On 6 May 2019 at the Gregorian University, Rome, I launchd the book Enlightenment and Tantra, Hindus and Christians in Dialogue. (Bryan Lobo SJ ed.) Documenta Missionalia 39. Rome: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2018.
Here is my speech (English version)
The very existence of this book is remarkable. It could very easily never have seen the light of day. Let me explain.
The two Johns
First of all, concerning the two ‘Johns’. Padre Virgilio Agostinelli was inspired by the founder of ‘Ricostruttori nella preghiera’ Padre Gian Vittorio Cappelletto, often called Padre John,aJesuit who became involved in Ananda-marga, one of the manty tantric traditions of India. Another Father John, in Australia, had also developed his interest in the field of tantra, more precisely in the tantra of Kashmir Shaivism. Virgilio, inspired by Padre John contacted the other Padre John which led eventually to the publication of this book we are launching this evening.
Over many years I had explored the tantra and, despite its many deviations, seemed to hold a great treasure. During that time, Dom Thomas Matus, a Benedictine monk of Camaldoli, had written his doctoral work linking Abhinavagupta, the great teacher of Kashmir Shaivism, with his contemporary, St Symeon the New Theologian, both of whom were contemporaries of St Romuald, the founder of the Camaldolese.
In the process of trying to find reliable tantric sources, I wrote to Dom Bede Griffiths OSB who recommended I get in touch with Thomas Matus who in turn introduced me to the best studies available, namely those of Lilian Silburn and André Padoux. On reading the texts, a deep resonance rose up in me. I can vividly remember sitting on a bed in a hotel in Ravenna asking myself if I was following a false path. Yet, the discovery of Kashmir Shaivism was joyful and liberating. Therefore, it could not be altogether false. The Ignatian process of discerning the spirits was immensely useful here.
Value of tantra
What was so fascinating about the tantra of Kashmir? On the one hand, it involves overcoming the divisions between heaven and hearth, between the divine and human, between sin and grace, between created and uncreated. This overcoming of dualism resonated powerfully in me. The tantra of Kashmir rejects monism and proposes a non-dualism that enhances the teaching of Christianity where Christ Jesus in his own person breaks down all barriers so that ‘God becomes man and man becomes divine’, as St Athanasius famously said. This highly significant issue of non-dualism is broached by Bettina Bäumer in article 3 of the book and by Gioia Lussana in article 10, both of whom draw on the Greek and Latin Christian mystical traditions respectively to develop their theme. The tantra of Kashmir also promotes the paths of freedom and joy, a topic that thrilled me greatly and which I handle in article 8 of the book. It proposes the sublime transcendence of those who have the acquired the divine mind, a topic discussed by Ramaraghaviah Sathyanarayana in the article 4, who presents it from the Śaivasiddhānta tradition. In article 2, Maria Cantoni presents an overview of the cosmic process of emanation and reabsorption in the Hindu tradition and how this is achieved and experienced in the liberated human being. I felt freed by its teaching on the liberating empowerment of the Word, a topic taken up by Colette Poggi in article 7. I rejoiced to see the value attached to the complementarity of male and female, seeing them as embodying the universe and as describing even the highest Reality, a point discussed by Thomas Matus in article 6. Kashmir Shaivism emphasises the prime importance of the body in the spiritual path, and proposes a spirituality of pleasure, themes that Virgilio Agostinelli develops in article 9. Indeed, Brother Michael Davide Semeraro, a Benedictine monk from Rhêmes Notre-Dame,states that there is a need to move from “a theology of mortification to a theology of pleasure …which will enable us to continue to live as we did in the past. … but with a new freedom and responsibility …” All these tantric themes filled me with wonder and excitement. Indeed, I see them encapsulated in the celebration of the Eucharist. My article, number 1 in the book, shows in what way the Eucharist is profoundly tantric.
The participants in the Eucharist enter into the paradox of Calvary, into the paradox of beauty and horror, purity and impurity, life and death, and so transcend the mind. By words of power, the celebrant transubstantiates the gifts and in a shocking act, the participants consume the very flesh and blood of their master. Overcoming the divisive nature of dualism, they can worship God fully, for only God can know God fully; only God is the offering fully worthy of being offered to God. They feed on the Body of their Lord; they also commune with each other. They experience each other’s bliss in all their diversity. It is a love feast.
When, as a priest, I celebrate the Mass, I am engaged in a sublime tantric act. In fact, Jesus, it seems to me, can be understood as the greatest of the tantrics. Jesus the Christ is also Jesus the Tantrika.
Since I felt that I was part of two worlds, the Christian and the Tantric, I wrote in 2009, at the suggestion of Fabrice Blée, of the University of St Paul in Ottawa, the book Vers un Tantra Chrétien, later translated into English as Towards a Christian Tantra. Virgilio discovered this book and contacted me for advice while doing his thesis on Ananda-marga. But why go to Rome?
Preparation of the conference
In 2016 I went to Oxford to deliver a paper at a conference, but only because just before the closing date for submitting proposals, I was contacted by Père Jean-Marie Gueullette OP from the Catholic University of Lyon and informed about it. He later invited me to write a book on the Christian interpretation of the chakras, which I have done. Without this surprise information I would not have gone to Oxford and would not have made a special trip to Rome.
Earlier, in 2010 at Shantivanam, in Tamil Nadu, at the celebration organised by Professor Doctor Bettina Bäumer for the 100th anniversary of Abhishiktananda’s birth, I had suggested to Dr Paolo Trianni that a conference on Tantra should be held in Europe. Paolo’s article, number 5 in the book, explores the tantric dimension of he calls the ‘theological school of Śāntivanam’, showing its seminal influence. Some years later when I again made the suggestion, Paolo proposed a conference first at Camaldoli in Tuscany, then at the monastery of San Gregorio Magno al Celio in Rome. When, in 2016, I went to Rome to meet Virgilio, and when at his suggestion I met with Fr Bryan Lobo SJ, who had read my book, Bryan proposed that the conference be held at the Gregorian. This, a whole series of unconnected events lead to this unexpected outcome. It was a case of serendipity.
A few days later, Bryan Lobo, Paolo Trianni, Virgilio Agostinelli, Fr George Nelliyanil OSB Cam, the Rector of San Gregorio, and I met to discuss the details of the conference. We had originally thought of two days but later, on further reflection, it seemed more practical to have just the one day. Virgilio graciously accepted not to deliver the paper he had prepared, but which has been published as item 9 in this book. The title ‘Enlightenment and Tantra’ was chosen because it gives the correct emphasis. We know that the word ‘tantra’ is sometimes associated with what seems just the opposite of enlightenment.
I suggested the themes and speakers and eventually contacted Bettina Bäumer from India, Collette Poggi from Paris, and Thomas Matus from California. Bryan Lobo, for his part, arranged for speakers from the Hindu tradition among many other presenters and moderators. It was indeed an international conference.
We decided to conduct two smaller events, before the conference in October, in order to test the waters, and to gauge the level of interest. On Saturday 13 May 2017, at San Gregorio Magno al Celio, two papers were presented: my paper entitled ‘Tantra: a path to freedom and the fullness of joy’ which is item 10 in the book we are launching this evening; and the paper by Dr Gioia Lussana: ‘Tantra: una via di conoscenza nell’esperienza non duale dell’essere’ which is item 10 in the book. On Monday 15 May 2017, at the Gregorian University, I delivered a paper entitled ‘The dialogue between Tantra and Christianity: Possibilities and challenges’ which the Gregorian University published this year in Le sfide delle religioni oggi –2018.
The Conference in October was conducted jointly by the Gregorian Centre for Interreligious Studies, the Italian Hindu Union and the Italian Bishops Conference. Many other groups were also involved as collaborators.
At the opening of the Conference, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, first extended his greetings to the Hindu Community who would be celebrating Diwali the following day; he then congratulated the many collaborators that had made this conference possible; he spoke of its innovative character and how well it fulfilled the desire of Pope Francis for openness and appreciation between different traditions.
It was a full day, with eight papers in total. They were grouped in pairs, with time for comments and questions. Some 300 participants filled the Aula Magna. The book we are launching includes the developed versions of some of the papers.
This book, Enlightenment and Tantra, begins to answer the many issues that confront people at this time of seismic shift in attitudes and outlooks. This book, indeed, this evening’s launch, represents a watershed, it seems to me, in the history of spirituality and even of theology.