The Ultimate Common Ground – By B. Alan Wallace

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(This is an edited transcription of an answer that Alan Wallace gave to a question about his approach to the common ground in all religions. I feel this answer gives a great introduction to his new book ‘Mind in the Balance’, details of which are at the end of this newsletter. Any clumsiness or errors in the text are due to my transcription and editing not the quality of Alan’s work. – Ed)

The question was asked whether I would address other religions apart from this one trajectory of the turning of the first wheel of Dharma right through to Dzogchen. My professional training was in religious studies and I did a lot of comparative work then and have continued it since. In my next book, which is the most enjoyable book I have ever written, called ‘Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity’, there is a fair amount of comparison of Buddhism and Christianity.

To preface any comments here: If one should go to any Buddhist Dharma centre in this country and then go to a Baptist church, a Roman Catholic cathedral, a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque, it is obvious one would hear very different things. The doctrines, the institutions, and to a certain extent the ethics and the type of practices are very obviously different. The sources on which they rely as authorities are very different, the metaphysics quite different. In the midst of all those very significant and meaningful differences, I have taken the two traditions that I am most familiar with, having been raised in a Christian household and then over the past 38 years having been very devoted to the Buddhist path, I focused on those two. The differences between Christianity and Buddhism are in a way so obvious and very big.

What I was interested in was: In the midst of all these differences, is there any significant common ground? I came across a book that I really loved, called ‘Into the Silent Land’ by Martin Laird.[1] He is an outstanding Christian scholar at Villanova University, and a member of the Augustinian order. His book ‘Into the Silent Land,’ published by Oxford University Press, is straight Christianity; it is not a bit of Zen, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. His sources are impeccable; he goes back to the Desert Fathers, the Greek Orthodox, and the Western Fathers. As I was reading this book, my mind got increasingly blown, because he traced a sequence of practices presented like Stages of the Path of Christian contemplative practice. He laid out a path, drawing especially from the Desert Fathers and the Greek Orthodox tradition, Mount Athos 11, 12, 13th century, which seems to have been a golden era. Among other practices, he unpacks the practice of mindfulness of breathing within the Christian tradition. That was interesting, a very nice practice and by very hard-core yogis. Those Greek Orthodox and Desert Fathers were really amazing. Then he went on into another practice which was, low and behold, what Buddhists call ‘settling the mind in its natural state’: simply observing whatever arises in the mind, simply being present with it and not reacting. His sources were all Christian, which was interesting. Then he proceeded to a practice, which appears to be identical to the Buddhist practice of awareness of awareness. After reading all this I thought, “I have written a book highlighting similar practices, called ‘The Attention Revolution’, which starts with mindfulness of breathing, then proceeds to settling the mind and awareness of awareness. In my latest book, ‘Mind in the Balance’, I drew from ‘The Attention Revolution’ and from Laird’s book as well as other Christian sources, tracking these two approaches, not to say they are exactly equivalent (that would be boring in some sense), but to show the parallels and interesting differences on these two contemplative paths.

Most of my book, ‘Mind in the Balance’, deals with alternating chapters on theory and practice. In the chapters on practice each one is a guided meditation, then the chapters on theory unpack each practice, contextualize it and embed it in its respective framework, primarily Buddhist, but I also draw out the Christian practices quite extensively.

Then we come to the culmination of Christian contemplative practice. It goes back once again to the Desert Fathers, but then it really comes to light very vividly in the eighth century with a remarkable Irish contemplative by the name of John Scotus Eriugena [2], not to be confused with the scholastic John Scotus, who was in fact much later. In the 8th century John Scotus Eriugena, who was an extraordinarily fine scholar, translated from Greek into Latin some of the earliest Christian mystical writings that are Neo-Platonic in their origins. The fusion of the Neo-Platonic tradition and the Christian in the person of Pseudo Dionysius [3] goes back to the 5th century. So these texts entered the mainstream of Roman Catholicism. That whole current of Neo-Platonic Christian contemplative teaching carried right on through from the eighth century to the 15th century, which makes it quite a lineage. Many of the greatest contemplatives including Hildegard von Bingen, Meister Eckhart and other German mystics especially, but others as well were influenced by this very powerful current, which I think came to its culmination in a remarkable man, Nicholas of Cusa. He was absolutely a Renaissance man, living in the 15th century. He was a jurist, so he was trained in law, he was also a mathematician, a very outstanding one, and a philosopher. Nicholas was also a peacemaker, as a personal delegate of the Pope trying to make peace with the Muslin Byzantine Empire, I don’t think with much success. On top of that he was a contemplative and I think a very deep one; he was a practitioner as well as a scholar of contemplation. He wrote a couple of texts around 1453 and reading these, one finds they are saturated with Christian terminology and are embedded in the Christian worldview. But the worldview that emerges from this, with some shift of terminology, looks remarkably like Dzogchen. One can see this in Meister Eckhart as well and in that whole Neo-Platonic current, but Nicholas of Cusa lays it out with extraordinary clarity. So I tracked the whole tradition from the Desert Fathers to Nicholas of Cusa, who by the way was a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and was never condemned for anything. So I show parallels there, which I think are not trivial and culminate in the Dzogchen view in Buddhism.

I tracked Buddhism from mindfulness of breathing and other shamatha practices, through Satipatthana, Madyamaka Vipashyana, right through to Dzogchen. Tracking these two trajectories along the Christian route and the Buddhism route shows that there are some very interesting parallels there.

When you go to the Neo-Platonic tradition and read this very profound mystical theology, you may search in vain for the practices, what were they actually doing. This is brilliant stuff, but what were they doing and you may not be able to find it. When I was at UCSB one of my colleagues in the department of religious studies had studied this material carefully, so I asked him what they were practicing that gave rise to these insights. His answer was “I don’t ask that question”, which is typical for the field. In fact it is very hard to tell what they were actually practicing. But it is also true that one could read whole tomes on Dzogchen and wonder what they were practicing too, because the practice winds up being a non-practice, as we have seen. I mean the method was ‘non-meditation’. So there are very meaningful parallels here again.

Then when I come to Dzogchen in my book, I touch a lot on science, philosophy of mind, some quantum mechanics, quantum cosmology and neuroscience, pulling these all together. When it comes to Dzogchen, I think the parallels are certainly very deep. The parallels with quantum cosmology are quite awesome. The parallels here coming form an absolutely pure science from grade-A scientists like Stephen Hawking, John Wheeler, and Andre Linde. These are stellar scientists: No new-age physics in there at all. I think the parallels are significant, as with these deep forms of Christianity.

I also make brief references to the Jewish mystical tradition in the Kabala, drawing from the excellent work of Denial Matt, an outstanding scholar of Jewish mysticism. He actually gave a talk some years ago at UCSB on Jewish mysticism and modern physics that was very smart, drawing significant parallels. Those same parallels, which he drew from the deepest dimensions of Jewish mysticism again show startling parallels with Dzogchen. So we have such parallels between Judaism and Christianity. Then I slip over to the eastern side and briefly examine the culmination of the Vedic Tradition. This is Vedanta, means Veda Anta, the culmination or end, highest point of the Vedas, culminating with the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara and so forth. Lo and behold, one finds extraordinary parallels. So much so that you wonder if this is the same tradition. Even some of the analogies and parables are the same. For Vedanta I draw on a man, who I missed by no more than a couple of months, to illustrate this experientially. The writings of an American by the name of Franklin Merrell Wolff [4], he was an outstanding scholar and a mathematician, a practitioner of Vedanta, who eventually really found his own insights that were very deep and closely reflected those of Dzogchen. Eventually his heart was utterly drawn to Mahayana Buddhism and the Bodhisattva ideal. He wrote a couple of books “Consciousness without an Object (and without a subject)” “Pathways through to Space”, the latter chronicling his own realization, which arose quite spontaneously after a great deal of practice. And once again when he is speaking of his culminating experience, which he called ‘high indifference’ it clearly reflects Advaita Vedanta, but I would suggest he was right in finding some very profound parallels with Dzogchen as well. He recognized this and he thought it was definitely in the same genre.

If one went deeply into the Sufi tradition, the mystical tradition in Islam, I am confident one would find similar deep parallels, and so with Taoism. These are opinions obviously, but they are not casual and they are not, I think, entirely uninformed. When I was twenty, I read Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Perennial Philosophy’. In this book he basically argues that, at the deepest level of the contemplative traditions of the world East and West, they are converging upon a common reality and he called that reality The Perennial Philosophy. As I read that, I had a strong intuitive sense that he was right. I do not think these traditions are just meandering off to their own unique Buddhist insights and unique Christian insights and that they are completely different and incompatible.

In terms of my own personal narrative, when I was twenty, and was about to launch off to India, there was nothing I wanted to find out more than whether this common ground existed. I was reading widely in the world religions and the contemplative traditions in particular. I really set myself an agenda for the year that I lived in Germany before travelling to Asia: When we go to the greatest depths of Sufism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and so forth, when they articulate their own deepest experiential contemplative insights and realizations, or what they claim as their as deepest insights, is there an evident or likely convergence of their deepest insights, or are they just going into their own burrows that are totally alien to everyone else, from which they would be fighting all the way up and all the way down? Disagreeing and debating: ”we are right you are wrong” and just saying that all the way down from the top where there is definitely a lot of debate, all the way down to the deepest level. Or is there a lot of debate and religious wars up here but then when one goes down to the depths is there a fundamental convergence? If at the deepest level Buddhism and Hinduism and other contemplative traditions were all fundamentally disagreeing, my sense was that they were probably all wrong. If they were just following their own trajectories, of their own made-up artefacts, just realizing what they were brain-washed to think in the first place, then probably religion was just make-believe. On the other hand if they did converge, if there was some evidence with careful study that despite all the very meaningful differences on the surface, the deeper you go the differences tend to drift away and there seems to be a profound convergence, then if that were the case, my hypothesis was that the truth or truths that these great traditions were converging upon, must be the greatest and most important truths that human beings have ever accessed. Therefore the pursuit of those truths must be worth at least an entire lifetime.

So by the time that I had finished my reading 8 hrs a day for a year in Germany, I came to the conclusion that I was willing to bet my life that there is a convergence and that the deepest truths are found through contemplative enquiry. Then the question that came to my mind was: What path to follow? Intuitively it was perfectly obvious that the path for me was Tibetan Buddhism. The first book I ever read on Tibetan Buddhism was on Dzogchen, and that was like a hook that went right in and never let go.

So that is what I have to say about multiple religions for what it is worth, it is just an opinion and maybe I am wrong, but I am willing to bet my life that I am not. These are reflections on what I do believe is the most sublime of all sciences. I think we may be living in a very significant historical era, because we did not have quantum cosmology until about 20 or 30 years ago, we did not have quantum mechanics until about 108 years ago. It is significant that physics has now moved out of its clunky mechanical base of absolute space, time, matter and energy, which was quite incompatible with Buddhism, into the realm of quantum mechanics. This is where it gets really interesting, and quantum cosmology gets utterly fascinating. It looks like there may be some extraordinary convergences taking place in the midst of a world where there are profound, radical and sometimes very militant differences. So everything is happening: The world is falling apart before our eyes, but also converging in sometimes hidden and unprecedented ways.

Notes

1.Martin Laird , O.S.A., is Associate Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He has studied patristics in Rome, London, and Oxford, and has extensive training in contemplative disciplines and gives retreats throughout the United States and Great Britain. He is the translator or author of a host of books and articles, including Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge and Divine Presence (OUP, 2004).

2. Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 815–877) (also Johannes Scotus Erigena, Johannes Scottus Eriugena, John the Irishman), was an Irish theologian, Neoplatonist philosopher, and poet. He is known for having translated and made commentaries upon the work of Pseudo-Dionysius.

3. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, also known as Pseudo-Denys, is the anonymous theologian and philosopher of the late 5th to early 6th century whose Corpus Areopagiticum (before 532) was pseudonymously ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Athenian convert of St. Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34. The author was historically believed to be the Areopagite because he claimed acquaintance with biblical characters. His surviving works include Divine Names, Mystical Theology, Celestial Hierarchy, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and various epistles. Some other works are no longer extant, such as Theological Outlines.

4. Franklin Merrell-Wolff (1887-1985) was an American mystical philosopher. After formal education in philosophy and mathematics at Stanford and Harvard, Wolff devoted himself to the goal of transcending the normal limits of human consciousness. After exploring various mystical teachings and paths, he dedicated himself to the path of jnana yoga and the writings of Shankara, founder of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. In 1936, Wolff experienced a profound spiritual Liberation and Awakening which provided the basis for his transcendental philosophy. Wolff’s published books detailing his experience and philosophy include Pathways Through to Space, The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object (both of which were re-published in a single volume entitled Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s Experience and Philosophy), and Transformations in Consciousness: The Metaphysics and Epistemology (originally published under the title Introceptualism).