Summer 1986, Vol. 38, pp. .

Wayne Teasdale:
      The Meeting of East and West: Elements of a Relationship

Areas of mutual concern, value and practice in Eastern and Western religious traditions reveal a common ground of contact between the divine and the human.

Bro. Wayne Teasdale is a member of One Hundred Acres, a contemplative monastery founded by Fr. Paul Fitzgerald, O.C.S.O., at New Boston, New Hampshire. His 1985 doctoral dissertation at Fordham University examined Hinduism and Christianity in the writings and works of Dom Bede Griffiths.

THERE is today a widespread interest in the East, in the religious traditions of Asia, especially those of Hinduism, Buddhism and Zen. Indeed, there is a fascination with oriental mysticism, and this is often expressed by a commitment to meditation. Concomitant with this fascination, however, or even in opposition to it, a deep fear and even mistrust of the Asian religions exists in the minds of many. They feel threatened. They do not quite know what these traditions teach, or the meaning of their teachings in relation to the Christian faith. Furthermore, most people are bewildered concerning how, or if, the various world religions are related. We know the religious traditions of Asia and the Occident are different, but are there common points of meeting between them, between East and West? Are there common interests?


In this article, I would like to explore what I believe to be the basic meeting-points that can relate them in a creative way. These include some areas of mutual concern, practice and value. Christians and others in ever greater numbers are adopting Eastern techniques of meditation in their own quest for an experiential approach to the Divine Reality. And so it is important to inquire into the nature of this relationship, this encounter of East and West, or between Christianity and the Asian faith systems. If this relationship can be sufficiently clarified, then people can recognize what is of permanent value in the techniques they practice, and what can be left behind as simply a cultural expression of a particular Asian tradition. Moreover, a technique will be more easily integrated into a person's faith, spirituality and daily life.

Thomas Keating, in a masterful little book entitled, The Heart of the World,(1) locates this "heart"(2) in the depths of contemplative consciousness,(3) in that practical wisdom which is the fruit of an inner life. He emphasizes that contemplation is our common heart since there -- in those depths -- we are already one: one with God, with ourselves, and with every member of humankind.(4) It is only necessary to realize experientially this unity in which we are all bound together, this unity that is the medium of our deeper reality.

Perhaps some may object to relating East and West mystically because they would like to guard the primacy of one religious tradition over another, and would thus resist any efforts to show the possibility of convergence. But I think those who do see the convergent point -- even as an ideal -- are correct. This does not minimize the fact that there are very real differences among the world religions, but stresses that such differences are positive, not negative. East and West are mystically related, however, because reality is one; it is an integrated system in which all participate. All the manifestations of diversity proceed from this hidden unity, that very same unity to which Thomas Keating refers in his book.

In what follows I would like to explore this "common heart," from which dialogue, reconciliation and advances issue forth into being. I will examine briefly several points of convergence between Eastern and Western spirituality. These include: the human condition as a starting point common to all the traditions of the various world religions; the spiritual paths that lead to the same goal in all these traditions; the awakening to the true Self and what that involves; mystical consciousness proper, and the fruits of the acceptance of our unity in the Ultimate Mystery. This last aspect, an essential one, concerns the realm of collective action and responsibility, responsibility and action which arise in and flow out of mystical contemplation, and our universal participation in it.


The first point of convergence among the traditions of Asia and the Occident is that of the human condition itself. The human condition with its incompleteness, its suffering and struggle, its trials and endless challenges is a common experience of every tradition by virtue of the humanity we all share. This characteristic of incompleteness, of imperfection in human nature, is regarded as the result of original sin by the religions of the Book -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- while in the Asian religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zen it is considered the consequence of clinging to the ego which is itself a form of ignorance, an ignorance of reality.

The ego is the false self. It limits a person to self-interest and the lesser goods of life, rather than allowing one to see the supreme good of one's own liberation and that of others. Of course in the case of Buddhism which has no concept of the self,(5) or more precisely, recognizes no self or ego -- and the various attachments consequent upon it -- it is the idea of a self or an ego that is the cause of the suffering that a person experiences. It is the attachment to anything, the desire or craving for it, a desire and a craving emanating from the false self, that makes one imperfect and incomplete, because one is then bound, or enslaved by such attachment. So there is agreement that human nature is not what it should be. This condition is interpreted differently, but is essentially seen with realism and compassion; it is experienced as in a state of disorder and woundedness.


Another point of common understanding and commitment among the traditions East and West is found in the ideal and practice of following a spiritual path. All the world religions delineate in great detail a way of mystical realization and psychological integration. These paths are distinct from one another, since they evolved in isolation from one another, and because the emphasis may be different in each, although they have the same goal: liberation or salvation.(6) There is in each path a serious commitment to go in quest of the Absolute, to seek unity with Ultimate Reality. Hence even in this characteristic they are similar. For example, the life of a Hindu sannyasi, a wandering ascetic or renunciate, is in ideal quite close to that of a Benedictine, Cistercian or Carthusian monk. Both renounce the world and its claims on them in order to be free to be, to seek the Divine Reality.(7) This is also true of the Buddhist and Jain monks, though their conceptions of Ultimate Reality differ from the theistic orientation of the occidental faiths and that of Hinduism. Furthermore, the Sufis lead a life similar to the monks of the various traditions, and for the same reason.


One of the primary mystical points of commonality between the spiritual traditions of Asia and the Occident is found in the process of the awakening to the true Self, which is quite essential in Christian and Hindu mysticism. In Buddhism, it is the no-self, the no-mind that is important as a goal, particularly in Zen. Even so, the process of awakening is very similar. In each, there is an integration of the emotional life with the rational life, and this with the spiritual life. The psychological integration involves a moral integration as well. That is what the eight-fold path of the Buddha is, among other things. Similarly, in the contemplative doctrines of Hinduism and Christianity, a moral purification and hence integration are required. Without this integration of the emotional with the rational, and the rational with the spiritual, there is no real maturity, and without the moral dimension, the spiritual process is suspect because a stage has been left out, and so integration is not possible.

All of the traditions recognize something of this development. No matter how advanced a contemplative may seem, and how much he or she may know, if such a person lacks charity and compassion, for instance, then that person is probably not really too advanced. Thus, the moral dimension of contemplation cannot be overlooked, and the various traditions do not do so. In the Christian tradition, are we not constantly reminded of this? It seems clear to me that one who lives the spiritual life as a Christian can never turn his or her back on the sobering words of Christ: "Whenever you did it to the least of my brethren, you did it to me" (Matt. 25: 40). The integration of this truth into one's daily life and action is a crucial part of spiritual maturity and of the moral dimension.

The process of integration of the emotional, rational, spiritual and moral components has different names depending on the tradition in question. But all the world religions have an intimate knowledge of it and promote its development in those who seek the way of contemplative depth. Whether it is called enlightenment, liberation, satori, samadhi, illumination, the end is the Same: a unified being. All the paths of the various traditions require a radical, indeed a total transformation of consciousness in the light of an ultimate kind of being in the world that is yet concrete, and a different way of seeing, a contemplative seeing, which arises out of the depths of wisdom.

This transformation of consciousness is illustrated so well by the Zen "Oxherding Pictures," those famous and eloquent drawings used to show the stages of enlightenment.(8) In them, a young aspirant goes in search of the ox which symbolizes the Self or the Ultimate Truth. When after a time he finds him, he jumps on him and rides him -- all of which represents the process of enlightenment and integration. He does not run off then to lead a hidden life from the world, but returns to the world, to the marketplace. There is a difference, however, because a great change has occurred in his consciousness. He sees the same marketplace, the same world and its people, but something has radically changed; his view of it has been transformed because his consciousness has been transfigured by mystical wisdom. He perceives the same reality, but now he understands it. The transformation of his awareness allows him to experience the world, nature and others in a more unified way. He does not perceive them in the light of his own desires, as he once did, but as they actually are in being, as they were meant to be. This type of change occurs in all genuine spiritual traditions.

Now I would like to turn to two instances of relating East and West on a profound contemplative level. In the first instance, we look at Hinduism and Christianity, and in the second, Buddhism and the Christian faith. Both instances can be regarded as paradigmatic of how the faith systems of Asia can be related to those of the Occident, represented by Christianity.


In the instance of Hinduism and Christianity, we can follow Abhishiktananda (Dom Henri Le Saux) in his luminous formulation of the meeting-point, the mystical meeting-point of these two ancient traditions. It is appropriate that he should be our guide here, as he was one of the main pioneers who boldly explored the contemplative depths of both traditions, and was able to unite them in his own experience and theology. Abhishiktananda saw that the mystical meeting-point of East and West is in the guha, or the "cave of the heart," the abyss of interiority, where the mystery unfolds in its fullness. There, in the guha, in the cave, is the "place of the ultimate encounter,"(9) the encounter between the Hindu and the Christian, of East and West, of all faiths, and of God and the soul.

In those depths of the "heart" the Divine Reality is experienced in a direct intuition, and in Hinduism is called Saccidananda, or Being-Knowledge-Bliss, but in Christianity is named the Trinity. The term Saccidananda is very ancient, and Abhishiktananda says: ". . . it has been accepted in the spiritual vocabulary of India as one of the best symbols for the innermost mystery of God Himself, so far as man is capable of stammering it. But equally it signifies the mystery of the divine presence in the innermost sanctuary of man's being."(10)

Saccidananda is thus the mystical essence of Hindu spirituality, and Abhishiktananda is convinced that it is this depth experience in Hinduism that must be related to the depth experience in Christianity which is expressed in the awareness of Christ, and formulated in the notion of the Trinity. But Abhishiktananda goes much further than relating the two traditions in their ultimate contemplative state, their innermost reality, for he seems to have experienced them as inwardly in continuity with each other, or inwardly coordinated. Here is his characterization of their identity, and so of the essential and ultimate meeting-point between the Hindu and Christian mystical approaches:

The experience of Saccidananda carries the soul beyond all merely intellectual knowledge to the very centre, to the source of her being. Only there is she able to hear the Word which reveals within the undivided unity and advaita of Saccidananda the mystery of the Three Persons: in sat, the Father, the absolute Beginning and Source of being; in cit, the Son, the divine Word, the Father's Self-knowledge; in ananda, the Spirit of love, Fullness and Bliss without end.(11)

What Abhishiktananda is suggesting is that Saccidananda -- sat, pure being, reality or total actuality of existence, cit, pure awareness, consciousness or infinite knowledge, and ananda, pure bliss, joy or love -- may be a primordial experience of the Trinity expressed in the terms and context of Hinduism. Saccidananda thus may be an equivalent intuition of the Trinitarian mystery. It can perhaps be used as a term for the Trinity in an Indian Christian theology. He seems to suggest further that it is within this mystical consciousness of Saccidananda/Trinity that the meeting between Hinduism and Christianity must take place because this is the deepest level of a relationship possible to these two traditions. He is making a bold statement, not a mere assertion, and he supports it with his own experience of the mystical depths of both traditions.

Bede Griffiths tends to agree with Abhishiktananda, but he is more cautious. Both he and Abhishiktananda realize that the ultimate intuition of both systems -- perhaps of all paths -- share in the wellsprings of a mystical continuum, a place of unity in which both and all paths and intuitions finally converge at their source. Griffiths asks if we cannot interpret the experience of Christ, of Jesus united with the Father in the Spirit -- the Trinity -- in terms of Saccidananda,(12) just as Abhishiktananda advocates. For the Hindu experience identifies three aspects of the Godhead, and there is room to posit a personal dimension, a relational element. This relational element comes in through the notion of the Purusha, the cosmic Lord of creation, the personal reality of the Divine nature. The Purusha is like the Logos, and it is even spoken of in the Vedas, in the time of extreme antiquity at the dawn of Hindu civilization. If this relation of similarity or identity holds true between Saccidananda and Trinity, Griffiths maintains that

We could then speak of the Father as nirguna Brahman, Brahman 'without attributes,' the infinite abyss of being beyond word and thought. The Son would then be Saguna Brahman, Brahman 'with attributes,' as Creator, Lord, Saviour, the Self-manifestation of the unmanifest God, the personal aspect of the Godhead, the Purusha. He is the 'supreme person' (Purushottaman) of the Bhagavad Gita . . . . Finally, we could speak of the spirit as the Ananda, the Bliss or joy of the Godhead, the outpouring of the super-abundant being and consciousness of the eternal, the Love which unites Father and Son in the non-dual Being of the Spirit.(13)

In this formulation of the ultimate dimension of the relationship between these two spiritually rich traditions, in the identification of the mystical meeting-point in the guha, the "cave of the heart," it becomes clear that what this meeting-point represents, what is actually happening, is an existential convergence between the depth of Hinduism and that of Christianity. It is not a theoretical or speculative convergence, but an actual one. It is firmly based on the way of experience, rather than of mere thought, and the systems that arise from speculative attempts -- no matter how profound and good in their own way -- to relate these two faiths, and in them, East and West. For the real encounter between East and West, as Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths have shown on numerous occasions, is in the guha, in the depths of interiority, in the "cave" of inner being and life, there, in that place where we are in the presence of the sacred Mystery, a place that is eminently experiential or mystical.

But there is another aspect of this existential convergence, a convergence that has gone beyond formal dialogue into a "tasting" of the mystery that unites us, the ineffable mystery of God's life in us. I am referring to the factor of sannyasa. This is the Hindu (Buddhist and Jain) ideal of the monk as renunciate who through his renunciation is freed from all social ties and obligations, and while embracing a life of poverty and mendicancy, seeks always the Absolute and union with it. Sannyasa has become a point of insertion of the Christian contemplative and monastic tradition into the heart of Hinduism. It has thus become a bridge between the two traditions, as Christian monks have also chosen the way of sannyasa, adapting to its demands.

So, even in the means -- the life of a sannyasi with its emphasis on asceticism and meditation, self-denial and wandering, there has been and continues to be a fruitful meeting of East and West, of Hinduism and Christianity, and this especially in the lives of Jules Monchanin, Abhishiktananda and Bede Griffiths, the great pioneers who have pointed the way to countless others. They have done this by adopting the Hindu path of sannyasa, while remaining Christians, and so have become in themselves living symbols of an existential convergence between the Christian faith and Hinduism, of East and West. They have become "the meeting-point" of these two ancient systems. Moreover, such a convergence on the monastic level is indeed appropriate, since both the sannyasi and the Western monk, be he or she a Benedictine, Cistercian or Carthusian, are relatable in their commitment to the Transcendent Mystery. As Abhishiktananda says: ". . . the profession of a Christian monk certainly implies, at least in its roots, the full renunciation and radical transcendence which shines out so clearly in the tradition of Hindu sannyasa."(14)

The entire life of a sannyasi is oriented towards seeking the Absolute, seeking an experiential consciousness, a union with It. And the chief method of doing this, of pursuing this contact with the Ultimate Reality, the Divine Consciousness, is through dhyana, or meditation. Meditation leads into this inner awareness of the Divine Reality, and does so by plunging the seeker into the abyss of silence, the very language of God, of the Ultimate Mystery. Meditation itself is also fast becoming an immensely significant force for understanding in the dialogue between East and West. We have only to consider the fact that every year there is an important meeting, a practical relating of Christian and Buddhist techniques and insights on meditation, a conference that takes place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, openness, trust and profound sharing in depth at the Naropa Institute,(15) in order to grasp the importance meditation has acquired in relations between the Asian and Western religions.


Now, in the second instance, that of relating Buddhism and the Christian faith as such, the terms of that relationship are "enlightenment" and "Incarnation." The nature of the Buddha's awakening, and his subsequent enlightenment has a lot to do with the conscious realization of Ultimate Reality in the immediate. Ultimate Reality is the state of Nirvana, a blissful omniscience that combines emptiness, or the Void, and fullness. But the ultimate state of Nirvana is one with this world of immediate experience and perception, or this world of becoming, and samsara. Samsara means "the wheel of life," of birth, death and rebirth. Nirvana, the ultimate state is present in samsara. "Samsara is Nirvana, and Nirvana is samsara" is a way of expressing this truth in the Buddhist tradition. This is further illustrated by the story of the Buddha when he lifted up a bouquet of flowers before a group of people, the meaning of which was apparent only to his beloved disciple, Mahakasyapa.(16) This gesture suggests how the Ultimate manifests itself in the ordinary, but there is another meaning as well.

Apparently, the flowers in question were of the lotus variety. It is worth noting that Buddha came out of a Hindu cultural context. He certainly must have known the significance of the lotus flower as a symbol in the Upanishads. In the Upanishads, the lotus symbolizes contemplative interiority and meditation. In Hinduism, the Atman (the supreme Self, or God immanent in the self) dwells in the lotus of the heart, the "cave" or guha. The lotus signifies the method of interior meditation and the content of the state as mysteriously revealing the presence of the Self, the Atman. Hence, the Buddha's gesture may have meant: if you meditate you will discover the Divine truth dwelling in the depths of your own being, and in all things.

The process of meditation -- and this is true in most traditions -- progressively clarifies reality as one's consciousness literally grows and expands. There is a Buddhist aphorism that aptly sums up the consciousness of an enlightened one. If one is truly enlightened, such a one has "the Buddha in the palm of his hand." This means that the spiritually aware person perceives the presence of Ultimate Reality in the immediate, in the concrete everyday experience.

This mystical awareness of the Buddhist tradition can be related to the incarnational experience of the Christian faith. Indeed, in the event/process of the Incarnation, the Divine Reality in Christ enters into our human condition and assumes the nature of the human in a new synthesis. Through this event the divine permeates our condition in a new way, divinizing the human by a transforming presence. The incarnational moment is extended to every moment and affects every person and every place. Through the Incarnation, divinity and humanity become one, wedded together in human nature itself, but resulting in a transfigured nature that has Christ as the permanent ideal, the archetype of a redeemed humanity. Ultimate Reality -- as in Buddhism -- is thus present in the immediate actuality of the ordinary. Christ transforms nature, being and life by his entrance into the cosmo-theandric mystery. Because Ultimate Reality is present in the existential realm, both Buddhism and Christianity have an incarnational dimension (as do all religions) which then makes them relatable on a mystical level, as we have seen above. For just as the Buddhist can achieve enlightenment through ascetical practice and meditation, and can perceive "Nirvana in samsara," the Christian through faith and contemplation can be granted a mystical realization of the Divine Reality in all things. In both cases, the Ultimate Mystery is encountered in the ordinary, the everyday, in what is at hand. This is the incarnational dimension of human experience through which both traditions can be reconciled, although profound differences remain.

These differences will always be a factor; they are part of the genius of the religious mind. The differences are, I think, something positive, and belong to human creativity as it approaches the Ultimate Mystery from various cultural perspectives. But despite the differences, I believe it has to be faced and acknowledged that reality itself is one, an integral whole, just as the cosmos and nature are one. There is not a separate reality for each religion, but different perspectives on the Real. The Hindu, the Buddhist, the Muslim, the Jew, the Jain, the Sikh, the Christian and the agnostic f all belong to the same planetary environment, and it is the medium through which they interact. It has to be accepted that we all share in the same system of reality, while our views on its nature may differ. It is essential for the future for all the religious traditions to recognize this underlying unity; it can be a starting point for a mature form of pluralism.

Perhaps a further expression of this truth is the principle of unity-in-distinction. This is a way for the various traditions to relate and interact creatively. All the faith systems are part of an ontological unity reflected in the cosmic reality and fact of a unitary system, and yet they are distinct expressions of the Truth that each one sees in its own way, filtered through a linguistic, cultural and historical experience. They can live in harmony with one another in the larger unity they know exists, and work towards an understanding of the differences and how they fit into the greater picture.


Finally, I want to mention briefly some of the fruits of the recognition and acceptance of our metaphysical and spiritual unity, a unity discovered in contemplation and the transformation of consciousness that arises as a result of the deeper life. These fruits of contemplation are the products of a realization of the basic issues and problems facing humanity as a whole, and the need to deal with these issues together. There is thus also a meeting between East and West in the realm of action, the necessity for collective action in order to save the planet, its ecology, and improve the lives of its inhabitants in every sense, not just economically, politically and socially. And yet, this is the social dimension of contemplation. The realm of action cannot be ignored. It was St. Thomas who saw long ago that contemplation and action are better than contemplation alone. This is expressed in his well-known formula contemplata aliis tradere,(17) the necessity to hand on to others what one contemplates, i.e., intuitions, mystical perceptions, psychological insights, etc., or the wisdom that permits another to understand his or her situation. In this way we share what we have received in mystical contemplation with others.

I think it is useful to use the metaphor of the wheel to visualize the vivifying relationship of contemplation and action, here represented by seven important concerns. The hub of our wheel is of course contemplative wisdom and experience, or spiritual realization, and the spokes are these pressing issues before mankind. I can only mention them in passing, but they include: true and lasting world peace, as opposed to a false peace based in injustice and wishful thinking; justice, economic, social, political and spiritual; human dignity as a precious value that cannot be compromised away; ecological consciousness as an investment in humanity's future; respect for pluralism, stemming from a recognition of diversity and the need to put all the pieces together towards the ideal of totality in spiritual knowledge; the necessity for dialogue as the mature remedy for conflict and one-upmanship, and finally, universal solidarity with and responsibility for all the members of the human race and the various species of this planet.

Space does not permit me to elaborate these issues, but they must have a creative relationship to mystical consciousness which always strives towards unity with all reality. For there are two essential goals in contemplation which are defined by the two foci of that unity the contemplative seeks: unity with Transcendent Reality, and unity with created being -- the reality of our common human condition, but a condition that has been transfigured by the light of contemplation's transcendent wisdom, the wisdom of God found in the depths of the heart, the place of the Spirit's presence which invites us always, the place of that crucial juncture between East and West that makes them one. And it is this unity that is again the common starting point of all the religions, because it is an essential part of the human condition. The issues mentioned above involve this condition in which we all share. It is in walking the spiritual path, regardless of that tradition, that we come to see this condition for what it is, that we awaken to the Self and the mystical life, and that we begin to discover the solutions to humanity's difficulties. In the end, the relationship of East and West and the cooperation of the various traditions come to this: Love of the Divine, of the human, and of the cosmos. So, it is not simply a technique that we can learn from the Asian religions, but how to cooperate together for the advancement of humanity into wisdom, and finally to realize that unity in which "we live, and move and have our being."

  1. Thomas Keating, The Heart of the World: A Spiritual Catechism (New York: Crossroad, 1981).
  2. In the Hindu tradition the heart as a symbol of interiority is referred to as the guha, or the "cave of the heart," the inner depths where the Divine Presence reveals itself in the person.
  3. Heart of the World, p. 1.
  4. Ibid.
  5. For a fascinating Christian parallel with the Buddhist notion, see Bernadette Robert's book The Experience of No-Self (Sunspot, New Mexico: Iroquois House, 1982).
  6. Moksha in Hinduism, and Nirvana in Buddhism.
  7. Of course in some ways the sannyasi is more akin to the medieval Franciscan ideal of one who lives a life of utter poverty, self-denial and mendicancy.
  8. For an excellent discussion of these drawings, see D.T. Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Grove Press, 1961), pp. 192ff.
  9. Abhishiktananda, Hindu-Christian Meeting Point: Within the Cave of the Heart (Delhi: I.S.P.C.K., 1969), p. xiii.
  10. 10 Abhishiktananda, Saccidananda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience (Delhi: I.S.P.C.K., 1984, revised), p. 167.
  11. Ibid., p. 178.
  12. Bede Griffiths, The Marriage of East and West (Springfield, Illinois: Templegate Publishers, 1982), p. 190.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Abhishiktananda, The Further Shore (Delhi: I.S.P.C.K., 1975), pp. 28-29, "Sannyasa." This also applies to Carmelites, Franciscans and Dominicans. Their commitment, ideally, is similar to that of the sannyasi.
  15. A Tibetan Buddhist center in Boulder, Colorado.
  16. Essays in Zen Buddhism, p. 167.
  17. Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, q. 188, a. 6: "Sicut enim maius est illuminare quam lucere solum, ita maius est contemplata aliis tradere quam solum contemplari."