Interreligious dialogue is one of the important ways for overcoming cultural and religious differences and misunderstandings, and for contributing to world peace. But such a dialogue has to go beyond the social, institutional and purely academic areas: it has to reach the very depths of the spiritual, philosophical and theological insights of the religious traditions. In Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity such insights are expressed in the apparently opposite, but in reality complementary concepts of Void (sunya) and Fullness (purna, in Greek pleroma). These concepts lead to the respective spiritual experiences and their interpretations in scriptures and philosophies.
This volume contains the papers presented at an interreligious seminar at Sarnath, Varanasi, organized by the Abhishiktananda Society, and inspired by the ideas and life of Swami Abhishiktananda (1910-1973). These papers throw light on these fundamental concepts from the different traditions, and are an invitation to dialogue. H.H. the Dalai Lama gave the concluding speech on the importance of interreligious dialogue.
Dr. Bettina Baumer noted Indologist and Professor of religious studies (University of Vienna), President of the Abhishiktananda Society (Delhi) and organizer of the seminar.
Rev. Dr. John R. Dupuche, a Catholic priest from Melbourne (Australia), specialized in Kashmir Saivism and Christian mysticism, and chair of the interfaith committee of the Archdiocese.
The present volume is the outcome of a seminar on the same theme which was held in Sarnath, Varanasi, from December 11 to 16, 1999, at the central institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, organized a financed by the Abhishiktananda Society (registered in Delhi). Most of the papers contained in this volume were presented at the seminar, others has been added later by participants (A. Kalliath, J. Fig1). Apart from the papers read, the discussions were important since they bridged the different traditions. But it was not possible to include these, with the exception of the final session comprising statements, of the panelists. Another important aspect of this “interreligious retreat seminar” was the common meditations, and the chanting of hymns a sacred scriptures from the d\three traditions at the beginning and end, and every day at noon time. Thus, the papers and discussions were complemented by a practical experience of listening to sacred chants and silent meditation.
The highlight of the seminar was the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the last day, and his sharing with us his concern for interreligious understanding and peace, as well as concrete suggestions, as to how such a dialogue can be carried out in practice.
There is a vast literature on the themes of Sunyata, purnata and pleroma, but the special contribution of this volume is the interaction between these themes in the different traditions, because they are in no way exclusive, but contained in different ways in different traditions. Ultimately, as was repeatedly stated, each tradition has to go beyond its concepts to reach that which they ultimately intend.
In this famous dialogue with Daisetz Suzuki, published under the title Wisdom in Emptiness, Thomas Merton relates the Buddhist concept of emptiness, sunyata, to innocence. In his introductory note he says:
As Dr. Suzuki makes clear in his analysis of ‘innocence,’ this is really something beyond the level of problem – and – solution. When the monk acts in the primitive emptiness and innocence, which the Zen practitioner calls ‘suchness,’ and the Christian calls ‘purity of heart’ or ‘perfect charity’ then the problem does not even arise.
I think that speaking of void and fullness, or sunya-purna-pleroma, we should not limit our discussion to contradictory, complementary, neither contradictory nor complementary:
Contradictory as well as complementary – to speak in terms of Nagarjuna – we should bring these fundamental terms of three major religious traditions down to the level of experience. Daisetz Suzuki writes in the same dialogue with Thomas Merton: “As spiritual beings we strive after innocence, emptiness, enlightenment and a prayerful life. He relates the Buddhist emptiness to the spiritual poverty of the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” with its mystical interpretation by Meister Eckhart.
The metaphysical concept of emptiness is convertible in economic terms into poverty, being poor, having nothing. Blessed are those who are poor in spirit. Eckhart defines:
He is a poor man who wants nothing, knows nothing and has nothing. This is possible when a man is empty of ‘self and all things,’ when the mind is thoroughly purified of knowledge or ignorance, which we have after the loss of innocence. In other words, to gain Innocence again is to be poor. What strikes one as somewhat strange is Eckhart presenting the poor man as ‘knowing nothing.’ This is a very significant statement. The beginning of Knowledge is when the mind is filled with all kinds of defiled thought, among which the worst is ‘self.’ For all evils and defilements start from our attachment to it. As Buddhists would say, the realization of emptiness is no more, no less than seeing into the nonexistence of a finite ego-substance. This is the greatest stumbling-block in our spiritual discipline, which, in actuality, consists not in getting rid of the self, but in realizing the fact that there is no such existence from the first. The realization means, being ‘poor’ in spirit… Nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to give, nothing to take, to be just so, and yet be rich in inexhaustible possibilities- this is to be poor in its most proper and characteristic sense of the word. This is what all religious experiences tell us. To be absolutely nothing is to be every thing. When one is in possession of something, that something will keep all other something from coming in.
One way of experiencing this innocence is when we enter into a dialogue with people of other religious traditions. Those who participate in an interreligious seminar are all very familiar with their own tradition, and very knowledgeable about their own philosophy or theology. But a real meeting with another religious or secular person creates a kind of void. We do not share the same presuppositions, the same concepts, the same attitudes, the same faith, myths, or whatever. Facing this void within ourselves and between us may itself be an important spiritual experience, an emptying of concepts, which is the goal of many spiritual ways. In Kashmir Saivism this void is precisely found in all the in-between states – the most important and yet not easy to catch being the void between breathing in and breathing out. And in this in-between is found the pure consciousness, the thought-free state: nirvikalpa, which in other terms could be called “innocence.”
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