Buddhist haloes & Catholic haloes: are they the same colour?
Buddhist wisdom & a Benedictine monastery
It’s a great pleasure to be asked to contribute something for The Middle Way. As soon as I was asked, I thought of the remarkable Benedictine monk Dom Sylvester Houédard (1924 – 1992) of Prinknash Abbey, who opened my mind (and the minds of many) to various rich points of synergy between Christian and Buddhist contemplative practice and thought. Scholar, translator and noted concrete poet, Dom Sylvester was involved throughout his life in interfaith and inter-monastic dialogue, engaging in particular with Tibetan Buddhism and the Islamic mystical tradition of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi.
The first half of the title for this article is the title of a 1986 paper Dom Sylvester gave to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, the Abbot President of the Subiaco Benedictine Congregation and others, to support dialogue and understanding between Benedictines and a visiting Tibetan delegation. As Dom Sylvester noted, “it is the radiant light of Truth that constitutes the halo in both Buddhist art and in Catholic art.”
Before sharing a little of Dom Sylvester’s teaching on awareness of sunyata or emptiness and a Christian presentation of the madhyamika or Middle Way, I’d like to share a couple of Prinknash anecdotes.
I hope they might give you a sense of the extraordinary openness I found there. The commitment to what Dom Sylvester called “the wider ecumenism” quietly permeated and enriched the fabric of daily monastic life.
The cloister at Prinknash Abbey, Gloucestershire
A year before I went to live at Prinknash monastery when I was 19, I had a conversation with Abbot Aldhelm Cameron-Brown which profoundly influenced the direction of my life (though it took me many years to realise how deeply).
The Abbot said very little, but he was an excellent teacher. He taught as much by the silences between his words, through the way he listened and by his gentle presence.
As we were walking together in the Abbey grounds, I rather nervously tried to say something about what was happening in my life. I hadn’t been brought up in a religious family and had no words to speak with about what I was encountering, which was at the same time both utterly irresistible and profoundly disorientating.
Alongside texts from the Christian contemplative tradition, I’d been exploring texts from other traditions, particularly those of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta and Sufi Islam. After a few minutes’ nervous hesitation, I told the Abbot it seemed as if a single silent voice was shining through everything I was reading.
I can still remember the huge relief and wave of excitement I felt when he just nodded, smiled, and quietly said, “Yes.”
We continued walking, and a few minutes later (feeling a little more confident) I told the Abbot how I liked to imagine people of different faiths and none, speaking different languages, wearing different clothes, coming together to practice meditation. How, in the depths of their shared silence, they might touch the silent ground before all words, metaphors and distinctions, in which there is “not Jew or Greek, nor slave or free, not male or female; for you are all one...” (Galatians 3:28). How, after meditation, they would still be speaking their different languages, still wearing their different clothes, but something would have changed. That, to a casual observer, not a great deal may seem to have happened. Except that they might notice how comfortable people are with each other, content to speak or simply enjoy a cup of tea and each other’s company in silence, that they would almost certainly notice a deep atmosphere of peace.
The Abbot looked into my eyes, smiled again, and said, “I think so too.”
On the last day of this first visit to Prinknash, I gave the copy of the Tibetan Dhammapada I’d brought with me to the Novice Master. A few hours later he returned with a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict, a gift from the Abbot, and a handwritten note saying, “Just another path to the One...”
A year later, and some months after I began living at Prinknash, I remember a particularly challenging time when I felt completely unable to control the waves of thoughts that were tormenting me.
I shared this with the Novice Master, who offered some simple advice - “Stop trying to control your thoughts!” - and read from a book he was using to introduce meditation to the novices, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:
“To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the best way to control him…let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best way is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”
Weaving together the wisdom of Suzuki Roshi and a great Christian teacher of meditation, St. Hesychios, we discussed how establishing a more peaceful relationship with our thoughts is the foundation of a more peaceful relationship with our life, with each other and with the world; how, in the words of Hesychios, “The mind that is constantly watched over, protected from engagement with the forms, images and fantasies that arise within it, is conditioned by nature to give birth from within itself to thoughts filled with light.”
Awareness of emptiness and a Christian presentation of the Middle Way
In order to convey something of Dom Sylvester’s voice, the short sample of some of his teaching below is presented, as far as possible, as it was given in our conversations or as it appears in the various hand-typed documents he gave me, including the notes for his talk Compassion through Understanding given at the first interfaith conference held by Tibetan Buddhists at Samye Ling, and the voluminous Rough Notes on Mind he kindly prepared to help with a dissertation I was working on.
Awareness (the fundamental mind of clear light, also called sems nyid in Tibetan or basic mind, apex mentis in Latin monastic terminology, nous in Greek, naked mind in plain Middle English) is the ability to know, the mere but luminous possibility of knowing.
With regard to awareness as the possibility of knowing (and of knowing this), there is one thing we know with absolute certitude, though most people find it difficult, since the only way of knowing this “as home truth” (in Zen terms) and not just as something we are told by other people (which is only “bought treasure”), is by meditation. It is meditation, not the obvious truth to which meditation is a gate, which people find difficult. Ch’an/Zen developed out of this difficulty as a way for teaching novices to know it for themselves, to know the moon and not the finger pointing at it.
Among the ways of “conveying what can’t be conveyed” the four simplest are:
- To know anything at all is to know that the mere possibility of knowing is anterior to all actual knowing. It follows that “know” has a special and unique sense here which can be rendered by “aware” in English, by “rigpa” Tibetan, and by “contuition” in St. Augustine’s Latin;
- The one thing sought for being the seeker, there can be no way of finding it other than “finding by not finding” (a phrase common to both Buddhists and Christians);
- Future and past meet and “touch each other” in the heart of mind with no gap between “will be” and “was” and so there is no room for “am” or for “is.” This is the meditation basic to all the Prophets who wrote the Old Testament. The “present” is not just some shortest possible stretch of time, but (literally and absolutely) zero-time, a point of zero extension and duration. The present instant (not “moment”) is the nunc in Latin, and we never and cannot move out of this nunc or now. As it is this which ultimately is the guarantee of our freedom, it is misleading to speak of being imprisoned in it. The Avatamsaka (Flower Ornament) sutra speaks (in effect) of the nature of our freedom through living in “the tower of our nunc.” From this point in which future and past meet, we can look forward by anticipation and backward by memory. Though, as the Avatamsaka says, at any single zero-time instant in our life, everything we know, the whole cosmos, is present in this unextended point;
- The awareness that knows is subject and what it knows is the object of its knowledge. Thus, awareness, as the subject which knows, can never be an object to itself, an object of its knowing. Hence the reason in modern English to simply speak of “awareness” or “simple awareness,” though “naked awareness” might be fruitful for dialogue with Tibetans. The great bodhisattva Samantabhadra/Kuntuzangpo, either by himself or in union with Samantabhadri/Kuntuzangmo, is shown in art as naked. He is luminous blue, like the sunlit sky, while she is transparent and invisible or, if shown, shown white or cloud-coloured, since awareness is its own veil.
To paraphrase the great medieval Christian teacher Meister Eckhart, as there is no yesterday or tomorrow in eternity (the zero time of the nunc or now), so naked awareness knows nothing of yesterday or tomorrow, but apprehends God “in his wardrobe.” In the “wardrobe” of naked awareness, God is divested of the words, names and concepts with which we clothe him. God is simply present in his own naked isness, in the mere but luminous possibility of knowing that we are.
At one level, the things we know can be referred to as beings. We can say that each human is a being. This is the level of Buddhist “conventional truth” — the conventional truth about a thing, that it is, that we are. At this level we can talk of God as “Supreme Being.”
At a deeper level, any thing that we know is not so much a being but a becoming, and every human is a becoming. This is the level of Buddhist “ultimate truth” — the ultimate truth about a thing is that it is empty of svabhavasiddhi, of the power of self-being, of aseitas (from-self-ness), of causing itself, that we do not possess our existence of or from ourselves (or at all). Everything is (we all are) ab alio, from non-self, from other. At this level we can say that God alone is and we become, that we are not so much human-beings as human-becomings.
The future does not yet exist and the past no longer exists. Even the smallest gap between “will be” and “was” would allow us to say “am” or “is”, but no gap exists between the future and past, which meet in the now, the nunc of awareness, where no one can say “I am” or “it is.” For the family of Abraham (Jews, Christians and Muslims) this means, in monotheistic terms, that God alone truly is and can say “I am,” and of God alone we can say “He/She/It is”.
Meister Eckhart emphasises the importance of now in the continuum of awareness as the meeting point of future and past when he comments on the saying in the Book of Wisdom “They shall eat me and hunger” (Ecclesiasticus 24:21). As luminous isness flows into the now of awareness (apex mentis) it is perpetually and instantly lost. ‘Will be” becomes “is” and “is” becomes “was” in the same instant. Ceaselessly receiving isness, we retain it for zero time. We both enjoy it and lose it in the zero time of the now. We “eat” because we are, and “hunger” because we are from another, because we are empty of the power of self-being, of causing ourselves.
Unlike the now of naked awareness (which is an instant of zero duration, like a geometric point of zero extension), ordinary mind can only work with “moments” which are conceived to be short periods of time. Each, however short, is a continuum and like any continuum, though not infinitely divided can be divided to infinity. At the point of naked awareness, we remain perpetually in the now, though our interest in the activity of ordinary mind can appear to lead us away from this centre and become “lost” (the illusion of separateness). To paraphrase Lama Thubten Yeshe, when ordinary mind tries to grasp itself, it grasps at that which has already entered the dead past.
Three things follow:
- Ceaselessly receiving isness we avoid the extreme of nihilism; retaining isness for zero time, we avoid the extreme of eternalism; and this is a Christian presentation of the madhyamika or Middle Way;
- Since everything subject to time is a receiver of isness, everything is empty of unreceived isness and this (which is what we mean by creation) is our Christian awareness of sunyata or emptiness;
- Since unreceived isness can nowhere be grasped, its nature is inconceivable. Negatively, we name it as that of which everything is empty. Being that of which everything is empty, God is known negatively only, and this is our Christian path of cognising emptiness.
A final thought (or two)
However much we know or don’t know, we always remain the same luminous possibility of knowing. As the sky is not affected by clouds, awareness as luminous possibility isn’t affected by disease or injury, by ignorance or clouded reason, wrong-knowledge or by not being actualised as actual knowing. In Buddhist terms, the pristine nature of awareness is the seed of Buddhahood. In Christian terms, it is the seed of Glory.
Dom Sylvester liked to say that the simplest form of the mandala and the great universal symbol of the wheel (where the centre of the wheel remains still whether the wheel is turning or not), is to be found in the sign of the cross. The centre of the cross at the centre of the four arms signifies the point which has no extension and no boundaries.
As St. Bonaventure reminds us, “God is an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” We might think of the four arms of the cross as being the whole cosmos, with ourself at the centre, one with all beings within the oneness which is everywhere and nowhere. We might see the four arms of the cross as the mandala spreading out from the centre, like the four gospels, in compassion to all.
We are faced with so many things that make peace (both within and without) seem almost impossible or at least a little foolish to imagine.
We see such immense inequality and injustice, and continuing conflict and violence. We are the first people in the history of our species to measure the finitude of natural resources and witness their depletion and destruction from a global perspective. We gaze in wonder at increasingly spectacular images of the unfathomable immensity of the universe, while an increasing number of us experience uneasiness and dissatisfaction with religious formulations that appear intent on reducing all mystery to fixed propositions and statements of faith.
For these reasons and more, there has perhaps never been a more urgent need to discover afresh the contemplative heart within each of us, to see clearly and act with compassion, to become places of peace for the world.
If you feel inspired to meditate, you’re very welcome to join one of our free online meditation sessions or read one of our practice guides.