the various bindu and the significance of the red and white channels. Ken noted that there was not much discussion on the body in Western mystical writing; we need to develop Christian mystical thought from the yogic and Buddhist perspective.
Then there was a lengthy discussion on the guru. Khedup-la said many things on this subject. The disciple must trust the guru, the true guru, for the guru is a manifestation of the Buddha, who is the eternal guru. We noted the need to revive the guru tradition in the West.
That evening we had a long discussion about God after viewing the Argentinian film Un Buda. The word ‘God’ is used by Buddhists but in a different sense, referring to the various aspects of consciousness.
We talked about the void, which Toby described as the absence of boundaries or barriers. We spoke about the importance of the phrase ‘meeting in the void’ which he had learned from his Teacher. We explored the implications of this phrase: who are meeting? what is meant by ‘meeting’? Meeting seems to involve union. This led on to a discussion on the phrase ‘God is one’. John noted that this phrase is really a negative statement, meaning ‘There are no other gods’. Similarly, there is not ‘one void’, if this meant to imply that there are other voids. The term ‘one’ is not properly used with reference to the void.
Toby went on to speak of Father as void, Spirit as energy of the void, and Jesus as manifestation from the void. Yogi spoke of bhakti as implied in the Trinity. Reference was made to the teaching of St Augustine but we agreed that this seemed to reduce the Spirit to an emotion or an attitude. We tried to describe the meaning of love which is different from the idea of wishing another’s good or having compassion on another. We spoke of love as knowledge and knowledge as love. We spoke of love as relationship, of union. Love is the nature of things.
Toby wanted to explore further the meanings of ‘person’, ‘self’, ‘soul’, ‘presence’, ‘individual’, ‘persona’, and so on. We spoke about perceiving something eternal in the other, their freedom, their initiative, their inalienable being. We noted the fact that one can address a person truly, and that they are not just a figment or a mixture of attributes but a coherence. We observed also that this presence cannot be described to a third person, but must be experienced. It is a reality existing in a precise context, with a sense of freedom, and unconditioned. Presence cannot be defined: it must be experienced.