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Comparing and contrasting views

Spiritual Sisters: A Benedictine and a Buddhist nun in dialogue – Part 3 of 3

A talk given by Sister Donald Corcoran and Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron in September 1991, at the chapel of Anabel Taylor Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. It was cosponsored by the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Social Policy at Cornell University and the St. Francis Spiritual Renewal Center.

  • The relationship of the intellect and Christianity
  • Balancing early views with those in Buddhism
  • A personal God
  • The value of a monastic way of life
  • Rebirth
  • Daily practice, prayer, and meditation
  • The difference between spiritual and psychological growth

Comparing and contrasting (download)

Part 1: A Benedictine’s view
Part 2: A bhikshuni’s view

Question: Sister Donald, could you speak about the relationship of the intellect and Christianity?

Sister Donald Corcoran (SDC): This is a very important question that we could discuss for a long time. In The Interior Castle, Theresa of Avila said, “I came to the realization that the mens is not the intellectus: the superficial mind is not the intellect.” It is significant that medieval persons understood that the superficial mind is not the deep mind. Medieval Christianity had a very deep regard for the way of the mind, in Buddhist terms you could call it the path of jnana or wisdom. Unfortunately, because of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the enlightenment in the eighteenth century, Christianity backed away from those cultural currents and became primarily a way of bhakti, a way of faith or of emotion. I think we need to recover the path of contemplative insight or knowledge. However, the problem is that much of contemporary theology is on the level of mens rather than intellectus. Sometimes it’s even on the level of rational academic games, rather than deep contemplative insight which nourishes the intellectus as a spiritual faculty. We in the West no longer realize that the deep mind is a spiritual faculty. In fact, in academic and other circles, we make fun of the intellectus to some extent. We think that religion is separate from that. Thus, I believe that the path of knowledge needs to be recovered. There has been a fissure between intellect and emotion, intellect and faith, and we need a lot of work to turn that around.

Question: Both Christianity and Buddhism are male-centered, patriarchal religions. How can women find fulfillment in them?

SDC: It’s true; Christianity, and particularly Roman Catholicism, is male dominated. However, women have found meaning. We’ve come a long way in a short time, but we have a long way to go. If we look at particular issues, for example, the ordination of women, I think tremendous strides have been made in twenty years. However, there is still a long way to go to change the mentality of ordinary Christians, much less that of the hierarchy. Still, things are changing.

However, this is not simply about the internal struggles of women in the Church, but about how Western culture regards the feminine. We are discussing not only women’s issues and the equality of the sexes, but the re-honoring of everything that Jung meant by the anima. We need to restore that part of our soul. The West has become, to some extent, soulless because of disparaging the feminine. This brought also the ecological rape of the Earth; everything follows from that. It’s a much deeper issue than just internal struggles in our particular traditions. The evolution of consciousness is going on, and I have hope. Of course, there are some certain radical feminists who are much stronger about it than I am, and maybe they are therefore prophetic.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): Although historically there have been disparities between the power of men and women in Buddhist institutions, the institution isn’t the practice. Spiritual practice goes beyond societal roles or stereotypes of male and female. It goes beyond the cultural discriminations reflected in institutions. Real practice happens in our hearts. As long as we are inspired to practice and have access to the teachings and the guidance of qualified teachers, then women can find fulfillment in a spiritual path. Religion is not the same as religious institutions. The latter were created by people, but the real essence of what we are trying to develop goes beyond institutions and whatever hierarchy and biases they may have.

Question: Can you say more about the intense pressure and heat required to let the luminosity shine within us?

SDC: To the extent that I have studied spiritual traditions, the great spiritual literature, and the biographies of holy people, it is evident that transformation does not come without the intense pressure of our own work on ourselves, our own inner work, the inner alchemy that takes place in that crucible inside of us. The Old Testament says, “God is the Potter shaping the clay.” Our life, the challenges and limitations we have, the blessings we have, everything is the hand of the Divine Potter shaping us. That is the intense pressure and intense heat that transform us into diamond. To the extent that we are awake and see that, to the extent that we cooperate with it and are open and are willing to be transformed, transformation happens.

VTC: There’s a lot of intense pressure and heat in Buddhist practice. Nowadays, some Westerners have the notion that spiritual practice is joy and bliss, love and light. Personally, I find it’s learning to sit in a garbage dump with acceptance and inspiration. I can’t speak for anyone else, but much of what goes on in my mind every day—the anger, jealousy, pride, grudges, attachment, competition—is garbage. I can’t ignore that and live in a self-created realm of light and love. I have to deal with my garbage without identifying with it. That requires aspiration and energy, as well as gentle yet firm patience to continue on the path. Many people want instant enlightenment: Whammo! All my problems are gone! Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen like that. Sister Donald, from what you say, it doesn’t seem to happen like that according to your tradition either.

SDC: One of the favorite quotations in the monasteries was, “In patientia possidebitas animas vestras,” “In patience you will possess your soul.” Patientia means suffering.

VTC: Many people would like fast food enlightenment. We want spirituality to be quick, cheap and easy; we’d like someone else to do the work for us. But this isn’t possible. On one hand, we must accept ourselves, accept the garbage without getting depressed. Acceptance means we stop feeling guilty and being angry at ourselves because the internal garbage is there. It doesn’t mean we just let those disturbing attitudes be. We must still exert constant energy and have a joyful aspiration to cleanse our minds and hearts and develop our qualities and potentials.

Question: Bhikshuni Chodron, most Westerners have been brought up with the concept of a creator God. How did you balance your early upbringing with your later beliefs as a Tibetan Buddhist?

VTC: In sharing my thoughts on this, I am not criticizing people who have different beliefs. I am only stating my own personal experience. When I was a teenager, long before I had contact with Buddhism, I attended Sunday School and learned about God, but I had difficulty understanding what was meant by God. I couldn’t relate to the wrathful God of the Old Testament, and couldn’t understand the more loving God of the New Testament. I wondered, “If there is a God, how come things happen the way they do? Why does suffering continue to exist?” I didn’t feel comfortable with the concepts of God that I had been introduced to. By the time I went to university, I had stopped believing in God, although I didn’t know what I believed in.

Buddhism discussed rebirth, cause and effect (karma and its results), interdependence, and the lack of inherent existence. I was encouraged to think deeply about these to determine whether or not they explained my life and what I observed. As I did this, these ideas resonated in me. Because there were many of years between when I believed in God and when I accepted Buddhist explanations, I didn’t encounter internal conflict in changing religions.

SDC: As a Christian, I believe in a creator God and in Creation. It’s certainly part of the Creed. My experience of God is personal, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, who St. Paul says is the icon of the invisible God. To me that’s one of the best definitions of Christ: he is the icon of the invisible God. He is that door opened out onto the mystery. The mystery is so great that it cannot be circumscribed by any theology or any symbol. I have also gotten an insight into that mystery through Plotinius’s concept of the one, which is the source; Plato’s concept of the good; the Hindu concept of satcitananda. All of these reflect that deep, bottomless abyss of mystery that I know is creator God. All of these prisms can reflect that light.

Question: Please talk about the idea in Christianity of God being a personal God and your opinion of this.

SDC: It is certainly part of the Judeo-Christian experience that we experience God as personal, as a being with whom we interact. God is not just a timeless absolute out there, a distant figure, or a deistic God who created the clock and got it running. God is personal, providential and loving, and we even have a human incarnate form in the person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the experience of God is personal, and yet it’s a person that opens out onto mystery.

VTC: Buddhism, on the other hand, has no concept of a personal God or creator. There is belief in beings who are highly developed spiritually—the fully enlightened Buddhas, the liberated arhats—but these beings exist in the continuum from our present state. There are many Buddhas, not just Shakyamuni, who is the Buddha of this historical era. Those who are now Buddhas haven’t always been Buddhas. They were once like us, confused, easily overcome by anger, clinging and ignorance. By practicing the path to purify these disturbing attitudes and to develop their good qualities, they transformed themselves. Thus the path is a matter of one’s own internal growth. In Buddhism, there is no unbridgeable gap between the holy beings and us. We too can purify our minds and develop our good qualities infinitely. We too can become fully enlightened beings, we have that Buddha potential.

SDC: Although Christians believe in creator God and creatures who are finite, we are all called, as St. Peter says, to be partakers of the divine nature. Therefore, deification or theosis is what human existence is meant to be. We are called to become part of the Divine, to be full participants in the Divine. We are called to become partakers.

VTC to SDC: How much of the process of becoming divine depends on one’s own determination and practice and how much on influence or grace from a supreme being?

SDC: That is not an easy question to answer. How much is our work and how much is God’s work, nature, grace and other factors? So many theological battles have been fought over this. In general, we in the Roman Catholic tradition believe that our freedom is called upon to be part of that process. It is not predestined, and salvation is not automatic. Salvation has been accomplished in Christ’s redemption, but we have to open our souls. Purification, asceticism, spiritual work, practice and so forth are all needed. However, there’s obviously a spectrum of opinions about this subject in the Christian tradition. Even somebody like Augustine, who was a figure in the early Church, fought with the Pelagians over this. The Pelagians said we’ve got to work harder while Augustine emphasized grace. It’s a long, complicated story.

VTC: Within Buddhism, there are also a variety of perspectives on this topic. Some traditions emphasize complete self-reliance, others stress depending on an external guide such as Amitabha Buddha. Personally speaking, I think it’s somewhere in between. The Buddhas can teach, guide and inspire us, but they can’t directly change us. We have to transform our own attitudes and actions. There’s the saying that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Spiritual transformation is similar. We aren’t alone in an unfriendly universe; the Buddhas and bodhisattvas definitely help us by teaching, setting a good example and inspiring us. On the other hand, if they had the power to stop all our suffering, they would have. But they can’t; only we can transform our own minds. They teach us, but we have to put it into practice.

Question: How can a mother integrate the monastic life style into her life?

SDC: Diedrich Bonnhoffer, the great Lutheran pastor and spiritual writer, said God must be met in the midst of life. That is the key. Whatever your vocation, or your responsibilities in life, that’s your path. God must be met in the everyday ordinary obligations of life. The monastic impulse is characterized by living out of one’s center, not living in dispersion. The mother of a family must find that inner center out of which to serve her family and to deal with the challenges and trials of household life. Just a week ago there was a review in the New York Times of a book by the sociologist Robert Bellah called The Good Society. Bellah believes that the answer to many of the problems of American society is what he calls “attention”—not allowing our lives to be dissipated, but to live consciously and with attentiveness. In my eyes, that is living monastically in its widest sense. Transformation of society can’t be accomplished without personal transformation according to Bellah. This is a profound truth, which is so important in our time.

VTC: I agree with you. It’s the daily life practice that counts. We shouldn’t think that religion, meditation and spirituality are over here, and work, family and daily life are over there. The two are joined. To make them come together, it’s important to keep some quiet time every day to be alone, to get centered, to reflect on our motivations and actions, and to make some resolutions. This prevents us from living in dispersion. Every morning or evening, we can take fifteen minutes or a half hour and sit, breathe, look at our lives, cultivate loving-kindness. If we do this in the morning, then in the evening we can look back at what we felt and did during the day and see what went well and what needs to be improved. This isn’t evaluation of external events, but our attitudes and actions. Did we get angry? How can we avoid that in similar situations in the future? Were we understanding of someone who criticized us? How can we increase that patience? By using the quiet time to look at our life and mind and to cultivate kind attitudes, we can carry those attitudes into our daily lives. Becoming holy doesn’t mean looking holy, it means feeling kind, being wise and living from this center.

Question: Please speak about the value of a monastic way of life.

VTC: Sister Donald, people ask me and they probably ask you too, “Aren’t you escaping from reality by being a nun?” They must think it’s easy to escape from our problems; all one has to do is change clothes and move to a different building! If it were that easy, I think everybody would become monks and nuns! However, the problem is our anger, our attachment, our ignorance, and they come with us wherever we go, inside a monastery or out. In fact, when we live in a monastery, we see our disturbing attitudes more clearly. In lay life, we can go home, close the door and do what we want. When we live in a monastery, we live with people who may not be the kind of people we would choose as friends. But we have to learn to care for them, not superficially, but deeply. We can’t close the door and do our own thing. The monastic way of life brings us in touch with where we’re at. There’s no escaping.

SDC: I was reading a wonderful interview with the Dalai Lama this morning in which he talked about the joys of living in community and the luxury of monastic life. Our life and our time are free to engage in spiritual practice. He remarked, “In the life of a married householder one gives up half of one’s freedom right away.” I paused to think about that and concluded, “In monastic life we give up all our freedom right away.”

Question: Bhikshuni Chodron, please explain rebirth.

VTC: Rebirth is based on there being a continuity of mind. Mind or consciousness doesn’t refer to the brain, which is the physical organ, or just to the intellect. It’s the aware and experiential part of us that perceives, feels, thinks and cognizes. Our mind is a continuum, one moment of mind following the next. When we’re alive, our gross consciousnesses operate: we see, hear, taste, smell, touch and think. But when we die, our body loses the ability to support consciousness, and during the death process, our mind gradually dissolves into a very subtle state and eventually leaves the body at the moment of death. Influenced by our previous actions, our mind transmigrates to another body.

Some people ask, “If there’s a mind that transmigrates from one body to another, then isn’t that a soul?” From a Buddhist viewpoint, no. Soul implies a solid, fixed personality, something that is me. But in Buddhism, the mind is a flux, it’s a continuum that’s changing moment by moment. For example, when we superficially look at the Mississippi River, we say, “There’s the Mississippi River.” But if, through analysis, we were to try to find the Mississippi River, to isolate something that is it, could we find it? Is the Mississippi River the water? the banks? the silt? Is it the river in Missouri or the one in Louisiana? We can’t find anything solid or permanent to isolate as the river because the river is made of parts and it’s constantly changing.

Our mindstream is similar. It changes each moment. We don’t think or feel the same in any two moments. When we analyze, we can’t isolate anything as the mind or as me. There’s nothing to identify as a solid personality or soul. But when we don’t analyze and just speak superficially, we can say, “I’m walking” or “I’m thinking.” This is said on the basis of there being a continuum of moments of mind or body that are constantly changing, the later ones depending on the former ones. There is no fixed soul or personality that goes from life to life.

SDC: Surely many people are wondering what I think about reincarnation. If there is rebirth, I want at least two weeks off in between! The Roman Catholic tradition has taken a strong stand against reincarnation. I can accept that, but also I have no strong reason for opposing or affirming the idea of rebirth. I am open, and have bracketed the question. I do see a deep resemblance between the Buddhist teaching and Catholic teaching on the process of the spiritual path: both say we need ongoing purification, education and formation. Roman Catholicism talks about purgatory. That is, when people die, they are not necessarily ready to see the face of God and need further transformation. Here we find some similarity with reincarnation: the basic theme is that we do need much education, formation and purification to be able to see God. This makes perfect sense to me. There is, I think, a deep kind of harmony between Buddhism and Catholicism here.

Question: Why do some Christian groups consider various Eastern meditation practices as cults or as being influenced by the Devil?

SDC: I know that they do, but not why they do. The wider ecumenical view goes back to the early struggle within Christianity to break out of the Jewish, into the Hellenistic and pagan world of the time. Breaking out into the Greek philosophical categories of thought was a struggle. Even as early as the second century, we find the Christian theologian and apologist, Justin Martyr, who said, “Wherever you find truth, there you find Christ.” Why some Christians don’t have that point of view I couldn’t say exactly, except that I think it is mistaken and relies on a very narrow meaning of Scripture. But the Catholic tradition has solidly had that large ecumenical point of view almost right from the beginning. For example, the first one to translate the Koran in medieval Europe was Peter the Venerable, a Benedictine Abbot.

VTC: In Buddhism, we say that if a certain belief or practice helps one to become a better person, then practice it. It doesn’t matter who said it. For example, both Jesus and the Buddha spoke on loving-kindness and compassion, on patience and non-violence. Because these qualities lead us to temporal and ultimate happiness, we should put the teachings on them into practice, regardless of who taught them.

Question: Please describe your daily practice or prayer and meditation. What is it like to meditate in your tradition?

SDC: Our whole prayer life as Benedictines is in the setting, the culture if you will, of the liturgy. We recite the Divine Office together four or five times a day. Continual saturation with scripture “seeds” the deepest place in us. We are taught to do spiritual reading prayerfully and contemplatively, especially reading of Scripture, early Church writers (Fathers of the Church) and great monastic authors. There is very little method in the Benedictine way. In the past two decades there has been more taking up of specific methods such as centering prayer (which is actually an ancient way). Meditation is deliberate introversion. In our day and age there is a greater need for Christian monastics to be consciously committed meditators with a specific practice. All of our life forms us and cultivates our soul; but deliberate, apophatic, non-image meditation can be very helpful. Also, there is so much wisdom and living spiritual transmission in the hesychast (Jesus Prayer) tradition. But again, it is not just a technique; it is a whole way of life. Increasing “conversion” leads to deeper and deeper kenosis or self-emptying. As we are transformed more and more it spills over into diakonia (service) and koinonia (community).

VTC: Here I’ll speak about my personal practice, but each person practices differently. There are certain meditations and prayers that I’ve promised to do every day. When I wake up in the morning, I do some of these for an hour and a half or two hours. The rest I do later in the day. This adds stability to my life, for the first thing every morning is quiet time for reflection. A nun’s life can be very busy—teaching, counseling, writing, organizing—so having time for meditation in the morning and later in the day is very important. Sometimes, I do retreat, which involves meditating eight to ten hours a day and living in silence. Retreat is nurturing because it provides the opportunity to go deeper into the practice, for the purpose of being able to benefit all beings more effectively through first improving oneself.

In Buddhism, there are two basic forms of meditation. One is to develop mental stability or concentration, the other to gain insight or understanding through investigation. I do both of these. My practice also includes visualization and mantra recitation.

Question: Please comment on the relationship of religion and psychology. Is there a difference between spiritual and psychological growth? Can one be highly evolved spiritually and still have psychological problems?

SDC: Certainly, but true growth in the Spirit should bring healing on deeper and deeper levels. However, even a schizophrenic may be a saint. We cannot bypass the psychological to get to the spiritual. It is a very complex question, and I wish we had more time to deal with it.

VTC: Religion and psychology have similarities as well as differences. Psychology is directed more towards mental health and happiness in the present life, while religion looks further and seeks not only present fortune, but transcendence of the limited human situation. In fact, to transcend our limitations, we have to be willing to give up the attachment to present happiness.

To have genuine spiritual growth, one must have corresponding psychological growth. In my view, people who have mystical experiences and then get angry because the toast is burnt have missed the boat. Transcendence isn’t about having temporary peak experiences, it’s about deep, long-lasting transformation. It involves freeing ourselves from anger, attachment, jealousy and pride. This is a slow and gradual process, and people can be at various points along the continuum to enlightenment.

Guest Author: Sister Donald Corcoran